Gabrielle Legault

Métis Connections to Land

The Métis are a distinct and legally entitled aboriginal population in Canada that descend from the intermarriage of Europeans and First Nations during the fur trade era (Barman & Evans, 2009; Foster, 1978; Weinstein, 2008). Traditional land use (TLU) activities, such as hunting, fishing, and plant harvesting, play a significant role in sustaining Métis life and culture (Shore & Barkwell, 1997).

Métis people have had limited influence in resource-based decision-making as a result of modern land and resource management priorities in Canada (Adamowicz, et al., 2004; Beckley, 1996; Joubert & Davidson, 2010). This lack of agency, combined with low-level community conflict, has resulted in a loss of control over land and a strong sense of cultural dispossession (Hoelscher & Alderman, 2004; Sawchuk, 2001). Furthermore, territorial displacement has not only resulted in a loss of land, but also in a loss of meanings of significant places (Relph, 1976). The degradation caused by displacement persists, as communities have become geographically dispersed, disrupting kinship ties, intergenerational transfer of knowledge between youth and elders, community cohesion, cultural continuity, and traditional identities (Brown & Perkins, 1992; Gieryn, 2000; White, Beavon, & Maxim, 2003).

The recollection of social memories is an active way for groups to define a cohesive identity using specific historical narratives (Said, 2000). The idealization of specific connections to land has been a means for the Métis to justify their indigeneity, as their dispossession from traditional lands tends to undermine the validity of their claims (Lawrence, 2004). Furthermore, Métis identity has been collectively constructed around an idealized time in the past when people were more intimately connected to the land, thus causing TLU activities to be an integral component of Métis identity. This encompasses the ideal that Métis interaction with land and resources is one built around environmental stewardship and a deep respect for nature (Stedman, 2003).

The Traditional Métis Hunting Camp

Places take on particular meanings when associated to TLU activities because there is a relationship between subsistence activities, traditional knowledge and cultural vitality (Basso, 1996; Tuan, 1977; Whitridge, 2004). The Flathead Valley has become an idealized place in the formation of Métis identity within BC, as it has been long used for harvesting activities (MNBC, 2010a). This region is the last unsettled low elevation valley in Southern Canada and “one of the most diverse and ecologically intact natural ecosystems in the temperate zones of the world” (National Geographic, 2009); yet, it remains vulnerable to large-scale resource extraction (Hauer & Muhlfeld, 2010). Organizations including UNESCO, Parks Canada and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are lobbying to transform this area into a park (Dingwall & Rao, 2009). The Métis Nation of British Columbia (MNBC) oppose this decision “as long as National Parks exclude aboriginal harvesting and traditional land uses” (MNBC, 2010b). Recording TLU activities in this region is crucial as Métis harvesting activities in this area may be terminated with the creation of the park, thus threatening the future of Métis traditional knowledge regarding the diverse plant and animal species in this area.

Research Objectives: Participatory mapping will be the core method used by this research project to explore the pathways and narratives that led to the Flathead Valley becoming idealized within the collective construction of Métis identity in BC. Through locating places of meaning using participatory mapping, I will examine how Métis participants are engaged in knowledge generation, as well as explore how these tools and associated research processes contribute to empowering them to become active participants in decision-making affecting traditional lands.

Gabrielle’s first activity report: A gathering to bridge past and future research

Using the funds from the Darrell Posey PhD Fellowship and in co-ordination with Dr. Peter Hutchinson, I planned a gathering of Métis harvesters and community members as well as university researchers to initiate dialogue to discuss previous research results and assess future research needs. Held in Kelowna, British Columbia on August 20 2012, the gathering sought feedback from Métis community representatives and BCMANR Captains of the Hunt on the qualitative and quantitative results of a recent project examining the implications of harvesting on the health of Métis in BC. The qualitative data included a film developed while at the 2011 Traditional Métis Hunting Camp in British Columbia’s Flathead Valley. Titled “Kii nihta’wakiw chii noo’chihaat lii bich: Métis Harvesting Health in the Flathead Valley”, the film explores the deep connections felt by Métis to this particular landscape, as well as the interconnectedness of subsistence activities, traditional knowledge, cultural vitality and physical, mental, and spiritual health. Quantitative data was also presented in the form of a summary analysis of geospatial and biometric information.

Photo of Métis harvesters, community representatives and UBC Okanagan research team at Métis Health and Harvesting Gathering in Kelowna, British Columbia on August 27th, 2012. Left to right: Chris Gall, Donna Kurtz, Bob Trumbley, Cindy Carlson, James Robinson, Gabrielle Legault, Ron McDougall, Carlene Dingwall, Earl Henderson, Rob Humpherville, Deryl Henderson, Alyshia Carlson, Josie Ahearn, Mark Carlson, Maria Laboucan, Mike Evans, Lloyd Carlson, Marlene Beattie, Madden Sarver, Joan Bottoroff, Eldon Clairmont, and Peter Hutchinson. Photograph by Shirley Clairmont.

Discussion Summary

Much of the gathering was focused on discussing community suggestions for future directions for research through a roundtable discussions focusing on cultural connections to land, physical and intellectual health, and mental and spiritual health. Participants had the opportunity to identify possible areas where research data can be applied and explored further areas of research that are imperative for Métis in British Columbia. This portion of the gathering was crucial to my own research as it helped to prioritize research areas that the Métis in British Columbia felt were important and thus inform my own topic of research.

On account of the recent funding cuts at Parks Canada, much of the discussion of transforming the Flathead Valley (an area that has traditionally been used for hunting by Métis) into a park has also been halted. As this area is not under immediate threat, community members identified other areas of research that required further attention. Many community members identified a lack of awareness of the ethics with which Métis people are taught to hunt and the conservation mindset that they take with them when harvesting. They felt that the misconception that hunting is on the opposite end of the spectrum from environmentalism discourages young people from engaging in this traditional activity.  Many community members were upset that there are fewer young people who engage in harvesting and furthermore, that they are disconnected from the elders who can teach them about the land. Community members were also interested in conducting research on the traditional and contemporary roles of Métis women in harvesting and processing plants and animals, including the ceremonial and spiritual components of this work.

Sharing Results

Following these discussions, we discussed the types of outcomes that the community would like to see result from research on Métis Harvesting in British Columbia. There was a general consensus that community members would like to see practical results such as the facilitation of workshops (or camps) that focus on traditional ecological knowledge, but also help to engage youth and connect them to elders. Furthermore, the community noted a preference for providing results to the community via videos (versus written materials) that could be used for educating the public about the Métis, but also for encouraging Métis people to connect to their own cultural heritage.

Fellowship Support 

The cost of the entire meeting was $12,900 as there were 27 participants, many of whom had to drive several hundred kilometers to the meeting and required accommodations in Kelowna, BC. The ISE Darrell Posey PhD Fellowship provided $4,500 to support the attendance of community members, including several elders who live in distant communities and would not have otherwise been able to attend. This was crucial in order to support a research framework that is inclusive of the voices of all community members, despite geographical and financial inconvenience.

Early Steps on a Long Journey

This pilot data will be imperative for my PhD research, as the knowledge of the community will form the basis for the research design. Therefore; the community will dictate the topics that I will study leading to my field research, the manner in which the research will be conducted, who will be identified as valuable research participants, the research itself and the ways in which the research will be shared with the community. Furthermore, this gathering and future gathering will continue to solidify equitable relationships amongst researchers and community members.