Empowering Métis belonging

Transparent image of mother and child accompanied by a hand painted background showcasing illustrated waves, and a canoe.

A story of identity found

The following is an adaptation of a presentation by Marilyn Robitaille, Ontario Secon­dary School Teachers’ Fede­­ration (OSSTF/FEESO) District 14 member and proud Métis woman, at the inaugural triennial OSSTF/FEESO Equity, Anti-Racism, and Anti-Oppression Officer Conference in the fall of 2023.

I want to begin by describing the opening scenes of a documentary called “In Our Blood: An Oral History of the Georgian Bay Métis.” It was recorded in 2011 by the Moon River Métis Council.

The documentary opens with a woman, Pearl Gabona, boarding a fishing boat, on her way to visit the birthplace of her mother. Pearl did not grow up knowing her biological mother. After years of research and finding her Métis community, Pearl is finally able to visit the island her mother was born on, the island of her ancestors’ homestead.

When they arrive at the island, Pearl is overcome with emotion and explains how she always felt at home when visiting the rocks of Georgian Bay and the Parry Sound area. The video pans over the island of rock and trees, and Pearl realizes that the landscape she always intuitively loved is the landscape of her ancestors’ homestead in Moon River, Ontario.

The documentary continues and various members of the Moon River Métis community are interviewed. They discuss their traditions and lives, as well as the hardships and joy of being Métis. It ends with Pearl surrounded by her family at a Métis gathering, where she has found her place and belonging in the Métis community.

I want to share a bit more about Pearl’s story. Pearl is my mother. Her story is my story.

Pearl didn’t meet her mom until she was in her late thirties. Pearl and her siblings met their birth mother when she was very ill. At this time, they asked again about their family heritage. On her death bed, in her final days, Pearl’s mother told her children she was Spanish. As an adult, Pearl asked her father many times about her mother’s heritage, and never got a straight

After her mother passed, and years later after her father and stepmother had also passed, Pearl began the long journey of research and searching for her mother’s family and heritage. In the early 2000s she went to Moon River, Ontario, and found Louise Goulding, her cousin. Louise took Pearl to the island to see her
mother’s birthplace and homestead. The moment I described above.

That island homestead is where my maternal grandmother was born. The land is my family homestead. Like my mom, I have always felt at home on the rocks of Georgian Bay. It’s where I can be at peace and listen and speak to the water and the land and Creator. I could spend forever there.

Growing up I didn’t know I was Métis. I was often asked “Where are you from?” and “Are you native?” from kids at school and people in workplaces. I never had my answer to those questions until I was in my twenties. That’s when we as a family began to reclaim our Métis heritage.

Over the past 20 years I have asked myself a number of things. What made my grandmother deny her upbringing and culture? What discrimination did she face? What trauma did she endure? How did she become abusive and addicted?

Knowing the hardships the Métis faced after the trial and death of Louis Riel, it is possible to fill in some gaps. We know Métis communities went into hiding, that they practiced their Métis culture and language in secret for years—for generations. Many Métis communities became French communities, only speaking their Michif language in secret, if they dared speak it at all.

Back to my grandmother—I suspect my grandmother’s instinct to protect her children began early. She took my mom as a 2-year-old to visit an aunt for a week. And that child never came back.

When her other children were taken they were separated—my uncles went to a Catholic boys’ orphanage. There they experienced trauma that affects them to this day. If it had been known they were Indigenous, where might they have gone instead in the early 1950s? My guess is a residential school.

So, my grandmother protected her family and herself the best way she could. The only way she could. She denied her culture and her identity, the very fiber of her being.

Jump forward to 2024—It’s been almost 20 years since meeting Louise and our Moon River Métis family. We have reclaimed our Métis heritage over those 20 years. My mom and I have learned our culture and history. We have learned about our ancestors and know they once lived on Drummond Island. We have learned about traditional medicines and teachings, about drumming, fiddling, and jigging. I have a drum, and have been part of a ceremony to birth my drum. I regularly use sacred medicines to smudge. These are not things that I grew up with, but they have an important place in my adulthood.

More importantly, my children are the first in three generations who are growing up learning and knowing their heritage, culture, and teachings. They listen to their grandmother and mother drum and sing. They learn about the sacred medicines and smudging. They have eaten traditional foods of duck, deer, moose, and fresh fish.

My mom is now the Elder for the Métis Nation of Ontario’s Women’s Council. She gave the opening prayers for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit Pow Wow in Thunder Bay, for 2023 and 2024. My mom has been very involved with initiatives as a Métis woman and now as an Elder. She has worked on committees for Métis self-government. She works with organizations to stop violence against Indigenous women. She advises on issues involving Indigenous mental health with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), she helps provide Indigenous people with restorative justice options in the legal system, and much more.

Her equity work has made a difference in the lives of many people, including myself and my sons’ lives. She works so that she can help others reconnect with their Métis culture.

I have learned much from my mom and have found my own places to champion social justice and equity. I have advocated for equity work for many years. I have two children, one of whom is nonspeaking and has various disabilities. I have worked with local organizations in my community to help ensure he and other children with disabilities receive the services they need. I am a passionate parent who works to ensure my children have a sense of belonging and are included for who they are.

In my community, I have worked with a Métis summer camp program to introduce other Métis children to their culture and traditions. Helping other families connect to their Métis culture is also important to me, and I have found a place of belonging and community as a Métis woman.

I work with a local church community on reconciliation initiatives—events and workshops to teach non-Indigenous people about reconciliation and to give an appreciation for Indigenous culture in general. We have had many guest speakers over the years, including Senator Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, authors Lee Maracle and Jesse Thistle, Trent University Professor Shirley Williams, and the All Our Relations Métis Drumming Circle.

As a Métis citizen, I am part of an educa­tional committee in my local Métis Council. We are working to help schools include Métis teachings and Ways of Knowing in local education, from kindergarten to post-secondary.

As a secondary school teacher, I began consistently teaching Indigenous courses in 2019. The Ontario Grade 11 English courses that are part of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Studies curriculum became my bread and butter. I have learned so much personally and professionally while teaching these courses. The approach I take to teaching these courses has changed how I teach all my courses. Teaching holistically and slowing down the pace of my teaching led me to a better place professionally and personally. Quality over quantity, as the saying goes. I may not get through as many units as I used to, but the deep and insightful discussions and analysis that students offer when given time to really wrestle with big questions are worth the slower pace. Time is less rushed this way, and this is in direct opposition to our society’s rushed pace of life. One of my own little ways to decolonize my classes.

As a member of OSSTF/FESSO, I became actively involved with the union in 2021. The Federation supported me and my family during difficult times, and I wanted to give back to the union that helped us.

First, I became the branch president of my school, and I still hold that position. I value the community and solidarity of meeting with other members monthly to discuss education issues in our own District. I value the support I can offer to members at my own school, as well as others within the District.

In 2022, I applied for a position on the OSSTF/FESSO First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Advisory Work Group. My application was accepted, and I was offered a spot. Since then, I have met and worked with many inspiring Indigenous people across the province who are passionate about Indigenous education. I have found a family within that group, a family of Indigenous individuals who value the things I do and who are equity advocates in their own Districts, communities, and schools.

I attended my first OSSTF/FEESO Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly in 2023. There were a few tense moments involving Indigenous motions, but in the end the Provincial Executive adopted the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Advisory Work Group motions to further support reconciliation and Indigenous education. It is at these times that I see the important work we do at the grassroots level having an impact at the structural and societal levels.

My equity work with my family, my community, my school, and my union makes a difference in the lives of many people. Every single day.

I hope my children NEVER feel the need to hide who they are to be safe. Not like their great grandmother did. I want them to be able to be proud Métis young people.

I want all students that we work with to be able to be themselves and not hide.

I want all members of OSSTF/FESSO to be able to be themselves and not hide.

The work that I am doing, the work we as a union are doing, is already changing things for the next generation. It will change generations to come so that one day everyone can be themselves and can stand up and be proud of who they are and not face oppression. This will happen because of the work we do now. And the work we will continue to do.


About Marilyn Robitaille
Marilyn Robitaille (she/her) Provincial OSSTF/FEESO First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Advisory Work Group Committee Member, Teacher, District 14—Kawartha Pine Ridge

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