For Chris White, having mixed black and Indigenous heritage was never a big deal. It was a well-established fact within the Nova Scotia native’s family that his father’s parents were former slaves from Virginia, while his grandmother had Mi’kmaq ancestry. Both histories were rich in struggle and perseverance, but neither were ever brought to the foreground; instead, the mixed lineage remained buried in the family’s subconscious.
“It wasn’t so much a matter of being ashamed, or being concerned about prejudice,” Chris said. “It’s something that we never really stated. Everybody in the family just knew.”
However, when Chris took it upon himself to delve into his family’s black and Indigenous stories, he uncovered a whole community of mixed black and Indigenous peoples in Nova Scotia who have been almost completely ignored by the Canadian history textbooks. In fact, a strong link between Native and African-Canadian communities in the Maritimes has been deeply rooted within the country for hundreds of years, yet it still struggles to gain visibility.
“It’s [a tale] of immense tenacity, and these groups [have undergone] extreme hardship, discrimination, and unfair practices,” Chris said. “It was not just about surviving, but finding ways to thrive and support one another. It’s quite an inspiring story.”
So, when his Toronto-based cousin and former Poet Laureate, George Elliot Clarke, called him to ask if he would join in a new musical project that gave a voice to people of mixed black, Indigenous and Nova Scotian roots, White agreed without hesitation.
Two years ago, George noticed the lack of acknowledgement of the contributions and stories of people with these mixed heritages. He quickly set out to change that and created a group of African-Indigenous artists with the hope of bringing light, not just to Canada’s black and Indigenous history, but to their history together. A troop that now consists of African-Indigenous artists Chris, George, Sugar Plum Croxen, Shelley Hamilton, and Russ Kelley, the “AfroMétis Collective” (as they call themselves) is producing an album, the title of which makes an affirmative statement about their identity: The Afrometis Constitution.
And so were the beginnings of the AfroMétis project, a movement to celebrate the often-overlooked contributions of black, Indigenous, and mixed peoples within the country’s story. Chris said the struggle for this recognition, particularly of dual identities, comes from the oppression inherent within society.
“If you are not the mainstream community, then you don’t necessarily get your story told,” he said. “The reality is if you are a part of two oppressed groups, you don’t want to complicate or compound that oppression by identifying both, so there were reasons historically why black people didn’t acknowledge their Native ancestry, and vice versa.”
An eclectic blend of poems and songs with folk, Celtic and Indigenous influences, the album will cover a variety of issues pertaining to black and Indigenous experiences. It will feature heavier pieces, such as an impassioned poem about missing and murdered Indigenous women, written and recited by George, as well as more hopeful pieces, such as Chris’s light-hearted musical tribute to civil rights activist Viola Desmond.
Some people in mixed communities have found a sense of relief now that they are seeing their lives reflected within a musical force.
“Now that we are making this statement and this proclamation that this reality exists, lots of people are saying, ‘Finally, at last, this story is being told,’” Chris said.
Russ Kelley, another member of the collective, said he doesn’t have a very large percentage of First Nations heritage and focuses more on his experiences as a black man in Atlantic Canada. Growing up, Russ witnessed his parents face racial prejudice and exclusion within his community in New Brunswick. While this was difficult, he believes the power of positive messaging within music provides a pathway to cultural healing.
“[Music] gives stronger support to the community and the people,” Russ said. “It allows them to continue to fight and push for equality and fair treatment.”
However, while the project has given many AfroMétis people a newfound voice in the midst of a historical void, it has not been able to skirt controversy. Russ said the group’s main challenge has been contention within the Indigenous community and debate over who can truly claim Indigenous status. The artists have struggled with questions of being sure to give people the respect and space they deserve.
“We do have to find the appropriate balance, language and positioning so that the ability for the AfroMétis reality to be recognized happens in the correct way,” Russ said. “It has to be something that is regarded positively.”
Chris also spoke on the controversy surrounding the project, acknowledging the fears and trepidations many Indigenous communities have expressed. Many Métis organizations have stated that you can’t claim to be Métis unless you grew up in a Métis community.
“I understand that is a good way of looking at one aspect of how somebody can be connected to a history and cultural practices, so from that point of view I agree,” Chris said. “However, that’s just not the reality for many people like myself. We (mixed peoples) still recognize that there is something there that is part of our make-up, part of our worldviews passed down through the family.”
In reflecting on the project and its musical journey, Russ said one of his favourite parts was simply the ability to connect with other musicians, and to create music that allows him to explore his own past and honour those who have come before.
“No one has necessarily influenced my work directly. However the idea of honouring the paths of those who walked before us has,” he said. “I think people will find this project interesting and unusual. That’s a good thing.”
Chris said he is also excited to see how people will engage with the album and hopes that it will bring about emotional reactions to the group’s message. He has grown more connected to his personal past throughout the process, now proudly calling himself AfroMétis.
“Since working on this project, [my identity] has become more meaningful to me,” he said. “We are expressing ourselves, stating, ‘This is my ancestry, this is my identity, and this is what I will call myself.’”