When Carmen Houle was a girl, people would talk smack about “Indians” in front of her.
Few of her classmates realized she was of Metis descent, but they’d soon find out: “I always said something,” said Houle, with a sly grin.
Over the years, she learned that lashing out at bigoted people “wasn’t always the best way of handling it.”
A more effective way of promoting change is shaping it from the inside out — by joining the establishment, she discovered.
The woman from the Edson area is now a Metis interpreter who’s been employed by Parks Canada, as well as various schools, museums and municipalities, to act as a “bridge” between two cultures.
Houle’s latest job is helping the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery with Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Metis Nation in the Archival Records of Library and Archives Canada. The travelling exhibit explores the cultural history of the Metis people at the national and local levels.
Considering Houle’s early brushes with prejudice, it’s understandable why many people of Aboriginal/European background historically tried to blend into mainstream society.
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed’s grandmother, Isabella Clarke Hardisty, is a prime example. She married a white Calgary senator and promptly buried her Metis roots. Perhaps Clarke Hardisty realized that prominent Metis people often paid for speaking out.
The exhibit details the turbulent history of Canada’s most famous Metis, Louis Riel, a founder of Manitoba who was hanged in 1885 for leading two rebellions against the Canadian government in the cause of Metis rights.
Historic bigotry is also revealed in a panel about the Dumont-Vaness family of Sundre. The family had their house burned down along Bergen Road by other settlers who didn’t want them living nearby.
These ancestors of Gabriel Dumont, Saskatchewan’s visionary Metis leader, were forced to move into an empty schoolhouse. But ironically, their children grew into respected community builders.
Riel famously said his Metis Nation would sleep for 100 years and then be revived through its artists.
Houle believes the music, dance, poetry and artwork of her culture was always quietly thriving, but its full richness was only recently discovered and appreciated by mainstream society.
A vibrant picture is painted through artworks, photos and artifacts, including beaded jackets, musical instruments and farming implements. Many local Metis citizens have shared family stories and personal treasures.
The display aims to foster a better understanding of Metis history, said Kim Verrier, the museum’s exhibits co-ordinator.
Since it’s the age of reconcilliation, and Metis people helped build this province, Verrier feels their history should be considered integral to Alberta’s.
Raye St. Denys, president of Local 492 of the Metis Nation of Alberta, is excited by the display that’s on until March 10.
“I think it is a great beginning” of increasing awareness.