Interpreting Identity, Part II

View Part I


Identity as a problematic aspect of the history of Red River Settlement, 1810-1870


An opening observation on the history of the avowal and ascription of identity in Red River historiography is that, to date, appreciation of historical context alone has not resulted in a clear understanding of identity and past populations. At Red River Settlement, the context was pluralistic and identities were fluid. In 1973, John E. Foster noted that this circumstance presented a “problem of terminology for the historian of Red River.”[1] The problem he referred to — that of naming – is multifaceted due to a historically variable mix of such factors as population diversity, personal mobility, and communication styles that are further complicated by ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ differences in perspective.[2]

For example, historians (outsiders) who investigate the people of Red River (insiders) are faced with describing the communalization of a past people who, for the sixty-year span of their settlement’s existence, were unquestionably heterogeneous. By 1870 there were approximately 12,000 individuals settled at Red River.[3] Their different histories of origin combined ancestral migrants from — at minimum — the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Ancestral migrants from each continent were further differentiated by variable sets of sub-distinctions in language, history, and tradition common to different regions and to various groups within those regions. The number of possible cultural combinations that were represented at Red River is immense.[4]

In addition, as multilingual members of blended families, individuals from Red River were demonstrably adept at moving through a number of social and cultural mileux over the course of their lives. The historical record confirms that, consistent with anthropological findings in other pluralistic settings, individual identities (meaning what a person’s distinguishing affiliations might be), fluctuated accordingly.[5] Nevertheless, people from Red River knew who they were, where they were, and how their connections to family and neighbours fostered a “sense of belonging together.”[6]


Defining Community and Communalization

James Brow defines community as a “sense of belonging together,” and notes that this sense “typically combines both affective and cognitive components, both a feeling of solidarity and an understanding of shared identity.” Brow defines communalization as “any pattern of action that promotes a sense of belonging together… a continuous process.”

James W. Carey, in establishing a connection between community and communication, suggests that community can also be understood as “an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action.”


In addition to having a shared sense of belonging, the ‘collective identity’ of the people of Red River Settlement — when it existed — arose out of association. However, because they were situated at a geographical remove from any other settled collectivity, the nature of their group was one that they seldom had any reason to explain, justify, or champion in concert. For the most part, there was no need to devise, agree on, or sustain one particular group name.[7]

Added to this, the multilingual settlers communicated their individual and collective intent with respect to communal structuring orally — often in Cree and Anishinaabemowin, two related languages common to the settlement.[8] As oral communication predominated, there are few written statutes that may be read as self-descriptions of the settlers’ community. As well, the few communally generated documents that do exist are not framed in one particular language, or necessarily the language in which the terms were initially agreed upon. In the existing documents, no uniform term figures consistently as an avowed group name.[9] At the same time, a variety of Hudson’s Bay Company administrators, missionaries, and visitors ascribed a variety of group names to the settlers; names preserved in written material now archived as one of the largest non-governmental collections in existence.[10] Consequently, historians accessing this material and intent on devising an ordered description of the people of Red River have had recourse to in excess of thirty-eight terms devised at various times for various reasons to designate their subject group — or a subset thereof — and thereby differentiate it from, or argue its similarity to, any other.[11] To compound matters, assigning names from the available “scraps of evidence” has proceeded without agreement among historians on what the most appropriate criteria might be.[12] No widespread consensus has been established as to precisely which identity as an attribute corresponds to what group of Red River people.


 Sampling of names for settlers at Red River

There was a point in 1870 when residents of Red River nearly became identifiable as Manitobans, which, in combination with the English suffix, translates roughly from both Cree and Anishnaabemowin as ‘people who live in a place where the Great Spirit speaks.’[13] But history took a different course. The collectivity of people — having simultaneously named their territory, negotiated its entrance into Confederation and formally codified themselves as “old settlers” — dispersed.[14] Red River ceased to exist, in name as well as a context that physically defined the original settlers’ collective association. Manitoba became decidedly Canadian.

One of the first acts of Canadian officials who arrived in Red River to oversee the transition from provisional to provincial government was to formally identify (meaning individuate and classify) the original settlers according to racialized criteria. Categories included: ‘White’, ‘French Half-breed’, ‘English Half-breed’ (or Métis Anglais and Métis Français in documents filled out in French), and ‘Indian.’ State-mediated action thus introduced and codified the idea of presumed difference among the population. Manitobans were officially partitioned along identity lines that mirrored the territorial contests of the Canadas.[15]

The state-ascribed ‘identity divides’ of 1870 figure at the centre of a number of historiographical explanations for the dispersal of the original settlers. While differences in interpretation have generated vigorous debate, the historians involved agree that conflict existed between the original settlers and the new arrivals, much of it centred on competition for land title and socio-political positioning.[16]

The state-ascribed ‘identity divides’ were also central to ongoing litigation between the Canadian government and the original settlers — a contest: pursued by descendant families; dismissed Justice MacInnes of the Manitoba Queen’s Bench in 2007[17]; and currently under appeal — over the location and ownership of 1.4 million acres of land initially promised to “children of the half-breed heads of families” by the Manitoba Act of 1870.[18]

That dispute over rights and claims has generated another debate, an ‘identity contest.’ The term ‘Métis,’ ascribed by the state in 1870, was formally carried forward by Canada in 1982 to confer special legal status on people so named. The name is a key determinate of identity (affiliation with a distinct group) and therefore claimant legitimacy. The question at issue is where ultimate authority resides for determining whether an individual possesses an authentic ‘Métis identity.’

The contest in turn has directly affected the land claims of descendant families of original settler groups in other Canadian regions, and is of interest to supra-national organizations concerned with the question of human rights world-wide.[19] Thus, fixing the identity of Red River settlers and their descendants has been, and remains, a matter of political-economic import.

Yet, direct reference to the origins of the land claims contest and its relation to the creation of distinct Red River identities is for the most part avoided by historians who — if for no other reason than a desire for clarity — seek to order the identity of past people associated with Red River.[20] With the exception of an indirect and unheralded exchange of views described later in this article, the relatively recent proliferation within the historiography, of idiosyncratic and contending systems of typology, ascribing increasingly differentiated identities to the original settlers of Red River, has not elicited critical assessment.[21]

Ken Coates has noted that Canadian historians tend to broaden chronology, extend themes, and remain “unfailingly cordial” as they avoid replicating previous studies.[22] I personally admire polite behaviour in academics, and actively participate in the quest to enlarge Canadian historiography, but I share with scholars in other disciplines the misgiving that failure to critically assess the use of identity terminology risks allowing future work to become vacuous.

Further, as long as historians of Red River ignore contests over identity within and without the historiography, the circumstance noted by Foster is likely to continue. Devised in isolation and abstracted from the context of identity-generating contest, each new historiographical ‘solution’ to the ‘problem of terminology,’ rather than effecting resolution, quietly adds to the already profuse and potentially confusing list of available and contending Red River identities. In summation, historians of Red River are faced with an identity problem rooted in the past that compromises communication in the present.[23]


View Part III


[1] John Elgin Foster, “The Country-Born in the Red River Settlement, 1820-1850,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Alberta, 1973), 3.

[2] For discussion of the relation of naming to identity see Michael Payne, “Fur Trade Historiography: Past Conditions, Present Circumstances and a Hint of Future Prospects,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 6, on identifying individuals; Hastings Donnan and Thomas M. Wilson, Borders: Frontiers of Identity, Nation and State (New York: Berg, 1999), 22-24, on the socially constructed, double nature of  named identities; Himani Bannerji, The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2000), 41, and Mary Jane Collier, “Researching Cultural Identity: Reconciling Interpretive and Postcolonial Perspectives,” in Communication and Identity Across Cultures, edited by Dolores V. Tanno, and Alberto González (London, UK: Sage Publications, 1998), 132-133 124, 128, 130-131, on the ‘politics of language’ in naming  identities; and Margaret D. LeCompte, “A Framework for Hearing Silence: What Does Telling Stories Mean When We Are Supposed to Be Doing Science?” in Naming Silenced Lives: Personal Narratives and Processes of Educational Change, ed. Daniel McLaughlin, and William G. Tierney (New York: Routledge, 1993), 10-11, on the relation of those doing the naming to constructed identities.

[3] Gerhard J. Ens, Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing Worlds of the Red River Metis in the Nineteenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 140, puts the number of people in Red River in 1870 at 12,228, of which 11,298 “were born in the Northwest and Manitoba,” noting that “over 62 percent of the population was under twenty-one years of age.”

[4] Norma J. Hall, “A ‘Perfect Freedom’: Red River as a Settler Society, 1810-1870” (M.A. Thesis, University of Manitoba, 2003), 53 n. 2; Jacqueline Peterson, “Prelude to Red River: A Social Portrait of the Great Lakes Métis,” Ethnohistory 25, no. 1 (winter, 1978): 51; and J.M. Bumsted, Trials and Tribulations: The Red River Settlement and the Emergence of Manitoba 1811-1870 (Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 2003), 12, indicate that non-North American origins listed by contemporary observers included England, Ireland, Scotland and Islands, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, the Gold Coast of Africa, the Sandwich Islands, and Bengal.

[5] Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities,” 12 n. 47, 13-14, 19-23; see also Peterson, “Prelude to Red River,” 56; and Gerhard J. Ens, “Metis Ethnicity, Personal Identity and the Development of Capitalism in the Western Interior: The Case of Johnny Grant,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 161, 163-164, 174. John W. Bennet, Northern Plainsmen: Adaptive Strategy and Agrarian Life (New York: Aldine, 1969); and Fredrik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1969), supply examples of relatively early anthropological findings on mutable identities. John C. Kennedy, “Labrador Métis Ethnogenesis,” Ethnos 62, nos. 3-4 (1997): 5-23, confirms mutable identities among the Labrador Métis. Donnan and Wilson, Borders, and numerous other authors of available ‘borderland studies’ as well as historians such as Gerald Friesen, and Royden Loewen, “Romantics, Pluralists, Postmodernists: Writing Ethnic History in Prairie Canada,” in River Road: Essays on Manitoba and Prairie History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1996), 192-193, indicate that the “ephemerality of identity” is now accepted as commonplace.

[6] James Brow, “Notes on Community, Hegemony, and the Uses of the Past,” Anthropological Quarterly, 63, no. 1 (January, 1990): 1; James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1989), 18-19. W. L. Morton, ed., “Appendix I (2) The Third ‘List of Rights’,” Manitoba: The Birth of A Province (Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1963), 247 no. 17, supplies a statement attesting to both the feeling of solidarity and its strength among Red River settlers in 1869, as does John Tait, quoted in Robert J. Coutts, The Road to the Rapids: Nineteenth-Century Church and Society at St. Andrew’s Parish, Red River (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000), 109.

[7] Brow, “Notes on Community,” following Max Weber, notes that “associative relationships” are those “in which ‘the orientation of social action … rests on a rationally motivated adjustment of interests or a similarly motivated agreement.” There is a “constant interweaving of economic utility and social affinity”; on this point see also Morton, “Third List of Rights”; Bennet, Northern Plainsmen, x, 57, 157; and Jimy M. Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries and Identity in Plural Societies,’ Annual Revue of Sociology 28 (2002): 327-328, who describe findings on identities in pluralistic societies consistent with the pattern of social interaction and cultural diversity described here for Red River. Anthony Cohen, as cited in Donnan and Wilson, Borders, 24, following Fredrik Barth, argues that without another collective to place in opposition, a distinct identity is not articulated.

[8] Hall, “A ‘Perfect Freedom’,” 38-39, 55-56; Marcel Giraud, Le Métis Canadien: son rôle dans l’histoire des provinces de l’Ouest (Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, 1945; reprint, in English as The Métis in the Canadian West, trans. George Woodcock, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1986), 479 (page citation is to the translated edition); G.W. Neville, Linguistic and Cultural Affiliations of Canadian Indian Bands (Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1970), 3, 19-21: both languages are derived from ancient Algonkian/Algic.

[9] Olive Patricia Dickason, “From ‘One Nation’ in the Northeast to ‘New Nation’ in the Northwest: A look at the emergence of the métis,” in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson, and Jennifer S.H. Brown (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985), 29; and Peterson, “Prelude to Red River,” 54, note the same occurrence in other settlements.

[10] Payne, “Fur Trade Historiography,” 22 n. 63.

[11] Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities,” 3. Martin F. Dunn, “Metis Identity: A Source of Rights?” Presentation, Trent University (January, 1998), cached at 18 February 2005 [no longer current 28 February 2010, but cached at who supplies one list of names [see “Terminology”].

[12] Carlo Ginzburg, “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” trans. Anna Davin, History Workshop 9 (spring, 1980): 16.

[13] Louis Riel, letter to Rev. N.J. Richot, 18 April 1870, quoted in Frank Hall, “How Manitoba Got Its Name,” Manitoba Pageant 15, no. 2 (winter 1970), 18 February 2005: writes, “The name of the country is already written in all hearts, that of Red River. Fancy delights in that of ‘Manitoba’.” Sir John A. Macdonald offered the translation “The God Who Speaks – The Speaking God,” to the House of Commons; Gérard Beaudet, Cree-English, English-Cree Dictionary: Nehiyawe Mina Akayasimo-Akayasimo-Mina Nehiyawe-Ayamiwini-Masinahigan (Winnipeg: Wurez Publishing, 1995), 69; “Aboriginal Place Names,” Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, July 2001 18 February 2005: The name has also been posited to have been derived from the Assiniboine Mini tobow which translates as “lake of the prairie.”

[14] W.L. Morton, Manitoba – A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957), 144.

[15] Hall, “A ‘Perfect Freedom’,” 166-168, 171. Sanders, “Ethnic Boundaries and Identity,” 328, puts forward observations that suggest Red River’s geographical isolation and consequent limited interaction with Canada contributed to the emphasizing of intergroup differences from 1856 -1870, the period when the latter’s interest in acquiring the territory increased. William Norton, Human Geography (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992), 165; and Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), confirm that territorial contests were expressed in terns of linguistic and religious differences that were racialized. Howard Palmer, “Reluctant Hosts: Views on Multiculturalism in the Twentieth Century,” in Readings in Canadian History Post-Confederation, 2d ed., edited by R. Douglas Francis, and Donald B. Smith (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1986), 186, notes early Canadian debates over control of populations considered only “two main cultural communities” – English and French, and that this conceptual bias persisted to the 1960s.

[16] See Ken Coates, “Writing First Nations into Canadian History: A Review of Recent Scholarly Works,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 1 (March, 2000), cached at lp=product/chr/811/811-COATS.html 15 February 2005: The most prominent debate, waged between D.N. Sprague, Thomas Flanagan and Gerhad J. Ens lasted approximately thirty years.

[17] See Manitoba Metis Federation Inc. et al. v. Attorney General of Canada et al., 2007 MBQB [Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba] 293, Canadian Legal Information Institute website,

[18] Clause 31, Manitoba Act, 1870, 33 Victoria, c. 3 (Canada), An Act to amend and continue the Act 32 and 33 Victoria chapter 3; and to establish and provide for the Government of the Province of Manitoba, (Assented to 12th May, 1870).

[19] See Bumsted, Thomas Scott’s Body, 29-30; Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities,” 3-4, 8-10, 17-18; Brow, “Notes on Community,” 1; John C. Kennedy, “The Changing significance of Labrador Settler Identity,” Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes Ethniques au Canada 20, no. 3 (1988): 94-111; and John C. Kennedy. “Our Heritage, our Identity. The Case of the Labrador Metis Association,” Acta Borealia: A Nordic Journal of Circumpolar Societies 13, no. 1 (1996): 23-34. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “On Difference,” The Journal of American Folklore 107, no. 424 (spring, 1994): 235-236, supplies a parallel discussion on redressing social and economic inequities of the ‘marginalized’ in which she observes that ‘difference makes a difference’ when it comes to settling legitimacy questions.

[20] Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities,” 11 n. 43.

[21] See comments on Sylvia Van Kirk, Jennifer S.H. Brown and D.N. Sprague.

[22] Ken Coates, “Writing First Nations into Canadian History: A Review of Recent Scholarly Works,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 1 (March 2000): 101; Bennet, Northern Plainsmen, 6, asserts that this approach  is characteristically Canadian. He includes “concealment of violence and conflict when it exists, and a genial, neutral manner of behavior” among accepted Canadian virtues.

[23] Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities,” 31.


Published 28 February 2010


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