Student wins Undergraduate Research prize

Alexis Bornyk, a young woman with long braided dark hair wearing an "every child matters" hat and orange shirt, holding a polaroid picture from an event at UTSC campus farm
Alexis Bornyk at a recent event at UTSC Campus Farm (Picture by Joseph Hermer)

A UTSC student has won an undergraduate research prize with an essay that challenges preconceptions around the history of the Michif Nation, and calls for decolonization of the Canadian Education system.

Alexis Bornyk, a 3rd year student in the International Development Studies specialist program with a minor in Anthropology, won Best Essay, Social Sciences and Humanities category, at the Undergraduate Research Symposium. She originally wrote the essay she adapted for the Symposium in Sociology’s Global Field School class, and was one of the students who participated in that class’s trip to Costa Rica last year.

Alexis is from the Michif Nation and she grew up in the Treaty Six Territory, the homeland of the Grand Prairie Métis. Her article deals with the confusion and erasure of different nations that now make up the Métis nation, which is an overarching identity imposed by colonial governments.

It can be frustrating for Alexis to describe herself as Métis, but as a Michif woman explaining her identity to outsiders is often difficult. Most people who are not from the Treaty Six Territory aren’t aware that Michif are a distinct people, although some might know that Michif is one of the languages spoken by Métis people. The trouble stems from colonial policies that grouped their nationhood together with all non-status First Nations peoples under the term “half-breeds”.

In the 1960s, political representatives successfully persuaded governments to stop using the term “half-breeds” and replace it with Métis. However, this created its own set of problems.

“Métis became a term that erased specific nations,” explains Alexis. “We all got lumped together, it created a pan-indigenous type situation where everyone was taking from different nations’ cultures and claiming it as their own. They were erasing all of the generations that came before and all the knowledge and traditions that we had, and then making something new.”

“Now people want to have their voice back, and want their community and nation to become solid again and you can only do that through telling and retelling the history, the proper history, and voicing to everybody why there's this separation and why there's a difference between the Michif and the Métis.”

Alexis’s essay details the history of the Michif people, descending from French Voyageurs and Plains Cree women settled along the Red River, through the Battle of Batoche and beyond. She argues that the retrospective transposing of a Métis identity that did not exist until much later erases the contribution of people from Michif and other nations who lived through these events.

She argues that more respect for Indigenous knowledge and oral history is required in the Canadian education system to fight such misconceptions, and that understanding of each individual nation’s history is crucial before implementing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the Constitution.