Imagine growing up and never knowing about a significant part of your own heritage. Interestingly, that was my experience until I had a startling revelation in my early 30s – I was not simply French-Canadian, I was Métis.
I learned about my familial connection to our First Nation peoples when my uncle [mom’s brother] living in Manitoba advised me he was applying for his Métis status. My first question was “how can you apply for this type of status, when you’re not even Métis?”
That conversation opened up a whole new chapter in my life. I had grown up believing all my family roots were back in Quebec and France. In fact, a couple of family tree books I had the chance to scan as a teenager showed a direct linkage back to the “old world” but made no reference to any Aboriginal ancestry.
It was my uncle Ralph Parisien who started this journey by beginning to trace back our family lineage, long before there was something known as ancestry.com. He did it the hard way, reviewing one document at a time. In the end, he was able to definitely prove that his great, great, great grandmother was a member of the Ojibwe First Nation whose traditional territory crosses the Manitoba and Ontario borders and into the USA.
To say this came as a revelation to me was an understatement. After countless family gatherings, I couldn’t recall overhearing a single person acknowledge this part of our family heritage.
After learning of my Aboriginal roots, I started to question why it took so long for us to fully discuss and explore this reality. While there is no single answer, I can only surmise it had to do a lot with self-preservation and being part of an identifiable minority.
I was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba then moved to Edmonton when I was a young child. While there is a significant French Canadian population in the Winnipeg area, even there Francophones are in the minority.
I did hear many stories of how my extended family had trouble learning their native language in a formal school setting back in the 1950s. The students, regardless if they were predominantly Francophone, were to adhere to a mainly English-only learning environment.
Teachers were allowed a maximum 15 minutes of French instruction per day. However, I’m told many of them broke that rule, despite the fact they faced disciplinary action from the local school district if they were caught.
When my family moved to Alberta in the mid 1970s, it didn’t take long to realize there were even fewer Francophones in our midst. While the shunning of formalized French instruction in public schools was now in the past, let there be no doubt that many problems still existed.
I clearly remember a time when I went to our local shopping mall with my mom only to have her say something to me in French at the checkout counter. I recall the sinking feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when people turned around and glared at her. There was an unspoken understanding, if you move to Alberta, you better speak English when in public – French only at home please.
In fact, my easily identifiable Francophone name was actually changed from Daniel Fontaine to “Danny” in order to make me sound less French. Even to this day, many of my family, friends and former colleagues still refer to me as “Danny”. It wasn’t until later in life that I asked everyone to call me by the Francophone name I was born with…and was actually on my birth certificate.
Thankfully times have changed, and we are much more accepting as a society – but there is still a long way to go when it comes to how minorities are treated and respected in Canada.
Looking back, I now have a slightly better understanding as to why it took my family so long to identify and celebrate our Aboriginal heritage.
You see…it was one thing to be a minority Francophone living in a sea of Anglophones. It would have made things all the more complicated if we had also identified as Aboriginal – given the endemic racism that First Nations people have endured for so long.
That’s why I’m forever grateful to my uncle who took the time to explore, speak openly about our heritage and celebrate it in a way our family had never done before.
Yes, my name is Daniel Fontaine. I’m proud to say I’m a Francophone and Métis.
Let’s hope moving forward, we’ve learned as a society that being more accepting and embracing our of differences is something that strengthens our nation – not weakens it.