Metis of Western Canada - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Metis were hunters and trappers who practiced subsistence horticulture, raising cereal and vegetable crops on river lots. Bison meat, fresh and processed as pemmican, was the principal food and surplus product generated for sale in the fur trade. Later, the cow's hide taken in winter, the robe, would be the principal surplus product traded. The summer hunt saw the Metis of a particular region gather at a central rendezvous to establish the temporary government of the hunt. By election, the heads of families chose le chef (chief) to be assisted by seven to ten capitaines (captains), each with requisite soldats (soldiers). Rules for the hunt, emphasizing the collective interest over that of the individual, with sanctions, were promulgated. With the end of the hunt, the authority of le chef and les capitaines ended, although they continued to be men of influence and consequence. The format of the summer hunt was followed in the winter village.

In return for the surplus provisions, furs, and robes the Metis supplied to the trader, they consumed products additional to those available in the Indian trade. Besides guns, shot, powder, knives, axes, and blankets, the Metis were heavy consumers of cloth and clothing. Accouterments such as caps, shawls, beads, jewelry, and sleigh bells and pom-poms for dog harnesses found ready buyers. At some locations, fisheries (using nets) from late fall to early winter were of critical importance. With the collapse of robe prices in the 1870s, followed by the collapse of the herds themselves, the Metis shifted to carting and day labor. With the granting of "Halfbreed Scrip" in Canada from the 1870s through to the 1900s, some Metis acquired land in addition to being eligible for homestead entry. Many more took money to finance itinerant farming and hunting. Today, many Metis are successful farmers. Many more, as employers and employees, are involved in small businesses and government service in the boreal forest region. Seasonal labor and government assistance continue to be significant sources of income.

Industrial Arts. The Metis incorporated many of the bush skills and products of their Indian kin into their way of life. The distinguishing feature in their behavior was the emphasis they placed on generating a surplus of selected products. Also, from the world of "work" in the fur trade, many men were skilled fishermen, boatmen, and teamsters. As cartwrights they created, without metal parts, the two-wheeled prairie vehicle, the red river cart. As carpenters they built one-room cabins in a matter of days. On occasion, leather garments cut in a European manner, but beaded in the tradition of the woodlands, was their clothing. An assumption sash, a woven belt, extended across the body from shoulder to waist. A cap or hat of distinction (a tam-o'-shanter at midcentury) completed costuming.

Division of Labor. In their skills and roles, the women reflected their cultural antecedents. In appropriate circumstances they could snare small game, although their activities emphasized the manufacture of clothing and the preparation and preservation of food, in addition to some gardening. The men hunted and trapped, and the women played a critical role in processing pemmican and tanning pelts and robes in surplus amounts for trade. Men skinned and butchered carcasses, but it was the women who produced the final product for trade.

Land Tenure. The Metis in Red River squatted with Hudson's Bay Company approval on river lots of a few rods frontage and extending a mile back from the river. By custom, the subsequent two miles were deemed the "hay privilege" of the river-lot resident. Beyond the hay privilege was common land where, for purposes of haying, local decision governed utilization. The pattern in Red River was reflected in other mission settlements, eventually to be recognized by government survey. Transfers of residence involved compensation for improvements, but not the land itself, until resettlement, surveys, and titles conveyed ownership. With the transfer in 1869-1870 and subsequent legislation, the Metis heads of families were granted rights to the land on which they resided and scrip to the amount of $160 or 160 acres. All Metis children were granted 240 acres of land. Over the years, much of this land and scrip fell into the hands of speculators, leaving large numbers of Metis landless. A dimension of Metis activism today aspires to establish a land base in areas where they have been residents for generations.

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