Creating item level descriptions for materials entrusted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is a serious task and staff work diligently to ensure such descriptions are useful. To assist researchers, descriptions must be as complete as possible.
There is a common belief among those researching LAC’s Aboriginal material that the institution can always clearly identify such material by group, place and date. Unfortunately, when an item is entrusted to LAC, this level of detail is often missing; whenever possible, however, LAC provides supplementary information.
The Métis pose an additional challenge. While we can easily identify Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont as Métis and describe related records accordingly, not all Métis individuals publicly self-identify as Métis. So, are they really Métis?
Today, self-identification is one of the main ways for individuals to declare their Métis status, indeed the declaration is part of the process for obtaining a Métis card. Another opportunity for Métis Canadians to self-identify is the federal census. The 2006 Census shows that, over the previous decade, the Métis population grew faster than other Aboriginal groups, as well as the non-Aboriginal population. Between 1996 and 2006, the Métis population almost doubled (increasing by 91%). However, it is conceivable that this population growth was, in fact, the result of individuals choosing to self-identify.
How should we label records about Métis for future researchers? From an historical perspective, we cannot assume that individuals were always open about their ethnicity. In their time, identifying as Métis was not the easiest path. The Métis speak of a dark period after 1870 in which they endured hardships at the hands of Canadians. In response to these hardships, the community turned inwards. Self-identification could limit their economic opportunities and even threaten the security of their families.
Louis Riel wrote:
“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
Taking into account these Canadians’ personal choices is another part of the task of describing archival items. When we add the label Métis to a description, we must do so respectfully and judiciously.