Manitoba History: Book Review: Myrna Kostash, The Seven Oaks Reader and Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk, From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of Métis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to Twenty-First Centuries.
by Alvin Finkel
Even keen students of Canadian history often know little about the history of the Métis beyond their two organized resistances to settler takeovers of the Canadian Prairies and the leadership role in both of Louis Riel. So the recent publication of two books on Métis history which focus on other aspects of Métis history is encouraging.
Myrna Kostash’s The Seven Oaks Reader is an impressive effort to pull together all the information and perspectives imaginable on the controversial event that played a crucial role in the initial defining of Métis identity on the Prairies, while also providing a justification for Anglo-Canadian settlers for wresting control over the region from Métis and First Nations people alike. Kostash is a celebrated non-fiction writer, and she makes a valiant effort to let all the important historical actors and historians have a voice in her account of the early days of Red River settlement and of what preceded that settlement. And so, for example, early on, she quotes 19th century fur trader and historian Alexander Ross’s claim that no settlement occurred at Red River before the arrival of the Selkirk settlers. But she immediately follows that claim with evidence from the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch that First Nations became agricultural pioneers in the valley four centuries before European settlers arrived. Similarly, she includes word that the Métis had established a settlement of several thousand at Red River almost forty years before the tiny Hudson’s Bay Company settlement appeared and seemed to threaten the viability of that dispersed community linked by a common culture.
The Seven Oaks confrontation is often treated as essentially a confrontation between two fur-trading companies, in which the Métis became a pawn of the North West Company in its effort to maintain dominance in the Western fur trade over the Hudson’s Bay Company. While Kostash does not deny that deadly competition, she places the Métis at the centre of their own story, linking the evidence of their earlier autonomy in the area with their outrage at the Selkirk settlement’s ignorance about their customs, and dismissal of their concerns about maintaining their lifestyles and economic activities.
Kostash pays due tribute to the hardships in the Highlands of Scotland that had led the Red River settlers of 1812 to try to establish a new life in inhospitable lands about which they knew very little. She makes use not only of historical accounts but also of Margaret Laurence’s imaginative re-creation of her own ancestors to explain sympathetically why these intruders found themselves in a situation where conflict with earlier Indigenous inhabitants was almost inevitable. These were hardscrabble, desperate farmers, not adventurers or conscious plunderers.
While Kostash confirms the evidence that the Nor’westers were anxious to disperse the Hudson’s Bay Company-sponsored settlers, she also provides ample evidence that, contrary to a long-held mythology regarding Manitoba’s first white settlers, they were at least as much pawns of a company’s efforts to establish primacy in the region as were the Métis. She presents varying historical perspectives on Lord Selkirk, whose roles as philanthropist to ejected Scottish crofters, and as scheming fur-trade company mogul may be seen as either contradictory or complementary. Similarly, she provides contrasting perspectives on Robert Semple, the governor of the tiny colony at the time of the bloody battle in 1816 that ended the first phase of conscious settler imperialism on the Canadian Prairies.
Inevitably Kostash gives a great deal of attention to the events of the day which later imperialists called “the Seven Oaks massacre,” but which a British-appointed commission and most historians today view as an inadvertent tragic confrontation of mutually mistrustful claimants to the same land. She also looks at various takes on the trials of alleged instigators of the Seven Oaks battle. Overall, Kostash does an excellent job of placing conflicting perspectives in the context of efforts by those who dispossessed the Métis to justify their displacement of Indigenous peoples on the one hand, and the efforts of those who were marginalized to have their side of a violent engagement heard on the other. Kostash’s effort to be even-handed and let all sides have their say is supplemented by some comments of her own, which, on the whole, express sympathy with the Métis plight while trying to be open to the views of Lord Selkirk and his settlers. But some will find that, in her effort to let readers decide, that she is coy about her own views and how they structure the text. Nonetheless, the combination of the perspectives of contemporaries and historians on particular topics, with the author’s explanations and sometimes conclusions added, creates a highly readable and teachable text. This book can be used not only to teach the origins of Manitoba, but also to help students understand something about historical methods and historiographical arguments.
That is less the case with From New Peoples to New Nations. While the focus of the book is much broader than The Seven Oaks Reader, it is striking the extent to which the authors embrace the imperialist view of the Seven Oaks events, though they do not examine Seven Oaks closely at all. Ens and Sawchuk stick to the older view of the Selkirk settlement-Métis conflict in terms of North West Company mischief, and they reject any notion of Métis nationalism arising before, during, or shortly after Seven Oaks. For them, Métis nationalism is really a 20th century concept that the Métis and their historical supporters have projected backwards to the 19th century. But they fail to deal with any of the evidence that Kostash’s witnesses provide, and so their argument has a take-it-or-leave-it quality. No doubt, European statist notions of nationalism sit uneasily with the realities of Métis life in the 19th century. But that hardly justifies a dismissal of their sense of themselves as a distinct community, which Kostash emphasizes. Gerhard Ens has provided his evidence elsewhere that the Métis were hunters with no particular attachment to any particular place and certainly without interest in agriculture. His conclusions have increasingly few sympathizers, and Supreme Court rulings in recent years regarding the Métis demonstrate the skepticism towards his thesis.
The materials on the post-resistances period are mainly a catalogue of legislative enactments without much attention to whether the Métis were consulted; how, if at all, these laws were implemented; and what was changing in the lives of the Métis. Barely a single Métis person or group appears in this highly legalistic, top-down account of the mixed-race peoples of the Prairies. Societal discrimination as a factor in their lives is barely evident, and their aspirations and daily lives are ignored. There are, however, hints of the marginalization of the Métis in the description of the reserve known as St Paul des Métis. The authors criticize the administrators of the reserve for defining the Métis as poor and landless, a characterization that made them appear to outsiders in pathological terms rather than as a people. This critique seems strange in light of the fact that the Métis, deprived of a land base, were indeed desperately poor and plagued with the illnesses and early deaths of those without proper shelter or food. The authors place the responsibility for Indigenous adaptation to the violence of settler-colonialism on the victims, not the perpetrators.
When From New Peoples gets beyond the 19th century, it becomes a more interesting book and provides more detail for its various claims about when and where Métis nationalism arose and why, in the authors’ views, the definition of who constituted the Métis became a contested topic. The materials on the 20th century focus on Métis organizations, each of which is examined with regards to its notions of whom should be included under the Métis rubric, how it chose to regard other Indigenous peoples, and its interactions with governments. Some of these materials are quite detailed and informative. But there is a strong undercurrent of denial of the responsibility of the Canadian state and provincial governments for the limited successes of Métis organizations in improving the lot of their people. As late as the early 1960s, argue these authors, the Métis were still casting themselves in a pathological light, and that tactic, they suggest, rather than the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, including the Métis, is what held them back. That approach struck me as similar to the literature on the Beothuk that chides that Indigenous group for ending up extinct, suggesting that had they developed decent relations with Europeans around them rather than attempting to escape them at all costs, they might have survived as did other First Nations. There is an assumption in all this that settlers and settler regimes were kind-hearted and open-minded but needed to be approached with a professional communications strategy that would endear them to the group of people whom they had earlier stripped of a land base. A broad literature on colonialism including British and Canadian colonialism makes Ens and Sawchuk appear at best rather naďve.
Beyond the institutional politics of the Métis, the 20th century materials, like the earlier materials, focus too exclusively on politics and courts. There is little here about the cultural life of Métis communities, so that the ways in which those communities and particular Métis organizations relate to one another is mostly unclear. While some might argue that such omissions are justified because the book focuses on political battles between particular organizations and governments and their successes or failures, those lacunae in the discussion often raise more questions than this sprawling text answers. For example, we get a close account of the battles between the Métis and the First Nations of the Northwest Territories and of the declaration of the Métis of the region in 1980 that they are a separate nation who did not want to be subsumed under the name “Dene” and be viewed as just another Indigenous group in their region. Rather, they wanted to be viewed as a distinctive people. Nowhere, however, do the authors indicate what aspects of their culture made the Métis of the Territories view themselves as distinctive, and we are left with little understanding of whether this declaration of independence from the “Dene” has cultural, political, or economic roots, or all three.
Ens and Sawchuk argue clinically that Métis arguments about their identity shift over time, and that this Indigenous people or set of peoples have invented traditions at various times to suit immediate goals. To that extent the Métis are, like most peoples, a product of ever-changing interpretations of their history rather than a fixed entity. No doubt there is some truth in this. But overall, this ambitious book fails to satisfy, because it is at such pains to downplay the effects of European imperialism on Indigenous people, or to analyze anything much about Métis life beyond allegedly shifting legal claims by an array of Métis organizations. There is valuable information presented in the latter half of the book, but, in the end, the entire book suffers from a condescending attitude to the subjects of its inquiry. Fascinated by Métis organizations and their various legal and political claims, these authors are not interested in rank-and-file Métis people at all. That is very different from the Kostash book, which, while featuring the pro-imperialist arguments that Ens and Sawchuk are most comfortable with, also gives voice to the Métis and to anti-colonialist perspectives more broadly.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 8 April 2021