THE MÉTIS HOMELAND
How to define the territory of a people barred from claiming land of their own?
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.