Metis Provisional Government, 1870.
Update: This is a terribly naive post. Naive is a polite word. I’m leaving it up because it’s an important part of my learning process, but my attitude has changed a lot since the starry-eyed days of thinking I could step sideways into a community I know so little about. I’ll be writing more about this: my mistakes, arrogance and ignorance. I’m not claiming to be enlightened now, either. Hopefully I’m a little further along the learning arc.
I’ve been told more than once by well-meaning friends that I should be a natural for the Peel River Watershed trip because hey, I’m Métis! Some are joking, some aren’t. Some really want to believe that the vestiges of Cree and French voyageur circulating in my blood might make me a superstar with a paddle. Maybe I want to believe it, too. Is portaging a genetic trait? I doubt it.
To give the commonly accepted definition among non-Indigenous people, being Métis means that at some point in your family tree, a First Nations person married a European. To many it’s more specific than that, the Métis are a distinct Indigenous people who originate from the plains of Canada. My Métis family comes from St. Boniface, though most of them now live in BC or Alberta. My dad belongs to the BC Metis Nation, and I’ve applied this year. But since I’ve started learning about my family lineage, I’ve been feeling like I’m not Métis enough. The kind who doesn’t really count. That’s because my grandmother, Marjorie Carrière, wanted no part of it.
Marjorie hid her French accent unless she was drunk, which was often. Then she would swan around, sing Edith Piaf songs, call me chérie. But what she always hid from others was her Cree background, even though other members of the family celebrated, or at least accepted it. She never married her lifelong love, Jordy. He was Eastern European, the kind of cleansing ethnicity Marjorie wanted to build her children with. Instead she married someone her Catholic family approved of, a navy man. My grandfather. He was pretty darn white, too. English background. They drank their way through most of their marriage, and separated when my dad -an only child- graduated high school. Jordy had married someone else, and he and Marjorie carried on an affair through several marriages, not even bothering to commit to each other when they were both single later in life. Nobody’s sure why that happened. They loved to drink together though, everyone’s certain of that. And so did other members of the Carrière family, who I saw once or twice when I was a kid. Uncle Felix sticks out in my memory, he had a pompadour and wore actual hawaiian shirts and smoked actual cigars and drank actual martinis. He made them by the pitcher. I’d never seen anything like him, and I’d never see him again because Marjorie’s family didn’t talk to us much. Because they didn’t speak to her at all. Eventually, most of the Carrière family went sober, but not Marjorie. She kept on drinking, and she lived a long time. Most of her later years, she spent alone.
After Marjorie died, the family communication lines opened. At her funeral, my dad spilled her ashes into the Alouette river in Maple Ridge -the river he grew up on- and we sang Amazing Grace for lack of anything better. The reception was at the Maple Ridge Ramada. Three of my dad’s aunties cornered me, then tried to act nonchalant when they asked what I remembered most about my grandmother.
“Her wiener dogs,” I said, “she always had like, three.” I laughed. And then oh, the embarrassment when I realized what a stupid answer that was. “I uh, didn’t know her very well.”
Their faces opened to me. “She was hard to get to know,” one aunty said. Everyone nodded. I won their provisional trust by being painfully honest, and painful honesty would become the family currency. There were years of silence to fill. We talked about my grandmother’s youth and they hinted at familial skeletons: abuse, Catholic shame, neglect. I can’t yet say where exactly the shame came from that caused my grandmother to drink, run from love and try to erase both her French and Cree background. And I may never know, since family secrets, personal bias and the decline of memory winds history into knots.
“She was always so angry,” another aunty said. All three nodded. “She was the angriest of us.”
And really, that’s what I remember most about Marjorie. Not her anger, but the anger that surrounded her. The anger between my parents after she called the house drunk and rambled on to me for an hour before Mom asked me who I was talking to. Mom’s anger when she learned Dad wanted to attempt a provisional reconciliation after many years of silence. My selfish, sulky anger at the lack of grandmothers in my life who baked cookies and took me to the park to feed the ducks. Why the hell didn’t I have one of those?
And now that I’ve been writing for a few years, I find myself wanting to write about Marjorie. I want to build stories around her, a collage of fact and fiction. I don’t want to add happy endings. But I do want to fill in the blanks to create my own cohesive narrative, for better or for worse. I took a workshop with Lee Maracle at the Aboriginal Writer’s Conference last spring. She drew a stickwoman on the chalkboard, and then drew arrows pointing away from her in both directions. She said something like: You belong to all your family, all the way back, and they belong to you. And you belong to your future family. And then, because Lee is such a powerful speaker and because I was ready to listen, I realized how badly I wanted to belong.
And I do belong, for better or for worse. I belong to my difficult Métis grandmother, and she belonged to her difficult history, even as she turned her back on it. I belong to my still-living family, and as I get to know them, I’ll get to know the pride they feel in our story. I’ll be the kind of Métis who just gets it.