by EVAN MATTHEWS
“My mother went to her grave denying there was Indian blood in her,” says Morris Turmel.
“She wouldn’t talk about it.”
Seventy-five-year-old Turmel identifies as Métis — meaning a person of mixed European and Aboriginal descent — more specifically as Mi’kmaq. Turmel says much of his family came from Nova Scotia and Quebec, gradually moving west over a century.
The youngest of six siblings, Turmel says his siblings were all born and raised in St. Paul, Alberta, while his father tried farming.
Turmel’s parents instructed his siblings to register for school as French students rather than Métis in order to avoid discrimination, he says.
“My mother went to her grave denying there was Indian blood in her,” — Morris Turmel
Morris’ wife Judy, who also identifies at Métis, says it was commonplace at the time for a person to deny their Aboriginal ancestry.
“It was just easier,” she says.
But the other students eventually found out about Turmel’s siblings’ Métis heritage, and he says his siblings ended up in a ton of fights — both verbal and physical — called “half-breeds” by the other children.
“A Métis person walks down the middle of the road,” says Turmel, speaking metaphorically. “The white side doesn’t like you because you’re half Indian, but the Indian side doesn’t like you because you’re half white.”
The rights of Metis people have been murky in the law until last year.
In April 2016, The Supreme Court of Canada ruled to extend the rights of Métis and “non-status Indians.” But the ruling doesn’t extend the same benefits to a Métis person that a Status Indian would receive. Rather, the Supreme Court’s ruling gives some 600,000 non-status and Métis people a starting point to negotiate rights, treaties, services and benefits with the Federal Government.
Financial benefits, land rights, etc., to Métis people have not been outlined in the Supreme Court’s decision, and whether or not anything specific comes from the decision remains to be seen.
Eventually, Turmel’s father would give up on farming, and the family moved to the coast, where Turmel was born in 1942.
Because his siblings were told to hide their heritage, and because Turmel never experienced life in St. Paul, Turmel says he never had the opportunity to discover or discuss his family’s heritage.
“I didn’t know I was Métis until I was about 30 years old, not until after I got married,” says Turmel. “I had my suspicions.”
Ultimately, to Turmel, the ruling is more about inclusion than it is about benefits.
“The Supreme Court ruled in our favour, but we’re probably still
looking at four or five years before we see anything real,” says Turmel.
“But the discrimination is kind of gone… The decision is good for inclusion.”
For Turmel, he wants his children and his grandchildren to be proud of who they are — their heritage — a luxury he never experienced himself growing up.