Spaces of Belonging + Dances That Led Me Home (by Victoria May)

Our guest blogger this week tells us: I am an established professional dancer, mid-career choreographer, and teacher with a career spanning nearly 30 years. I have danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and spent 12 years dancing in Europe. In 2007 I moved to Montreal. My most recent choreographic work Kiwaapamitinaawaaw (2020) was presented at the Biennale d’Art Contemporain Autochtone (BACA) at CCOV. Alongside my artistic practice, I am pursuing my MA in the Individualized Program (INDI) at Concordia University in a multidisciplinary research program. I am a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation.

social media: Instagram @viktoise

About me

Tansii, I am a Red River Métis woman with my Maternal family and community in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. I am part of a generation of Métis citizens that were raised outside of the Métis homeland and away from community, and who are in the process of reconnecting. My Paternal side is settler (Irish/ Scottish) and my Maternal family names are Vermette, Delorme, Sayer, Laliberté, Frobisher, Pepin, Davis, Gaudry, and Villebrun. 

Stella on blanket by the fire at Batoche days

My research-creation performance and thesis is on connection: kinship ties, memory, and where language lies in the body. My process of learning the Michif language, supported by dance, will culminate in a research-creation with a dance performance and video installation.  UNESCO considers Michif to be critically endangered, with only a handful of Elders that are fluent speakers. There has been an incredible amount of work done to preserve our beautiful language. I am only coming to some of the many people that have been holding strong to keep it going and am encouraged and proud to be doing my small part to contribute as a language activist to continue to build and to keep our language alive. I take this responsibility seriously and understand I am only beginning this journey to learn my language. I wish to honour and thank all those that have worked so hard and continue to keep Michif alive in the Métis community.

Reconnection and responsibility

I grew up in Ottawa and didn’t meet my Métis family until quite recently. Years ago, I shared with my childhood best friend, Zoe Hopkins, my desire to connect to family in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, but I was hesitant. She was extremely supportive. Through her extended family that lived in Prince Albert, she found out for me that there were Vermettes in Prince Albert and sent me links to my great grandmother’s birth records. It was a beginning, but I felt overwhelmed by where I was in my life and put it aside. 

My hesitancy lay partly in that I had lost my Mother, Roberta, suddenly in 2006. My Mother was the reason I moved back to Canada, from Europe, to be with her in her later years, while she was in good health. My plans of spending her last years close to her and sharing another stage of my life with her, family life, and so forth were erased in an instant. I still grieve this loss. Another reason for my trepidation was the disconnection from my Father, who had not been a part of my life, but I always felt I wanted to meet him and have a relationship with him. I summoned up the courage to seek him out and, on Boxing Day 2009, I bravely knocked on his door. His long-time partner Carole opened the door and answered my question of ‘Is Ted here? I am his daughter Victoria’ with kind sadness, telling me I had just missed him, he had passed away five days earlier after a six-month battle with lung cancer. I met my Father’s extended family and we stay in touch. They are lovely, and I am grateful to have them in my life.

These experiences of disappointment lay doubt about the possibility of reconnecting, but they were an intrinsic part of the reconnection process.

Art leads me to reconnection 

Along the way, in different art projects that I was involved in, there were several ah-ha moments when questions were posed about my identity: Where do you come from? Where is home? And, perhaps a bit morbid, Where do you want to be buried? 

I was sharing what I knew about my family story with an old friend who replied: “But Vicki, you are Métis.” I later expressed my frustration that it wasn’t happening ‘fast’ enough and she assured me that they were all there ‘waiting’, to be patient and that everything was unfolding as it was meant to. I felt reassured by her words and chose to trust the process. 

In the Spring of 2018, Wolastoqey dancer Ivanie Aubin-Malo informed me of a three-day event, Constrained Body, Dancing Body, centering dance and Indigenous ways of knowing. Hosted by Ondinnok and Tangente Danse, there would be full-day workshops, performances, and panel discussions.

At this event, Métis artist, Jaime Morse, shared many stories about being Métis and her connection to Métis dances and culture. Afterward, her children, the Prairie Fire Métis Jiggers, taught a jigging workshop, which to me felt completely natural, like I had been doing it my whole life. A Métis-Cree dancer, Gary McFarland, gave a talk and powwow workshop afterward. I introduced myself to Gary, hesitantly explaining that my Mother was Métis from Saskatchewan. Gary was warm and welcoming and called me ‘sister’. On the last day, I introduced myself in my first of now many circles. I was terrified. I followed the protocol set out by Gary, about introducing ourselves in relation to our family; I said I was named after my grandmother Irene Victoria Vermette and she was born and raised in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. In doing so, I identified and self-situated myself, which was an important first step to remember where I was and who was there to witness this beginning.

I attended nearly every talk, workshop and performance during those three days. I had extremely strong emotional and spiritual reactions to a lot of what was happening, the medicines that were smudged, the prayers in Kanien’kéha. Although, I didn’t fully understand my reactions, I felt I was in a place of belonging, possibly for the first time since I lost my Mother. I had to step outside the room several times to calm myself down and centre myself. It was a clear opening, though a destabilizing one. I gave myself permission to be confused and messy and to take it all in. From that moment onwards I was called home. I understood that this meant rebuilding connections that were intentionally disrupted by the colonial process of assimilation. Part of recognizing this loss meant releasing it, as I moved forward toward the place and with people that I am meant to be connected to—my Métis kin and extended Indigenous community here on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory in Tio’tia:ke (Montreal). 

Constrained Body, Dancing Body / Ondinnok (photo credit: Myriam Baril-Tessier)
Family reunion in Prince Albert + Nordal

I felt nourished by the experience and more confident. I decided it was the time to find answers. Days after the event ended, I reached out to a Métis family research group on social media. I posted a picture of my grandmother with her full name, as well as those of my great-grandparents. Within a few hours later, I had multiple messages from cousins living all over, many still in Prince Albert with messages of ‘I remember your grandmother’, along with photos of my great-aunts and uncles and my great-grandparents. The stories flowed, kinship ties were unearthed, and there was my point of connection and belonging to a living community and family. A family reunion had already been in the works and a few months later I visited Prince Albert and the road allowance settlement my Nan and family grew up, on called the Fox Farm (later re-named Nordale). Over 100 people attended the reunion—cousins and I were staring at each other—I was dizzy with emotions. We could see in each other’s faces loved ones passed, our ancestors. Through this reunion, and the many conversations since, I learned about my grandparents, great-grandparents, and my family. I heard my Mother’s laugh in one person, saw her big brown eyes in another, and could write at length of all the connections between myself and my cousins. They looked at me in the same way. 

I was home.

Community responsibility

All citizens of the Métis National Council have historical ties and are both asked to be part of, and accepted by, a living community. In effect, what makes you Métis is not who you claim to be, but rather who claims you.

During my years of searching, I would ask: Was anyone still ‘there’? Would they know who I was? In my heart, I knew that finding family was the heart of my search. If there was no one there, I figured I would be proud of my Métis ancestry but wouldn’t feel necessarily right identifying as Métis. My questions continued: Was I Métis or not? Was I Indigenous? Did I have the right to call myself Métis without the lived experience of a Métis person? were all swirling in my mind. I also knew that by finding my family, establishing a relationship with them and the Red River Métis community, and finding kinship, this connection came with responsibilities. I understand that when I speak about Métis issues, I am representing not just myself and my family but an entire people. I do not take this responsibility lightly. 

My little Elder

In 2019, I created a solo dance piece called Kiwapamitinawaaw (Michif for ‘I see you all) about connecting to my ancestors and myself through language and seeing, feeling, hearing. Later I learned the word Naashkopichikun, which I have been told means ‘little Elder’ and is the same word for great-grandparent and great-grandchild.

At the event hosted by Ondinnok, a photo of my daughter, then eight years old, was taken, at the last event where everyone danced in a circle. She looks so natural out there and was encouraging me to come dance in the circle even when I hesitated. It was an important moment that was so beautifully captured on that day in that photo. I now know that dancing in a circle is dancing for those that can’t dance, those that are no longer with us, and for those to come. This picture captured this Naashkopichikun leading her mother into the circle. 

Here I am, five years later, having reconnected with dozens of relatives.

  • I am a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
  • I am learning my language.
  • I am learning my dances.
  • And I am connecting to my family—both those that are with us and those no longer here.

There is so much more to write about, and more still to experience through these moments of reconnection.

Marsi for listening to my story. 

All my relations.

Stella and I

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