Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis Nation in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada

By Beth Greenhorn

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

Who Are the Métis?

The Métis Nation emerged as a distinct people during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are the second largest of the three Indigenous peoples of Canada and are the descendants of First Nations peoples and Europeans involved in the fur trade.

Métis communities are found widely in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories, with a smaller number in British Columbia, Ontario, Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a great variety of archival documents pertaining to the Métis Nation (including textual records, photographs, artwork, maps, stamps and sound recordings); however, finding these records can be a challenge.

Challenges in Researching Métis Content in the Art and Photographic Collections

While there are easily identifiable portraits of well-known leaders and politicians, including these portraits of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, images depicting less famous Métis are difficult to find. Original titles betray historical weaknesses when it comes to describing Métis content.

In many cases, the Métis have gone unrecognized or were mistaken for European or First Nations groups—such as the people in this photograph entitled “Chippewa Indians with Red River Carts at Dufferin.”

Black and white photograph of a man, on the left, wearing European clothing and standing in front of a Red River cart, and a group of First Nations men, women and children wearing First Nations-style clothing and standing in front of another Red River cart, on the right.

Chippewa Indians with Red River Carts at [Fort] Dufferin” Manitoba, 1873 (MIKAN 3368366)

Clad in blankets and wearing feathered headdresses and other hair ornaments, the group on the right appears to belong to the Chippewa (Ojibwe) First Nation, as the title indicates. In contrast, the man on the left is dressed in a European jacket and pants and wears a different style of hat. However, both the man and the group pose in front of Red River carts, which are unique to Métis culture. Given his different style of clothing, coupled with the carts, it is possible that the man was Métis.

In other cases, archival descriptions exemplify colonial views of the “other” culture. Penned over a century ago, the language is often outdated, and the terminology racist, by today’s standards.

A watercolour landscape of a man, flanked by two women, standing in front of a body of water. The man is holding a rifle and the woman on the right is holding a long pipe and carrying an infant in a cradleboard on her back.

A Halfcast and His Two Wives 1825-26 (MIKAN 2835810)

Terms such as “half-caste,” “half-breed,” and “mixed breed” were widely used by the dominant society to describe members of the Métis Nation. This vocabulary is commonly found in older archival records.

In other instances, descriptions of Métis were completely omitted, as is the case with this lithograph, entitled “A Gentleman travelling in a dog Cariole in Hudson’s Bay with an Indian Guide.”

A lithograph of a snowy landscape with a man seated in a cariole (sled) pulled by three dogs in colourful coats. A man wearing a blanket and snowshoes is on the left in front of the dogs. A man holding a whip and wearing clothing associated with Métis culture (a long blue jacket, red leggings and an embellished hat) walks on the right-hand side of the sled.

A Gentleman travelling in a dog Cariole in Hudson’s Bay with an Indian Guide, 1825 (MIKAN 3018052)

Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada

In the fall of 2014, a keyword search for “Métis” in art, photographic, cartographic and stamp records yielded less than 100 documents. LAC has since updated and revised over 1,800 records by adding “Métis” to the titles or descriptive notes in order to make these documents more accessible. In addition to improving existing records, LAC has digitized over 300 new photographic items pertaining to Métis history.

The Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada exhibition presents a selection of reproductions of artwork and photographs with Métis content. LAC hopes that the images featured in this exhibition will provide a better understanding of the history of the Métis Nation and that the public will be encouraged to research LAC’s collection.

The exhibition runs from February 11 to April 22, 2016, in the lobby of Library and Archives Canada at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa.

Additional resources

Beth Greenhorn is a settler living on the unceded, traditional territory of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan. She is a Senior Project Manager in the Outreach and Engagement Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

6 thoughts on “Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis Nation in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada

  1. Pingback: Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis Nation in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada

  2. Ontario should be included in Metis territories, at the very least. If not most of North America: the question of Metis territoriality is hugely debated at this point and subject to political controversies. I hope this administrators will correct this mistake/omission.

    • Thank you for your comment –
      As you point out, there are many definitions of Métis and defining them is beyond the scope of this article. The blog’s purpose is to highlight the LAC collection and make it more accessible to the public. In this instance, we seek to point out some of the challenges in even locating material pertaining to the Métis because they were historically so poorly described. The article does, however, include Ontario in the list of areas where Métis communities are found.

  3. Pingback: Métis Nation in Canada «

  4. Hi I do not see any mention of Nova Scotia and the metis people of Atlantic Canada.
    is this also because of lack of information?
    We are a people …… the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation of Nova Scotia.

  5. There are actually a lot of photos of Métis individuals. The Glenbow archives alone has hundreds. The issue, however, is not only that they are not listed as Métis; their ethnicity isn’t usually given at all. Since “white” is the default category in mainstream Canadian society, and since Métis usually have European names and often wore European clothes (especially when being photographed), many portraits of Métis individuals are just assumed to be of white people. Unless one has a fairly comprehensive knowledge of Métis individuals and genealogies, portraits of Métis can be difficult to discern. Or, as LAC has put it, hidden in plain sight.

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