Feature Story Monday, February 20, 2012
Spirit of the Metis People
Community pride evident with flag raising at City Hall
Craig Hill/Voice photos
Chilliwack Metis Association members flank Mayor Gaetz, third from right, Thursday at City Hall in celebration of Louis Riel Day.
im Middleton unfurls a multi-coloured cloth belt, wraps it around his waist and ties a knot in it, making sure the emblem faces outward. Along with his Metis regalia and buckskin coat, he’s also wearing a proud smile.
But it wasn't always this way for Middleton, who is the president of the Metis Association, or his people. In the past, people were ostracized from their communities if they admitted any Metis connection. Most wouldn’t declare their heritage throughout their entire lives, and only when they were on their death beds, would they admit it.
Michael Riel performs the belt dance for an
audience at City Hall last Thursday.
Such was the case for Middleton whose grandmother told him of his background just before she passed on. That released an innate curiosity in him to learn about his heritage, and so he began down the long road of exploring his roots and reclaiming his past.
Middleton is one of around 200 registered members of the Metis Association in Chilliwack. He and several others from the community were at Chilliwack City Hall Thursday morning bright and early to raise the Metis flag in honour of 19th century Canadian legend and Metis spiritual leader, Louis Riel whose birthday they celebrate annually. The day is also marked in Manitoba as a provincial holiday.
"It's taken a long time to get this far,” he says. “When we were growing up, if you said you were Metis or Native, you were sort of shunned, so a lot of the stuff, for myself, didn't happen until my grandmother died."
Middleton first moved to BC from Winnipeg Manitoba in 1942. Originally, his grandmother was adopted and later he found out some of the circumstances around her adoption.
“A Native Chief from Alberta got a 16-year-old girl pregnant and they moved her away,” says Middleton. “In the 1800s, that was a no-no and he would have been immediately gone as Chief, so he brought her to Winnipeg, she had her baby, and took it to a convent, and rang the bell. The father that came out, called him, and he came back, and he explained in a confession booth, and he said, 'okay, we’ll take the child.’”
Two-years ago his mother passed on, and the year prior his brother went back to the parish where it all began, because they’d heard the priest was dying. They needed to know some things before he passed on but they were turned out by the church.
“You are stopping us from finding our roots, we don't know who our grandmother's parents were,” his brother had said at the time.
Middleton speaks very little French because when he moved to BC, there were few French communities outside of Maillardville in Coquitlam and so what part of the language he does know, he learned in the forces.
“When we came out here in 1942, there was no French-speaking people,” says Middleton. “I picked up French, because like Joe (Smith), I went in the military.”
Since then, the Metis population has exploded in BC. Middleton says there are now 57 French-speaking Metis communities in BC.
Sadly, the Metis as a whole, have always dealt with identity crisis.
Chilliwack Metis Association President Jim Middleton shows some of his regalia.
“It’s because they were scared the kids would get shunned and stuff. I saw it when I was going to school with the Native First Nations kids and I saw how they were treated,” Says Middleton adding “it was sort of a mark against you.”
It’s taken decades, but Metis pride has been percolating and its now to the point where they’re raising the colours over City Hall — for the second consecutive year.
Part of reviving the Metis culture lays in an ability to retain their Cree-based language, so they’ve taken steps to teach their kids in a school setting.
“We have an Aboriginal Education Board and they're now starting to teach the language,” he says. “It's First Nation's language, but Cree is part of Metis which is made up of a number of different languages.”
Jigger Michael Riel, fiddler Kathleen Nisbet and elder Grace Pearson get ready for performance.
Chilliwack Metis have a colourful crest, consisting of a buffalo over what looks like a rendition of BC’s flag inside a knotted sash. The embroidered logo is just one reason Middleton says they are gradually being recognized. For instance, at Metis gatherings, people see that they're from Chilliwack.
“Some people didn't even know we have a community here,” he says.
Middleton joined the militia wing of the army in 1955 working as a field engineer bridging and rafting. In 1980, he was told that he had high blood pressure and was discharged. Within half a year, he was back working as a civilian employee supply tech at the base in Chilliwack.
Like many other people of Metis descent, Chilliwack Association Treasurer Joe Smith’s roots are also back in Saskatewan.
“I originally left Saskatewan when I was 19 and joined the forces, then came to BC in '78 and stayed here until '85 when I left for Manitoba, to Shiloh, and then came back and retired in '90.”
Smith revels in the fact that the Metis flag is flying high over Chilliwack City Hall.
“This is the only time that we know of that it's been raised in BC, last year and this year,” he says. “It’s to let us know where we come from, and let people know that we still do exist, although all the emphasis seems to be on the First Nations. But being part Native, we're called “aboriginals" and a lot of people don't realize that.”
Metis are a mix of First Nation people, Scotch, French, Irish, Welsh, Ukrainian and almost every European country. In the 1800’s, there weren’t many white women in the wilds of Canada, so European men took Native wives.
Smith also talks about the repression his people faced in the early 1900’s.
“We learned to do different things that at one time, we weren't allowed to do because it was a no-no.”
Smith too was an orphan, and he ended up in St. Patrick’s Catholic residential school. He says he doesn’t have "much faith in nuns", because while there, the kids were stripped of their culture, and just talking about it dredges up emotions.
“We couldn't speak French and we couldn't eat any of our traditional food, or dress with our clothing,” he said. “It had to be the white man's way or no way.”
Smith has a personal connection to Louis Riel. According to him, when Riel came back from Montana in 1885, the first meeting he had was at his great-grandfather’s house in Batoche, Quebec.
“I'm finding more and more things about it as I go,” he says. “I met a cousin that I didn't know I had when we went to Langley, so for me it's made the circle.”
Community elder Grace Pearson came from Selkirk, the original Metis settlement in Manitoba but grew up in Northern Alberta. She moved to Chilliwack 35-years ago and keeps busy with the community.
“I love it here,” she said.
Metis Fiddler Kathleen Nisbet has been playing the fiddle from as early as she can remember. When she got the invite from the Chilliwack Association, she was happy to oblige and be a part of the ceremony.
Although Nisbet was born in Vancouver, her Metis roots also began in Saskatewan where her mother was raised.
"That's where my fiddle came from," she said smiling.
Nisbet is a trained concert violinist and studied under Winnipeg symphony concertmaster Arthur Polson. She's played in all types of genres with many big name people in the industry coast to coast.
NDP Chilliwack-Hope riding candidate Gwen O'Mahony had her dancing shoes on.
Also there for the ceremony was Louis Riel’s great-great-nephew and jigger Michael Riel, who demonstrated some of the more popular Metis dances in the Municipal Hall lobby.
For Metis people, traditional fiddling and jigging mean everything.
"They would clear out the kitchen and dance all night,” said Riel.
But unlike Nisbet, who’s been playing her instrument all of her life, Riel took up dancing just 7-years ago. He received some excellent mentoring while studying under three-time Canadian jigging champion Yvonne Chartrand and now he performs regularly with the Louis Riel Dancers in Vancouver.
He's very proud of his fifth generation roots, and it shows on his face when he's dancing.
"Movement and music is very much my passion, that's my art and this is one aspect of it,” says Riel. “It’s one-half of the art that drives me in my life and inspires me to keep living and I'm glad to be keeping that side of my family going."
He dropped two belts in a crisscross pattern on the lobby floor
Kathleen Nisbet's fiddling kept
Michael Riel hopping.
"When you listen, you'll hear the sound of a horse walking," he said.
He seemed to move on air. His lightning quick feet stepping in perfect time to Nisbet's fingers as they raced over the frets of her fiddle. In the second number, the tempo picked up even more when Nisbet flew through a rendition of "Orange Blossom Special”, accentuated by clapping from an enthused audience.
There are even more vigorous dances like the Broom Dance, where the person holds the broom and hops up and over it, back and forth.
Back at home, Riel spends much of his time working on the “movement” aspect of his dancing and currently he’s putting together a recording studio with a music project in mind for sometime down the road.
"People sleep for 100-years and it will be the artists who bring back the spirit of the Metis people," he said paraphrasing his great-great uncle.
Every couple of months the Chilliwack Metis hold a potluck dinner where they also raffle off items like symbolic tee-pees mounted on dream catchers made by Metis women, who are some of the last birch bark biters in the country.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz (black) greets Metis representatives including Les Mitchell in his Hudson Bay coat.
Each year Metis communities from around BC gather at Morris Valley for some camaraderie and activities such as horseback and barbeques with Metis cooking like buffalo burgers. Kids learn how to do beading and participate in games.
There are also plans to one day produce a historical book of the local Metis people.
"We're slowly gathering information and photos,” says Smith.
Outside in a light rain, Gaetz spoke about Louis Riel saying he advocated on behalf of people.
“He never kept his head down, he was always in the limelight and today, whenever you go to the province of Manitoba you see his memorials are everywhere. People are very proud of the messaging that Louis Riel gave, which was really to be open to all people of all races and all kinds.”
“So, happy birthday Louis Riel wherever you may be, God bless you and thanks for fighting for the rights of people all over,” said Gaetz.
With as much fanfare as possible, the blue Metis flag was hoisted, acknowledging the community and helping to revive a sense of identity that was swept aside so long ago.
For more information about the Chilliwack Metis Association, visit: www.chilliwackmetisassociation.ca or contact President Jim Middleton at 604-858-3106
Listen to Kathleen Nisbet playing Orange Blossom Special here. Feel free to clap your hands and tap your feet.
See the full size photos below.
© Copyright (c) 2012 The Valley Voice
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