A Lower Mainland man’s search for what it means to be Métis
‘Métis is not what they teach you in school. It’s much more than that,’ says Chris Trottier.
All Chris Trottier ever knew about the Métis is what he learned in school: that they were a mixed-breed people with Indigenous and settler ancestries.
But a meeting with his long-estranged father seven years ago revealed that their family is Métis. The revelation knocked Chris’ world off its axis because he didn’t know what being Métis meant. It also prompted him to revisit everything he thought he knew about who he was and where he came from, questions that went painfully unanswered while growing up.
Now 37, Trottier is on a journey to know more about his Métis heritage so he can fill a lifelong void, and ensure his daughter grows up with an identity. But with inadequate education about Métis in schools, and no single central source of information about his people, learning the truth of his identity may lie in connecting with one local Métis person at a time.
“It’s a door in my life that’s never been opened and I had to open it,” he says. “I had to make peace with the fact that there are truths that I had to reconcile with.”
According the the Métis Nation B.C. website, Métis are the descendents of children from blended relationships between European traders and Indigenous women. The first Métis were documented on Canada’s plains in the 1700s. Spurned by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the Métis became their own people, creating a culture that melded European and Indigenous customs. They developed their own language called Michif. And in 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that the Canadian federal government has a constitutional responsibility to the Métis.
The arc of Trottier’s story began in the Vancouver suburbs of Richmond and Delta, B.C., where he grew up. When he was three years old, his parents split up, and his father walked out of the family home and out of Chris’ and his two sisters’ lives. The disruption left a hole in Chris’ life both as a son and as an Indigenous person.
“All I knew was that my dad was some kind of Indian, I didn’t know what kind. It felt like I didn’t have an identity,” says the married father of one. “Everything was like one big void and others didn’t have that same void.”
Seemingly simple but complex questions became ghosts that haunted Trottier’s early life: Who am I; where do I come from; what are my roots. With no one to provide answers, the void became a crushing black vacuum. “One of the hardest things a kid can go through is living a life without connection to anything,” Trottier says. “I don’t want my daughter to have to go through that.”
In 2011 at age 30 Trottier was living a successful life. He was educated, employed by a high-profile social media company and was now married. But he still didn’t have any answers to the questions that dogged his youth. Instead, they became background noise in a busy life.
But a chance meeting with a newly discovered half-brother online led to a phone call with his estranged father in the summer of 2012, after 27 years apart. “When we finally talked again, he told me, ‘I’m Métis and so are you,’” Trottier says.
Not knowing what a Métis was, he defaulted to what he learned in high school. “But we were taught that Métis people were mixes,” Trottier says. “That’s not an identity — that’s a recipe. People aren’t just breeds.”
Trottier is part of a growing number of people in B.C.’s Lower Mainland who identify as Métis. According to the 2016 census, 24,510 people self-identified as Métis in Greater Vancouver, that’s up from 18,485 in 2011. Across the province, more than 89,405 people self-identified as Métis in 2016, the census shows.
The old questions that beset Trottier when he was younger resurfaced. But he wasn’t a teenager anymore. He was a grown man. He re-focussed his gaze, and applied problem-solving skills he developed as a professional: drilling down and researching and analyzing. “I didn’t know about who Métis people really were, so I set out to learn more, to figure it out, and to make this a part of me,” he says.
The issue still weighed on him. Feeling out of sorts one day, he took a walk along English Bay. He happened upon two Indigenous men there and struck up a conversation. He told them about talking to his estranged father after 27 years, and about being told that he’s Métis. Their replies gave him new perspective.
“One said he hadn’t seen his dad in 40 years. The other never knew his dad. It made me realize that my situation with my dad isn’t the biggest tragedy to befall Indigenous people,” he says. “But still, I’d never had anyone to walk me through this and set me straight about who I was.”
‘I’m proud to be Métis,’ elder says
Métis elder Ken Pruden doesn’t know Chris Trottier, but he understands how difficult his journey is. He took a similar journey before Trottier was born.
Pruden was serving in the Canadian Air Force overseas in 1971 when he got a letter from his brother back home in Manitoba saying he discovered they were Métis. “My father died when I was eight, so I never knew. I’d heard of Métis before, but I didn’t understand because I’d never thought about it until then,” he says. “Back in Selkirk, I remember Métis were called half-breeds, and they spent their lives fighting.”
The revelation planted a seed in Pruden. He left the Air Force after 26 years, and he and his wife moved back to Canada. He worked a series of jobs, including as a building services manager, a university administrator and a funeral director.
Throughout, he pondered his identity, until in the late 1980s he resolved to join the Vancouver Métis Community Association. Then-VMCA president J. Paul Stevenson gave Pruden his first Métis sash in 1987. “I was quite excited and relieved. It felt good to put on and I’ve worn it at every ceremony I’ve attended since,” he says.
Now 81, Pruden has been a student of Métis culture and history for decades. He’s read reams of books and done research, and the more he found out the more he began to understand his past. His parents often temporarily took in families who needed help, he says, something he too continued to do after growing up. He also moved around a lot, calling wherever he stopped home. “It explained a lot of things from my childhood. It explained why I am the way I am,” he says.
But his most valuable education about his identity came from listening to Métis elders. “I talked to elders and I learned the way I should have when I was younger,” Pruden says.
Today, Pruden is active in the Métis community. He just finished working in the prison system as a Métis elder, counselling Métis inmates. He helps with the Métis exhibit at a museum in Fort Langley. And he makes himself available for public gatherings.
“I’m proud to be Métis,” Pruden says. “We are the first mixed-race people in Canada. We’ve fought for our rights and survived on our own.”
‘I want to know the truth,’ Trottier says
Back in Richmond, Chris Trottier continues his journey to learn more about his Métis Identity.
In 2015, he travelled to Ontario to meet his father and his extended family. There, he learned several things: He is related to former NHL great Bryan Trottier; his family has a long history with the Métis dating back to the Red River and Northwest rebellions; and he also learned that the family travelled a lot growing up.
“Métis is not what they teach you in school. It’s much more than that,” Trottier says now. “It’s part of a bigger picture.”
Trottier’s journey didn’t end with visiting his father’s family; it continues. He’s poured over books about Métis history and culture from the Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatchewan. He’s active on social media, and converses with other Métis people on Twitter. And he’s learning the Métis language, Michif, using an app he downloaded to his phone.
While Trottier wants to begin going to Métis cultural events, he says he’s hesitant to walk through the door. When he does, he intends to do so quietly and just listen. “I really want to learn more and I will because I think Métis culture is a precious thing,” he says. “I want to know the truth. I want to care. I really do.”
Ken Pruden supports Trottier’s journey. He’s come this far, he says. Now he encourages Trottier to walk through that last door where the next phase of his journey awaits.
“The Métis associations all have regular ceremonies, dances and feasts. They help the community and teach the culture,” Pruden says. “The things Métis went through, some of the difficulties they faced and how they overcame them. I would encourage him to continue.”
Looking back at the day he found out he is Métis, Trottier says he was naive and unprepared for the truth. Now he’s determined to ensure that his five-year-old daughter knows who she is.
“I want to her to grow up always knowing who she is and to be strong. I want her to feel she belongs here,” he says. “I want to make sure that whatever I learn about being Métis doesn’t just die with me; that she’ll carry on who we are.”