It’s impossible to overstate how deeply moving Kent Monkman’s exhibit “Shame & Prejudice: 150 Years of Resilience” is. How absolutely depraved the process of colonization is. How unforgivable the sins of the government of Canada are. How much was taken from the First Nations and Inuit people who lived here before the first colonizer ever set foot on this land, and how much was taken from the Métis, a people who came from both the colonized and the colonizers. Experiencing this exhibit was gut-wrenching, infuriating, and heart-breaking. It was also incredibly validating. Through his masterful artistry and writing, Monkman reclaims the power of storytelling—and the power of documenting history. The following are my thoughts, as a woman who realized her Métis ancestry only as an adolescent, who grew up with a very academic understanding of Indigenous history, no exposure to any Indigenous culture or teachings, and who struggles with her identity as a Métis woman.
As a child, I was largely unaware of my Métis heritage. It was just never talked about. I grew up in a solidly middle class family, born to university-educated parents from two Franco-Manitoban Catholic families. One who was determined to rise to and beyond the expectations set by her working class parents (one French Canadian, one Métis). And one who was making the most of the opportunities offered to him by his more middle-class French Canadian background.
I didn’t know that I was missing a whole part of myself till I was a teen. It was hard to know how to feel about it. An entire culture and history apparently existed in my blood—but it was as foreign to me as outer space. I couldn’t feel a connection to any of it. And only in the summer, when my skin deepened in colour with an ease that some friends joked was because of the “native” in me, could I look in the mirror and catch the tiniest glimpse of who some of my ancestors were.
But it still wasn’t real. My mom and aunts didn’t appear to know much more about it than I did and it sure didn’t feel like I could ask my Memère. So I stayed silent, but kept my eyes and ears open for any information I could glean. I noticed small things I’d inherited from her, like my dark hair, and high cheekbones, and wondered if they meant anything. If my love for fiddle music and beading was intrinsic on some level, or just a coincidence. In the early 2000s, I eventually applied for my Manitoba Métis Card and received a book of my genealogy and a little laminated card that seemed to make things official.
Over the next 20 years of my life, I went from being unsure and ashamed of my heritage, to being defiantly proud of it and claiming it as my own, to recognizing the depths of my ignorance and uneasily dancing to an inner monologue that goes something like this:
“Am I really Métis? Am I Métis enough? I’m Métis enough to have lost something, but I definitely look white, so I sure as fuck was never held back or penalized by my perceived race or culture. Ok, but now I’m basically defining a culture and a people by their suffering and that’s really fucking gross. It’s so much more than a shared history of oppression. But isn’t it awful to lean into the culture and try to learn and reclaim that part of me, while never having experienced any of the bad? But the fact that I never even had the chance to learn—isn’t that bad? Sure, yeah, but also it’s nothing compared to going to prison, or being taken from your family, or killed just because you’re Indigenous.”
Around and around I go. Trying to contribute quietly to a community I wish I felt more connected to, while also trying to not take up space that should be taken up by someone who belongs there more than I do. Some days feeling like it’s important that my history, my life, my work, my talents are filed under “young Métis woman”, and other days feeling like an imposter who is leeching onto “real” brown girl magic. Supporting and cheering on other Indigenous creatives, scholars, and activists, while also feeling like I’m exploiting them.
Waiting for divine inspiration, or courage, or something, or someone, to validate me. To give me permission to be Métis.
And today. Moving from piece to piece, in awe of the incredible talent and courage of the artist, of the stomach-turning cleverness, the pain and horror and, yes, beauty and resilience. And feeling like I was seeing the larger picture of my history as a French Canadian Métis woman for the first time.
A French Canadian Métis woman whose lineage includes a 20 year old soldier from Normandy who arrived in Québec City in 1695 to fight “les Amérindiens en Nouvelle France”. A 19 year old woman who left Paris and landed in Montréal in 1681 with a newborn and no husband, who acquired land, became a well-known entrepreneur, signed her own business documents, had four children, and then at the age of 35, married that soldier (a man she loved who was 12 years her junior). And families who left everything they knew behind in France, in order to farm land that wasn’t theirs to take.
A French Canadian Métis woman who knows exactly how often her many times great-grandmother was brought to court in Québec over 300 years ago, but whose knowledge of her Métis lineage could maybe fill a Post-it note. To add insult to injury, there is literally an entire book written about my Parisian ancestor (and a feature by Radio Canada!)
The stories from my Métis side were silenced by the shame and violence of racism. And even though I know that shame and violence shaped my grandmother and her siblings, her daughters and her sons, and even her grandchildren, I’ve struggled to put a shape to it.
Standing in front of Chapter V, The Forcible Transfer of Children, it is impossible to not to see the shape that racist shame and violence has taken. In the form of the Canadian Government. In the form of Canadian Catholic missions. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The form of residential schools, and reserves. The banning of potlatches and braids. The Sixties Scoop, and mass incarceration. Forced sterilization and birth alerts. The form of addictions and disease, decimated animal populations, poisoned water and centuries of deliberate, institutionalized dehumanization.
Centuries of government-sanctioned physical and cultural genocide.
The shape is thousands upon thousands of red ribbons tied to bridges, unmarked graves, empty cradleboards, chalk outlines, and an epidemic of utter hopelessness and despair that convinces the survivors of all of these horrors that their lives aren’t worth living. Our government has worked tirelessly to make it this way.
The Shame & Prejudice exhibit made it excruciatingly clear just how much I have lost, and just how lucky I am to have lost only that. For the first time, I grieved for the relatives I’ll never know. The memories that I’ll never make. The traditions that should have been as much a part of my life as la messe de minuit, or tourtière. A language that I should have learned alongside French and English. And I grieved again for those who have lost all of that and so much more—who have lost so much that grief is a constant shadow.
It is impossible to overstate how much has been taken from the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. And that’s why exhibits like this one are crucial not only to the process of Reconciliation, but also the process of decolonization. It is crucial to not only take back the land, but to take back the language, the trades, the crafts, the spiritual practices, the teachings, the medicines, the art, and the stories. To create new ways of sharing and educating, of claiming that space. To proudly embrace traditions, while boldly shaping modern Indigenous culture. To strikethrough the reductive and inaccurate depictions of Indigenous culture in dusty old history books. And instead to frame massive oil paintings in gold—done in the style of the old European masters—of the difficult and painful but also rich and vibrant lives of Indigenous people. And then to put them up in world-renowned galleries. To take back the power of storytelling and use it tell stories of survival and resilience, triumph and abundance.
I’ve been scared to delve deeper into my history. Scared of finding too much, unearthing stories of pain and suffering. Or of not finding anything at all, and losing my already tenuous grasp on my identity as a Métis woman. But experiencing Monkman’s work is to receive a gift of not only courage and inspiration, but the permission to validate ourselves—and each other. By reclaiming our stories.