Hiding in Plain Sight and the Métis Nation: How did it all start?

By Beth Greenhorn and William Benoit

When we began our research on a possible Métis exhibition in 2014, we had no idea what it would explore or how, what content we could uncover, or what the public’s perception would be. Prior to this, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) had not created an exhibition that focused on Métis Nation citizens, culture and history. When building an exhibition, we often wonder if our labour will be well received. Will the project have longevity or be a momentary flash in time?

While we knew that we wanted to highlight Métis records in the holdings at LAC, we quickly learned that even for us as LAC staff, these records were difficult to find. In the fall of 2014, a keyword search for “Métis” in art, photographic, cartographic and stamp records yielded fewer than 100 documents. We found it hard to believe that LAC holdings contained so few items related to the Métis. The issue had to be about the search terms historically used by archives to describe the Métis. Or the images depicting Métis individuals, activities and communities were described incorrectly. In spite of these obstacles, we were up for the challenge!

Work on the exhibition ramped up in 2015. We curated it in partnership with the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) and the Métis National Council (MNC). Their assistance and knowledge in curating this exhibition were invaluable in its success.

Between 2014 and 2016, we reviewed and updated over 1,800 records by adding “Métis” to the titles or descriptive notes, to make these documents more accessible and to better reflect the diverse voices of the collections at LAC. In addition to improving access to existing records, LAC digitized over 300 new photographic items pertaining to Métis history, many of which were featured in the exhibition. The strategies that we developed to uncover Métis content in the collections at LAC—using historical Métis communities and looking for indications of Métis material culture—offered the perfect title for the exhibition. The content we were searching for was “hiding in plain sight” all along; we just needed to uncover it.

Hiding in Plain Sight opened in February 2016 in LAC’s main building at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. We organized the exhibition into two themes: known portraits of Métis citizens, and artwork and photographs portraying visual clues to Métis culture.

The exhibition became bigger than we had ever imagined. In February 2017, it was adapted for an international audience when Hiding in Plain Sight: The Métis Nation was displayed at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Through the enthusiasm and financial support of the MMF, the MNC and the Government of Canada, Hiding in Plain Sight was transformed into a travelling exhibition of digital reproductions. Since opening at the Centre du patrimoine in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, in June 2017, the exhibition has travelled to 15 communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

Colour photograph of an exhibition space showing large vertical panels with photographs and texts.

Installation of Hiding in Plain Sight at the Centre du patrimoine in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, in June 2017. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Hiding in Plain Sight was shown at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery in Alberta from December 2018 to March 2019. Memories and treasures generously shared by local Métis citizens from their personal collections both personalized the exhibition and complemented the reproductions of artwork and photographs held at LAC.

The exhibition is currently on display at the Swift Current Museum in Saskatchewan. We are delighted by its popularity, and in particular that Métis Nation citizens living outside Ottawa have access to documentary heritage material about their history. It is also important that the general public has the opportunity to learn about the Métis and their rich history and culture in a manner that is accurate and appropriate.

Paving the way to greater access to Indigenous-related records

Whereas Hiding in Plain Sight focuses on art and photographic collections, LAC has increased the amount of digitized content related to the Métis Nation. From 2018 to 2021, the We Are Here: Sharing Stories (WAHSS) initiative digitized nearly 600,000 records from all media pertaining to First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation in Canada. More than half of these records relate to the Métis Nation. The WAHSS team incorporated the names of places, communities and individuals, along with cultural terms, into descriptions to more accurately represent the records and make it easier to find relevant documents. Among the records digitized were thousands of Métis Scrip and Red River lot maps, including this 1880 plan showing the Parish of Lorette, Manitoba.

A map in colour showing numbered farming lots along a river, with the names of individuals.

Plan of river lots in the Parish of Lorette, Manitoba, 1880 (e0011213853)

In 2021, LAC published Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada. This multilingual and interactive e-book features 28 essays written by First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation colleagues at LAC. Nine essays focus on the Métis Nation, presenting audio recordings in Heritage Michif of select images. Nations to Nations is free of charge and downloadable from Apple Books (iBooks format) or from the LAC website (EPUB format). An online version can be viewed on a desktop, tablet or mobile web browser without requiring a plug-in.

The second WAHSS initiative that began in 2022 continues to digitize records related to First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation. Significantly, the current WAHSS team is building on the reparative work we started in 2014 by finding and modifying archival record descriptions through a decolonizing lens.

To learn more about Hiding in Plain Sight, you can read the blog article written in 2016, when the exhibition opened in Ottawa.

To learn more about LAC’s commitment to playing a significant role in reconciliation, you can read LAC’s Indigenous Heritage Action Plan.

Additional resources related to the Métis Nation

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.

 William Benoit is Red River Métis. He grew up in the historic Métis community of St. Norbert, Manitoba. He has a background in Canadian history and Indigenous genealogy. He is an Advisor, Internal Indigenous Engagement, in the Outreach and Engagement Branch at Library and Archives Canada.