Published on November 2, 2010 by John
During the height of the North American fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, many British, Scottish and French-Canadian fur traders married First Nations and Inuit women, mainly First Nations Cree, Ojibwa, or Saulteaux. The majority of these fur traders were French and Catholic. Therefore, their children, the Métis, were exposed to both the Catholic and indigenous belief systems, thus creating a new distinct aboriginal people in North America. First Nations women were the link between cultures, they not only provided companionship for the fur traders, but also aided in their survival. First Nations women were able to translate the language, sew new clothing for their husbands, and generally were involved in resolving any cultural issues that arose. The First Peoples had survived in the harsh west for thousands of years, so the fur traders benefited greatly from their First Nations wives’ knowledge of the land and its resources.
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The Métis played a vital role in the success of the western fur trade. Not only were the Métis skilled hunters, but they were also raised to appreciate both Aboriginal and European cultures. Métis understanding of both societies and customs helped bridge cultural gaps, resulting in better trading relationships. The Hudson’s Bay Company discouraged unions between their fur traders and First Nations and Inuit woman, while the North West Company (the French fur trading company) supported such marriages. The Métis were valuable employees of both fur trade companies, due to the their skills as voyageurs, buffalo hunters, interpreters and knowledge of the lands.
In 1812, many immigrants (mainly Scottish farmers) moved to the Red River Valley, in present day Manitoba. The Hudson’s Bay Company, who nominally owned the land called Rupert’s Land at the time, assigned the land to the settlers.The allocation of Red River land caused conflict with those already living in the area as well as with the North West Company, whose trade routes had been cut in half. Many Métis were working as fur traders with both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Others were working as free traders, or buffalo hunters supplying pemmican to the fur trade. The buffalo were declining in number, and the Métis and First Nations had to go further and further west to hunt them. As well, profits from the fur trade were declining because the Hudson’s Bay Company had to extend its reach further and further away from its main posts to get furs.
The Government of Canada exerted its power over the people living in Rupert’s Land after its acquisition in the mid-19th century from the Hudson’s Bay Company for the railroad. The Métis and the Anglo-Métis (commonly known as Countryborn, children of First Nations women and Orcadian, Scottish or English men), joined forces to stand up for their rights and to protect their age-old way of life against an aggressive and distant Anglo-Saxon government and its local colonizing agents. During this time the Canadian government pressured the Aboriginals to sign treaties (known as the “Numbered treaties”) which turned over rights to almost the entire western plains to the Government of Canada. In return for signing over their lands, the Canadian government promised food, education, medical help, and other kinds of support. Emerging as a Métis leader was the educated Louis Riel, who denounced the government in a speech delivered in late August 1869 from the steps of Saint-Boniface Cathedral. The Métis became more fearful when the Canadian government appointed the notoriously anti-French William McDougall as the Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories on September 28, 1869, in anticipation of a formal transfer to take effect in December. What followed was the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and consequently the exile of Louis Riel to the United States.
In March 1885, the Métis heard that a contingent of 500 North-West Mounted Police was heading west. They organized a newly formed coalition called The Métis provisional government with Pierre Parenteau as President and Gabriel Dumont as adjutant-general to action. With the help of First Nations Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear they facilitated the return of Louis Riel to the coalition he founded in 1869. This led to a series of unsuccessful conflicts collectively known as the “Riel Rebellions” or the North West Rebellion. Gabriel Dumont fled to the United States with Louis Riel, Poundmaker and Big Bear surrendering to the Government. Big Bear and Poundmaker each received a three-year sentence. On July 6, 1885, Riel was charged with high treason and was sentenced to hang. Riel’s appeals went on briefly, but, as mandated by the government of the time, the execution was conducted on November 16, 1885.
During the 1930s, political activism arose in Métis communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan over land rights. Five men, sometimes dubbed “The Famous Five”, (James Patrick Brady, Malcolm Norris, Peter Tomkins Jr., Joe Dion, Felix Callihoo) were instrumental in having the Alberta government hold the “Ewing Commission” in 1934 dealing with land claims. The Alberta government would pass the Métis Population Betterment Act in 1938.The Act provided funding and land to the Métis (The provincial government later rescind portions of the land in certain areas).
The 1960s saw the emergence of renewed political organizations. The “Alberta Federation of Métis Settlement Associations” was established in the mid 1970s and provides a collective voice for the Métis Nation of Alberta. During the constitutional talks of 1989, the Métis were recognized as one of the three Aboriginal peoples of Canada. In 1990, land titles passed from the Alberta government to Métis communities through the “Métis Settlement Act”, replacing the Métis Betterment Act.
The position of Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians was created in 1985 as a portfolio in the Canadian Cabinet. As the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is officially responsible only for Status Indians and largely with those living on Indian reserves, the new position was created in order provide a liaison between the federal government and Métis and non-status Aboriginal peoples, urban Aboriginals and their representatives.
In 2007, Conservative Chuck Strahl became both Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Canada) and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians in the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.