Metis is one of several terms used to describe people of mixed native and European origin. The word métis is an old French word meaning "mixed." Other terms that have been used include mixed blood, bois brűlé, michif, and country-born. Today the term Metis refers to a distinct group of people who have a common history and heritage.

Métis in New France

The first Métis were the children of European fishermen and native women along the Atlantic coast of Canada. In Acadia, many French men took native wives. Some villages became largely Métis. During the 17th century, both the French and the native people encouraged mixed marriages. For the native people, these marriages strengthened their bonds with their allies and trading partners. The French authorities came to oppose these unions. The church in particular was concerned that the young men preferred the freedom of life in Indian country. Métis children either stayed with their native mothers or were raised in French society. The Métis population increased farther inland. Fur traders and soldiers settled around the tiny forts and fur-trade posts. These communities formed the basis of many future towns and cities, such as Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Detroit, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois.

Western Metis

A different group of Metis emerged in western Canada. They were the sons and daughters of the fur traders and their Native wives. Most were French and Catholic, though many had English-speaking Protestant fathers. The HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY (HBC) frowned on marriages with native women, but the NORTH WEST COMPANY encouraged these unions. The Metis soon formed their own culture, combining both European and native elements.

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The Metis acted as intermediaries in the trade between the native people and Europeans. When New France fell to the British in 1760, Metis allied with the North West Company of Montreal. The Metis worked as interpreters, suppliers of food, and trappers. They also provided transportation, moving furs and supplies with boats and with their Red River carts.


Many Métis spent part of the year in the Red River Colony of present-day southern Manitoba. They farmed small lots along the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Protests and Organization

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Metis rediscovered the voice of protest. They were led by activists such as Joseph Dion, Malcolm Norris, and James Brady. In Alberta, Metis who did not have clear title to their land began to fear that the government would give it to other settlers. In 1932 they formed the first Métis organization in Canada, the Métis Association of Alberta, to promote their cause.

The efforts of the association led to the creation of a commission to look into Métis conditions in Alberta. This led in turn to the Métis Betterment Act (1938), which established a series of farm colonies across northern Alberta. These so-called Métis Settlements were managed by Metis themselves. Residents made their living by farming, fishing, ranching, and logging. The settlements became the focus of Métis culture in the Alberta. There are now eight settlements, and the Alberta government recently passed title of the land to the residents.

Contemporary Life

The Metis have long been caught in the middle between the federal and provincial governments. Ottawa argues that Metis problems should be solved by the provinces. Most provinces, on the other hand, argue that the Metis, like the Indians, are a federal responsibility.

Since the 1960s, Métis have become more active in pursuing their land claims and other grievances. Associations of Métis were formed in almost every province. In 1970 they joined with non-status Indians to form the Native Council of Canada (now the CONGRESS OF ABORIGINAL PEOPLES, a national organization.

The Métis scored a major breakthrough in 1982 when the Constitution Act recognized that they have special rights that must be protected. The extent of these rights is still in dispute.

In 1983 the Métis split from the Native Council of Canada and formed their own organization, the Metis National Council. The new council attended the meeting of first ministers that year to discuss aboriginal rights. After years of neglect, the Métis are now recognized as a distinct people.

Métis Arts and Culture

Métis arts and culture reflect the mixed origins of the people. Both Indian and European elements are evident.

The Métis were known for their love of music and dancing. They never needed much of an excuse to bring out their fiddles and get a dance going. The fiddles were often handmade from maple and birch wood. Every fiddler knew the Red River jugs and reels, borrowed from the Scots and the French. The music lasted long into the night, until the dancers' moccasins were worn out.

Assomption Sash - Canadian Museum of Civilization

The origins of the sash reflect the diversity of the Metis experience. The finger-weaving technique used to make the sash were firmly established in Eastern Woodland Indian traditions. The technique created tumplines, garters and other useful household articles and items of clothing. Plant fibres were used prior to the introduction of wool. Wool and the sash, as an article of clothing, were introduced to the Eastern Woodland people by Europeans. The Six Nations Confederacy, Potowatami and other Indian nations of the area blended the two traditions into the finger woven sash.

The French settlers of Quebec created the Assomption variation of the woven sash. Sashes, such as the one illustrated, were a popular trade item manufactured in a cottage industry in the village of L'Assomption, Quebec. The Quebecois and the Metis of Western Canada were their biggest customers. Sashes were also made by local Metis artisans. Sashes of Indian or Metis manufacture tended to be of a softer and looser weave, frequently incorporating beads in the design.

The sash was used by the Metis as a practical item of clothing. It was decorative, warm and could be used to replace a rope or tumpline if none were available. The sash has been the most persistent element of traditional Metis dress, worn long after the capote and Red River coat were replaced by European styles. The Metis share the sash with two other groups who also claim it as a symbol of nationhood and cultural distinction. It was worn by Eastern Woodland Indians as a sign of office in the 19th century. It was worn by French Canadians during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837. It is still considered to be an important part of traditional dress for both these groups.

The sash has acquired new significance in the twentieth century, now symbolizing pride and identification for Metis people. Manitoba and Saskatchewan have both created "The Order of the Sash" which is bestowed upon members of the Metis community who have made cultural, political or social contributions to their people.

The Métis Flag

The flag was first used by Metis resistance fighters prior to the Battle of Seven Oaks in 1816. It is the oldest Canadian patriotic flag indigenous to Canada. The Union Jack and the Royal Standard of New France bearing the fleur-de-lis are older, but these flags were first flown in Europe. As a symbol of nationhood, the Metis flag predates Canada’s Maple Leaf flag by about 150 years! The flag bears a horizontal figure eight, or infinity symbol. The infinity symbol represents the coming together of two distinct and vibrant cultures, those of European and indigenous North America, to produce a distinctly new culture, the Metis. The flag symbolizes the creation of a new society with roots in both Aboriginal and European cultures and traditions. The sky blue background of the flag emphasizes the infinity symbol and suggests that the Metis people will exist forever.

Suggested Reading

R.C. Macleod, Swords and Ploughshares: War and Agriculture in Western Canada (1993)
Thomas Flanagan and Claude Rocan, Rebellion in the North-West: Louis Riel and the Métis People (1984)
Julia D. Harrison, Métis: People Between Two Worlds (1985)
Grant MacEwan, Métis Makers of History (1981)
Donald Purich, The Métis (1988)
David C. Rempel, Annette's People: The Métis (1987)
June Schreiber, The Métis (1987).

© Lucie LeBlanc Consentino
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