Métis Identity

Who are the Métis?l_riel


Historically speaking, the Métis people  emerged out of kinship and cultural relationships forged in the context of the fur trade culture on the North American continent. Métis leader Louis Riel has stated that the Métis peoples originated from unions between Europeans peoples involved in the historical fur trade and Indigenous women from various nations:



The Métis have as paternal ancestors,  the former employees of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies, and as maternal ancestors, Indian women belonging to various tribes. The French word Métis is derived from the Latin participle mixtus which means “mixed”; it expresses well the idea it represents.

Source: Riel, Louis. 1985. « 3-156 Les Métis du Nord-Ouest. Régina. 85/10-11/ ?. » Dans The Collected Writings of Louis Riel / Les écrits complets de Louis Riel, édité par George Stanley, Raymond Huel, Gilles Martel, Glen Campbell, Thomas Flanagan et C. Rocan, Vol. 3, 278-294. Edmonton : The University of Alberta Press, p. 272; our translation from French.


Reputed for their mobility and cultural broker attributes, the Métis have occupied different regions of Canada and the United States. The Métis were known for speaking many languages, most noticeably French, as well as various Indigenous languages. Reflecting this diversity, the term “Métis” has been used to designate different sub-groups, such as the “French-Canadian Métis,” the “Half Breeds” or “Country Born,” and even “Acadian-Métis” (See Songs Upon the Rivers, p. 389).

Métis were also identified by different ethnonyms, including “French” and “Canadians.” In The French Half-Breeds of the Northwest (1880, pp. 314-317), Havard refers to the usage of diverse ethnonyms (including “French”), as well as the continental distribution of Métis populations, from the coast of Oregon, to the Midwest, to the Eastern provinces of Canada:

The usual name of half-breeds used by English and Americans
presupposes blood from the paternal and maternal ancestors,
mixed in equal proportion; but, as mentioned before, this is not
often the case. The term mixed-blood is too vaguely
comprehensive. Métis, when referring to French mixed-bloods,
seems the most appropriate name. The designation of French is
often indifferently applied to Canadians, métis of all grades, and
even pure Indians who associate with métis and speak their
patois. It should also be stated that in Manitoba and other places
a certain proportion of mixed bloods, from English and Scotch
fathers, bearing such names as Grant, Grey, Sutherland, &c., are
classified as French, from their language, religion, and
associations, while occasionally such names as Lambert and
Parisien are found among English half-breeds. […]
If we could obtain the number of métis in Canada [i.e. Ontario
and Québec], New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Labrador, and in
the northern part of New England, as well as that of the French descended
families tainted with Indian blood in the States of
Illinois and Missouri, I doubt not the total would reach at least
40,000 as the strength of the population of French-Canadian
mixed-bloods in North America

Source: Havard, V. 1880. “The French Half-Breeds of the Northwest.” Dans Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Condition of the Institution for the Year 1879. Washington : Government Printing Office.


Métis identities have historically challenged the settler-Indigenous binaries found at the heart of colonial laws, on which race-based privileges have been articulated. The Métis could never quite fit the identitarian categories used by colonial authorities, which came to oppose “Whites” and “Indians” (or Indigenous) as mutually excluding racial categories. As Métis leader Louis Riel suggests, one drop of each “blood” would suffice to make someone a “Métis,” if that person chooses; a philosophy of Métis Indigeneity clearly undermining the efforts deployed by colonial authorities to assimilate and subdue all traces of Indigenous identities:

Very polite and amiable people may sometimes say to a Métis,
“You don’t look at all like a Métis. You surely can’t have much
Indian blood. You could pass anywhere for pure White.” […]
It is true that our Indian origin is humble, but it is indeed just
that we honour our mothers as well as our fathers. Why should
we be so preoccupied with what degree of mingling we have of
European and Indian blood? No matter how little we have of
one or the other, do not both gratitude and filial love require us
to make a point of saying, “We are Métis”?

Source: Louis Riel, « 3-156 Les Métis du Nord-Ouest. [Régina]. 85/10-11 », dans The Collected Writings of Louis Riel / Les écrits complets de Louis Riel, édité par George Stanley, Raymond Huel, Gilles Martel, Glen Campbell, Thomas Flanagan et C. Rocan, vol. 3, Edmonton, The University of Alberta Press pp. 278-294, aux pages 278-279. Our translation from French.


Historically, the lives of many Métis unsettle current expectations about what we often imagine as “true” or “pure” Indigeneity. On the one hand, a number of French-Canadian Métis have been recorded for having boosted the role they played in “civilizing” the West (or the “Indians”), thus boosting the role they played in colonization—a philosophy that certainly emerged in the refusal of voting privileges to the “uncivilized” or “unsettled” Indians by the Red River Métis in their 1870 third list of rights. On the other hand, Métis are remembered for claiming their Indigenous roots in defense of their rights (including title to the soil by virtue of their “Indian blood”), and even defending the rights of the “Indians” to treaties. The Northwest Métis are also remembered for various alliances with First Nations kin, relatives, and allies.

Métis leader Gabriel Dumont, himself, is remembered for expressing a dual or hybrid appreciation of his heritage as both “French” and “Indian,” on the basis of which he justifies his political resistance and assertion of rights:

as long as we have a drop of French and Indian blood in our
veins, we will claim the rights for which we fought and for
which they have judicially assassinated feu Louis David Riel.

Source: Combet Denis et Ismène Toussaint. 2009. Gabriel Dumont–Souvenirs de resistance d’un immortel de l’Ouest, Cornac, 2009, p. 238; our translation.


Clearly, Gabriel Dumont did not refrain from formulating identity in terms of being “mixed,” however little intermingling in one’s heritage there might be. Complexities and perceived ambiguities in the articulation of Métis identities are therefore not a new phenomenon.

Most famously, the Métis leader Louis Riel used the term “Métis” and “French-Canadian Métis” to formulate the project of a “Métis nation” emerging out of the Northwest, yet inclusive of all Métis across North America. That much is clear in this passage we find in Riel’s writing of 1885, stating that Riel conceived his role as the leader for all Métis across the Continent, while Gabriel Dumont would be the leader of the Métis from the Northwest:

  “Mr. Gabriel Dumont is devoted to me with such dedication, praise God, that would be a hard one to surpass. He believes that I should be recognized as the Métis leader for in all Métis of British North America. He himself would be the leader of the Métis in the Northwest within and beyond the Montagne de Roche (Rocky Mountains), to the sea” (p. 121).

Source: Library and Archives Canada. «Prison de Régina, 6 juillet 1885. À Monsieur le Capitaine R. B. Dean», folio 1289 [7]. Records relating to Louis Riel and the North West Uprising – 1229, microfilm c1229, C-1229, 133991, 202861, RG 13.


The political project that Louis Riel had in mind, formulated in the course of two resistances, at the end of which he was condemned to death by the Canadian state, was indeed inclusive of all Métis (and not just the French Métis), including the Métis of the Eastern provinces of Canada. Louis Riel explicitly refers to that fact in his letter in 1885:

“When it comes to the Eastern provinces of Canada, many Métis live there persecuted under the attires of the Indian costume. Their villages are villages of indigence. Their Indian title to the soil is however as good as the Indian title of the Metis of Manitoba.” (our translation from French)


07 copy

The original passage in the letter of Louis Riel, 1885 (last paragraph, in French).
Source: Library and Archives Canada. «Prison de Régina, 6 juillet 1885. À Monsieur le Capitaine R. B. Dean», folio 1289 [7]. Records relating to Louis Riel and the North West Uprising – 1229, microfilm c1229, C-1229, 133991, 202861, RG 13.


That inclusiveness is at the heart of Louis Riel’s understanding of Métis identity is even clearer when we read his letter to Proulx in 1877, where Riel states that: the “name Métis would be agreeable to all, because it is not exclusive and have the advantage of mentioning in suitable ways, the contingent by which each nation would contribute to generate a new people.”

Riel contingence pic copy

Source: SHSB, Société historique de Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg. Lettre de Louis Riel à Paul Proulx, Fonds Corporation archiépiscopale catholique romaine de Saint-Boniface, 0075. Série Alexandre Taché, Correspondance. 52987-52990, 1877, p. 3.

Contemporary debates on Métis identity

Despite Riel’s declarations on this topic, the notion of Métis diversity is still being debated by scholars. The notion of Métis diversity is vigorously opposed by activists and scholars who have adopted an exclusionary and mono-logic view of Métis identity that posit that the only real Métis are the Western Métis. The Métis also face pressure to assimilate to the First Nations, tribes, or “blood lines” connecting to their heritage by peoples who claim that the Métis do not really exist as a real people, or are solely a product of colonialism.

As we have suggested in the article, Marie-Louise: Protector of Louis Riel in Québec, we hold that these ideological views are mistaken. We made the argument that the nationalist doctrine making only the prairies or Red River Métis the “real” Métis conflates a particular narrative on Métis identity (i.e. Red River nationalism) with the conditions of possibility for Métis ethnogenesis across Canada and the United States (in which Métis nationalism is conflated with Métis ethnogenesis).

In short, the partisans of this newest Métis nationalist ideology wrongly assume that only the sociological conditions associated with the late emergence of nationalism justify the existence of a “real” Métis people, mostly along arguments positing that only these conditions created the self-reflective capacities to be collectively and distinctively Métis beyond what would be otherwise simply a “mélange” of ethnicity.

Outside the demonstration of these self-reflective capacities, which remain circularly tied to nationalist expressions, partisans of this neo-nationalist Red River ideology do not hesitate to call other Métis peoples across Canada “mixed,” “kitchen soup”, or even “zombies,” accused of self-indigenizing practices or cultural appropriations. We suggest that this form of lateral violence runs counter to the inclusive political project of Louis Riel, and our understanding of the inclusive Métis traditions.

In fact, evidence shows that different Métis peoples came to emerge without the need to coalesce around a single nationalistic narrative which would have allowed their existence as “peoples.” Métis peoples came to adopt different expressions of themselves, per their region, cultural ties, and the everyday circumstances they encountered. Sometimes, the historical and political existence of many Métis people was not even recorded. But such archivist silence should not lead us to negate their indigeneity or the cultural heritage of the Métis descendants in question, without seriously researching the topic first.

To be clear, there is a priori no reason to posit that any of the Métis peoples would lack a political sense of themselves, leading to the necessary conclusion that they would lack awareness when it comes to their indigeneity. Indeed, quasi-invisible forms of social and political cohesion between Métis families outside the scope of grand nationalist narratives have been documented in our work, showing the futility of such ideological construction (i.e. hiding of Métis leader Louis Riel in the Outaouais region by Métis families, or contraband activities related to the intermediary status of the Métis people).

In resisting the disenfranchisement of non-Red River Métis from their identity and culture, we ought to remember the rationale that was used by colonial authorities to deny the equal standing of many Indigenous peoples: their not being considered a “real” people for various sociological arguments. Even in Canadian jurisprudence, we find regrettable statements tainted with similar social-evolutionist prejudices, positing that Indigenous peoples would lack equivalence to Western societies, either in terms of institutions or political ontologies, to which the notion of modern nationalism is now the dominating expression of what would constitute “mature” politics.  The case of Re Southern Rhodesia (1919) is a blatant example of the ways in which such colonial logic was used to deny the existence of a people and their inherent rights, as too low in the scale of social organization and institution:

The estimation of the rights of aboriginal tribes is always inherently difficult. Some tribes are so low in the scale of social organization that their usages and conceptions of rights and duties are not to be reconciled with the institutions or the legal ideas of civilized society. Such a gulf cannot be bridged.

It can be suggested that partisans of Métis neo-nationalism are not so different when they negate the existence of non Red-River Métis along similar social-evolutionist arguments, positing that the “other Métis” (or the small letter métis) do not have sufficient evidence to be considered “real” indigenous peoples/Métis.

But even if we are to consider now-mounting evidence on the subject of “other Métis” across North America, it becomes increasingly clear that advocating that the Western Métis are the only “real” Métis makes no sense from a historical and cultural standpoint. As showed above, such ideology runs counter to the spirit of Louis Riel and his inclusive Métis political project. It runs even contraire to Gabriel Dumont’s understanding of his dual French and Indigenous identity. Moreover, it contradicts the evidence showing a diversity of Métis peoples across Canada.

So, why not embrace more generous ideals of co-existence, relationality, respect, and cooperation between Métis peoples? The question is still open…