By GEORGE ELLIOTT CLARKE
In his recent Letter to the Editor in the Jan. 10 edition of Beach Metro Community News, Indigenous Peoples Rights Advocate, Michael Cheena, spells out powerfully the history of the “nation-to-nation relationship” between Indigenous peoples and Canadian governments (of all levels).
For far too long, that “relationship” has meant the imposition of settler-colonial and post-Confederation land-grabs and policies of cultural erasure upon the Original Peoples of this northern portion of Turtle Island.
Then again, Canadians love to whitewash from common knowledge and conscience not just historically criminal and shameful acts against various minorities (“visible” or not), but often, if possible, the actual historical existence of those who have been victimized by the Crown.
This has been the fate of Indigenous peoples, yes; but also of Black Canadians, whose long, historical presence here has often been overlooked and downplayed.
But it has also been the particular fate of “Black-and-Indigenous” Canadians, some of whom also identify—as I do—as “Afro-Métis.”
How came we to exist? Well, European enslavement of both Africans and Indigenous peoples created the conditions for intermixture, especially in Nouvelle-France, which is now Québec.
In colonial Québec, from the earliest years of settlement (early 17th-century) until the British abolition of slavery in 1834, of the 5,000 or so persons held in bondage there, two-thirds were Indigenous, i.e., the Panis people, while another third were Black.
Enslaved Black men were often employed in the fur trade (see Mackey, 2010), the industry which brought non-Indigenous men into intimate contact with Indigenous women, not only on the Prairies or in the greater “Northwest Territories” of the Hudson’s Bay Company and other monarch-backed furriers, but throughout colonial Canada, including in Acadie/Acadia (see Morris, 2012), but also down the Mississippi River to New Orleans (see LeVoyageur, 2013).
Once intense British and Yankee colonization of Nova Scotia began, in the 1750s, African-Americans were brought to the North Atlantic province to slave and plough, serve and harvest. Contact with Indigenous Mi’kmaq may have begun as some Blacks sought to escape their servitude.
However, during the War of 1812, 2,200 African-Americans, freed by the Royal Navy from bondage, arrived in Nova Scotia between 1813 and 1816. Some Cherokee elected to leave the United States with African-Americans, and also got resettled in Nova Scotia. (My matrilineal Cherokee heritage—proven by genealogical research—is due to this fact.)
By the 1890s, the Canadian Census records Black and Mi’kmaq households in Nova Scotia.
In their respective histories of Blacks on the Prairies and in British Columbia, Colin Thomson (1979) and Crawford Kilian (1978) also discuss Black and Indigenous couples and the families they formed.
Of course, most of us think of Prairie Métis as descending from unions between French or Scottish men and Indigenous women. And that is mainly the case.
However, as I’ve just been mapping and chronicling, there was also Black and Indigenous family formation, all across Turtle Island—the whole of it, including all of colonial Canada; and if one wants to say that only fur-traders could sire Métis children, then those fathered by Black fur-traders must also count.
(By the way, the French classified Black-European mixed-race children as Mulatto, yes, but also as Métis, especially if offspring looked more white than black.)
One fierce objection to the self-declaration of Black-and-Indigenous or Afro-Métis people is summed up in the question, “Where were these people all this time”—the headline in a 2018 Brett Bundale piece in The National Post.
The implication is that Maritime or “Eastern” Métis are self-declaring their presence “now” to horn in on treaty rights, i.e., that they are frauds.
But one must recall that anti-Indigenous racism was so evil that some “Eastern” Métis passed themselves off as white, while some Afro-Métis passed themselves off as “Mulatto,” believing that anything was better than being seen as a “half-breed.” (See Proctor, 2010; Bundale, 2018.)
That the Government of Canada questions the existence of “Eastern” and Acadian Métis is itself a repetition of age-old federal efforts to 1.) whitewash Indigenous people out of existence and 2.) divide-and-conquer.
Look it! The Government of Canada declared the Sinixt people of British Columbia “extinct” in 1956, then grabbed their lands. In 2021, 65 years later, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Sinixt people were not extinct.
Whoever trusts the Government of Canada to determine “Indian status” is asking the inventors of apartheid to define racial categories that have always been racist—and sexist.
Besides, the determiners of identity must always be the people themselves, and never governments.
And so, the Black-and-Indigenous Canadians exist; the Afro-Métis exist, whether any government approves or not.
And we need no one’s permission to show our colours. Born out of anti-slavery and anti-colonialism, our existence is due to all-conquering, cross-cultural love.
— East Toronto resident George Elliott Clarke is a professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. A 12-year-long Beach resident, he is also the co-creator of the CD, Constitution (2019), by the Afro-Métis Nation. The CD’s music can be downloaded free at this website: https://theafrometisnation.bandcamp.com/releases
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