PhD grad brings Métis literary history to light with groundbreaking thesis

With a dissertation considered the first of its kind and a novel coming out soon, Matthew Tétreault has plenty of reasons to celebrate.


PhD grad Matthew Tétreault stands on the banks of the Red River in Winnipeg. His groundbreaking thesis is the first literary history of the Red River Métis, and he is also about to release his first novel, which began as his master’s thesis in creative writing. (Photo: Supplied)

As a young francophone Métis man growing up in Manitoba, Matthew Tétreault was surprised to see the name of one of his ancestors appear in a history book about Sir George Simpson, a 19th-century Hudson Bay Company governor.

“I talked to my mom and some other people in the family, and no one knew what her story really was,” says Tétreault of Simpson’s “country wife” Margaret Taylor.

“It got me thinking about how history was written. Where are the Métis stories?”

Today Tétreault celebrates his PhD graduation with a dissertation that goes a long way towards tracking those stories. His thesis in English and film studies is the first literary history of the Red River Métis, garnering him the Governor General’s Gold Medal for academic excellence at the graduate level. Two are awarded at the U of A every year at fall convocation.

Tétreault is also about to release his first novel through NeWest Press, called Hold Your Tongue, submitted for his U of A creative writing master’s degree six years ago and subsequently revised in light of what he learned researching his doctorate.

He first tried his hand at writing fiction when he was just out of high school, but says, “it didn’t really go anywhere.” He then studied creative writing at the University of Winnipeg, where he also took on an oral history project exploring his francophone and Métis heritage.

After graduating he was ready to attempt his first novel, one that would embrace francophone Métis identity in 20th-century Manitoba at the intersection of French, English and French Michif (an Indigenous language that mixes elements of French with Cree or Ojibwe).

The best place to do that, he decided, would be the U of A, with its wealth of Métis expertise but also situated on Treaty 6 territory, providing a wider perspective on the “broader homeland” of the Métis in Western Canada, says Tétreault.

He began his creative writing master’s degree in 2014. Two years later he had finished and successfully defended his novel, but it left him unsatisfied.

“I realized I didn't have the depth of knowledge required to properly represent what I was trying to represent,” he says. The novel needed to better reflect “the context, history and evolution of Métis culture, and the loss of language from French to English.”

So it was back to the drawing board. First, however, Tétreault wanted to fill a knowledge gap far wider than just his own. As a novelist determined to ground his work in a literary tradition, there was no survey to turn to.

So he ambitiously attempted to produce his own “comprehensive overview of Métis writing in French and English over the last two centuries,” under the supervision of Albert Braz.

“There was no handy guide, so I went about making one,” says Tétreault.

Red River Poetics: Toward a Métis Literary History is a major contribution not only to Métis and Indigenous studies, but also to Canadian literary studies and to literary history in general,” says Braz.

“Not the least of Matt’s achievements is the way he has early Métis writers speak to later ones, and vice versa, illustrating what is remembered and what is forgotten and thus how literature can both celebrate and trouble the nation.”

Included in Tétreault’s survey are the songs of Pierre Falcon, the writing career of Louis Riel, and texts by Alexander Kennedy Isbister, Alexandre DeLaronde, Marie-Thérèse Goulet-Courchaine, as well as contemporary writers Joanne Arnott, Gregory Scofield and Marilyn Dumont.

Tétreault connects their writing to, among other thematic currents, major Métis resistance movements, such as the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks, the Red River Resistance and the Northwest Resistance of 1885. But he also aims to shed light on “Métis literary production through its rise, ruptures — linguistic and cultural shifts — and resurgence.”

Tétreault locates Maria Campbell’s classic 1973 memoir Halfbreed as marking “a re-emergence of Métis literature” in the late 20th century. An honest and harsh account of Campbell’s struggles with alcoholism and addiction, the book recounts her experience as a single mother caught between Indigenous and anglophone identities.

The memoir also reflects a literary tradition “altered by the traumas of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries,” writes Tétreault, “one preoccupied with efforts of cultural recovery and decolonization that diverged from historical Métis writing in important ways.”

In addition to publishing his debut novel, Tétreault’s comprehensive survey has already caught the attention of several publishers who recognize its value to Métis literary culture.

“It's kind of crazy how both are peaking at the same time,” he says, acutely aware that he is having perhaps the best year of his writing career thus far.

“Now I’m looking at the void and thinking, what's next? It's exciting, but also nerve-racking.”

With no immediate job prospects, there are a few creative projects on Tétreault’s immediate to-do list, for which he has applied for grant funding. One possible post-doc idea, he says, is compiling an anthology of Métis literature.

He’d also like to embark on another novel, this time a “Métis literary western horror story” set in the 19th-century Red River Valley, just south of the American border.

“It would bring to light Métis spirituality, ghost stories, monsters, but also function as a commentary on incipient settler colonialism,” he says. “Not just a creature feature, but something with a bit more depth.”

On his choice to study at the U of A, Tétreault is unequivocal.

“I wouldn't have been able to produce what I did without the U of A,” he says, pointing to Alberta’s diverse Métis culture and the “fantastic people working there,” such as Faculty of Native Studies dean Chris Andersen and poet and author Marilyn Dumont.

“Three of the five members on my committee were Métis,” he says. “We had great conversations, and they pushed me and challenged me to think about stuff. Attending the U of A was definitely the right decision.”