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Rebecca Lafontaine: Growing up and finding my voice within the Métis community

CATEGORIES: Insights
DATE: June 14, 2021

Three years ago, I began tracing my genealogy to apply for Métis citizenship through the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO). I received my letter of acceptance in January 2020.

I spent my childhood years in Elliot Lake and Sault Ste. Marie, two communities in northeastern Ontario. Growing up, my grandmother, whom we lovingly called Nanny, would remind us of our Indigenous heritage.

One of the teachings passed through generations of our family was about respecting the land and what it allows us to create. I keep this in mind to this day as I walk in my new home on Algonquin Territory, in the city known as Ottawa.

Aside from Nanny’s stories, our Indigenous heritage was not something our family openly discussed. In Sault Ste Marie, Nanny and her siblings were fortunate not to be sent to the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, which operated between 1873 and 1970. Tragically, many Indigenous children were not so lucky.

Starting the process of getting my Métis citizenship meant new conversations with Nanny about our family and culture. With the help of my great uncle who had gathered bits and pieces of research, I traced the bloodline from my great-grandmother. Our bloodline journeyed through time to the 1800s when a Cree woman, referred to in records as Jeanny, married John Sutherland, a Hudson’s Bay Company Officer, in Manitoba. The couple had a daughter named Marguerite Sutherland, and Marguerite started the first line of Métis descendants. She was my five-times great grandmother, and I would have loved the chance to ask her what being Métis meant for her in such an uncertain time—was she proud of her heritage?

Moving from Sault Ste Marie to Ottawa, I attended Algonquin College and worked three jobs to make ends meet while making the Dean’s Honours List. Persistence and hard work have always driven me. Navigating my experience as a Métis woman has been odd. To a stranger, I pass as a white woman, but I am Métis. I’m still learning how to braid this newfound heritage into my identity.

As a result of my outward appearance and family’s history, I have not experienced the discrimination or intergenerational trauma faced by so many Indigenous peoples. And yet, I am saddened by their pain and want to be there for my community. This includes in what is just the most recent turmoil: the discovery of the remains of 215 children in Kamloops, BC. Hearing this brought about a wave of anguish and anger. We know there are many other children who were forcibly taken from and never reunited with their families. Indigenous communities have been saying this for years.

What can we do? I would like to see more non-Indigenous people learn about First Nations, Inuit, and Métis culture, knowledge, and history, and strive to do more. Every person has a role to play in advancing reconciliation with Indigenous nations across this land. Take baby steps to learn about Canada’s history, present and future, alongside Indigenous peoples. A good place to start, and where I started not long ago, is reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Some other resources I have used to learn more about my Métis heritage:

With humbleness, reflect on the unconscious biases we may hold and how we can be supporters and allies. I’ll be right there with you, doing the same.

 

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