• A Métis family with Red River carts in North Dakota, 1883 (Photo: STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF NORTH DAKOTA, A4365)

    A Métis family with Red River carts in North Dakota, 1883. (Photo: State Historical Society of North Dakota, A4365)

Historian Arthur J. Ray wrote* that many of Canada’s Indigenous people “define themselves in terms of the homelands that sustained their ancestors. These are places where their spiritual roots lie.” 

As recent scholarship has shown, the Metis** were “a people on the move.” This does not imply that they were “nomadic” in the sense of randomly moving about without rhyme or reason. On the contrary, they moved with a purpose and their movements were influenced by the waterways, the landscape, the seasons, their means of livelihood, available resources and their alliances and kinship connections with neighbouring Indigenous peoples. If the Metis emerged from marriages à la façon du pays, what shaped them as a people was not so much the genetic make-up of their ancestors as marriage to le pays itself: kinship relations not only within, but with the very territory from which they sprung – or what might be termed a kinscape.

When Louis Riel sang the praises of the exploits of le peuple Métis canadien-français, he spoke of the “brilliant successes” of his people. What is fascinating about Riel’s account is that the areas and peoples he mentions — the Indians of Minnesota, the Dakota tribes, the mountains and prairies of the Northwest, Regina, Montana, Manitoba — all fall within what is today termed the Metis homeland. What is striking about this area is that it more or less corresponds to waterways of the Lake Winnipeg drainage basin – although the Metis kinscape also extended up into the Mackenzie River basin.

Louis Riel, shown here with councillors of his provisional government in Red River, Man., 1870. (Photo: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA, PA-012854)

Louis Riel, shown here with councillors of his provisional government in Red River, Man., 1870. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-012854)

Under the French regime, furs flowed toward Montréal right up until the early decades of the 19th century. Simultaneously, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was moving furs to Europe through York Factory. While primarily under Scottish ownership, the North-West Company (NWC) pursued the French fur-trade routes and primarily hired French-Canadian voyageurs. To be sure, as my own ancestor Alexander Bremner shows, Scotsmen were not absent from the work force. Later, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) voyageurs were to also supplement the labour pool.

Competition from the NWC forced the HBC to establish forts further inland. It was in the vicinity of the HBC forts that distinct “half-breed” communities, primarily of Cree and Scottish background, began to spring up. Similarly, Métis communities began to emerge along the NWC routes as something distinct from the predominantly French-Canadian fur trade communities. By 1804-5, there were already several Métis families living near the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, as well as on the White Horse Plain. By 1814, some 200 Métis resided in the Red River area, while many others resided in areas such as the Qu’Appelle Valley and Île-à-la-Crosse. 

It was in this period that the Metis emerged as a distinct member of the Nehiyaw-Pwat, or the Iron Confederacy, along with the Assiniboine, Cree and Saulteaux allies. Indigenous worldviews, languages, diplomacy and protocols governed the Confederacy and its relations with other Indigenous peoples. The languages and cultures of these allies would have a profound effect on the emergence of the Metis as a people, particularly the plains or buffalo hunting Métis. Further north and west, Cree influences dominated, while east and south of Winnipeg Saulteaux was more prominent.

The result of the competition between the two fur trade companies was the infamous Fur Trade War that culminated with the establishment of the Selkirk Settlement. It was during the Fur Trade War that one finds the first written records of the Metis claiming Indigenous title to the land. While Métis and Scots Half-Breed identities clearly existed well before the Battle of Seven Oaks, this incident coincided with the emergence of a national consciousness — the “New Nation” and the first appearance of the now ubiquitous blue infinity flag. The Fur Trade War resulted in the merger of the HBC and NWC in 1821. 

The merger would bring about profound changes in both the Scots Half-Breed and Métis communities. While the well-known Red River cart first appeared prior to the merger in Pembina in 1801, it figured more prominently after 1821. The design was unique to Metis freighters and adapted to their particular environment. No metal was used so the carts could be repaired en route, and no grease was used on the axel due to the sand on the plains. The wagon trails where the squealing wheels of the Red River cart could be heard stretched out like the spokes of those wheels to the extremities of the Metis homeland: the Carleton trail connected Upper Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton via Fort Carleton, just north of present-day Saskatoon; another strand stretched from the Qu’Appelle Valley to the Cypress Hills; the Woods, West and East Plains trails from Upper Fort Garry to Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

Map of the Metis homeland

The Métis homeland. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

It was also in the period following the merger that the first large-scale buffalo hunts appeared. By this time, the buffalo were already disappearing from Manitoba and the shrinking herds drew the Metis into southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana and almost all of Alberta. This brought them into the territories of other Indigenous nations, and as a member of the Iron Confederacy, they participated in numerous battles alongside the Cree, Assiniboine and Saulteaux against other Indigenous nations. Their clashes with the Dakota reached their climax in the Battle of Grand Coteau in 1852. 

Amid all of this movement, the “medicine line” — that is, the international boundary between Canada and the United States that was fixed at the 49th parallel in 1818 — would loom large in the symbolic universe of the Indigenous peoples of the plains, and the Metis were no exception. Other boundaries formed as well. After the merger, the fur-trade route through what is now Treaty 3 territory fell into disuse. From then on, furs were transited via York Factory on Hudson Bay. It was precisely to deliver furs to York Factory that many Metis took up employment plying the York boats. The York boat routes criss-crossed the Winnipeg drainage basin, from the Red River Settlement to Norway House and Lac la Biche, bringing furs out of the Peace and Athabasca basins to York Factory. It was not just furs that ceased flowing in the aftermath of the merger, but people, too: after 1821, Montréal became geographically remote for all but a handful of educated elites, such as Riel and his father. From then on, the Metis people followed their own distinct trajectory that was more determined by both physical and human geography rather than ancestry.

A Métis York boat brigade at Cumberland House, Sask., 1912. (Photo: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA, PA-017395)

A Métis York boat brigade at Cumberland House, Sask., 1912. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-017395)

During the Fur Trade War, the Métis under Cuthbert Grant’s leadership burnt the Selkirk Settlement to the ground not once, but twice. However, the merger resulted in the closure of duplicate forts throughout the Northwest, and retired employees brought their wives and children to the Settlement. Each family brought with them a strand of a larger kinship web that reached back into Metis and First Nation communities across the Northwest.

The Métis and Half-Breeds came to numerically dominate the Settlement in a way that had never occurred anywhere else in North America. On several occasions, they reminded the HBC who was in control. A first hostile demonstration took place in 1834 and culminated in the infamous Sayer Trial of 1849. It not only broke the trade monopoly of the HBC, but also opened up key positions in the legal system to Metis representation while imposing the French language on the Governor and Council of Assiniboia and the General Quarterly Court. For their part, the York boatmen were frequently in open revolt with their employer. What these incidents make apparent is that the Metis did not see themselves as being in Rupert’s Land; it was “Prince Rupert” who had set foot in their territory.

As in the 1810s, when the arrival of the Selkirk settlers first caused Métis land claims to flare up, the proposal of the Select Committee of the Imperial House of Commons in 1857 to annex the District of Assiniboia to Ontario or grant it Crown Colony status raised the issue of the “Indian title” of the Metis. A decade later, the spectre of annexation to the fledgling Dominion of Canada again brought forth Métis claims to land south of Assiniboine River to the Medicine Line for their children. Consequently, s. 31 of the Manitoba Act, 1870 granted 1.4 million acres (566,000 hectares) “for the benefit of the families of the half-breed residents” of the original postage-stamp province. However, since s. 31 specified that the 1.4 million acres were to be divided “among the children of the half-breed heads of families” and then “granted to the said children respectively,” it was believed to have only extinguished the Indian title of “half-breed” children. Further legislation was consequently adopted in 1874 to extinguish the Indian title of  “half-breed” adults. 


An example of a scrip coupon. (Photo: Saskatchewan Archives Board General, E11/public domain)

In 1879, an amendment to the Dominions Land Act was made “to satisfy any claims existing in connection with the extinguishment of the Indian title, preferred by half-breeds resident in the North-West Territories, outside the limits of Manitoba.” To compensate the Metis for the extinction of their title, the federal government issued scrip — basically, redeemable certificates — worth a certain number of acres or dollars. Shortly after the “Riel Rebellion” in 1885, an order-in-council granted 160 acres to adults who were in bona fide possession of land or scrip worth 160 dollars to those who weren’t, while scrip for either 240 acres or dollars was granted to children. Several commissions were set up to distribute scrip, but eventually, half-breed scrip commissioners simply accompanied treaty commissioners in Treaty areas 8, 5, 10 and 11. Again, the scrip commissions were limited to the Lake Winnipeg and Mackenzie River basins.

The Metis of Manitoba won a landmark case when the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision in Manitoba Métis Federation v. Canada and Manitoba in 2013. The plaintiff sought declaratory relief because, among other things, “Canada failed to fulfil its obligations, properly or at all, to the Métis under sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act, and pursuant to the undertakings given by the Crown.” The majority of the Court agreed that the delays in implementing the s. 31 grant did not uphold the honour of the Crown, which requires the Crown to act diligently in the circumstances.

Three years later, the Court found in Daniels v. Canada that the term “Indian” in s. 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1967 should be read to have the same meaning as “Aboriginal” in s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and thereby include the Metis. The finding in Daniels confirms that, when federal Parliament adopted legislation to extinguish the “Indian title” of the Metis, it could have only been acting through s. 91(24), which grants it jurisdiction over “Indians and Lands Reserved for the Indians.” It remains to be seen if the distribution of scrip under s. 125 of the Dominion Lands Act lived up to the principle of the honour of the Crown and fulfilled its fiduciary obligations toward the “Aboriginal peoples of Canada.”

As I once heard Metis elder Maria Campbell say to Harry Daniels, “Get us our land back!”

Some fifteen years later, in this age of “reconciliation,” we’re still without territory in our homeland. 

*Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since the World Began, Toronto: Lester Publishing Ltd./Key Porter Books, 1996, p. 1

**While anachronistic, I use “Metis” (without an acute accent) to designate both the Scots Half-Breeds and the Métis canadiens as a group, while reserving “Métis” (with an acute accent) for the latter. The linguistic and religious differences that once distinguished the two groups have become less important today.