Yesterday, I talked about my experience filling out the 2011 Census last May. When faced with the task of listing my children’s ethnic origins, I wrote simply Canadian. This was in contrast to my efforts to actually list the countries that my own ancestors came from, and my husband’s classification as Metis. Today, I’m going to be talking about Jon’s ancestry – including the Metis bit – in a lot more detail.
While my ancestors arrived in North America in the very late 1800s and early 1900s, my husband’s family has much deeper roots on this continent. His paternal grandmother’s family first arrived in Canada aboard the Hector in 1773. The passengers on that ship landed in Pictou, Nova Scotia, which has been called the “birthplace of New Scotland” because they brought a culture that influenced the entire province. We visited the town in 2004 and saw a replica of the ship, and all that I can say is that things must have been pretty bad in Scotland for 200 people to cram aboard a vessel that size and flee.
Me, standing in front of a replica of the Hector in Pictou, Nova Scotia
The immigrants aboard the Hector were not the first of Jon’s family to arrive in North America, though – not by a long shot. Jon’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Magnus Twatt left the Orkney Islands and moved to York Factory, in what was called Rupert’s Land, around the same time as his other ancestors set sail aboard the Hector. Magnus worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, in a place with few other Europeans, and even fewer European women. He married a Cree woman named Margaret, and they had three children. This marriage formed the foundation of my husband’s Metis family.
The descendents of Magnus Twatt married other Metis, so Jon undoubtedly has other First Nations ancestors. In fact, one of Magnus Twatt’s descendents actually founded the Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan. That wasn’t Jon’s branch of the family, though. Jon’s branch comes through Magnus’s daughter Elizabeth Twatt, who married Alexander Bremner. Their son Charles is Jon’s great-great-great-grandfather. Things get interesting when we start to look at Charles Bremner’s story.
The Metis people are a distinct people in Canada, who claim mixed First Nations heritage. Typically, their fathers were European, and their mothers were First Nations, like Magnus and Margaret. The children were in an interesting position, caught between two worlds. They were very successful in the fur trade, since they were familiar with the land and its inhabitants, but they weren’t always given the same rights as full-blooded Europeans. Their status wasn’t clear, and the government tried to take away their land, which was when Louis Riel emerged as a Metis leader, and conflict erupted.
Charles Bremner wasn’t a huge fan of Louis Riel, and in an effort to stay away from the strife around the Riel uprising he moved his family to Battleford, Saskatchewan. He didn’t escape unharmed, however. In 1885 the militia police took Charles and other Metis prisoner, and stole their furs and other possessions, even though they were non-participants in the conflict. Charles sued the government, and eventually received compensation in the form of $5000, but it came some years later, and the experience left him permanently scarred.
Charles Bremner’s grandson, Roderick Caplette, is Jon’s great-grandfather. He married a woman of Swiss ancestry, and they had five children who all grew up in the Battleford area. My husband’s family’s Metis ancestry is clear, and his cousins and siblings have applied for and received Metis status through multiple Metis groups. We were under the impression for some time that his was the last generation that would qualify for status. However, Jon’s cousin has a daughter, and his uncle decided to see if she could receive status as well, and it looks as if she can. If his cousin’s daughter can be considered Metis, then so can our children. Our very, very blond children.
The Metis members of my family, enjoying sno kones
We’re seriously considering pursuing Metis status for our children. The biggest – and most compelling – reason to do this would be to help connect them to their ancestry. But in the interests of full disclosure one other reason to consider it is that Metis status can bring certain perks. For instance, there is the possibility that Hannah and Jacob could have part of their post-secondary schooling paid for. As people with Metis ancestry, I would like them to have the choice of assuming membership within that community, which I understand comes with both rights and responsibilities.
Knowing that I may be pursuing some kind of Metis recognition for my children, when I filled out Hannah’s school forms this year I ticked the Metis box, thereby informing them of my daughter’s aboriginal ancestry. This isn’t unique, by the way – Wikipedia says that up to 50% of Western Canadians have some aboriginal ancestry, which means they could be considered Metis if they can make a reasonable case on their behalf. However, since so few people self-identify as Metis, not many people tick the box. Since I did, I got a call from school asking if I wanted Hannah to participate in activities for children with First Nations heritage.
I haven’t fully investigated the activities at this point, so I don’t have a complete picture, but as I understand it children are pulled out of class for an hour or so, once every couple of weeks. They learn about their heritage and participate in cultural activities. I decided to ask Hannah what she thought, and she wants to go. Apparently another girl in her class attends, and so Hannah thinks it would be fun. I’ve seen the other girl, though, and she has obvious First Nations ancestry, unlike my kidlet.
I’m feeling torn. On the one hand, I would like my daughter to learn about her heritage. I want her to understand her culture – especially if there’s a possibility she could apply for and receive some benefits by claiming that heritage. On the other hand, I feel vaguely ridiculous signing my extremely blond child up for special activities designed to connect First Nations children with their roots, when her First Nations ancestry lies in her dim and distant past. I’m honestly not sure what to do. I’m tempted to hold my decision until Hannah actually gets status (if that does in fact happen), because I would feel even sillier if she’s been participating in classes when she doesn’t qualify as Metis.
It’s an interesting conundrum – a Canadian conundrum. Does one branch of your family trump another? How much Metis, Scottish, French, Chinese or German ancestry does one need to lay claim to that heritage? Does a blond-haired, blue-eyed white kid belong in a class dedicated to strengthening her ties to First Nations culture? I’m not sure there are any actual answers to any of those questions. What do you think?
Edited to add: The decision about what benefits of Metis citizenship – including educational grants – my children may take advantage of is not mine to make. By the time they make those decisions, they will be adults. As their mother, all that I can do is connect them to their community, and help ensure they are educated enough on the issues to make their own decisions. Who knows what the situation will be in 12 years’ time, when Hannah is ready to embark on her post-secondary schooling? I don’t. But being aware of the potential benefits that could come to my children, as well as the sense of identity and responsibilities that come with those benefits, I would like to help them make the connection now while they are still young.