THE MÉTIS HOME­LAND

How to de­fine the ter­ri­tory of a peo­ple barred from claim­ing land of their own?

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Michel Hogue

How to de­fine the ter­ri­tory of a peo­ple barred from claim­ing land of their own?

THE STAKES MUST have seemed ex­traor­di­nar­ily high. The Métis del­e­ga­tion as­sem­bled at the an­nual treaty pay­ments at Fort Walsh, in Saskatchewan’s Cy­press Hills in the sum­mer of 1881, were among t he thou­sands of In­dige­nous Peo­ples gath­ered who had wit­nessed the col­lapse of bi­son pop­u­la­tions north of the 49th par­al­lel. They had also ex­pe­ri­enced t he pres­ence of Amer­i­can Army pa­trols that, in­creas­ingly, stood be­tween them and the an­i­mals they looked to hunt. While hunger stalked their camps, Métis lead­ers pressed Thomas Page Wadsworth, the of­fi­cial charged with ad­min­is­ter­ing the pay­ments, to ad­mit them into the num­bered treaties that had been con­cluded in pre­vi­ous years with Prairie First Na­tions. When Wadsworth re­jected their de­mands, the Métis re­turned with two lead­ing Plains Cree Chiefs, Mi­nahiko­sis (Lit­tle Pine) and Papewes (Lucky Man), who threat­ened to make Wadsworth “pay ev­ery na­tive of the coun­try” if he did not ad­mit the Métis. Wadsworth con­fided to his su­pe­ri­ors that he did “not care two straws for the In­di­ans or their threats,” but he wor­ried nonethe­less that if he re­mained too firm he would “bring on trouble.” Trouble was averted, how­ever, when re­ports reached Fort Walsh that bi­son could be found nearby. The Métis protest re­ceded as fam­i­lies set off to hunt. Métis ef­forts to as­sert their rights to the West and to stake out a por­tion of it for their con­tin­ued use ran head­long into an emerg­ing gov­ern­ment pol­icy that meant to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Métis from First Na­tions and to re­make In­dige­nous home­lands for set­tlers. Métis lead­ers had made sim­i­lar re­quests at pre­vi­ous treaty gath­er­ings. Just three years ear­lier, in 1878, hun­dreds of Métis men as­sem­bled in the Cy­press Hills pe­ti­tioned the gov­ern­ment for a re­serve along the bor­der and for the sorts of pro­vi­sions in­cluded in the num­bered treaties, in­clud­ing the fi­nan­cial sup­port needed to estab­lish schools, churches and farms. Of­fi­cials

re­fused. The gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion was clear: cre­at­ing new home­lands for set­tlers de­pended first on marginal­iz­ing the Métis in theirs.

FED­ERAL EF­FORTS TO re­make the West in­volved re­work­ing how and where Métis lived and how they in­ter­acted with their neigh­bours. Through­out the 19th cen­tury, Métis com­mu­ni­ties forged mo­bile l ives across a wide-rang­ing home­land. While this en­com­passed much of t he ter­ri­tory now de­scribed by the Métis Na­tional Coun­cil as part of the his­toric Métis home­land — that i s , “t he three Prairie prov­inces (Man­i­toba, Saskatchewan, Al­berta), as well as parts of On­tario, Bri­tish Columbia, the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries and the north­ern United States” — the pre­cise bound­aries of that home­land have been de­fined as much by hu­man re­la­tions as by ge­og­ra­phy. In the plains and park­lands of the West, Métis fam­i­lies sus­tained them­selves by hunt­ing, fish­ing, trap­ping, trad­ing, cul­ti­vat­ing land or seek­ing wage labour across great dis­tances and through ter­ri­to­ries that oth­ers oc­cu­pied. Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa have shown how the mul­ti­cul­tural na­ture of Plains Métis com­mu­ni­ties fa­cil­i­tated these move­ments. Af­ter years spent comb­ing through par­ish reg­is­ters from across the north­ern Great Plains, en­ter­ing ge­nealog­i­cal data from birth, mar­riage and death records, they have used soft­ware to give vis­ual ex­pres­sion to the vast web of mar­i­tal and other kin ties that con­nected Métis to each other and to their First Na­tions kin and neigh­bours. These net­works and the re­la­tions they rep­re­sented al­lowed fam­i­lies to hunt, trade and move across the eth­ni­cally mixed land­scapes of the West’s plains and park­lands. Al­though in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye, these net­works de­fined com­mu­nity bound­aries and ter­ri­to­ries. These were clearly de­fined, yet per­me­able, bound­aries. In what is now south­weste r n Man­i­toba, for in­stance, the Métis fam­i­lies who lived and hunted in the re­gion in­ter­mar­ried, trav­elled and camped with the Cree, Assini­boine and Plains Ojibwa bands who also called the re­gion home. Most Métis fam­i­lies counted peo­ple from these First Na­tions among their an­ces­tors. Con­tin­ued in­ter­mar­riage and in­ter­ac­tion among these groups main­tained such con­nec­tions and al­lowed for joint oc­cu­pa­tion of the re­gion. With­out such kin ties, move­ments across ter­ri­to­ries could be more con­tested. When Métis set out on bi­son

Métis ef­forts to as­sert their rights to the West and stake out a por­tion for their con­tin­ued use ran head­long into emerg­ing gov­ern­ment poli­cies.

hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tions on the plains to the south and west from the Red River Val­ley in the 1840s and 1850s, they did so con­scious that their hunts were in ter­ri­to­ries oc­cu­pied by the Dako­tas and other First Na­tions, who would seek to dis­rupt their ex­pe­di­tions. When brigade mem­bers en­coun­tered dan­ger, they ar­ranged their carts in a cir­cle, plac­ing them side by side with their trams turned out­ward, so as to pro­vide a space for their lodges inside. Guards kept watch over these en­camp­ments through the night. Plains Métis were left to use force to gain ac­cess to bi­son herds or to ne­go­ti­ate po­lit­i­cal agree­ments with Dakota lead­ers that would help avoid blood­shed. While com­pe­ti­tion over dwin­dling bi­son pop­u­la­tions in­creased fric­tion be­tween dif­fer­ent Plains peo­ples, the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Métis and Cree lead­ers dur­ing the stand-off in the Cy­press Hills in the 1880s shows the strength of those cross-com­mu­nity po­lit­i­cal ties. Yet fed­eral of­fi­cials were un­will­ing to ac­knowl­edge these ties and sought in­stead to im­ple­ment poli­cies that would dis­tin­guish be­tween mem­bers of these com­mu­ni­ties. Anx­ious to avoid com­mit­ments that would cost the fed­eral gov­ern­ment over the long term or that would “tie up” the lands needed for set­tle­ment, of­fi­cials claimed that treat­ing Métis the same as First Na­tions would cause them to re­main “in their present semi bar­barous state.” Like many o t h e r o f f i c i a l s who brushed aside ef­forts by Métis to seek f or­mal ad­mis­sion to treaties or to have spe­cific re­serves set aside for them, Wadsworth in­sisted that, while Métis could join treaties as i ndi­vid­ual mem­bers of First Na­tions bands, they could not do so as a group, nor would the gov­ern­ment set aside land for spe­cific Métis re­serves. Whether one was Métis or First Na­tions de­ter­mined the shape of their en­ti­tle­ments to land.

While Métis could join treaties as in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of First Na­tions bands, they could not do so as a group.

Frus­tra­tions over un­re­solved land claims drove Métis po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing and, fa­mously, led to the armed clashes with fed­eral au­thor­i­ties in 1869, dur­ing the Louis Riel-led Red River Re­sis­tance, and 1885, when Métis ef­forts to have their land rights in Saskatchewan rec­og­nized cul­mi­nated in blood­shed and the hang­ing of Riel. In the af­ter­math, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment ad­dressed out­stand­ing Métis ti­tle claims in­di­vid­u­ally through scrip, rather than as a group through treaties. In the­ory, scrip cer­tifi­cates of­fered a way to ex­tin­guish Métis ti­tle claims by of­fer­ing pieces of pa­per re­deemable in land or money. In re­al­ity, much of the land found its way into the hands of spec­u­la­tors, both in Man­i­toba and across the south-cen­tral por­tions of the Prairie prov­inces. For the would-be farm­ers, es­pe­cially those from Europe or Canada, who pur­chased the cer­tifi­cates and used them to lo­cate land in the pub­lic do­main, these pieces of pa­per of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to se­cure land in the West. For most Métis, how­ever, the dis­tri­bu­tion of scrip marked the demise of their hopes for a se­cure land base and the frac­tur­ing of their home­lands.

MÉTIS LEAD­ERS IN the 20th cen­tury worked to piece to­gether a land base and to as­sert their land rights de­spite the very real ob­sta­cles posed by the far-flung na­ture of Métis com­mu­ni­ties, re­stricted eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties and en­demic racism. In the 1930s, Métis lead­ers over­came these ob­sta­cles to se­cure a land base in a clus­ter of set­tle­ments — first in Al­berta

and later in Saskatchewan — though most Métis in the Prairie prov­inces lived out­side those set­tle­ments, in towns and ci­ties and on un­oc­cu­pied Crown lands or “road al­lowances,” which were nineme­tre-wide scraps of land in cor­ri­dors des­ig­nated for high­ways. Even in the face of these dis­rup­tions, long­stand­ing fam­ily net­works con­tin­ued to pro­vide a larger sense of con­nec­tion across these re­gions and to pro­pel po­lit­i­cal or­ga­niz­ing among com­mu­ni­ties. Yet the un­re­solved na­ture of Métis rights to lands and re­sources across the 20th cen­tury re­minds us of the long shadow cast by the 19th-cen­tury poli­cies that sought to de­fine and di­vide In­dige­nous Peo­ples. Since the Man­i­toba Act of 1870, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had rec­og­nized Métis as an Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple but, as was made clear by of­fi­cials in the Cy­press Hills in 1881, bu­reau­crats were de­ter­mined that this should not en­tail the same sorts of en­ti­tle­ments or re­stric­tions con­nected with the le­gal sta­tus of “In­di­ans” in Canada. The Supreme Court’s 2016 Daniels de­ci­sion — that Métis and non-sta­tus In­di­ans are in­deed “In­di­ans” un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion — sug­gests that the kinds of race­based le­gal dis­tinc­tions once drawn by the Crown must be re­vis­ited. The de­ci­sion calls our at­ten­tion back to the ways that Plains Métis com­mu­ni­ties or­dered their lives prior to their en­coun­ters with the Cana­dian state. In­deed, the per­sis­tence of a sense of be­long­ing rooted in kin and com­mu­nity, af­ter more than a cen­tury of poli­cies that sought to dis­man­tle Métis com­mu­ni­ties and to en­able the West’s re­set­tle­ment, has al­lowed a sense of na­tion­hood to sur­vive amid this frac­tured land­scape. For an­other per­spec­tive on the Métis home­land, by Métis scholar and In­dige­nous law ex­pert Dar­ren O’toole of the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa, visit can­geo.ca/nd17/home­land.

A Métis fam­ily camp­ing on Canada’s plains in 1872. The two-wheeled Red River cart was the pri­mary mode of 19th-cen­tury west­ward ex­pan­sion.

A wa­ter­colour of a Métis bi­son hunt on Canada’s Prairies by Ir­ish-cana­dian artist Paul Kane ( Op­po­site top). A Métis fam­ily in North Dakota in 1883 ( op­po­site bot­tom).

Clock­wise from top left: An 1862 sketch of a Red River cart; an 1885 news­pa­per litho­graph of a First Na­tion fam­ily with “rebel half breeds”; a Métis York boat brigade at Cum­ber­land House, Sask., 1912.

The Cap­ture of Ba­toche ( above) de­picts the 1885 bat­tle that ended the North­west Re­sis­tance in Saskatchewan and led to the hang­ing of Louis Riel ( left, cen­tre), shown here with coun­cil­lors of his pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment in Red River, Man., 1870.

A group of Métis chil­dren and women from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., in the 1930s ( above). Scrip cer­tifi­cates ( be­low) for 160 or 240 dol­lars or acres were dis­trib­uted to in­di­vid­ual Métis in ex­change for their Abo­rig­i­nal ti­tle claims from the 1870s to the 1920s.

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