A couple centuries back, a wildly trendy fashion took hold and inspired the European exploration of what would one day be named Canada. And roughly nine months after the first European set foot on Canada’s eastern shores, the first Métis person was born.
At least, that’s the combination of in-joke and history that Juanita Marois shares on a tour of Métis Crossing in northeast Alberta. Marois, a Métis, is development manager for the indigenous cultural interpretive centre on historical Métis land.
The Métis are a distinct cultural group within Canada’s indigenous people, tracing their roots to European explorers and fur traders (mostly men) who started families with indigenous people (mostly women) while working for trading companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company. By 1885, following the failed Red River Resistance against the Canadian government, “it was not good to be Métis,” said Marois. The government, in short, denied the Métis identity, leading to poverty and racism against the Métis. Those same struggles continued for more than a century. "
Marois always knew she had a Métis background, but learning about it was, to say the least, complicated. “Growing up... my parents were having a conversation with my grandmother saying, ‘You guys don't look Indian, you don't have to deal with it. Walk away. Don't acknowledge it.’ So I never grew up knowing my Metis heritage at all. I always knew I was, but I never pursued it.”
It wasn’t until Marois was doing fieldwork, interviewing indigenous people about hunting, trapping, foraging and other resources, that she started researching her heritage. “I explored my culture for a year and realized this is absolutely (not something) I have to hide,” she said. “Seventeen years later, I'm still working towards promoting it and learning about it.”
Métis Crossing stands on river lots given to Métis people in the late 19th century, with a mix of historical buildings and replica fur trapper tents, a museum and lots of hands-on exploring. Many Métis were part of the fur trade as trappers and voyageurs, travelling by canoe to transport furs and one way to get a piece of that is the half-day Victoria Trail Voyageur Experience. It’s a combined tour of Métis Crossing and the fur trade fort site Victoria Settlement, with a canoe trip between them.
You’ll start with your interpreters at Metis Crossing, exploring the 1885 home of a community member who lived to be 101, and sit down at a weaving loom to add a few rows to a Métis sash. The sash was traditionally used as a tool belt, a weight belt (hernias caused the deaths of more voyageurs than drowning) and later became symbolic of the Métis.
Then, sample tea featuring foraged wild mint, rosehips and plantain. Learn to set a beaver trap, nibble on some dried bison and try your hand at sawing a log for a sense of how much work went into building Red River frame homes. And, because for the Metis, “every good party has a Red River jig,” you’ll learn the steps inspired by French, Scottish and indigenous dance moves. After your Metis Crossing fun, you’ll head down the North Saskatchewan River to paddle, with eyes peeled for beavers, to Victoria Settlement to step into history once more.
“We're trying to demonstrate who Metis people are, what our story is, what our history is, where we come from,” says Marois. “That's why we're here, is to share that story and to talk about who we are as a nation, particularly as Alberta is changing.”