Metis of Western Canada - History and Cultural Relations

In the latter half of the seventeenth century in the Great Lakes region, the factory system of trading fur ended. To sustain their interests, the French took over the role of the trade chief and his followers in gathering furs from different bands, transporting them to the coastal factory to be exchanged for European manufactured goods and carrying the goods inland to be distributed to the Indian bands with the next spring trade. The en derouine trade (itinerant peddling) that emerged saw a bourgeois (merchant), one among several in a principal post, dispatch small parties of men, led by a commis (clerk), to trade with Indian bands on their own territory. To cement commercial relations with a band, the commis frequently would take a "country wife." In time, should he become a bourgeois, he would gather some of his "country children," particularly first-born males, to join his family in the trading post. By 1725, this two-generation process had established the Great Lakes Metis. Half a century later, farther west, in the river valleys of the northern plains and southern boreal forest, "free men," former engagés (servants) of the trading companies, with their "country families" appeared as les gens libres (the free folk). The traders encouraged them in their pursuit of bison (provisions) and furs. The Indian bands of the region, as kinsmen of the free men's country wives, accepted their presence. In accommodating to a provisioning and trapping niche in the northern plains fur trade, les gens libres emerged as the Plains Metis. By the 1840s, the buffalo robe trade complemented the summer provisioning hunt with family bands of Metis joining with others to establish sizable winter villages in wooded oases on the prairie. They became known as hivernants (winterers).

With time, the Metis found their economic interests tied to commercial capitalist interests outside of the region and witnessed the resurgence of a Metis trading class. These Metis traders were invariably the patriarchal heads of wintering villages on the prairies. It was this new commercial and trading interest that was at the root of the free trade controversy, culminating with the Sayer trial in 1849. The trial saw the Red River Metis successfully challenge the Hudson's Bay Company's use of its royal charter to protect its commercial interests from competition.

On both the summer hunts and the robe hunts, violent incidents could occur, involving the Dakota southwest of the Red River Settlement and, farther west, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The most famous incident was the Battle of Grand Coteau, June 16-19, 1851. Metis from White Horse Plains, a community on the Assiniboine River on the western extremity of the Red River Settlement, came under sustained attack from Yankton Dakota near Dog Den Butte close to the Missouri River. Circling their two-wheeled red river carts to corral their oxen and horses and shelter the women and children, the men charged forth the distance of a gun shot to scrape gun pits in the prairie sod. From these vantage points they inflicted casualties that the Dakota found unacceptable and thus broke off the action. Although conflict would continue into the 1870s, the Metis saw themselves as paramount on the northern plains. It was also as guides and interpreters in the fur trade and later with missionaries and in government service that the Metis gained recognition. Many officials considered them indispensable in conducting negotiations with Indians.

With "the transfer" in 1869-1870, the Colony of Canada replaced the Hudson's Bay Company as the political authority in British North West America. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Metis in Red River initiated a political movement to ensure their interests in the era of settlement. The college-educated Riel garnered sufficient support to establish a provisional government and subsequently to negotiate an agreement with the Canadians that became the Manitoba Act. Riel believed he had negotiated a position of continuing political relevance for the Metis. The surge of settlement in the decade that followed demonstrated otherwise. With the rewards of the robe trade still evident farther west and experiencing discrimination at the hands of Protestant immigrants, many Red River Metis sold their river lots to incoming Canadians and journeyed westward to join existing settlements or to found new ones. Fifteen years later, Louis Riel, now as a religious prophet, led a movement seeking to recapture the political position lost in Red River. Centered in the village of Batoche in the settlement of St-Laurent on the South Saskatchewan River, events progressed to rebellion, ending with the Battle of Batoche, May 12, 1885. Riel was captured, tried, and hanged on November 16,1885. After the rebellion, the Metis were dispersed northward and westward, and survived into the twentieth century owning little land and frequently squatting on Crown land (comparable with public land in the United States).

In the 1930s, the Metis in Alberta persuaded the provincial government to enact legislation creating ten (later eight) "colonies" in the boreal forest region. Similar to Indian reserves, the colonies were to facilitate Metis assimilation into the larger population. Other provincial governments have since initiated a number of programs to address problems of disease, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, and fairness in the judicial process. With the 1950s, Metis organizations agitated for a decision-making role in programs directed at them. Recently, in Alberta, the Federation of Metis Settlements (formerly colonies) and the separate Metis Association have negotiated relationships with the provincial government that suggest that Riel's objective, Metis survival as a recognized political entity, may be realized. Similar understandings may be emerging in other Canadian jurisdictions. In the United States, some Metis communities in Montana and North Dakota have seen Indian status as a vehicle to achieve recognition as a corporate entity in relations with governments. In a few instances, this view has gained adherents in Canada. At present, however, increasing numbers of Metis are taking purposeful steps to acknowledge a Metis heritage.

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