Monday, 18 April 2016

The White Fantasy of Being ‘Indian’: A Brief Reflection on the Daniels Decision

Dr. Darryl Leroux
Twitter: @DarrylLeroux  

It has been several days since the Daniels decision came down from the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), and not surprisingly, it is being welcomed by an incredible range of organizations and individuals. To be clear, I'm cautiously favourable to some of the decision’s likely impacts, but I want to take a moment to focus on the section that is getting the most attention among those organizations and individuals that I am familiar with given my research.

Let me begin with the following statement, offered by Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella on behalf of the court, which is being repeated over and over again by nascent “métis” organizations a little bit all over: “'Metis’ can refer to the historic Metis community in Manitoba’s Red River Settlements or it can be used as a general term for anyone with mixed European and Aboriginal heritage,” Abella wrote. “There is no consensus on who is considered Metis or a non-status Indian, nor need there be. Culture and ethnic labels do not lend themselves to neat boundaries.”

“Now I am Metis: How White People Become Indigenous,” Native Studies Speakers' Series, University of Saskatchewan, March 12, 2015.

The statement seems relatively inane, but taken to its logical conclusion – as these organizations and individuals wasted no time doing – it explicitly argues for a position that fulfills the always-appealing white settler fantasy of being “Indian.”

In the immediate aftermath of the decision, Pam Palmater has explained the impacts well in, “Don't partake in celebrations over new Supreme Court ruling on Métis just yet”: “To my mind, the Daniels decision is less about reconciliation and more about erasure of Indigenous sovereignty and identity. It takes John Ralston Saul’s idea of ‘we are all Metis people’ together with the newest Canadian slogan 'we are all treaty people' and opens the floodgates to every person in Canada claiming a long lost Indian ancestor and asserting their identity and control over our lands and rights. It has the potential to effectively eliminate any real sovereignty or jurisdiction Indigenous Nations have over our own citizens and territories. It does not bolster Metis claims, but instead confuses them. It does not address the discrimination faced by actual non-status Indians, but paints them with the Metis ‘mixed people’ brush.”

Indeed, demographic research in Québec has demonstrated that a significant majority of the descendants of 17th-century French settlers today have at least one Indigenous ancestor, likely from one of the 13 Indigenous women who married settlers prior to 1680. I am one of those descendants, who, due to intermarriage among French-Canadians for 11 generations, has multiple Indigenous ancestors. But keep in mind that having 2, 3, or 5 Indigenous ancestors in the 17th century or 10+ generations ago represents no more than 0.1-1% Indigenous ancestry, a fact borne out over and over again in both genealogical (family history) and genetic (DNA ancestry testing) research in Québec.

In fact, the same studies, conducted by Québécois researchers in French, strongly suggest that it's still more likely that today's French-descendant population have English ancestry and ancestry from another European ethnicity (e.g., German, Portuguese, Irish) than Indigenous ancestry. In my own ancestral history prior to 1700, I am related to the daughter of a German aristocrat who later became the proprietor of an infamous brothel in Montréal and to an English woman who migrated to New France with her French husband.

Of course, in today's world, white settlers obsessively mark our long-ago Indigenous ancestry, often in order to claim Indigenous identity. It has become integral to white settler strategies to dispossess Indigenous lands, as the days-old response to the Daniels case is making clear. The glee with which these new “métis” groups are claiming a slew of “rights” and even territorial jurisdiction is breathtaking. What's more, many of these organizations – for example, a couple of “métis” organizations in Nova Scotia and the largest in Québec – actively oppose Indigenous peoples today through a variety of innovative revisions to history and political claims. It's disheartening to see these efforts come to fruition in the Daniels decision.

In, “The Supreme Court ruling on Métis: A roadmap to nowhere,” noted Métis scholar Chris Andersen laid out what's at stake in the Daniels decision for the Métis people, hours after the decision: “If Métis identity really is simply about mixed aboriginal and non-aboriginal ancestry, can a distant ancestor located in an archival document or even a DNA test now serve as bases for adjudicating claims of Métis identity rather than culture, community or link to the Métis people? ... Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Thursday that the government of Canada plans to respect the Daniels decision and will work toward reconciliation – let’s hope that governments are clear on what it means to reconcile with historically rooted indigenous peoples rather than more recently identifying individuals.”

Without a doubt, the new “métis” – who often openly admit to identifying as “métis” either because they're not accepted as Indigenous by those Indigenous peoples whose territories they inhabit and/or as a way to access Charter rights – are largely French-descendant people whose claims to Indigeneity must be challenged. While there are certainly parallel claims by peoples who have been unjustly disenfranchised by the Indian Act regime – and I am personally quite sympathetic to such claims – the new “métis” employ the language of colonialism, violence, and victimhood as a symbolic weapon against Indigenous peoples.

I'll leave you with this thought: under the SCC’s recent argument, upwards of 10 million descendants of the earliest French settlers now living in Québec, in Ontario, in New Brunswick, in Nova Scotia, in Maine, in New Hampshire, in Massachusetts, in Michigan, in Wisconsin, and other locations, can be considered Métis, simply because they have one Indigenous ancestor (often the same!) prior to 1700, a period in which no more than a few thousand French settlers lived in a dozen settlements along the St Lawrence River.

The SCC's inability or unwillingness to adopt Indigenous forms of governance and self-determination – including when it comes to community membership and/or citizenship – in its own boundary-making exercise, speaks to its role as a colonial institution. I hope the ensuing conversation presents a coherent challenge to the white fantasy of becoming “Indian” that Daniels has authorized.

Dr. Darryl Leroux is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary's University in Kijipuktuk (Halifax). His current research project examines how the dynamics between genealogy and genomics are reconfiguring understandings of race, whiteness, indigeneity, and difference in Québec.


  1. if cannot trace your lineage to a Metis community, you are not Metis, you may be mixed blood, but you are not one of us. Its that damn simple

    1. If the government supressed the very idea of speaking of certain ancestors, where does the fault lie? The communities in the east were not very educated. Here is some eastern history.

    2. If the government supressed the very idea of speaking of certain ancestors, where does the fault lie? The communities in the east were not very educated. Here is some eastern history.