President Chartier calls for repatriation of cultural property before Parliamentary Committee on Canadian Heritage

OCTOBER 18, 2018

I begin this presentation with a statement of whom I am referring to when I use the term “Métis”, and that is the historic Métis Nation based in western Canada. A distinct people, with a distinct history, language (Michif), a national flag over 2 hundred years old, a significant population and a defined geographic homeland. A people or nation who took both political and military action to defend its people and territory.

I am not referring to the modern-day plethora of the hundreds of thousands of people of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry, particularly in eastern Canada who now claim to be metis, using that term as an adjective and being of mixed-ancestry, with potential or tenuous claims to some far away Indian ancestor.

This adjective or mixed-ancestry use of the term “metis” does not relate to the Métis Nation, which is a distinct Indigenous people, a polity and full-fledged rights bearing Indigenous people, with its own distinctive culture and rights which are inherent in that fact.
Today, I am here to address Bill C-391, a proposed Act respecting a national strategy for the repatriation of Aboriginal cultural property. This proposed Act it is expected will provide for the development and implementation of a national strategy to enable the return of Aboriginal cultural property to Indigenous peoples in Canada, something desperately needed now.

The sense of urgency the Métis Nation, the Inuit, and the First Nations peoples are feeling is evidence that Indigenous peoples want to reclaim their culture and heritage. While Indigenous cultural revitalization also includes languages and land, cultural property held by others is a fundamental component to cultural renewal and reclamation.

From the birth of the Métis Nation, visitors to this land appreciated the beauty of our material culture and collected and kept it as works of art. This was the time when some semblance of fair trade and commerce was taking place, as Indigenous peoples and the settlers exchanged goods and services.

The colonization and oppression that followed changed this dynamic and put the power to own and to possess Indigenous material culture in the hands of the newcomers. This included limiting and eradicating food sources, restricting freedom, denying land ownership, and curtailing business, trade, and commerce.

The Métis are often touted as the middle men and women of the fur trade. We were once a vibrant and successful connection between the First Nations and the newcomers. However, this too diminished as the Métis Nation was dispossessed of land and forced to disperse, forcing most Métis families into abject poverty and hiding and denying their identity for cultural safety.

This was coupled with over a century of shaming Indigenous peoples through unfair treatment, one-sided historical records, relocation, outlawed spiritual practices, heavy handed assimilation tactics, and numerous other forms of discrimination.

Having to choose between feeding your children and keeping culturally significant property was no choice at all. Forced relocation meant taking only what you could carry. The kind of infrastructure that allowed those in more stable environments to enjoy cultural practices and make cultural property could not exist under these conditions.

Métis women were essential to the family’s economy. Métis women made their best and most beautiful cultural property to be bought and collected by others while at the same time it was impossible for Métis families to keep and enjoy what they made.

The kind of work available to Métis men included sporadic and difficult labour endeavors at very low wages and these men were considered more fortunate than others. Providing for a family through harvesting plants and animals was absolutely necessary. It was a laborious and time-consuming endeavour.

We ask ourselves: “What kind of cultural property there might be if these hardships had not been foisted on Indigenous peoples? What kind of effort did it take to covertly maintain our culture, and to continue to pass on the cultural arts for which we became so well known?”

We are grateful to those who could, and hold no malice to those who could not, in order to survive. Some people with origins elsewhere may be thinking to themselves, “I don’t know the songs and dances of my ancestors and I can’t make any of the material culture either. So, what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that the vast majority of Canadians have a country of origin from which to reclaim any part of their culture. It wasn’t outlawed or suppressed like it has been here in Canada for Indigenous peoples. It hasn’t suffered from decades of indifference and shaming which drove people to the cultural safety of letting their traditions go in order to survive.

When we look at the care and attention given to the cultural property of those who were free to make and collect it and to how long they have had this privilege, we can imagine what might have been if Indigenous peoples had the same freedom and opportunity.

The most precious and beautiful items would have been kept for cherished family heirlooms. They would not have been sold or taken. These items would not be mislabeled or unlabelled regarding who the artisan was or the Indigenous nation from which they originate. They would certainly not be in keeping houses other than our own.

As an example of proving the provenance of potential cultural items which may be subject to repatriation, in August I joined a number of OAS Ambassadors, Indigenous leaders and others on a tour of the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

In one of the displays of bonnets, a piece caught my eye, a beaded baby bonnet with distinctive Métis beadwork. Upon reading the caption it stated “Plains Cree (Prairie Cree) baby’s cap, about 1910, Saskatchewan, Canada”. This is a potential case of having Métis art labelled wrongly, as the suppression of Métis rights and existence was then being visited upon the Métis Nation.

Bill C-391 is a good first step for Canada to reconcile these injustices. It will serve to make way for Indigenous peoples to reclaim their cultural property and to guide all involved in processes that should ultimately make everyone feel this is the right course of action.
The repatriation of Aboriginal cultural property is going to speed up the process of cultural renewal for Indigenous peoples. It will reflect a time Canadians should not be proud of, and support a time in which Canadians can take great pride.

But there is also a need to ensure that repatriated cultural property has a home or homes to return to. In too many cases, the Métis Nation does not have adequate resources to establish museums and/or cultural centres. This is slowly changing. The Manitoba Metis Federation on behalf of the Métis Nation after a 20-year effort is in the final stages of being able to establish a National Métis Museum in Winnipeg, the former site of the Red River Métis Provisional Government.

Other initiatives are also underway.

In particular, the Métis Nation in 2020 will be celebrating its 150th anniversary of joining confederation, which was made possible through the negotiations under President Louis Riel and the passage of the Manitoba Act, 1870.
We look forward to all Parliamentarians and all Canadians in celebrating this historic event with us.

Marsi, Thank you, Merci.

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