I've impatiently awaited the mystery package due to arrive in the mail that my uncle has hinted at. When the envelope finally comes, I open it faster than a Lakota commercial exploits native heritage. Out falls an ID card with my picture on it. On a red stripe across the top is written "Certificate of Aboriginal status." My first thought is that I've received a random novelty gift akin to the "100 per cent bitch" cards sold at airports. I pucker at the sour taste of a fake status card. It seems simply wrong.
But after a few e-mails, it's revealed that my relatives decided to surprise me by digging up the family tree and applying for a Metis status card in my name.
Though raised in an environment with next to no connection to Metis culture, the fact that I have aboriginal ancestry is not a huge surprise. Before receiving the card, I could have guessed that, like most French Canadians, I have some aboriginal genes. I've even filed some family lore about famous aboriginal relatives in the "oddities" section of my mind where interesting-for-five-seconds facts go.
Had it not been for cultural genocide, perhaps I'd have a context for this news beyond elementary school presentations about toboggans and lacrosse. But now the card says I am an aboriginal person, so I am an aboriginal person sort of, maybe.
Contrary to the popular belief that First Nations people don't pay any taxes and all get paid to go to university, the card itself has no tangible impact on daily life. Aboriginal people do get certain tax exemption, but Metis do not. Metis do have a tentative right to hunt and fish and have access to some scholarship programs, which, if used by me, would no doubt result in some sort of karmic hell reserved for people who screw up equity programs.
While hunting and fishing rights are very important for Metis people connected to traditional ways of living, they don't directly affect me here in the city. Though I haven't capitalized on the situation, I still feel uneasy about having the card in my wallet. It has morphed into a sharp rectangular blade that increasingly slices into my comfortable imagined position in the world.
We are all manoeuvred into our many different little cultural identity boxes early in life, so it's a difficult process to climb back out to re-examine them. Metis people as a group have fought through this liminal stage to create a universally recognized box for themselves. But since racial groups are historically and socially constructed categories, if, like the proverbial tree in the forest, one is not perceived to belong to a group, does one? And who is the bearer of the definition?
When I look for answers, I'm met with a scribble similar to that applied to the marijuana laws two years ago. The government has left something along the lines of "to be negotiated" in the explanation of Metis identity, while the two main groups, the Ontario Metis Aboriginal Association (OMAA) and the Metis National Council (MNC) figure out the proper wording.
When identities are being defined and debated by competing interests, it's difficult to have much faith in any type of label that comes out. But on the other hand, race and culture do exist in our collective imagination, so I guess there's no real point in eradicating definitions. This would only lead to a swallowing of everything minority by the dominant culture.
Still, I don't think I could ever fully extricate myself from the meanings, habits and perceptions that come from being raised white and begin to identify myself as aboriginal. I could try to reconnect with a Metis community, but in all likelihood I won't. I'd feel as if I were trying to appropriate the experience of those whose identity is constantly threatened and boil it down to a few peripheral differences that could be picked up if I paid attention.
Culture is learned, but it also forms who you are and where you feel most comfortable no matter what a piece of plastic says.