M(m)etis: Big M versus small m

The Big ‘M’ versus small ‘m’ discussion is one that is political and strongly based within the legal category of Métis in Canada. The Métis have traditionally been seen as the population of the Saskatchewan River who fought alongside Louis Riel for the rights of Métis as an Aboriginal population in Canada. However, there are many others who identify as Métis in Canada but are classified as métis by the government – they are unrecognized and without Aboriginal rights.

Due to the nature of the fur trade in Canada and the tendency for fur trade posts to have proximity to Aboriginal communities, Métis identities have developed across the country. These identities most often developed when freemen from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) or Northwest Company (NWC) would marry Aboriginal women while in the Canada. The results of these marriages were mixed-blooded children who were often raised by their Aboriginal mothers and grandmothers. As the fur trade continued the ethnogenesis of the Métis became stronger and Métis communities developed along fur trade routes.

Scholars in Ontario have made significant efforts to trace these Métis communities and families back through the fur trade records. This was a significant step and moving the identity of Métis away from the exclusive Western identity that has existed throughout history. In addition to this research, a case of illegal fishing in Sault-Sainte-Marie, Ontario in 1993 resulted in the R.v. Powley in 2003 and the proceeding Powley test on Métis Rights. This decision changed the way Métis are seen in Canada as it granted harvesting rights to the Métis defendants.

Similar to R. v. Van der Peet in 1996, which determined Aboriginal rights on a basis of Aboriginal authenticity with the implementation of the “integral to a distinctive culture” test, the Powley test defines the parameters for Métis rights in Canada.  The criteria are ten-fold, the most crucial being the first four:

(1) there is a characterization of the right;

(2) there is an identifiable historic rights bearing Métis community;

(3) there is an identifiable contemporary rights being Métis community; and

(4) one has membership in the contemporary Métis community

Due to the implementation of this criteria to be legally considered Métis in Canada, in other words, big ‘M’ Métis one must prove themselves through the Powley test. Otherwise in the eyes of the government the individual would be considered a small ‘m’ métis – without rights.

However, these criteria and categorization of Métis by the federal government does not stop small ‘m’ metis from self-identifying as Big ‘M’ Métis. In many cases there are identities that have developed that have all the cultural qualities of what we consider to be Métis in Canada but there are issue with these groups meeting the Powley test. Pursuing these issues in court is costly and there is an often many gaps in historical evidence that allows individuals and communities to present successful cases, particularly in their ability to identify a historic rights being Métis community. In situations such as this, self-identification becomes essential. Small ‘m’ métis are aware that the government does not recognize them as Métis, however, they continue to identify as Métis and they live their lives with the identity and culture they always have.