“For a lot of people, we are just not reality on the radar, I guarantee most people [on the prairies] know a Metis person that they don’t know is Metis. Metis are a people with distinct culture, history, traditions and way[s] of life.”

-Matt Hiltermann

According to the Government of Alberta’s Metis Relations article, “Alberta has the largest Métis population in the country with over 114,000 Métis people living in the province.”

For having such a significant presence, the Metis Nation of Alberta is rarely mentioned in communications and media. To help change this I interviewed a good friend of mine Matt Hiltermann. Matt is a Metis Nation of Alberta – Region Three historian, and a Metis historical and cultural museum consultant.

Before getting into Matt’s tips for communicators, it’s important to have some background on this topic. This will be a two-part article, with part one outlining what Metis means and its current place in public discourse, and part two discussing Matt’s tips for communicators. I believe it’s important for everyone, and especially communicators to understand the history of the spaces they occupy.

Asking Problematic Questions

This article was originally going to be Matt’s tips for communicating with a Metis target audience, but it quickly became clear that this is an inappropriate question.

Matt Hiltermann is a Metis Nation of Alberta – Region Three historian. He consults with Calgarian museums on how to properly incorporate and represent Metis history and culture.

“We are not aliens. Today – and really, historically – there has always been a lot of diversity in [our] community. So there isn’t a one size fits all communication style that’s going to reach [all] Metis people. It’s often good to have a few different approaches. I mean that’s true for people at large, but especially for a group that historically and contemporarily is so internally diverse.”

Talk about a communication blunder on my part.

My article was based on a premise that made my interviewee feel like an alien. Turns out this article will actually be about the importance of nuance and challenging your assumptions. I asked how, if at all, he defines groups within the Metis community.

“In terms of defining those groups within the community, I find there’s a strong north-south divide,”  says Hiltermann. “With the Metis of the Athabasca and Peace Country, as well as the Churchill Watershed, being more enculturated to Cree norms, customs and culture. Whereas Metis in the south tends to have a stronger European influence.”

Three times during this explanation, however, Matt emphasized that these are “Very broad strokes.” that cannot be applied to everyone.

“The Metis nation has always been internally pluralistic,” says Hiltermann. “Accepting a lot of difference or variety, in terms of language and religion…. Many Metis moved between many distinct Metis lifestyles. For example, one may be raised as a farmer, then [work as] a buffalo hunter and then a fur trader.”

What is Metis?

I asked Matt if he thinks most Canadians know what Metis means. In his experience, people either think it’s half French and half Indigenous or that it’s any mix of indigenous and some form of white.

“For a lot of people, we are just not reality on the radar, I guarantee most people [on the prairies] know a Metis person that they don’t know is Metis. Metis are a people with distinct culture, history, traditions and way[s] of life.”

At this point I was confused about how The Metis Nation of Alberta has a distinct culture, yet is too diverse to be looked at as a target audience.

Metis in Public Discourse

I asked Matt why he thinks Metis culture and history are talked about less than other Indigenous peoples of Canada.

“For a lot of Metis, there’s a history of exclusion because Canadian history and historical narratives are predicated on the frontier myth,” he says. “And, one of the premises of the frontier myth is the dichotomy between ‘white’ and ‘indian. This mutually exclusive dichotomy doesn’t allow for people with aspects of both. So while a lot of First Nations and Inuit material is marginalized vis-à-vis the dominant narrative, Metis content is liminalized. It’s completely invisible because it doesn’t fit neatly into that binary.”

Matt’s presentation on Reading Metis History Into the Landscape of Edmonton, specifically at the 25 minute 55-second mark further explains the frontier myth and other reasons that Metis history in Alberta is often overlooked.

If there’s anything Matt wanted to drive home, it’s to challenge our assumptions. Whether it’s assuming what Metis means or that the Metis community is a uniform target audience, these assumptions are harmful to both communicators and the Metis community.

Now that we have set our assumptions aside, stay tuned for part two of this article where I’ll outline Matt’s tips for communicators.

Thanks for reading! Comment below to share your thoughts on this blog post. 

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