Métis knowledge carrier Ken Robillard loves to talk about his heritage. The coordinator of the North Fraser Métis Association tells Pancouver by phone that the Métis are tough and hardworking.
However, throughout much of Canada’s history, these descendants of mixed European (mostly French) and Indigenous people weren’t fully accepted on the colonial or First Nations’ sides of society.
“Basically, we’re the children of the fur trade,” Robillard says. “We are the flower people.”
They’re also known for their bright ribbon clothing and elaborate beadwork.
Indeed, Robillard recalls how his grandmother made him a pullover jacket made from a deer hide to survive freezing Manitoba winters in his childhood. The fur was on the inside whereas the outside was covered in beads.
“I was so proud of all that beadwork on my moccasins, my doe skin, my mukluks, and my gloves with the string through it,” he says. “You never want to lose your gloves.”
Nevertheless, being Métis also came with considerable hardship. One of Robillard’s ancestors, Charles Larocque, was a council member in the Louis Riel–led Provisional Government of the Métis in 1869 and 1870.
The Red River Resistance, as it’s called, resulted from the transfer of vast swaths of territory in Rupert’s Land to the new national government of Canada. This led directly to Manitoba joining Confederation.
Moreover, Robillard reveals that his grandfather’s homestead was in what’s now downtown Winnipeg. His grandfather’s plot includes the current site of the Winnipeg police station.
Under the law, his grandfather had to make use of his land in a productive way within two years. But according to Robillard, authorities kept pushing him off the property.
Métis overcame tremendous hardship
His family later acquired farmland outside of Winnipeg in St. Claude, Manitoba.
“I spent six months on the farm, six months in the city,” he says of his childhood. “We always worked.”
Many Métis were dispersed to park and forest lands. As a result, Robillard says that they came to be known as the Road Allowance People. They would create makeshift communities across the Prairies, often living in uninsulated homes. But they still managed to sustain their culture of fiddling, jigging, and beadwork.
Robillard moved to B.C. at the age of 12. He says that his two sisters, aunt, and uncles all speak beautiful Parisian French.
“My grandfather is from Saint-Malo, France, which I visit quite a bit,” he says.
This weekend, Canadian Métis culture will be in the spotlight at this weekend’s Festival du Bois. At noon on Saturday (March 25), the Métis Jiggers—Fergus Dalton and Olivia Lamirande—are scheduled to perform on the main stage in Mackin Park in Coquitlam. They will be joined by fiddlers Kathleen Nisbet and Matthew Cook Contois, along with Fagen Furlong on guitar.
After that, the Métis Jiggers will offer workshop from 2 to 2:30 p.m. at Mackin House. The park is in the historically French-speaking neighbourhood of Maillardville.
That’s not all. Festival du Bois will also feature the Métis Village Experience, showcasing crafts—including beading and sewing—along with storytelling and artwork. In this part of Mackin Park, elders will be on-hand inside a 40’ by 40’ tent to share insights and recollections.
“This project will provide an introduction and voyage of discovery about the Métis people, their lives, history and the culture,” Robillard explains.
Elk hide processed in Burnaby school
One of those elders will be Senator Phillip Gladue with the Métis Nation British Columbia. Robillard reveals that last year, he and Gladue visited Alpha secondary school in Burnaby, where they processed an elk hide for students.
“This was the first time this was practised in a school since 1980,” Robillard says. “It was 10 by 10, stretch out—420 kids came through to process this hide and we made 15 drums out of it.”
For much of the 20th century, Métis struggled to retain their culture in the face of tremendous obstacles. But thanks to events like Festival du Bois, the public is learning more.
In the meantime, Robillard quips that he’s too young to be called an elder, which is why he prefers the term “knowledge carrier”.
His wife, Lorelei Lyons, operates a consulting business called 2 Métis Women. It offers culturally based workshops to support self-care, mindfulness, and community building.
Robillard adds that his wife also shares her insights with education students in university.
“New people who are coming to Canada don’t really understand what happened,” Robillard declares. “We’re just trying to tell them the truth.”
The 34th annual Festival du Bois takes place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (March 24 to 26) in Mackin Park (1046 Brunette Avenue) in the Maillardville area of Coquitlam. For more information and tickets, visit the festival website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter@charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.