Interpreting Identity, Part III

View Part I, View Part II


Identity as a problematic aspect of the Social Sciences and Humanities


Quite apart from Red River history, currently identity poses a problem for scholars throughout the social sciences and humanities. Unease over the elusive nature of identityand flexible usage of the term is not new, but the widespread use of identity appears unprecedented.[1] While the term figures as a ‘buzzword’ in substantial academic debates in which the invented and constructed character of identity as an attribute is stressed, little conscious consideration is devoted to the diachronic and synchronic variability that has seen multiple meanings accrue to the term as verb (identify); processual, active term (identification); noun (identity); adjective (identifiably); and modifier (as in ethnic identity).[2] Along with Gleason, Brubaker and Cooper, and Fearon, sociologists Rawi Abdelal et al, and folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett agree that there is cause for concern. It appears that the “wholesale, chaotic spread of ‘identity talk’ in popular and academic language … has deprived the term of any meaning at all.”[3]

The observations of analysts such as Barbara Johnstone, Thomas Haskell, and Joan Wallach Scott confirm that uncritical reference to identity in the humanities and social sciences exacerbates communications problems at intercultural, trans-temporal, and inter- and intra-disciplinary levels. Not only does terminological imprecision inhibit constructive debate, but “naiveté” regarding the “epistemological lineage” of terms, combined with a failure to recognize neologisms, leads to “misunderstanding by occluding past conventions.”[4] The result is an inability to comprehend “the notions of generations past.”[5]

Where analysts such as Gleason, Fearon, and Abdelal et al seek to limit present usage, others such as Brubaker and Cooper champion the elimination of identity from academic discussion entirely. Still others, such as Johnstone and Scott, point to the inexorable mutability of language. They regard attempts to fix terminology, which they equate with “politics of standardization,” as doubly problematic:[6] the suggestion that the history of any given word should be brought to a tidy conclusion is suspected of having a hegemonic motive force; and it is regarded with skepticism, since moves towards standardization tend to incite resistance.[7]

Semantic mutability in the history of Identity

It is worthwhile to place the misgivings of theorists regarding identity’s current state in historical perspective. If the word is now used with impunity while surrounded by controversy it should come as no surprise. The history of the use of identity does not follow a straightforward timeline. The term exhibits a high degree of variability in frequency of appearance and in meaning. Until the twentieth century the word was rarely used and, if and when applied, usually had a sense that is uncommon today.[8] To complicate matters, the meaning of identity differed in formal and informal use. Both systems of usage appear to have followed independent trajectories into the present, each carrying forward vestiges of past senses and incorporating new nuances as circumstances changed. While this is not unusual with regard to language change and continuity over time, the imprecision of identity’s meaning, exaggerated though it may now appear, is inherent to the word itself. A fundamental dependence on the dichotomy between same and different is traceable to identity’s distant past.

Originally the term identity was derived from the Latin idem, which implies ‘sameness and continuity.’ Although the concept of sameness is still associated with the word, from the time of Plato the relation of identity to difference and change has placed it at the centre of formal debates on ambiguity and paradox. As a term in western European intellectual discourse, identity has been tied to the philosophical problems of individuation (what criterion determine when one thing is actually distinct from another similar thing), qualitative indiscernibility (to what degree two distinct things can be understood to share properties), and the perennial ‘mind-body’ and ‘unity of self’ debates on how one individual’s identity (meaning sense of self) is constituted at any given time and how this identity is maintained or modified over time.[9]

In 1690, John Locke attempted to address the “difficulty” that “the little care and attention used in having precise notions,” brought to philosophical arguments on the relation of self to ‘consciousness’ (the awareness of self as self), and “identity” (the word functioning as a synonym for similarity and sameness, and as well signifying ‘an awareness of being a discrete entity’).[10] David Hume’s response in 1739 indicates that Locke’s twenty-nine step discussion was not entirely successful at introducing clarity. Hume confessed confusion as to the source of ‘personal identity,’ and argued that accepting that it is a function of consciousness (which he defined as “reflected thought or perception”), did not explain how the multitude of different perceptions a human being is capable of incorporating could be reasonably described as combining into a unified whole.[11]

Formal, intellectual interest in identity and its meaning at any given time did not immediately propel the word as a direct reference to the human psyche into informal parlance.[12] No matter how significant the contributions of past writers are now thought to be, it took time for different ideas about how identity might be understood to percolate into common consciousness, and to become widely circulated in academic circles as a result of interdisciplinary borrowing. There is, therefore, not only a disjuncture between formal use and common vernacular, but a time lag between the introduction of a nuanced conception of identity in one area of study and its application in another.

Informally, from at least the early 1800s, identity was used to refer to place as a context which physically situated the self.[13] Thus, when Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] Chief Factor William Auld wrote the London Committee in 1811, opening an argument by “Identifying” himself “with the natives of these territories, your legitimate subjects,” he did not mean that he shared their ‘consciousness.’[14] At the time that Auld was writing, connotations such as sympathy or empathy had not yet accrued to the word identity. Rather, consistent with contemporary vernacular, Auld used identity to draw attention to the fact that he lived in physical proximity to persons native to Rupert’s Land. This helped him to make the point that, unlike his London correspondents ensconced at a great remove from actual conditions, he had a clear sense of the real state of affairs. The manner in which he protested the Company’s economic policies in his letter clearly shows that his geographical context not only included his neighbours, it housed the entire HBC project and the set of socio-economic relations which placed the members of the London committee in a separate realm as overseas overseers of Rupert’s Land. Thus for Auld ‘identifying’ effectively invoked context to underscore his discomfort over non-alignment between the position/ place he found himself in as a Company servant and what he perceived to be desirable.

The written record suggests that the meaning of identity was amenable to permutation by 1861. In that year John Stuart Mill published Representative Government in which he wrote of identity while arguing a ‘sympathy of spirit’ united populations that shared common cultural attributes and antecedents. However, according to Mill’s usage the ‘sympathy’ was separate from, not synonymous with identity. Instead, he characterized the shared language, literature, and, to varying degrees, the ‘race’ and remembered history of a group as discrete ‘identities’ (meaning ‘traits’). Mill asserted that coherent and politically effective ‘nations’ were groups that coalesced on the basis of a complete commonality of these ‘identities’ among their members.[15]

While in Mill’s conception identity appears limited to suggesting culturally constructed traits, by 1868 the word identity is recorded as having formally accumulated an additional meaning that denoted a “condition of being identified [meaning ‘the same’] in feeling, interest etc.” but, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary stresses, such usage was “rare.”[16] In his semantic history of identity, Gleason notes the earlier, more popular vernacular usage — familiar to Auld and that stressed identity’s relation to context (the social relations determined by physical placement) — continued to about the 1950s.[17] In fact, the conception of identity as relating to social place and geographical context still retains considerable presence in the area of cultural geography.[18]

Identity’s Semantic mutability enters Red River Historiography

In 1900, identity made a brief appearance in formal Red River historiography. Manitoba’s first professional historian, George Bryce, used the word once in his Remarkable History of the Hudson’s Bay Company — not as a reference to context, cultural traits, or shared interests, but to denote a condition of ‘sameness.’[19] In authenticating an original document, Bryce established that its identity (meaning ontological status) was sound. As Carlo Ginsburg has noted, the connection of identity to authentication was also extended to persons during this period — in his view an “extraordinary extension of the notion of individuality,” attributable to “the relationship between the state and its administrative and police forces.”[20] The Shorter Oxford Dictionary records the first appearance of the word identity as having the sense of an attribute “that serves to identify [meaning individuate] the holder,” as occurring in 1900. Even then, the attribute is a relatively impersonal, mechanically generated one: “as identity card, disc, etc.”[21]

The word’s new, turn-of-the-century sense was not utilized by George F.G. Stanley in his text of 1936, The Birth of Western Canada.[22] He reverted instead to associating identity with geographical context. Stanley makes a connection between the contest generated by the “deliberate policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company,” aimed at protecting its claim to proprietary control over territory, and the development of a “consciousness of community” among individuals who “claimed [opposing] territorial rights to the North-West” on the basis of ancestral prior occupation.[23] This consciousness, Stanley suggests, was triggered by the threat of territorial “penetration” and “intrusion” by “interlopers.”[24] In response, the original inhabitants developed a “keen sense of their own identity.”[25] In Stanley’s opinion, this identity lapsed into abeyance once the threat was removed. He makes a subtle distinction between identity and definition. According to Stanley, identity was based on shared values and gave rise to “popular sympathy” on issues of shared interest, while attributes which determined social and cultural differences defined groups.[26]


Example of semantic distinctions between definition and identity[27]

definition: “a statement of the essential properties of a certain thing,” may be made by anyone

identity: “to conceive of oneself as united or associated with a group,” is dependent on self-identification


Although the larger issue Stanley was addressing with his history encompassed Canadian Confederation and the prognosis for national survival, he presented his arguments about Canadian “unity”, “national consciousness,” and the “social and economic factors” which engender conflict – particularly those characterized by “racial prejudice” — without making recourse to identity.[28] In this, he is consistent with the Confederation debates of the 1860s. Peter H. Russell has observed that, “While the fathers of Confederation thought of themselves as nation builders, they did not share a common vision of the essential nature of the nation they were building.”[29] Janet Ajzenstat agrees that what these “fathers” desired to foster was a political ‘nationality.’ Religious and sectarian differences were to be allowed, even protected, so long as no one formed too “passionate an attachment to ‘one’s own’.”[30] Significantly, the political debates she cites took place without invoking identity. This remained the case well into the twentieth century. Outlining exactly which social differences defined distinct ‘national identities,’ and how they did so, would not come into vogue until the 1950s.[31]

The history of identity as it has been described thus far offers some explanation as to why Marcel Giraud’s publication of 1945 does not use the word identité (the original edition was written in French) at all.[32] A translation by George Woodcock, published in 1986, introduces the concept in reference to a First Nations people who were unable to ‘identify’ (meaning to conflate interests) with the Métis in a common cause.[33] However, at the time Giraud penned the original, the term — whether in French or English — simply was not particularly popular or any more useful than much more common words and phrases. For Giraud’s purposes, terms equivalent to nation and nationalism were preferred. He differed from Stanley in that the latter limited his discussion of ‘national consciousness’ to the Canadian nation-building project. Giraud, however, repeatedly refers to the the ‘L’idée nationale,’ and the ‘nationalisme,’ of inhabitants of the Red River region. He describes ‘la Nation Métisse’ as impressive in appearance only. In his estimation, appropriate, intrinsic ‘convictions’ were absent. [34] However, in the course of criticizing their group ‘character’ Giraud finds — as did Stanley — that in competing with outsiders for control of territory they found “in their community of origins … a source of cohesion and solidarity.”[35] Giraud disparages this solidarity as ‘pretentious’ because it was not an intrinsic loyalty, but “found expression only in sporadic fashion, under the effect of passing grievances.”[36] Yet tellingly, all of the grievances he describes are related to disputes over land, resource use, and property ownership.[37]

Giraud’s work was admired by W.L. Morton, whose Manitoba – A History, followed in 1957. Like Giraud, Morton listed Stanley as a historiographical source and, like Stanley, Morton used the word identity (in upping Stanley’s usage, Morton resorted to it twice). However, he diverged from Stanley regarding the nature of identity and consequently its relation to contest. Stanley saw identity as an outcome of conflict. For Morton identity was a source of conflict. In the first instance where identity is used, he explains that the “métis” were a group who “combined an attachment to a fixed residence in the colony” with a variety of “occupations” that took them far afield.[38] Morton then asserts, “Their devotion to the buffalo hunt and their role as shield of the settlement served to perpetuate in the métis their strong sense of identity, their belief that they were a ‘new nation.’”[39] He does not elaborate except to say that this identity was a “sense,” and a “corporate sentiment” equivalent to a “traditional boast.”[40] The “sense” could be manipulated, for good or ill, by more sophisticated outsiders.[41] Implicitly, as his narrative unfolds, he suggests that the identity — which appears to be little more than misplaced pride or vanity — was a shared attribute and “character as people” that shaped behavior.[42]

As in the first instance where identity appears in Morton’s text, in the last application it is used in conjunction with a group defined as French. Again “minority” interests are described as conflicting with a dominant English Canadian vision of progressive agrarian development.[43] Interestingly, Morton’s sparing use of the term identity in Manitoba – a History gives little indication of the direction his subsequent work would take. Within two years he was presenting lectures that were published in 1961 as The Canadian Identity.[44]

During the 1950s, interest in ‘national identity’ had become particularly evident in the United States. Psychologist Erik H. Erikson’s work is credited with bringing about a major shift in the way identity was understood. He described identity as a core process that simultaneously took place within individuals and within their “communal culture,” thus establishing a defining connection between the individual and community.[45] Initially, Erikson’s ideas were somewhat startling. One contemporary observed, “We all felt that this ‘concept of identity’ was extremely important, but it was not clear what the exact meaning was, so loaded with significance was the new term” [italics in source].[46]

Erikson’s concept of an ‘identity crisis’ proved particularly popular. Although originally a reference to human adolescent development, it quickly became a catch-phrase applied to broader subjects.[47] By the time Erikson expressed misgiving regarding the “appropriation by popular culture” of scientific terminology in 1968, his ideas had already transformed identity’s meaning.[48] The newly expanded concept of identity had been applied directly to nations. Conceived metaphorically as entities with their own ‘character’, distinct ‘heritage’ and ‘lifespan,’ it was not difficult to imagine that they progressed through phases, including adolescence during which an ‘identity crisis’ might occur.[49]

In Morton’s case, identity became “synonymous with nationality” — in his opinion a “timely” issue for Canadians in the 1960s.[50] His interest in identity was propelled by “growing concern in Canada with the course and character of American-Canadian relations.”[51] Incidentally, J.L. Granatstein and R.D. Cuff have traced the emergence of “Canada’s American Problem” to the late 1930s and early 1940s.[52] And, after the war, Morton was one among many who regarded the “future of the Commonwealth” as a site of contest that put “The English-Canadian Mind in Conflict.”[53] He sought a clear description of the “distinctive national character of Canada” that would supply “new orientations” and “self-definition” for Canadians, and as well alert Americans to the existence of an “independent” historical tradition with a “moral” difference.[54] The reference to morality indicates that Morton was not embarking on an entirely new project. As A.B. McKillop has noted, “Caught historically between a British heritage … and an American neighbor … Anglo-Canadians in the Victorian era sought to establish and preserve in Canada a broad moral code that would constitute the core of a way of life.”[55] Identity, however, allowed debates about Canada’s ‘moral core’ to be re-introduced and re-animated in new terms.[56]

Surveying ‘ethnic historical writing,’ Gerald Friesen and Royden Loewen have argued that the new emphasis on identity in Canadian society during the 1960s marked a historiographical “dividing line.”[57] They cite Eric Hobsbawm to argue that concern with identity was a “late twentieth century” phenomenon that arose “in the context of social crises.”[58] They selected three works, all published in 1969, to illustrate a shift towards the “ascendancy of pluralism” in Canada: John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic; the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism findings; and J.M.S. Careless’ article which enlarged on “limited identities” — a phrase coined in 1967 by Ramsay Cook in a “disgruntled” review of several books on the “hopeless quest for Canada’s grail, the ‘Canadian Identity’.”[59]

Identity’s Semantic mutability pervades Red River Historiography

The generation of scholars writing in the 1970s began to use identity prolifically in histories of Red River, but without carrying forward Morton’s interest in Canadian identity. The tendency to follow Cook’s injunction and examine “regional, ethnic and class identities” predominated.[60] Nevertheless, the 1970s scholars did not contest the ‘defense of Canada’ historiographical stance that portrayed “Canadian nationhood [as], in fact, a fruitful experiment of dignity and value.”[61] Rather, there was a distinct absence of any evaluation of the Canadian connection at all. Political analysis was eschewed in favour of delineating the social sphere.[62]

An example of this tendency is found in John Elgin Foster’s dissertation, “The Country-born in the Red River Settlement, 1820-50,” completed 1973. In addressing the absence of a thorough description of English-speaking ‘mixed-bloods’ in existing historiography, Foster makes recourse to identity to a much greater extent than his precursors, the word appearing as noun, modifier, and verb.[63] Both the flexibility and ambiguity of the recently enhanced term are demonstrated, and may be suspected of undermining the thesis.[64] Responding to the terminological confusion noted at the beginning of this paper, Foster decided to ascribe both a name — “Country-born” — and an identity to his subject.[65] To begin, he justifies his choice by arguing for the existence of a persistent British “essence.”[66] To his way of thinking it is a distinct, hardy, and adaptable “tradition,” not unlike Morton’s conception of agrarianism, or Stanley’s conception of culture.[67] At this point in his argument, Foster’s use of identity starts to present problems. He does not explicitly link the ‘tradition’ directly to identity; the connection has to be inferred. Although Foster is certain a tradition-derived identity existed, and although he uses identity to refer to it, ultimately, he finds the identity he has in mind to be extremely elusive. He can only posit that perhaps the tradition is so adaptable, or so ephemeral that it is not clearly discernible. The more obvious explanation is that the identity is hard to find in primary sources because identity as Foster understood it (what might be styled today as a variant of ‘British ethnicity’) had not yet come into conceptual existence.[68] The theory underlying it and vocabulary to describe it had not yet been devised. Perhaps more significantly, in terminating his study prior to the Red River resistance to Canadian annexation in 1869-70, and in concentrating on English-speaking men with a family history of affiliation with the HBC, Foster eliminates the two competitions over territory and economic control that Stanley, Giraud, and Morton each associated with a heightened sense, and open expression of group consciousness and solidarity. What escapes Foster’s notice is that his work actually points to a critical relation between contest and identity formation: in a context where contest is absent, identity is not an issue.[69]

Fellow 1970s scholar, Jennifer S.H. Brown, makes this connection in her study Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country.[70] Writing about the corporate competition that culminated in the Seven Oaks incident of 1816 she observes, “This early assertion of identity, seeking guarantees of distinctive rights, highlights some of the wide social and cultural differences between the North West and Hudson’s Bay Company offspring of the time: the latter still lacked this kind of political consciousness and sentiment of social distinctiveness.”[71] She notes that a political group consciousness was, however, asserted in 1869 when “‘halfbreed’ descendants of both companies combined to define and defend common interests and finally to take military action.”[72]

Like Foster, Brown uses identity, although the word does not appear until three-quarters of the way through her text. There, and subsequently, it appears as verb and noun. In one instance identify is used in the sense of denoting who an individual is (how they are individuated by name). In most instances identity functions to denote an attribute that defines which social and ‘racial’ categories an individual belongs to. [73] Although Brown finds that, in the absence of conflict, typically her historical subjects were “individually identified by their parentage rather than race,” she relies on ‘race’ as a primary explanatory/ classificatory paradigm.[74] Thus in Brown’s text, identity is conflated with definition, and is determined or ascribed, not by the individual in question, but by criteria set by others.

The 1980s saw a number of significant changes in the way identity was perceived in Canada and there were corresponding shifts in Red River historiography. Debates generated in response to what was interpreted as a formal endorsement of ‘biculturalism,’ with the Official Languages Act of 1969, resulted in the announcement of an official policy of ‘multiculturalism’ in 1971; affirmation of equality of rights in the Constitution and the Canadian Charter of  Rights and Freedoms in 1982; and passage of the Multiculturalism Act in 1989.[75] Equally important to Red River historiography was the constitutional inclusion of ‘Métis’ under the rubric ‘Aboriginal peoples of Canada’ — without a precise definition of who was considered ‘Métis’ and on what grounds. “Cultural politics” had arrived in Canada. Identity came to the fore as ‘special interest’ groups rejected outsider definition, struggled to be self-named, and to gain recognition as promoters of positive change.[76] The decade had opened shortly after political scientist W.J.M. Mackenzie complained that “a word has been murdered … The victim was the word identity, an ancient word, which once had a certain dignity.”[77] As the decade passed, identity became a popularly invoked, if politicized attribute. At the decade’s close identity was perceived to be a semiotic ‘site of struggle’ and a “domain of ideological representation.”[78] Although identity use in Red River historiography shows a parallel increase, there is no indication that the term was regarded as anything but neutral when put to academic service. There is no suggestion that Mackenzie’s lament was heeded — though identity was of obvious import, little thought was given to what identity might signal.

A Snug Little Flock: The Social Origins of the Riel Resistance 1869-70, begun as a  dissertation by Frits Pannekoek in 1973, but not published until 1991, illustrates the contrast between frequency of identity use at the beginning and at end of the decade.[79] In Pannekoek’s five page preface, obviously penned after 1985, identity appears thirteen times, identities twice and identify, identifiable, and identification each appears once. In the remaining 222 pages of historiographical description, obviously derived from the original dissertation, identity is used once.[80] In most works published in the 1980s the transition to identity-laden text is less abrupt. However a similar pattern is discernible in articles written in the 1970s and revised for later publication. Typically, the word identity appears in the first two pages of a republished piece, is absent from the main body of the text, and reappears at the conclusion.[81] The same pattern is visible in Homeland to Hinterland, published in 1996, but based on a thesis completed by Gerhard J. Ens in 1989. From Pannekoek to Ens, the point of interest is that identity is invoked while justifying a particular historiographical approach to naming, in effect contesting another historiographical approach. By extension, the historian bolsters an assertion regarding what the most appropriate identity of past actors must be. The absence of identity from the portion of text devoted to historical description is a strong indication that this is an entirely academic identity contest — one that does not necessarily extend back to the historical actors themselves.[82]

However, Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer S.H. Brown stand out in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis North America, published 1985, as historians who were determined to argue otherwise, though on entirely different grounds. In “‘What if Mama is an Indian?’: The cultural ambivalence of the Alexander Ross family,” Van Kirk re-invokes aspects of Erikson’s concept of ‘identity crisis’ to argue along the lines set out by J.S. Mill.[83] The experience of one Red River family is used to demonstrate that identity is a transhistoric human characteristic — one that is intrinsic to the individual and potentially debilitating if social circumstances become complex. Identity is presented as a source of inner conflict for individuals who were ‘bi-racial’ participants in societies marked by a heterogeneous — and presumed conflicting — collection of identities. On the other hand, in “Diverging identities: The Presbyterian métis of St. Gabriel Street, Montreal,” Brown argues that identity is less an individually-centred, than a society-wide characteristic – one that responds to complexity by fragmenting and ‘spinning off’ new social groups.[84] To Brown’s way of thinking, the problem with identity proliferation is not that historians might have difficulty agreeing on past identities, but that present-day non-academics complicate matters by invoking identity and projecting identity onto past actors for their own ends. The identities constructed by ethnic group insiders are seen as conflicting with ongoing efforts to refine academic classification systems.[85] The arguments of Van Kirk and Brown elicited only one indirect comment.[86] Without explicit reference to either author, D.N. Sprague objected, in “The Cultural Bias of Metis Studies,” that The New Peoples succeeded only in establishing that historians had sacrificed critical thinking to an obsession with detail.[87] His own work indicates that he viewed identity as relatively unproblematic and secondary to a principal contest over possession of land and control of resources.

Sprague’s different appreciation of identity and differing approach to usage is first evident in the 1983 publication, The Genealogy of the First Metis Nation: The Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement, 1820-1900, compiled in collaboration with R.P. Frye.[88] In the Genealogy, the body of the text consists of five tabular displays running to about 150 pages recounting Métis presence at Red River. As cross-referencing is facilitated by ‘identification numbers’ which individuate male heads of households (a reversion to the definition of identity from 1900), and, as approximately 5,000 heads of households are listed, identity (signified as ‘ID’) pervades the entire text. Thomas Flanagan’s Riel and the Rebellion, also published in 1983, and Sprague’s rebuttal, Canada and the Métis, of 1988, supply two additional examples of the different approach to identity that political, as opposed to cultural analysis entailed.[89] Flanagan uses identity once.[90] Sprague, having already established Red River affiliations in the Genealogy, uses identity not at all. It is patently obvious that both authors are concerned with evaluating the relation of past contentions to grievances of their present. Each engages issues that underlay the inclusion of ‘Métis peoples’ in the constitutional definition of 1982. Though Flanagan and Sprague disagree on the ‘morality’ of historical actors, neither questions their motive for group affiliation. Past identity is treated as a given, as is the understanding that it was determined on the basis of antagonism over land ownership.[91]

Flanagan and Sprague notwithstanding, the cultural interpretation of history predominates in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, a collection of essays published in 2001, which supply an indication of historiographical use of identity through the 1990s.[92] Of the twelve articles and two introductory pieces which address ethnogenesis and explore ethnicity and cultural difference, only five can be argued to have immediate if slight relevance to inhabitants of Red River.[93] These are the only pieces in the collection in which identity, or related words such as identify, occur more than once every twenty-or-so pages. In the 89 pages reserved for articles which allude to Red River peoples, identity terms appear 101 times. In every instance the terms refer to a historiographically determined attribute or process of individuation. Only one article quotes a primary source that suggests a historical actor avowed consciousness of an attribute corresponding to a self-determined identity. In that instance, the source was penned approximately 30 years after the conflict of 1869-1870 and concurrent with the historical author’s petitioning the Canadian government over an Aboriginal land claims entitlement.[94]

Historiographical understandings of what identity means vary considerably throughout From Rupert’s Land to Canada. Some authors presume identity is determined ‘biologically’; others that it is based on classification according to ‘race’ — which some allow is socially constructed, while others do not. Some ascribe identity according to a group affiliation suggestive of ‘ethnicity’ — which they may or may not define. Others ascribe on the basis of ‘culture’, ‘gender’, ‘class,’ or geographical location; still others on the basis of occupations representative of ‘behavioural traditions’ specific to economic ‘niches.’ Identity appears sometimes to be role, sometimes an affiliation, and other times a name. It is presented as both a means of differentiation for clarification and as a source of confusion. Though there is no agreement on how identity functions, it is assumed to be central to historical analysis.[95]


View Part IV


[1] See Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 910; Brubaker and Cooper, “Beyond ‘identity’,” 3-4; Fearon, “What is Identity,” 1 n. 1, who calculates that “the number of dissertations abstracts using the word ‘identity’ has been growing almost three times faster than the rate for all abstracted dissertations” based on a survey covering 1981-1995; Rawi Abdelal, Yoshiko M. Herrera, Alastair Iain Johnston, and Rose McDermott, “Identity as a Variable,” unpublished paper, 10 May 2003, cachedat 20 January 2005 [unavailable 1 March 2010, but accessable at; and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “On Difference,” The Journal of American Folklore 107, no. 424 (spring 1994): 234, who reports that a search of a database of  4,000,000 articles in 14,000 periodicals published from 1988 to 1994 netted 3,604 citations with the word identity in the title.

[2] See Brubaker and Cooper, “Beyond Identity,” 14.

[3] Gleason, quoted in Fearon, “What is Identity,” 7, also 1-2, 37 n. 50; Brubaker and Cooper, “Beyond ‘identity’,” 34; and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “On Difference,” 234. See also Friesen and Loewen, “Romantics, Pluralists, Postmodernists,” 189.

[4] Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 282; also 286, 306. See also Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, revised ed. (Columbia University Press, 1999), 28; Christopher Lloyd, The Structures of History: Studies in Social Discontinuity (Cambridge: Balckwell, 1993), 99; Barbara Johnstone, “Communication in Multicultural Settings: Resources and Strategies for Affiliation and Identity,” in Language, Culture and Identity, ed. Torben Vestergaard (Aalborg: Aalborg University Press, 1999), 29, 30, 34; and Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 182.

[5] Haskell, “Responsibility,” 279.

[6] Johnstone, “Communication,” 34.

[7] Ibid.; Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 28; Audrey Kobayashi, “Multiculturalism: Representing a Canadian Institution,” in Place/Culture/Representation, ed. James Duncan and David Ley (New York: Routledge, 1993), 208; and Don Mitchell, “Public Housing in Single Industry Towns: Changing landscapes of paternalism,” in Place/Culture/Representation, 112-114.

[8] See “identity,” The Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles, 3d ed., edited by C.T. Onions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), 1016; Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 910; and  Fearon, “What is Identity,” 2, 10, 33.

[9] “identity,” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed. T. F. Hoad  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); “identity,” A Dictionary of Sociology, ed. Gordon Marshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), Oxford Reference Online, 14 January 2005; Simon Blackburn, “identity”, “individuation, principle of,” and “qualitative identity,” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), Oxford Reference Online, 14 January 2005; C.J.F. Williams, “identity, the paradox of,” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), Oxford Reference Online, 14 January 2005; E. J. Lowe, “identity, criterion of,” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), Oxford Reference Online, 14 January 2005; R.C. Sleigh, “identity of indiscernibles,” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Reference Online, 14 January 2005 http://www. See also Ginsburg, “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes,” 19-21.

[10] John Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1690, Book II, chapter 27, cached at 10 January 2005. See also René Descartes, “Meditiation II: Of the nature of the human mind; and that it is more easily known than the body,” (1641),  in The Method: Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes, trans. John Veitch (Washington : M.W. Dunne, 1901), cached at cola/descartes/meditation2.html 10 January 2005 [not available 1 March 2010, but see preceding links, p. 104], whose meditation inspired Locke’s objections.

[11] David Hume, “Of Personal Identity,” Treatise on Human Nature, (1739), book I, part 4, section 6, cached at 10 January 2005; see also Simon Blackburn, “personal identity,” Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[12] Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 911.

[13] The timeline for informal usage, largely oral communication, is unknown. Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 912, cites the Oxford English Dictionary as supplying two examples of this usage – the first from 1820. It must be remembered, however, that the OED, as a matter of course, relies exclusively on written sources for confirmation of usage.

[14] William Auld, quoted in Foster, “The Country Born,” 35. Auld was a non-Aboriginal servant of the Company stationed at York Factory at the time. The source for the quote is HBCA A.11/118, “Auld to the Governor and Committee September 26, 1811.”

[15] John Stuart Mill, “Of Nationality, as connected with Representative Government,” Chapter16, Representative Government (1861),cachedat 10 January 2005 [not available 1 March 2010, but accessible at].

[16] Onions, “identity,” 1016. See also Noah Webster, “identity,” American Dictionary of the English Language 1828, cached at 30 March 2005 [not available 1 March 2010, but accessible at,identity], who defines identity as “Sameness, as distinguished from similitude and diversity.”

[17] Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 912, suggests identity was used to express a sense of familiarity with one’s surroundings: to ‘lose identity’ meant to ‘lose one’s moorings,’ or ‘be uncertain of one’s bearings.’

[18] See “identity,”  A Dictionary of Geography, by  Susan Mayhew (Oxford University Press, 2004) Oxford Reference Online 14 January 2005; also Ruth Fincher, and Jane M. Jacobs eds., Cities of Difference (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), 1-25, for an example.

[19] George Bryce, The Remarkable History of the Hudson’s Bay Company: Including that of the French Traders of North-Western Canada and of the North-West, XY, and Astor Fur Companies (Toronto: William Briggs, 1900), 89. See also Webster, American Dictionary (1828); “identity,” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), cached at 30 March 2005; and “identity,” The Victorian Dictionary: The Social History of Victorian London, by Lee Jackson 30 March 2005 [search not available 1 March 2010].

[20] Ginsburg, “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes,” 27: fingerprinting was discovered to be a means of distinguishing one person from another.

[21] Onions, “identity,” 1016:5.

[22] George F.G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions (London: Longman Green and Company, 1936; reprint, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

[23] Ibid., 16.

[24] Ibid., viii, 254, 255, 259.

[25] Ibid., 16.

[26] Ibid., 25, 168.

[27] Hall, “Admitting Enigmatic Identities,” 18.

[28] Stanley, Birth of Western Canada, vii, 380- 407.

[29] Peter H. Russell, quoted in Janet Ajzenstat, “Liberty, Loyalty, and Identity in Canadian Founding,” 30 May 2003, cached at 15 January 2005, 6; see also 10.

[30] Ajzenstat, “Liberty, Loyalty, and Identity,” 11, also 10, 13-18, citing parliamentary debates where she discerns adherence to a Lockean formulation combining “human equality with pragmatism,” attenuated by J.S. Mill’s idea of constructive debate as premised on the valuing of opposing views.

[31] Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 922-923.

[32] Giraud, Le Métis Canadien. See also “identity,” The American HeritageDictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.  (2000): the French identité, traces back to the same Latin source as the English equivalent.

[33] Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, vol. 1, 417, reads: “The opposition of interests that divided the Métis and the Indians, as well as the numerous advantages which the latter foresaw in the development of the colony, prevented the natives from identifying their cause with that of the North West Company and the Métis group…”; Giraud, Le Métis Canadien, 543, reads: “L’opposition d’intérêts qui séparait les métis des Indiens, ajoutée aux nombreux avantages que ceux-ci entrevoyaient dans le développement de la colonie, empêchaient les indigènes de confondre leur cause avec celle de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest et du groupe métis …”

[34] See, for example, Giraud, Le Métis Canadien, 581, 61; and Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, vol. 1, 480, 465, 409, 434, xii, 476, 479.

[35] Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, vol. 1, 425.

[36] Ibid., 476, 479.

[37] Ibid., xx, 408, 450, 425.

[38] Morton, Manitoba – A History, 63.

[39] Ibid.; see also Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian West, vol. 1, 453.

[40] Morton, Manitoba – A History, 132.

[41] Ibid., and 51, 139.

[42] Ibid., 78; see also 62, 150, 472.

[43] Ibid., 159; see also vii, 472-473: The agrarian vision as a ‘tradition’ is described by Morton as the central theme of the book.

[44] W.L. Morton, The Canadian Identity, 2d ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972).

[45] “identity”  A Dictionary of Sociology, ed. Gordon Marshall (Oxford University Press, 1998), Oxford Reference Online; also Fearon, “What is Identity,” 35.

[46] David de Levita, quoted in Fearon, “What is Identity,” 9.

[47] Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 926-929; and Fearon, “What is Identity,” 9, 33.

[48] Fearon, 9. Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 925-926, indicates that Erikson was himself responsible for attaching ‘identity’ to nationality and making national ‘identity’ synonymous with national ‘character.’

[49] Fearon, “What is Identity,” 33.

[50] Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 930 n. 60. Morton, Canadian Identity, v.

[51] Morton, Canadian Identity, ix.

[52] J.L. Granastein, and R.D. Cuff, “Getting on with the Americans: Canadian Perceptions of the United States, 1939-1945,” in Readings in Canadian History Post-Confederation, 483.

[53] Morton, Canadian Identity, ix; and Bruce W. Hodgins, “The English-Canadian Mind in Conflict,” in Documentary Problems in Canadian History: Post Confederation, ed. J.M. Bumsted (Georgetown ON.: Irwin-Dorsey Press, 1969), 285; see also 286-314.

[54] Morton, Canadian Identity, back cover, viii, vii, ix.

[55] A.B. McKillop, A Disciplined Intelligence: Critical Inquiry and Canadian Thought in the Victorian Era (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1979), ix. See also J. Castell Hopkins, excerpt of “Canadian Hostility to Annexation,” The Forum 16 (November, 1893): 325-335, in Imperialism and Nationalism, 1884-1914: a Conflict in Canadian Thought, ed. Carl Berger (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1969), 38-43.

[56] See, for example, Kenneth McNaught, “From Colony to Satellite,” first published 1968, in Readings in Canadian History Post-Confederation, 560, on nineteenth-century Canadian ‘survival’ strategies in foreign relations; and D.G. Creighton, excerpt of “Sir John A. Macdonald,” Our Living tradition Seven Canadians, ed. Claude T. Bissel, 1957, in Imperialism and Nationalism, 117, who supplies the book’s closing line: “It is with this sense of danger overshadowing the main purpose of our existence which has brought Canadians back with interest and almost the excitement of rediscovery to Sir John Macdonald.” See also Kenneth Keniston, quoted in Gleason, “Identifying Identity,” 913; and Lamont and Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries,” 175, who note that ‘moral discourse’ is a common means of ascribing difference.

[57] Friesen and Loewen, “Romantics, Pluralists, Postmodernists,” 184.

[58] Ibid., 191.

[59] Ibid., 186; see also 184. Kenneth C. Dewar “limited identities” The Oxford Companion to Canadian History. Ed. Gerald Hallowell. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online http://www., January 2005.

[60] Ramsey Cook, as quoted in, Dewar, “limited identities.”

[61] Morton, Identity, ix.

[62] Kobayashi, “Multiculturalism,” 213, describes this as a typical of Canadian historians at the time, who took “an uncritical view of ethnicity, and focused on empirical studies of individual groups.”

[63] Foster, “The Country-Born,” 203 n. 106; 118, 189, 105; 155, 202, 16, 49.

[64] The dissertation was never published. Foster formulated much clearer arguments later. From Rupert’s Land to Canada was published in his honor.

[65] Foster, “The Country-Born,” 2; see also 39, contests Giraud’s use of the term “métis écossais. “ He argues that it does not accurately reflect the “fact” that “differences in region of origin were significant to those involved.”

[66] Ibid., 3,4; see also 42, 154, 169.

[67] Ibid., 1-2.

[68] Ibid., 6 n. 8, 61, 202, 155, 65, 140, 155, 16, 262, 153, 115,Giraud is cited as the authority on ‘identity’ but in fact Giraud does not use the term. Foster has the “impression” that the documents support his thesis, and “senses” that the ‘identity’ he is searching for existed but explains that the “documents do not lend themselves to a straightforward analysis.” He posits that situations “probably” happened, but avers “it is difficult to enumerate them with clarity.” Often his subject group seems indistinguishable from others in the settlement. Ultimately Foster concedes that “no simple picture emerges.” In a tortuous passage he asserts that the Country-born were distinct, but admits he cannot demonstrate it was a distinction “in kind” only in “degree.” He then observes that, “In other words the ‘degrees’ of difference may not be sufficient in themselves to demarcate a separate community.” The distinctiveness he explains, rests in the fact that “they” were a “collection of individuals” — a tautology, given his confessed lack of evidence that anyone other than himself ordered the ‘collection.’ See also Theodore Binnema, Gerhard J. Ens, and R.C. MacLeod, “John Elgin Foster,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, xiii.

[69] See Peter Hayes Gries, “Indentity and Conflict in International Affairs,” The European Journal of International Relations, forthcoming, cached at 11 January 2005, 6 [not available, 1 March 2010, but accessible at as .

[70] Jennifer S.H. Brown, Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980). The book began as a dissertation and some chapters were published prior to the book’s release.

[71] Ibid., 173.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid., 156, 204, 211, 212.

[74] Ibid., xxi, 204; also 172-173, 211, 217, 219, 156, 216, 52, 159, 216. It must be noted that this was not unusual for the time. The fact that ‘race’ is not biologically justifiable but rather is socially constructed has not eliminated it from historiographical discussion. As an issue, ‘race’ constitutes a fundamental and persistent theoretical divide. The view on one side is that racialization is a form of active oppression. From the other perspective, it is a regrettable, yet unavoidable, perhaps even necessary, evil. The former perspective emphasizes personal responsibility and choice, the latter the power of hegemonic systems and human psychology. For discussions of contrasting opinions see Frances Henry, Carol Tator, Winston Mattis and Tim Rees, The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society (Toronto: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993), 1-58; and Ann Laura Stoler, “On Political and Psychological Essentialisms,” Ethos 25, no. 1 (March,1997): 101-106.

[75] Kobayashi, “Multiculturalism,” 205-206. Eva Mackey, The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada (New York: Routledge, 1999), 63-68; and Yasmeen Abu-Laban, “The politics of Race & Ethnicity: Multiculturalism as a Contested Arena,” in Canadian Politics 2d ed., edited by James P. Bickerton, and Alain-G Gagnon (Peterborough ON.: Broadview Press, 1994), 247-249, highlight the point that changes in Canada’s immigration policy paralleled multicultural policy development – and a subsequent ‘backlash.’

[76] Susan D. Phillips, “New Social Movements in Canadian Politics: On Fighting and Starting Fires,” in Canadian Politics, 189, 193. Stuart Hall, “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference,” Radical America 23, no. 4 (June, 1991): 9, in an article originally composed in 1989, notes that in Britain as well, “questions about identity and ethnicity have suddenly surfaced again in English intellectual and critical discussion and debate,” concurrent with the question of “the relationship between cultural identities and ethnicities” appearing “on the political agenda,” [italics in original]. See also Jonathan Friedman, “Myth, History, and Political Identity,” Cultural Anthropology 7, no. 2 (May, 1992): 194.

[77] W.J.M. Mackenzie, Political Identity (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 11.

[78] Kobayashi, “Multiculturalism,”207. See also Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “On Difference,” 233-237. Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction, 2d ed. (New York: Routledge, 1996), 13-18, supplies a discussion of  Ferdinand de Sassure and semiotics – a method of studying the social construction of language and the communication of culturally determined meaning.

[79] Frits Pannekoek, A Snug Little Flock: The Social Origins of the Riel Resistance 1869-70 (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer Publishing, 1991).

[80] Ibid., 176.

[81] See David T. McNabb, ed., Special Métis Issue, The American Indian Culture and Research Journal 6, no. 2 (1982); and Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown eds., The New Peoples: Being and becoming Métis in North America (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985).

[82] See Kennedy, “Labrador Metis Ethnogenesis,” 5, for a parallel observation on the history of a similar settler group.

[83] Sylvia Van Kirk, “‘What if Mama is an Indian?’: The cultural ambivalence of the Alexander Ross family,” in The New Peoples, 207-217.

[84] Jennifer S.H. Brown, “Diverging identities: The Presbyterian métis of St. Gabriel Street, Montreal,” in The New Peoples, 195-206.

[85] See Friedman, “Myth, History, and Political Identity,” 194, also 197, who notes, with respect to historical construction and identity, that “it is striking that the academic representation of the truth becomes the criterion for evaluating other people’s constructions of reality.”

[86] The reviews surveyed were by and large perfunctory and uncritical. See, for example, Helen M. Bannan,  review of The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown, Journal of American History 73 (December, 1986): 726-727; and additional reviews of the same work by Roger L. Nichols, Western Historical Quarterly 17 (October, 1986): 467-468; and Richard Slobodin, Ethnohistory 34 (summer, 1987): 313-315, who, contrary to a later re-appraisal, has nothing but praise for the emphasis placed on Marcel Giraud. However, Cornelius J. Jaenen, American Historical Review 9, no. 5 (December, 1986): 1296-1297, combines an insightful analysis of the book’s various articles with moderate praise; while Peter C. Douaud, American Indian Quarterly 11 (spring, 1987): 159-161, points to limitations.

[87] D.N. Sprague, “The Cultural Bias of Metis Studies,” review of The New Peoples: On Being and Becoming Métis in North America, ed. Jacqueline Peterson and Jennifer S.H. Brown, Prairie Fire 8 (summer, 1987): 67.

[88] D.N. Sprague, and R.P. Frye, The Genealogy of the First Metis Nation: The Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement, 1820-1900 (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1983).

[89] Thomas Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983).

[90] Ibid., ix.

[91] See Paul Mitchinson, “Calgary Neo-Cons Hunt Controversey,” The National Post, 22 July 2000, cached at 12 March 2005 [not available 1 March 2010, but accessible at; and J.L. Finlay, and D.N. Sprague, The Structure of Canadian History (5th ed., Scarborough: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon Canada, 1997): Flanagan is a staunch supporter of the Canadian state while Sprague was in favour of seeing state power – particularly control over resource use — devolve to the people inhabiting the area where the resource is based, whether this be at a provincial or community level. Both have been accused of acting as ‘hired guns.’

[92] Binnema, Ens, and Macleod, eds., From Rupert’s Land to Canada.

[93] Binnema, Ens, and Macleod, “John Elgin Foster,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada , ix-xxii; Payne, “Fur Trade Historiography,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 3-22; Pannekoek, “Metis Studies,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 111-128; Devine, “Les Desjarlais,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 129-158; and Ens, “Métis Ethnicity,” in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, 161-177. Thomas Flanagan and Glen Campbell, Appendix, in From Rupert’s Land to Canada, designed to present previously unpublished primary documents is not included in my discussion.

[94] See Johnny Grant, quoted in Ens, “Métis Ethnicity,” 165, also 172, 177 n. 49.

[95] See, for example, Binnema, Ens and Macleod, “John Elgin Foster,” xii, xiii, xvii; Payne, “Fur Trade Historiography,”  6, 7, 16, 17, 19; Pannekoek, “Metis Studies,” 111-114, 117, 119, 121-123, 125, 126, 128; Devine, “Les Desjarlais,” 129, 130, 131, 139, 140, 150, 151; and Ens, “Métis Ethnicity,” 161-164, 174.



Published 1 March 2010


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