“Maria Campbell was born during a spring blizzard in April of 1940, on an impoverished Road Allowance community in the province of Saskatchewan.” Half-breed is an acclaimed autobiographical account of her early years. This autobiography is an important manuscript towards the understanding of the social history of the Métis people living in Canada. Maria Campbell’s autobiography is story telling from the woman’s point of view. It depicts the reality of poverty and the path to a downward spiral of oblivion and degradation for the women of the Métis and First Nations Reserves. This autobiography is an understanding of the Métis dilemma but more importantly a woman’s fight for equality within a male egalitarian society.
The writer’s explanation of the racism within her community is riveting and powerful. The reader develops an admiration for this woman, because she as overcome so much pain and suffering. Campbell’s manuscript is an excellent analysis of physical and mental pain within the Métis community. She describes the physical pain from a racial fight. Though painful, this type of conflict was rewarding because the wounds could heal. On the contrary, racism in relation to social and cultural classes; this caused inner pain that could never be treated. Many of these women turned to alcohol and drugs to escape to ease the pain.
Maria Campbell was one of these women who shunned her people because of the inner pain of having to be subordinated to the white culture as a child. This autobiography is an inspiration for all Métis women, because Maria Campbell encourages these women to set higher standards for themselves and to avoid the mistakes she made as a youth. There were other forms of emotional pain. Maria Campbell mentions the emotional pain she felt as a child due to the knowledge of the infamous history of her people. ”She states in the autobiography that she never witnessed her father talk back to a white man unless he was drunk.” She never saw any of these Métis men walk with their heads high before white people. When they were drunk, they became violent and aggressive; however this aggression was spent on beating their wives. These episodes and other incidents in her past offer reasons for this woman becoming a determined feminist writer.
Feminism is a movement that has been around since the 18th century. The first feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, published the treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). This treatise actively recognizes the need for freedom and equality for women. Maria Campbell also recognized the need for freedom for all Métis women. These women were victims because they were abused, they were ostracized by other groups of women, they were subjected to a cruel caste system, they were not given the proper respect by their spouses and they were not properly educated. Maria Campbell saw a need for change. The essay will provide an analysis of the social history of the Métis people, moreover, an explanation for scholars to consider this woman, the first Métis feminist.
The autobiography begins with the story of the Métis migration to Western Canada. “In the early 1700s, the Métis came here from Ontario and Manitoba to escape the prejudice and hate that comes with the opening of new land.” With the decline of the fur trade and the purchasing of the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, by the Canadian government, the Métis feared that their land rights would not be respected. This led to the Red River Rebellion of 1869, where Louis Riel established a provisional government at Fort Garry, Manitoba, but escaped to the United States in 1870 when troops arrived from eastern Canada. Louis Riel was defeated at the Battle of Batoche in 1884 and he was hanged in November of 1885. “By the 1920s the lakes were drying up and the fur and game had almost disappeared. To keep their lands, the Métis decided to try farming. The Métis were not farmers and the government soon reclaimed their lands and offered the lands to immigrants.” The Half-breeds then became squatters. So began the miserable life of poverty which held no hope for the future.
Because of poverty, Métis women experience gender-based, violence at a higher rate than any other group of women living in Canada. Gender violence happens behind closed doors. Moreover, legal systems and cultural norms often do not treat it as a crime, but rather as a “private” family matter or behaviour natural to society. Throughout her novel Maria Campbell mentions the physical abuse heaped on women of the Métis communities. “An example of this abuse dealt with the story of her Great Grandpa Campbell, who had beaten his half-breed wife throughout their marriage. He was a jealous man who was sure that his wife was having affairs with all the Métis in the area. He once beat her so cruelly she was scarred for life.” Women were unable to address the problem of abuse in the early twentieth century because there were no government institutions or feminist unions that recognized the plight of native women.
Not all of the Métis men were alcoholics who went home to beat their wives. Maria Campbell’s parents loved and respected each other. “The writer mentions that her parents taught them to dance and to make music on the guitars and fiddles.” The parents would also take them on long trips to visit relatives. Many of the relatives were Indians who lived on the reserves. There was never much love lost between Indians and Métis. They were invited to the Indian festivals and gatherings but somehow they never fit in. ‘They were always considered the poor relatives, the {awp-pee-tow-koosons}. They laughed and scorned us. “They had land and security and we had no pot to piss in or a window to throw it out.”
The new immigrants who came and homesteaded the land were predominantly Germans and Swedes. “As a young girl Maria believed these people to be the richest and most beautiful people in the world.” She soon realized how cruel white people could be. “During Christmas they would drive by all the Half-breed homes and drop boxes off at each path. Her father would destroy the contents in the box.” After the holidays the white girls would laugh because some of the Métis girls would wear the tainted gifts that they had donated to them. Maria Campbell’s parents never let her accept any of these gifts. Maria was ashamed at how these people viewed and looked at her community. The Métis were considered nothing more than a desperate group of people who survived of creek water, maple syrup, wild meat and gophers.
Being poor was tough, however being a half breed was more difficult. The author reminisces about her younger days. Sometimes, she would pretend to be famous people from the past. Maria had always wanted to be Cleopatra, but her brothers figured she was too black to be Cleopatra. “They said, Maria, you’re too black and your hair is like a nigger’s. Only her white skinned cousin could play Cleopatra.” These women were made to feel inferior at a young age. This is a very important statement because the Métis are a distinct culture that is not Indian or European. Moreover, the white bloodline provided all the freedom of being an equal individual, within society. A majority of the Métis of a fairer complexion would certainly move away from the community to live amongst white people. The dark skinned Métis could not change their skin colour. They were trapped between two societies who did not want them. This caste system was based on colour and hair. One can imagine the pain living in a society so unforgiving of colour. In today’s society, millions of Métis legally claim to be of European or white blood. Many have not spoken to family members who may be considered too dark to pass as white.
The caste system was especially difficult for women. Where there was no division of colour amongst Indians and Métis, the separation was formulated to money and land. This social caste system was predominant, in the European communities as well as the Métis community. During the colonial period, the majority of women did not have any property tights. When a woman got married, all her land, possessions and assets were turned over to her husband. It was important that families found suitable husbands for their daughters. In Maria’s autobiography we come to understand that initially her grandfather was not happy that his daughter was going to marry a poor Métis. She had many suitors, some of them were white, and they all would have been rich. The grandfather realized that his daughter would have had the opportunity to ascend to a higher culture or society. Marriage to someone of her kind who was dark and poor, this only equated pain and oppression.
Throughout their lives, women were subjugated by male patriarchy. In the early 20th century, white women were fighting for the right to vote and to control their property and own lives. Métis women had no protection or rights within the law. Evidence of these women not earning the respect of their men could be found in the war stories of the Métis people. Many of the men brought home Scottish and English wives, which of course didn’t go over very well with the Métis people. “Campbell describes a proper Englishwoman, who had married a handsome half-breed soldier in England believing he was French. He owned nothing, not even the shack where a woman and two children were waiting for him. When they arrived, his woman promptly beat the English lady.” This was the respect given to the Métis and Indian mothers and young wives.
From the standpoint of the ideology of technology, we have seen that motherhood is perceived as work and children as a product produced by the labour of mothering. In the early twentieth century, white women were benefitting from capitalism and the World Wars. They were now attending university and working fulltime in the job sector. The war ended and women refused to give up this new found freedom. This was not the case for Métis woman. The only work available to them was house cleaning and menial jobs on the farms. Education was not important to this group. No full blooded Indian or Métis would have been expected to attend university. They were expected to produce children who in turn would take over the menial jobs or live a destitute life. “Babies, at least healthy white babies, were very precious products these days.”
Growing up in Northern Saskatchewan, the author gives you a perception of how hard life was for the Métis. When her mother died, Maria became the mother to the younger children and siblings. By the age of fifteen, she was married to a man she believed would have had enough money to take care of the younger siblings and not break up the family. Her marriage was a disaster because her husband would abuse her. She had never loved her husband who was called Darryl. Eventually she left Darryl and migrated to Vancouver where she became a high class call girl and drug addict with a baby to support. This is the story of a woman caught between two worlds.
The autobiography of Maria Campbell is a sad and tragic tale with a positive ending and meaning. It was the colonial system that enslaved African people, Indians and Métis. The woman’s movement fought against the cruel aspects of slavery and colonialism in the 19th century. The African American people’s long struggle for equality soon came to the forefront in the 1960s. On the contrary, this novel was published in 1970 and prior to that the Métis population did not have a definite woman’s leader. In this essay, I have laid out a general history of the Métis people but more importantly, the great effort of women to keep their families together. Maria Campbell is a woman to be admired by all women, including the upper echelons of white society who are rightfully regarded as the true compatriots of feminism.
In conclusion, “Half breed” is an autobiography that should be educational reading for historians, social science students, humanities students and English majors. This essay was written to acknowledge the anti-colonial sentiment and to make believers of feminism understand that for this movement to grow, feminism should become one of the most important educational issues. As a man I realize that this is an important movement. If we are to ever improve on our social and ethical skills then the need is for feminism to be studied on a mandatory basis. For example, most students need a science oriented credit to graduate, so why not a feminist oriented credit for all male students to take before graduation. There are so many countries and cultures that to this day still ignore the pains of their female society. Feminism is a word with such character, elegance and beauty. I believe Maria Campbell has earned those qualities as a woman. More important young Indian and Métis women writer today realize that they do have heroines they can be proud.

Courtney Duncan