Rooster Town: The History of an Urban Metis Community, 1901-1961.
Our ways of knowing and sense of self are altered when part of our histories are forgotten on a national, civic, and personal level. The ripple effect in the Metis community of the book launch for Rooster Town: The History of an Urban Metis Community 1901-1961 has been profound. Metis families are reconnecting to their hidden roots, celebrating newly framed identities of ancestors, and awakening to the reality of the lived experience of the Metis in Rooster Town, the fringe community that once stood on lands now occupied by Winnipeg's Grant Park Mall and Pan Am Pool. The book's non-Indigenous authors, Evelyn J. Peters and research associates Matthew Stock and Adrian Werner, have typified the meaning of academic allyship to the Metis community. They have written in a way that is conscious of the tensions of attempting the delicate work of telling a story that does not belong to them, and have done so compassionately and respectfully. The Metis community demonstrates gratitude to them.
Adding to the high-caliber team was the work of Lawrence Barkwell, an historian specializing in Metis history and Manitoba Metis governance, whose personal and research connections helped to ensure that the book would feature oral histories of those who had once lived in Rooster Town. Over years of consultation, the team also gathered photographs gifted to the project by Metis family members and the Manitoba Metis Federation. Other tools used to piece together the vibrant community included Metis genealogies provided by the work of Gail Morin, Douglas Sprague and R. P Fryes, along with Metis scrip, Manitoba vital statistic records, City of Winnipeg assessment and collection rolls, federal and municipal voting rights, Winnipeg fire insurance maps, census records, building permits, World War I military records, city directories and newspaper sources. Together they helped to breathe life and reveal the settler erasure of a community.
For me personally, it was while attending a colloquium at the University of Manitoba, where Dr. Evelyn J. Peters, Research Chair and urban social geographer, revealed to me that I was a descendent of Rooster Town--a family history of which I previously had no knowledge. I was shocked to hear that this compelling history of widespread attempted erasure, racism, discrimination, and Metis resilience was the lived experience of my ancestors. Indeed this is a history stolen from our memories. The shame associated with having lived in Rooster Town, as propagated by the mainstream media in Winnipeg, led my great grandmother to never speak of the place where she was born. Hope for persona] enlightenment drove many community members to the launch of the book, Rooster Town, anticipating that their family trees and pieces of their lost history would surface between its pages. Through this study, our entire living lineage was introduced to a history far beyond that which family trees could provide or the photographs left by ancestors could communicate. In featuring our family and many others, Peters et al. have participated in recreating, reclaiming, and reframing the narrative we will tell our grandchildren.
The book opens by introducing the story of the dispossession of the Manitoba Metis and the impact of settler colonialism. It highlights the radically different treatment that urban Metis experienced in Canadian cities, and reviews the theories about the stereotypical incompatibility of Indigenous people in city landscapes. The settlement of Rooster Town challenged colonial expectations regarding the residents' ability to thrive and create fringe communities in urban areas. The residents were unwilling at the behest of Manitoba governments to move to remote locations with few economic opportunities. In tracing Rooster Town's settlement and its dispersal, Peters uses an economic lens, referring to Winnipeg assessment of property values, Manitoba Directories, and taxation to tell compelling stories of the families who had once lived in the space.
In the subsequent chapter, a detailed history of the establishment and consolidation of Rooster Town from 1901-1911 is chronologically told and enhanced by aerial images. Here the myth of the Metis being squatters is debunked. According to the authors and similar to the experience of my own family, Metis moved to the settlement as a group in search of community relationships, opportunities to participate in the labour force, and possibilities to purchase land. The authors stress the unique settlement patterns of the Metis and the lack of scholarly attention to Metis urbanization.
Chapters Three and Four explore the changing economy that came with the Great Depression and the effects of the First World War on the residents of Rooster Town. The inclusion of photographs of the dwellings (provided by Metis families) helps to shatter the myth of the shanty. Photos and in some cases blue prints--of beautiful one and two storey homes--provide the reader with concrete evidence to the contrary, challenging stereotypes which allowed for the Metis removal decades ago. However, the inclusion of words by Marcel Giraud openly attributing Metis poverty to an inability to adapt in the 1930s omits mention of the economic perils and rampant unemployment that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous city dwellers experienced during the Great Depression. Negativity is difficult to digest when not successfully integrated into the storyline with appropriate attention to context. There is missed opportunity here.
In considering such histories, people can tend to remove themselves using the platitude that the mechanics of settler colonialism predated their own and close relatives' existence. Chapter Five shatters this convenient release, as it features a contempered perspective of the happenings of the 1950s to 1960s, which brought dispersal, dissolution, and stereotyping to Rooster Town. Giving testimony to injustices, the book questions the hard truths behind the relocation and denigration of the Metis at the hand of settler colonialism in the budding city of Winnipeg. Since the release of the book, the municipal government, charged with seeking to expand and erase the fringe community in the 1960s, is considering issuing an apology to the descendants of Rooster Town. This is a testament both to the thoroughness of the research and the power to awaken, which the book has had on Winnipeg as a whole.
As an added bonus for those interested, on the University of Manitoba Press website is a link to the Rooster Town Online Archives (http://roostertown.lib.umanitoba.ca), hosted by the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections providing more information on Rooster Town, including census records, historical documents, and research materials.
University of Manitoba
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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