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Light-skinned, Urban Metis With A Degree

Authored by: Brigitte Benning

Date: January 13, 2020

Why the title “Light-skinned Urban Métis with a Degree”? Well, because those are often the parts about me that people use to subtract from my Métis-ness. My skin is white, I live in a city, and I went to university for not one, but two degrees. I even did the “dirtiest word in the Indigenous vocabulary”-research. At this point in the equation, I’m probably not even Métis, right?

Except I am.

Still, people are often not ready for this truth. Eventually they wrap their head around it, but not before some comments that weren’t meant to be unkind, yet take your breath away all the same. My whole life, I hear three repeated responses when I share that I am Métis:

“Oh, you don’t look it, what percent are you?”

“Do you have a card?”

“So you get to hunt, buy smokes and go to school for free?”

My answer has always been to laugh along with them and do the old I know, I know head nod.

I’d like to say I am more radical in my response, but these are really hard comments to navigate. How do I casually explain the history of this country, the experiences of my family, and my own ever-changing journey of self-identity, as I tie my soccer shoes or as we pour our coffee in the lunchroom?

So instead I laugh, gently correct what I can, and then once I’ve caught my breath – I do the work.

I visit with my parents, sisters and friends about the conversation and how it made me feel and how I would like to address it. I read, and read, and read about our people. I listen, and listen, and listen about our people. I teach myself the language that can explain this experience. Then I share, and share and share.

I put on my sash and I go to a classroom and I tell the kids that I in fact do look Métis. That this is what Métis can look like, and that people can’t be fractioned like numbers. I explain that no one asks me what percentage German I am, so why ask about Métis?

My heart fills when their hands shoot up and they proudly tell me that they too are Métis, or German, or Cree, or Fillipino, or have a Kokum, or can jig.

I talk to educators about the Indian Act, Treaties, the Red River Resistance, Land Scrip Policy, the Residential School System, the painstaking process of applying for a Métis card, and all the ways in which the Canadian Government has tried to take away the “Indian, Halfbreed or Eskimo” and give it back to us through a status card, maybe with a “sorry” attached.

My heart fills when someone stays behind and shares quietly that they are Métis too and have really struggled to get their kids cards and miss their grandma and give me a hug.

I visit with students in post-secondary education and explain that I would love to live on the land and be learning from my great-grandparents in the language of Michif, but things are different now and we are all finding our way. So I build community in this city and across Instagram, I learn in classrooms and during workshops, I add all of this to the beautiful bundle that has been passed down to me.

My heart fills when a student tears up during a Talking Circle and bravely tells the story of how they are trying to keep their culture alive while they are living a country away from their family and roots.

I explain to my friends that I actually didn’t just get to go to school for free. I received a scholarship for playing on the college soccer team, a bursary for community leadership, and one of the more prestigious awards in the country for the grades I had received and the research project I created. Then the rest of the bills were covered by the hard work of my supportive parents and myself.

My heart fills when I hear them explain this to another friend in my presence, and give me a small smile.

After these conversations, I am alive and I can feel my ancestors coursing through me.

But then I’m tired, and I am plagued with my own self doubt. I start to ask if I really do belong, if I’m taking up too much space, and if I should just set it all down.

That’s when I think of my Mum and remember the gift she gave us - Pride.

I think of my Great-Grandma and Grandpa and everything they had to sacrifice to live because the world wouldn’t accept ‘halfbreeds’. I think of my niece and how I want her to be unquestionably proud to be Métis. I think of my Elder Angie and the blood, sweat and love she’s put into a lifetime of celebrating her people. I think of Louis Riel and his prophecy, and I remember that the artists are giving us our spirits back.

All of a sudden there’s no room in my body for self-doubt because it’s full of dreams.

So I stop focusing on that self-deprecating title and I say my name:

I’m Brigitte Benning, and I’m proud to be Métis.

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