Mike Perry…Mike Cadeau? Story of a newfound “Half-breed”
“Oh, and by the way … we’re Métis,” my long-lost sister shouted into the phone last New Year’s Eve, talking over the background chatter and clinking of glasses at her house party in Madrid.
That got my attention.
Early the next morning, I hopped onto Ancestry.ca with a curious spirit and fresh cup of coffee, ready to explore my sister’s family tree. And there it was, numbered and everything, with some 400 pages of documentation: Verified Métis Family Line 7023. My birth father’s last name is Cadeau.
My ancestral grandmother — Niganihijigak — was Anishinaabe/Menominee (“the people”) hailing from what is known today as northern Wisconsin. Her daughter married my great-great-great-grandfather, a fur trader from Quebec, in Red River, Manitoba.
The family emigrated via the historic Métis communities of Sault Ste. Marie and Drummond Island to settle in the historic Métis community at Penetanguishene in the early 1800s. I have even found a copy of my distant grandfather’s fur trading licence with the Northwest Company.
But what is Métis? According to the census, there are some 600,000 Métis people across Canada including more than 120,000 here in Ontario This past year, I have been learning a lot more.
I have learned that, contrary to the popular misconception, having an Indigenous relative does not make a person Métis. One must prove — with documentation — their connection to a root ancestor who was Métis and lived in historic Métis lands in the Métis way of life.
I have also learned that, unlike settlers, the Métis were unique not simply by their marriage to, and families with, Indigenous people, but in living highly mobile lives with their own language (Michif) and distinct culture as hunters, trappers, traders, interpreters and guides.
And I have learned that while Métis people are counted among the Indigenous peoples of these lands, including in the Canadian Constitution, their rights tie back to the Metis’ historic existence as a thriving people that existed before Canada became a country.
Speaking of government, the Métis people already had peaceful government with a constitution and trade long before the Crown came calling in Manitoba.
I must admit, it’s been overwhelming at times, though oddly familiar. I had a Quebec flag in my bedroom as a teenager in Fenelon Falls, I already speak French and I’ve gone to powwows and advocated for Indigenous justice for a long time. My daughter even has her bundle from her first birthday where we smudged. A friend of mine who is Haudenosaunee called it “blood memory.” I like that term. And my great-grandmother was born right here in Lindsay. Life’s connections.
I keep practising my French and reading about Métis history and culture. I want to play the fiddle, go on the hunt and play Métis games with my kids. I’m planning a family trip — once COVID permits — to retrace the steps of our ancestors through Georgian Bay back to Red River and the Menominee.
For now though, I’m just enjoying learning, celebrating the richness of life’s surprises and who knows — I may even get a tattoo!