By Frank Bucholtz/Special to Black Press Media
Very few Canadians are familiar with the deep-rooted part the Metis people played in the history of Canada.
Most people’s knowledge of Metis people begins and ends with Louis Riel, who was a leader in the movement to preserve land rights in Manitoba as it opened for settlement, and in making Manitoba Canada’s first western province.
Riel also was a key force in what today’s Metis people call the “Riel Resistance” in 1885, which had profound effects on the treatment of Aboriginal people, patterns of settlement, and even the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Riel was hanged for his part in that movement – a move that led to a profound gulf between Quebec and English-speaking provinces for generations.
Kelly Sears is determined to educate as many people as possible about the complete role Metis people have played in Canada and, in particular, to pass the knowledge and culture of the Metis to the younger generation.
As someone who only found out she was Metis in her 30s, Sears wants as many people as possible to dig deeper to find out if they have Metis ancestry.
Even if they do not, she believes the rich culture and heritage of the Metis people deserves to be highlighted much more than it is.
The Metis people are considered one of three Indigenous peoples in Canada, along with First Nations and Inuit.
As of 2016, the census recorded 587,545 Metis people in Canada.
They are of mixed First Nation and European ancestry, with many of the European ancestors being of French background.
Sears is president of Waceya Metis Society.
Her organization is responsible for connecting with Metis people in Langley and White Rock. The society shares an office in Cloverdale with a similar society responsible for Metis people in Surrey and Delta.
Waceya helps Metis people register with the federal government, and is aware of about 1,000 Metis people in Langley alone. She does not have any numbers for White Rock.
She was born in Vancouver and grew up in Surrey, graduating from Semiahmoo Secondary.
She was unaware that she was Metis, as both of her parents denied that they had any Metis connections. Nevertheless, because she had darker skin and black hair, she was often called derogatory names at school.
She particularly recalls one incident in White Rock. She was at a friend’s home, and the friend’s mother hosted a bridge party. She introduced her daughter to the visitors and then added “and this is her little Indian friend.”
That comment still hurts today, she said.
When she was in her 30s, she and her sister went to the Cloverdale Library to search through its genealogical records.
It did not take long to discover that they were Metis.
They also found the army records of their maternal grandfather, who was with the Canadian Army in the First World War.
He was listed as “Metis.”
He was a horse trainer and had accompanied a shipment of horses to the front. During that time, he was not allowed above deck.
He came back and soon married, living in Saskatchewan’s Meadow Lake-Duck Lake region – scene of the 1885 standoff.
Her parents moved to B.C., as many people from the Prairies did, and Sears believes they may have done so to escape the accusation that was levelled in many Prairie communities that they were Aboriginal.
Many of the children of these families were never told about their background.
She has also documented a case of a family member being denied service in a Chinese restaurant in a small Saskatchewan town because he was deemed to be Aboriginal.
After she found out about her background, she sought out organizations that taught more about the Metis.
She got involved with a dance group founded by Bev Lambert, and was part of a Surrey Metis group headed by longtime Surrey photographer Ken Fisher, who also discovered his Metis roots as an adult.
Sears has been part of the Waceya group for about six years, now.
The society wants to help people find out about their roots and learn more about their rich culture.
The society regularly sets up booths at events in the community, such as an open house at the Alder Grove Heritage Society’s museum late this summer and was represented by young dancers performed at the new Valley West Stampede during the Labour Day weekend in Langley.
Young people are offered activities to take part in, such as jig dancing. And there are plans to offer fiddle lessons this fall. Sears is currently looking for donations of violins.
They are reaching out via social media sites such as TikTok and Twitter to connect with young people.
Sears said they want young people to be involved, and are organizing activities they will enjoy being part of.
“Our history is out there, but it is still not taught,” she said. “Our culture is both First Nations and European – mixed to become our own.”
She noted that Metis people helped early settlers on the Prairies to survive by providing furs and pemmican during the long, cold winters.
The society hosts regular drop-in sessions for seniors and other people, and wants to record the memories of seniors for future generations.
A future event the society will take part – to mark Louis Riel Day (which is on the anniversary of his execution on Nov. 16), falls on Nov. 20 at the Fort Langley National Historic Site between 1 and 4 p.m. Their performance will highlight the youth jiggers (dancers) and their cultural speakers.
Waceya Metis Society’s office at 5631A 176A St., and is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
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