Light-footed feet danced across the room at the University of Northern B.C.’s (UNBC) Terrace campus to the beat of toe-tapping fiddle music, underlaid by voices entwined in conversation over bannock and tea.
On Thursday evenings until the end of February, UNBC is hosting presentations on Métis history and culture with the Skeena River Métis Association and Smoke Signals All Nations Cultural Group to foster an open community space where people can learn and enrich their own understanding of what it means to be Métis.
“It’s a chance for Métis people to come and grow in their Métis culture. That identity, that presence, it’s actually something that is often unspoken,” says Marian Kotowich-Laval, UNBC event coordinator.
The Métis people originated in the 1700s when French and Scottish fur traders married Indigenous women, such as the Cree and Anishinabe (Ojibway), and their descendants created a distinct culture and nation in Canada.
They existed in positions of political and economic power during the early years of the colonial and provincial governments, until discriminatory attitudes from European settlers, in addition to a hostile legal regime in B.C., forced the Métis and their culture underground.
There are 70,000 people in B.C. recognized as Métis, and that number is growing as genealogy research identifies more people with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry. More than 500 Métis live in Terrace, according to Statistics Canada.
The first evening on Jan. 17 featured Métis and country music from Rene Therrien, Sean Gregg and LaVern Zilinski, followed by a performance from the band ‘Coast to Coast’, with Normand Desjardins, Keith Melanson and Helen Martinot.
“Métis music is actually different from other music, it’s mostly the fiddle. The strings are actually tuned different for harmonizing, it’s pretty unique,” says Therrien, vice president of BC Métis Federation and renowned fiddle player. His band has played in locations including Quesnel, Prince George and the Terraceview Lodge twice a month.
The Métis are perhaps most famous for their upbeat fiddle music, a combination of Celtic and traditional French styles, ‘Red River Jig’ being a popular example. As per tradition, a few people got up during the music and danced a jig across the floor, stepping in rhythm with the lighthearted, fast-paced sound.
“What I’m doing now with the fiddle is to promote our culture, the music, and the importance of the [Métis] sash,” Therrien says. The sash is a finger-woven belt made of brightly coloured fabrics, each with a different meaning. Red is the most prominent, symbolizing the historic loss and strength of the Métis.
He says it is especially important for Métis language, history and culture to be taught and recognized for younger generations — during his childhood, he lost the ability to speak Michif, the Métis language that is composed of half Cree and half French.
“I spoke Michif when I was young, but after you start school you just forget it, because you’re not using it outside of the home. So I lost it. Right now my kids don’t speak it, my grandkids don’t speak it, and I would like to pass that on if I could,” Therrien says.
After the music, listeners stayed to relay childhood memories of scent-masking techniques for hunting, food, and how recipes for bannock vary from nation to nation.
As a Métis woman, daughter of a Cree mother and Polish father, Kotowich-Laval says the recognition of history is important to strengthen and encourage others to come forward and share their own experiences.
“The Métis people have been removed from their homelands, or they were forcibly removed. I know in our family story there was starvation, government manipulation… It’s very important to understand our own past, but sometimes we don’t understand it until we hear someone else’s,” she says.
“To be Métis these days, I think it is about coming together and having societies that will represent the youth, represent the generations that are coming, and being able to maintain the history, not just from books, but from the real stories.”
Future gatherings in the series will incorporate Métis music, beading, guest speakers and storytelling.
Next meeting is Jan. 31, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Room 147 on UNBC’s Terrace campus (4837 Keith Ave.), with following dates on Feb. 14 and 28.