Last month I received a surprise phone call from the Provincial Government of BC informing me I had won the BC Medal of Good Citizenship. I was asked to complete some paperwork to prepare for the media release. Part way through the form, I was stumped by a simple question: Do you identify as an Indigenous Person (First Nations, Métis or Inuit)? This simple yes/no question was the impetus I needed to discover my family history.
I grew up knowing that I had a very small percentage of Indigenous heritage from many generations back. As a child, my mom and her five dark haired and brown eyed siblings were not told much about their Indigenous roots.
The only ‘fact’ that seemed to travel generation to generation was that Simon Fraser, the explorer, had a twin brother named Colin Fraser and that as Colin and Simon headed west, Colin had connected with an Indigenous women somewhere across the Plains. Besides the relation to the famous explorer, nothing else seemed to get passed down. My mom and her siblings were told to say they were a mix of Scottish, English and Welsh when people would question their heritage. My aunts share stories of racism and discrimination they would feel when others would doubt the truth of their reply. My grandma did not speak of her Aboriginal roots and convinced her children they were a blend of European ancestry. Perhaps subconsciously my mom grew into this role. My boys call my mom ‘Nonna’, an Italian name for grandma, and she can probably out-cook most Italian women in the kitchen. However, the truth is we do not have a single Italian relative.
Knowing I had one Indigenous relative, I wanted to learn more before completing my form. It didn’t feel right to check ‘no’ if Indigenous heritage was in fact part of my story. It didn’t feel right to check ‘yes’ if I knew little about this relative. As an educator, I am committed to learning and unlearning and I am proud of the recent addition to the Professional Standards for BC Educators that now require all teachers to adhere to Standard 9 “Educators respect and value the history of First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada and the impact of the past on the present and the future. Educators contribute towards truth, reconciliation and healing. Educators foster a deeper understanding of ways of knowing and being, histories, and cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis.”
It felt like the right decision both personally and professionally to dig a little deeper before answering the question on identity. With two weeks off for Spring Break and a world pandemic cancelling our vacation plans I had the time and the curiouristy to learn about my heritage. It instantly felt soulful to embark on this journey and learn the stories of my ancestors. Perhaps I could dig back far enough to learn the name of that one Indigenous woman generations ago who connected with my European relative.
I began with a free subscription on Ancestry. Within hours, I was making connections, finding photos and opening up a world I knew nothing of. I am embarrassed to say that just a few short weeks ago I knew little to differentiate between First Nations and Métis people in Canada.
(In case you are unfamiliar, Métis means mixed ancestry or ‘half breed’ and represents a culture created when European fur traders and First Nations women started their families together in the Red River Settlement in the early 1700’s and created their own distinct language, norms and values. Anyone who can connect their lineage back to this time in Red River is considered Métis. The official language of the Metis is Michef – a blend of French, English, Cree and Ojibwe. The Metis are known for their fighting spirit, collective consciousness, songs, jigging, kitchen parties, buffalo hunting, trading, and their sense of reciprocity, helping and relying on one another. Métis people are not eligible for status under the Indian Act though they are eligible for Métis citizenship in their province of residence. (I have recently completed my application for citizenship with MNBC – Métis Nation of BC)
I will admit that as I write this I face the fear many educators face – the fear that I will stumble in my own ignorance. I apologize in advance for any errors made in this post as I start to understand my family’s story. I am learning and unlearning and I acknowledge the privilege I have. I have never felt discriminated against based on my skin colour or culture. I have not had to face oppression in any way other than occasional sexism female leaders still experience. My quest into self identify comes from a respect for all people and sadness that my family felt they had to hide their story. Regardless of how little Indigenous blood I may have, I firmly believe every person on this planet deserves to be respected, heard and seen. I wanted to know more about this one woman and give value and honour to her life, her culture and her story.
For the last month I have spent most of my free moments learning the stories of my ancestors through genealogy sites, academic papers, the Métis online museum, YouTube and audiobooks. I have had the pleasure of hosting Zoom meetings with aunts, uncles and cousins to share our family story and rediscover our past. It is with a mix of pride and sadness that I share my family’s story: Pride that we are giving life to stories that were temporarily lost and sadness that my ancestors experienced enough discrimination to hide their culture.
Here is a glimpse of our Métis story, and what I have learned of the Métis people:
With ease I found information on Colin Fraser my mom’s great grandfather. Strangely no websites spoke about him having a twin, nor did they reference his brother Simon as an explorer. It turns out that yes, my 3rd great grandfather is Colin Fraser, and yes, he does have a brother named Simon, but it is not the Simon Fraser whom the river or University are named after. Obituaries speak of them being descendants of the explorer thought I have yet to prove this connection. While the family myth started to unravel, a much richer story of my Métis Heritage fell into my lap. Colin Fraser was one of the patriarchs of the Mountain Metis, overseeing Jasper House for 15 years. He and his Métis wife Nancy Beaudry had 9 healthy children.
My great great grandmother Adelaide Fraser (one of Colin and Nancy’s 9 children) is recognized in the Métis Museum for her Métis embroidered purses that she created for children.
Adelaide’s husband, Frederick Rowland operated 12 teams with the Hudson Bay Company and was labelled one of the best Buffalo Hunters in the West. He was a pioneer of the Rebellion Days under the leadership of Louis Riel.
As you can see, my search for one distant relative has led to so much more. In fact, my great grandma, who is holding me in the photo below also had Métis citizenship. Florence Rowland is the daughter of Adelaide Fraser and Frederick Rowland. She is my mom’s grandmother and was adored by her family. They loved her dearly yet in all their time together, she did not share the stories of her Métis identity or that she had signed a scrip in 1900 with the Half Breed Claim Commission for 240 acres of land, acknowledging her Métis heritage. In the second photo, I am with my Nanna, Dorothy Price – the first generation not to obtain Métis Citizenship. I wish she was still here today so I could learn with her and value her ancestry.
I started out to find ‘one Indigenous relative’ and have now discovered that the stories I have shared are only a small part of our Métis story. I suspect that my grandma may not have even known that all four of her grandparents were Métis. In fact, one of her ancestors, Elizabeth Betsy McKay was married to Cuthbert Grant (pictured below) who led the Métis Nation to victory in the battle at Seven Oaks in 1816.
Her third great grandmother, a Cree woman named Titameg (or Whitefish in English – pictured on the right side below) came from the Wolf tribe and married John Favel, an accountant with the Hudson Bay Company. Unlike most at the time, he left his estate to his Indigenous children. Her third great grandfather, John Ballenden (Ballendine) was HBC Chief Factor at York Factory from 1798-1802, and married to Jane Favel.
Perhaps what I love most is the spirit of the Métis culture. In this TEDx talk by Emerald UnRuh she describes the Métis people as kind, loving, and connected to one another with strong identity and spirit. Near the end of her talk, Emerald tells a story passed on by her grandmother. Her grandmother reminded her to think of the Métis each time she sees a dandelion growing through cement – a symbol of resilience representing the Métis people. As I watched this talk I had shivers. Just last year, before knowing my Métis heritage, I published my first book, Beyond HELLO. Choosing a cover image was more difficult than writing the book. I looked at thousands of images until an image felt right. I eventually chose a dandelion emerging from cement signifying resilience of the people whose stories I had told.
While my family’s stories may have been temporarily lost, I smile recognizing how the spirit of my ancestors lived on passing down Métis values: large family meals, reciprocity, helping others, big personalities, love, determination, humour, connections to community and a sense of resilience. This is the beginning of our journey. With pride, I checked ‘yes’ on my form. I do self-identify. I am Métis.