The following are my thoughts, as a woman who realized her Métis ancestry as an adolescent, who grew up with a very academic understanding of Indigenous history, no exposure to any Indigenous culture or teachings, and who struggles with her identity as a Métis woman.
It’s impossible to overstate how deeply moving Kent Monkman’s exhibit “Shame & Prejudice: 150 Years of Resilience” is. How absolutely depraved the process of colonization is. How unforgivable the sins of the government of Canada are. How much was taken from the First Nations and Inuit people who lived here before the first colonizer ever set foot on this land, and how much was taken from the Métis, a people who came from both the colonized and the colonizers. Experiencing this exhibit was gut-wrenching, infuriating, and heartbreaking. It was also incredibly validating. Through his masterful artistry and writing, Monkman reclaims the power of storytelling—and the power of documenting history.
As a child, I was largely unaware of Métis history, and my own Métis heritage. It was just never talked about—or at least not in the way my French Canadian heritage was. I grew up in a solidly middle-class family, born to university-educated parents from two Franco-Manitoban Catholic families. My Maman was determined to rise beyond anyone’s expectations and to make her working-class parents proud. She became a French Immersion educator, and for both my parents, our Francophone identity as a family was very important. We only spoke French at home, and we always had tons of books written en français to read.
I didn’t understand that I was missing a whole other part of myself till I was a teen. It was hard to know how to feel about it. An entire culture and history apparently existed in my blood—but it was as foreign to me as outer space. I couldn’t feel a connection to any of it. And only in the summer, when my skin deepened in colour with an ease that some friends joked was because of the “native” in me, could I look in the mirror and catch the tiniest glimpse of who some of my ancestors were.
But it still wasn’t real.
My mom and aunts didn’t appear to know much more about it than I did and it didn’t feel like I could ask my Mémère. So I stayed silent but kept my eyes and ears open for any information I could glean. I noticed small things I’d inherited from her, like my dark hair, and high cheekbones, and wondered if they meant anything. If my love for fiddle music and beading was intrinsic on some level or just a coincidence. In the early 2000s, I eventually applied for my Manitoba Métis Card and received a book of my genealogy and a little laminated card that seemed to make things official.
Over the next 20 years of my life, I went from being unsure and ashamed of my heritage to being defiantly proud of it and claiming it as my own, to recognizing the depths of my ignorance about colonialism and the real history of the birth of Canada. As I dug deeper into my Indigenous self-education, I felt more and more like a Métis imposter. Every time I entered into a conversation where race and ancestry were relevant, I hesitated to share mine. Instead, I began uneasily dancing to an inner monologue that goes something like this:
“Am I really Métis? Am I Métis enough? I’m Métis enough to have lost something, but I definitely look white, so I sure as fuck was never held back or penalized by my perceived race or culture. Ok, but now I’m basically defining a culture and a people by their suffering and that’s really fucking gross. It’s so much more than a shared history of oppression. But isn’t it awful to lean into the culture and try to learn and reclaim that part of me, while never having experienced any of the bad? But the fact that I never even had the chance to learn—isn’t that bad? Sure, yeah, but also it’s nothing compared to going to prison, or being taken from your family, or killed just because you’re Indigenous.”
Around and around I go. Trying to contribute quietly to a community I wish I felt more connected to, while also trying to not take up space that should be taken up by someone who belongs there more than I do. Some days feeling like it’s important that my history, my life, my work, my talents are filed under “young Métis woman”, and other days feeling like an imposter who is leeching onto real “brown girl magic”. Supporting and cheering on other Indigenous creatives, scholars, and activists, while also feeling like I’m exploiting them.
Waiting for divine inspiration, or courage, or something, or someone, to validate me. To give me permission to be Métis.
And today. Moving from piece to piece, in awe of the incredible talent and courage on display, of the stomach-turning cleverness, the pain and horror and, yes, beauty and resilience. And feeling like I was seeing the complex and conflicted picture of my history as a French Canadian Métis woman for the first time.
My French lineage is very well documented. It includes a 19-year-old woman who left Paris and landed in Montréal in 1681 with a newborn and no husband. At the age of 35, she married a man who had come here as a 20-year-old soldier from Normandy to fight “les Amérindiens en Nouvelle France”. She acquired land, had four children, and became a well-known entrepreneur. She signed her own business documents—and I’ve seen the copies. I even know exactly how often she was brought to court in Québec over 300 years ago. There is literally an entire book written about my Parisian ancestor (and a feature by Radio Canada)!
But my knowledge of my Métis lineage could maybe fill a Post-it note. One thing I know is that my Métis family lost their land in July 1870, with the creation of the Manitoba Act, and the end of the Red River Resistance.
My other French ancestors? They were families who left everything they knew behind in France, to start over in Canada.
They became farmers of land that wasn’t theirs to take.
My Métis family lost their land and most of their culture over 130 years ago. They were silenced and stunted by the shame and violence of racism. That shame and violence shaped my grandmother and her siblings, her daughters, and her sons. But even though I knew intellectually that history had shaped her grandchildren—had shaped me—as a white-passing Métis woman, I’ve struggled to acknowledge any kind of personal harm.
Standing in front of Chapter V, The Forcible Transfer of Children, it is impossible not to acknowledge that the loss of my culture and my inheritance of generational trauma have harmed me, and are connected to the many manifestations of racist violence in Canada. The establishment of the Canadian Government. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Indian Act. Catholic missionaries and residential schools. Reservations and the pass system. The banning of potlatches and braids. The Sixties Scoop. Mass incarceration. Forced sterilization and birth alerts.
Our losses are impossible to count or quantify. What we’ve inherited is oppressive and destructive. Addictions, diseases, decimated animal populations and poisoned water. Murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. Thousands upon thousands of red ribbons, jail cells, unmarked graves, empty cradleboards, and chalk outlines. An epidemic of utter hopelessness and despair that convinces even the survivors of all of these horrors that their lives aren’t worth living. A deep and wounding disconnection to our land, our culture, our communities, our families, ourselves. These are all products of centuries of deliberate, institutionalized dehumanization.
Centuries of government-sanctioned physical and cultural genocide.
For the first time, I felt like I could acknowledge and grieve for the relatives I’ll never know. The memories that I’ll never make. The traditions that should have been as much a part of my life as la messe de minuit, or tourtière. A language that I should have learned alongside French and English. And I grieved again for those who have lost so much more—those who have lost so much, that grief is said to be woven into our genetic material.
It is impossible to overstate how much has been taken from First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. And that’s why exhibits like this one are crucial not only to the process of Reconciliation, but also the processes of Decolonization and Indigenization. It is crucial to not only take back the land, but to take back the language, the trades, the crafts, the spiritual practices, the teachings, the medicines, the art, and the stories. To create new ways of sharing and educating, of claiming that space. To proudly embrace traditions, while boldly shaping modern Indigenous culture. To strike through the reductive and inaccurate depictions of Indigenous culture in dusty old history books. To frame massive oil paintings in gold—done in the style of the old European masters—of the difficult and painful but also rich and vibrant lives of Indigenous people. And then to put them up in world-renowned galleries.
To take back the power of storytelling and use it tell stories of survival and resilience, triumph, and abundance.
I’ve been scared to delve deeper into my history. Scared of finding too much, unearthing stories of pain and suffering. Or of not finding anything at all, and losing my already tenuous grasp on my identity as a Métis woman. But experiencing Monkman’s work is to receive a gift of not only courage and inspiration, but the permission to validate ourselves—and each other. By reclaiming our stories.