Anxious States and the Co-optation of Métisness – Jennifer Adese

Panic is interwoven into my life, and generally, I find that I notice feelings of anxiety far more often than I remember to breathe. I’m not entirely sure whether my anxiety exists because I have inherited a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) that seems to run in my family, or that I have been a graduate student for so many years that I can no longer distinguish between feelings of genuine anxiety and the normal flow of everyday graduate student life. While I have been thinking through anxiety as it pertains to my personal life, I have also done some preliminary writing and thinking about it in my doctoral research about public anxieties versus solely private anxieties. Expanding the scope of my personal reflections to look at broader literature on the topic of anxiety, I see that I am not alone in my anxious state. Theorists like Zygmunt Bauman and Anthony Giddens have speculated about heightened social anxieties as a direct byproduct of contemporary consumer culture – of living in societies ruled by market logics where the well-being of corporations principally dominates the political, cultural, and social landscape of Euro-western nations.

While the anxieties that accompany the sort of living Bauman and Giddens write about do resonate with me, I am interested here in reflecting on anxious encounters of another kind – ones that resonate on both a personal and professional level. These other anxieties are anxieties about Others, namely what a number of authors such as Homi Bhabha, Anthony Moran, Daniel Coleman, and Paulette Regan have separately referred to as “colonial anxiety” or “settler anxiety.” In a Canadian colonial context, colonial, settler colonial or settler anxieties involve feelings of fear, terror, and unease. They involve feelings of restlessness, breathlessness, rootlessness, and at times of a palpable and negative loneliness that percolates within the Canadian (un)conscious. Anxiety in this context arises primarily within Canadians of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, although as Malissa Phung has pointed out, “settlers of colour” are by no means free of such anxieties.[i] Settler anxieties are generally attributed to those people and their descendants who have endeavoured to insist on a Canada that is a white, Anglophone nation-state and to affirm and defend both their own and the nation-state’s legitimacy to those peoples deemed extraneous to the nation-state, to Canada’s American “neighbors,” and vis-à-vis the English colonial metropole.

While I have given some thought to the notion of settler anxiety, it was not until early June of this year, when I had the privilege of attending the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) annual conference held at the Mohegan Sun that I began to think more seriously about the way settler anxieties significantly encroach upon my specific Indigenous nation. While there was a wealth of insightful and engaging presentations at the NAISA conference given by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics and community workers, I was especially intrigued by the presentation of Métis PhD Candidate and Yale University’s 2012 Henry Roe Cloud Dissertation Writing Fellow in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, Adam Gaudry. Gaudry’s talk, titled “The Indigenization of Canada: Louis Riel, the Métis and the Inversion of Colonialism,” examined the settler and state appropriations of the image of Louis Riel, leader of the Métis of the 1885 Northwest Resistance, or what Neal McLeod reminds us in the Cree language is commonly known as ê-mâyikamikahk (where it went wrong).[ii]  As Gaudry writes in a related online post for the University of Victoria student newspaper The Martlet, while Riel was willing to work with Canada to ensure the future of the Métis Nation, he was never a Canadian and certainly never viewed himself as such. Gaudry’s claim is one which is fully supported by Riel’s publicly available writings.[iii] In the article, published on the anniversary of Riel’s execution, Gaudry writes that “Canadians are frankly undeserving to claim him [Riel] as one of their own. He is, and always will be, a Métis nationalist who did not consider himself Canadian, put the interests of his people above all else, and was willing to give his life in the face of a military invasion to fight for his peoples.”[iv]

Like Gaudry, I have noted a shift in Canadian attitudes towards Riel, signaled by renewed debates over whether or not the Canadian state should grant Riel a posthumous pardon. Yet one of the most vivid examples appears as the marketing of Riel as a part of “our heritage” through the Heritage Minutes which regularly air on CBC. Riel’s life and execution are portrayed as a defining moment of Canadian history with the late Métis Nation leader recast as a Canadian hero rather than as a “half-breed” heretic. Further, in recent years there have been calls by settler Canadians to exonerate Riel and to promote him as a “Father of Confederation.” Renowned writer John Ralston Saul has gone so far as to publicly declare in his book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada that Canada is, at its heart (albeit at its forgotten heart), “Métis Nation,” an ideal configuration of Canadianness – a meeting point between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Canadians, he urges, must awaken to the truth of Canada’s identity as one that is thoroughly fused with Europeanness and Indigeneity. While Saul’s claim is predicated upon a romanticized view of Canadian and Métis identities, he does acknowledge that there are problems with such easy interpretations of intermarriage between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. Drawing on the work of Jeannette Armstrong, Saul affirms that Europeans encouraged intermarriage at various points as a modus operandi to “indigenize” and “legitimize” colonial presence on Indigenous lands. This indigenization helped to preempt settler anxiety and to circumvent questions about the validity of colonial peoples on Indigenous lands.

By reaffirming myths of Anglo-Canadian settlement through the pacification of Métis, there is, as University of Alberta professor Chris Andersen writes on his blog “Big M Musings,” “something more constitutive going on here.”[v] In his piece, Andersen refers to what can be considered another example of the co-optation of Métisness, specifically through the recent round of Conservative federal government budget cuts to Parks Canada. As one of many historic sites to have had their funding cut under Parks Canada, Riel House, the site where Riel’s body lay for viewings following his execution, will no longer be partnered with the St. Boniface Historical Society. The historical society, which provided guided, interpretive tours of the site, sharing information with visitors about Riel, Métis peoples, and the history of the Métis, will not have its partnership with Parks Canada renewed. While visitors may still embark on self-guided tours of the site, the separation of Métis self-told narratives from this key Métis historical site is telling. Andersen writes that “Harper said that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once his government was finished their work – constituting and suturing together official national narratives represents important venues through which this rewriting of Canadian history will take place.”[vi]

Flying in the face of the Métis narratives of self and of Métis nationhood, non-Métis Canadians continue to draw on Métis in attempts to indigenize and legitimize settler Canadian-ness. To what end is the indigenization of settler Canadianess needed? Why go to such trouble as to appropriate the undoubtedly controversial Riel rather than simply continue to vilify him? Assuredly, the appropriation of Riel and incorporation of his image into the state, the claiming of Riel as the Canadian state’s own obscures, to some degree, the deep anti-Métis racism of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, and his state’s racist witch-hunt of Riel as they sought an unencumbered passage through the Northwest Territories to British Columbia. Understood from this position, the repurposing of Riel’s legacy reflects a more widespread anxiety that is not confined to individual affect. It demonstrates an anxiety that is a defining aspect of contemporary Canadian political, social, and cultural life, to an anxiety that can be seen in both the state’s narrative transformation of Riel House and in the overall Canadianization of Riel that Gaudry identified. This anxiety, however, circulates in much less obvious and much more insidious ways. Principally, the unique expression of such anxiety arises from the state’s calculated effort to, as David Theo Goldberg has suggested in his work The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism, cover over rather than come to terms with, its racist and colonial past and the perpetuation of statist white superiority at present. For Goldberg, this negation is the hallmark of a “post-racial” moment where a neoliberal state “attempt[s] to go beyond – without (fully) coming to terms with – racial histories and their accompanying inequalities…to transform, via the negating dialectic of denial and ignoring, racially marked social orders into racially erased ones.”[vii]

The difficulty I have with employing the language of the “post-racial” is that while Canada is attempting to bury or move beyond its racism, it has never actually admitted to having been “racial” (to say nothing of the fact that it still is). To some degree, a post-racial state would have to have been, at one point, a racial state. To some degree the state would have to be willing to acknowledge a racist past in order to “go beyond” it. The racisms of earlier eras are completely ignored in Canada, as though in contrast to the United States and the begrudging recognition of slavery as part of the nation’s past, Canada has not been a forebear of state-based racist action – almost as if the pain of owning up to a racist past (or even entertaining the idea of such a past) is too much for settlers to bear. Yet this is exactly why Canada may be considered as such, and why Susan Searls Giroux writes that post-racial states may be more accurately described as racist states. Post-racial states are states that profess their racelessness, states that in reality “seek more often than not to dissolve all forms of socially contracted responsibility” (3).[viii] Racism is derided as the sole propensity of the “‘far right,’ loony extremists, individual or collective, such as the various forms of ‘national front’ or neo-Nazi groups.”[ix] Rendering racism as exceptional, the neoliberal state reinforces the idea that it is “exonerated, guiltless” and not complicit in racism.[x]  Taking the work of Goldberg and Searls Giroux into account, the co-optation of Métis, whether through the claiming of Riel, the seemingly innocuous rearticulation of history at Riel House, or through Saul’s decontextualization of Métisness, Métis are increasingly being used to help “sustain the foundation myth.”[xi]

So perhaps my personal anxieties are not “all in my head.” Perhaps they are more than simply the product of an inherited (and Euro-psychologically-defined) social disorder or the ebb and flow of graduate student life. Yes, they are certainly tied to the latter, a symptom of the kinds of anxieties which people like Bauman and Giddens identify. However, contemporary anxieties in colonial nations, even those pertaining to contemporary consumer culture, never exist in isolation from anxieties arising from their colonial legacies. Perhaps my anxieties are the product of growing up in an anxious colonial state, a nation-state that is at its very core, afraid of its own reflection. Perhaps I am also made anxious by the state’s continuing unwillingness to recognize me and other Métis on our own terms, instead attempting to manipulate us, our leaders, and our stories, to fit the nation-state’s perverted fantasies of peaceful settlement. Try as it may to use us as such, Métis are not malleable objects for the state to, as Margaret Werry suggests, imagineer itself at the expense of a recognize of the brutality that it has visited on the Métis Nation, and on other Indigenous nations.


[i] Malissa Phung, “Are People of Colour Settlers Too?” Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation Through the Lens of Cultural Diversity. Eds. Ashok Mathur, Jonathan Dewar, and Mark DeGagné. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2011. 289-298.

[ii] Neal McLeod, “Rethinking Treaty Six in the Spirit of Mistahi Maskwa (Big Bear).” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XIX.1 (1999): 69-89.

[iv] Adam Gaudry, “Louis Riel: Métis nationalism.” The Martlet 64.14 (2011).

[v] Chris Andersen, “Riel (House) and the Battle of 1812).”

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] ” qtd. in Susan Searls Giroux, Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. 4.

[viii] Ibid. 3.

[ix] David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Malden: Blackwell, 2009. 181.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991. 26.

Jennifer Adese is of the Otipemisiwak (Cree-Métis) who is descended from the historic Métis communities of Lac Ste. Anne and St. Albert.  She currently holds the position of New Sun Visiting Aboriginal Scholar, Assistant Professor, in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University.  Moving from a small town to a mid-size city, Jennifer was born in Coast Salish traditional territory and was raised in Haudenosaunee and Neutral traditional territory.  She relocated to Anishinaabe territory and the city of Thunder Bay where she attended Lakehead University and obtained a BA in Political Science (Pre-Law) and an HBA in Political Science, along with minors in Women’s Studies and Severn Ojibwe.  In 2006 she returned to Haudenosaunee territory and took up a Masters degree in Cultural Studies & Critical Theory, within the Department of English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University.  As a Canada Graduate Scholar and Harvey E. Longboat Graduate Scholarship recipient, Jennifer recently completed her PhD in English (Cultural Studies).  Her doctoral thesis, titled “Aboriginal™: Constructing the Aboriginal and Imagineering the Canadian National Brand,” examines representations of Indianness and Aboriginality in the latter part of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries across a number of tourism-related sites.

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