Some books are there to offer the kinds of stories that can light on our paths and help us figure out a way forward. The North-West is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation by historian Jean Teillet has been that kind of book to me.
I’ve been writing about the life of my great-grandfather Léon Robert Goulet, a Métis fiddler who was born in Lorette, Manitoba, in the middle of Métis homeland that Teillet documents. Stories were passed on down to me, but with huge gaps, and so when Teillet’s book was published I ordered a copy right away.
On the opening pages of the book is a quote by Louis Riel: “The North-West is also my mother…. Of all the things on earth, the motherland is the most important and sacred, because a mother is always a mother.” This quote sets the tone for a book that offers the stories of the Métis Nation and its continued struggle for its homeland and for sovereignty. The book is broad in scope—it tells 300 years of history in almost 500 pages—and it’s grounded in a storytelling tradition that makes it feel so much lighter than the book’s weight would suggest. That’s because Teillet is the great-grand-niece of Riel, so in some ways, she’s just re-telling in her own way the same stories she heard, again and again, growing up. In places it feels like you’re there in her kitchen with the rest of her family, sharing tea and coffee as people swap stories (but with added documentation and bibliographical information for the scholars).
Teillet paints the origins and the struggles of a nation that has repeatedly made its claims to land and to sovereignty and faced a government that has refused to follow through on its promises. She tells convincing and vivid stories that lead into the contemporary Métis struggles over rights and governance. That Teillet is an Indigenous rights lawyer shows in the clarity of her argument and the documentation of the evidence she provides. She tells stories about rivers, voyageurs and politics. She writes about family history and Métis approaches to hunting and farming. She lays out our claims to nationhood and the different ways racism impacted different Métis communities and created divisions among the Métis and between the Métis and our First Nations relations. She writes about loss of land and the beautiful and aching mobility of the Métis people. She describes the tradition of moving on as soon as we can, of the desire for the freedom that is found in movement. She shows the reader how the Métis culture and Métis families have always been sustained and are still sustained through movement. Using a beautiful metaphor Teillet writes: “The Métis Nation’s mobility was a murmuration, the shape-shifting movement of a flock of starlings….”
This book is an engaging read for anyone who wants to learn more about the history and the current situation of the Métis Nation in Canada. It provides a broad understanding of the history of Indigenous politics in Canada, with a focus on the Métis. More than that, as a writer navigating the telling of personal stories and family history, this book has been important in a different way. It has helped to shape how I understand and how I tell my own great-grandfather’s stories. It’s not only a link to the past, but it lights the way to the future.
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