Métis, a people in Canada and the northern United States of mixed white and indigenous ancestry who share a common history and cultural heritage. The word métis (pronounced may-tee) means “mixed race” in French. It has replaced the older term half-breed, which is now considered pejorative.
Historically there were two groups of Métis—one English speaking and one French speaking. Both originated during the fur trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. The English and Scottish traders and trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company often married women of indigenous nations, especially the Cree and Ojibwa. However, the company forbade such marriages, so they were usually not recognized by law. Sometimes the men themselves regarded these marriages as temporary. Their mixed race children were Protestant and spoke English. They generally lived around Hudson’s Bay trading posts and worked for the company, but they were limited to lower-paying jobs. These people lived originally in the Canadian Shield, a large region of central and eastern Canada that is drained by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay.
French fur traders operating out of Montréal also married indigenous women, thereby creating a French-speaking, Roman Catholic Métis population. The French-speaking Métis populations developed in two main areas—the Old Northwest (which is now the American Midwest) and Canada. In the Old Northwest, they were the principal entrepreneurs in the fur trade. Some of the fur trade posts they established became great cities, such as Detroit and Chicago. In the early 19th century, the French-speaking Métis in the Old Northwest either moved out or were absorbed into the culture of the American farmers who moved into the area. In Canada the French-speaking Métis lived in the prairies and in southern regions of the Canadian Shield, where they overlapped somewhat with the English-speaking Métis.
The two peoples were kept apart, however, by differences of language and religion, and also by commercial rivalries. The English speakers were associated mainly with the Hudson’s Bay Company, while the French speakers were associated with a series of fur trading companies operating out of Montréal, most notably the North West Company. The two companies were bitter rivals because the North West Company earned bigger profits than Hudson’s Bay in areas where Hudson’s Bay claimed a monopoly.
|III||BEGINNINGS OF NATIONHOOD|
Métis identity as a separate nation began to take shape during conflicts with the Red River colony, a farming community established on the Red River south of Lake Winnipeg in 1812. By this time the hunting of buffalo (also called bison) was a major part of the Métis economy. From bison meat they made a storable food product called pemmican, which they sold to the North West Company for use throughout the northwest. The Métis were suspicious of the settlers, who were sponsored by the North West Company’s archrival, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Hudson’s Bay controlled the local government and allotted land to the settlers. Both the French- and English-speaking Métis feared that if the land was given over to farming, their hunting, fishing, and trapping way of life would be crowded out.
The settlers were not self-sufficient and had to subsist on pemmican produced by the Métis. Miles Macdonell, the governor of Red River, tried in 1814 to ensure the supply of pemmican by prohibiting the Métis from selling it for export. This was a direct threat to the North West Company, which needed the pemmican for its far-flung supply lines. The company and its Métis supporters believed that this move was evidence of a Hudson’s Bay plan to take over the economy of Red River. Encouraged by the North West Company, the Métis began to speak of themselves as a nation and formed a militia led by Cuthbert Grant. Bad feelings escalated, culminating in a gunfight at Seven Oaks in 1816 between Grant’s militia and 25 settlers, including the new governor, Robert Semple, who tried to block the Métis from taking pemmican to North West Company posts. Semple and 20 of his men were killed, with only light casualties on Grant’s side. Grant was arrested, taken to Montréal, and indicted for murder, but was never tried. He returned to Red River and had a long career as a Métis leader, eventually serving as sheriff and a justice of the peace.
The merger of the two companies in 1821 brought peace, and the immigrant settlers at Red River were soon far outnumbered by the Métis, both French- and English-speaking, who settled there after 1821. They took up small-scale farming and organized large-scale bison hunting expeditions on the high plains. The English-speaking Métis were more likely to settle down on river lots and associate closely with the white population. The French-speaking Métis were more involved in the bison hunt and developed a culture based on hunting and trading.
Among both French-speaking and English-speaking Métis, there emerged a small but significant elite, including merchants and traders, large-scale farmers, and a sprinkling of educated professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and clergy. However, most Métis were small farmers, hunters, and laborers for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As early as the 1820s, French-speaking Métis who were unhappy with the company’s control of trade in Red River began to join Métis who lived farther south, in the United States. By the 1840s, Métis settlements had emerged in Dakota Territory at Pembina and Saint Joseph (now Walhalla). In the 1850s and 1860s, as the bison moved farther west, the Métis hunters were forced to winter on the high prairie, and some of their encampments on both sides of the Canada-United States border gradually turned into permanent habitations. Villages of particular importance grew up at St. Albert, in what is now Alberta, and Batoche, in what is now Saskatchewan.
|IV||THE FIRST RIEL REBELLION|
In 1869 the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell all its territories to the newly formed Dominion of Canada. The Métis of Red River were not consulted about the sale and were apprehensive. Many had no documented title to the river lots they had staked out and were afraid they might lose these lands to new immigrants. The French-speaking Métis had additional concerns that their language and religion would be overwhelmed by great numbers of settlers coming from Ontario.
Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Métis formed a provisional government that temporarily resisted the transfer of the Hudson’s Bay territories to Canada. Known as the Red River Rebellion, this resistance, with incidents of armed conflict, lasted from December 1869 to August 1870 and resulted in the Red River region entering Canada as the self-governing province of Manitoba. Another result of the negotiations was a provision for 1.4 million acres of land to be distributed as a special benefit to the children of the Métis; later legislation provided for scrip (certificates redeemable in land) for the Métis adults. Most of the scrip was bought up from the Metis by speculators, and thus few of them ever actually possessed any of the acreage it represented.
In the 1870s and early 1880s, many Métis left Manitoba, pulled by the retreating bison herds and pushed by the influx of white settlers. These new emigrants radiated all over Saskatchewan, Alberta, North Dakota, and Montana. However, the numbers of bison declined very rapidly, disappearing from Canada after 1878 and from Montana after 1883. Thus the Métis had to seek other livelihoods.
|V||THE SECOND RIEL REBELLION|
A particularly large number of Métis settled in the Saskatchewan Valley around Batoche, where in 1885, again under Riel’s leadership, they rebelled against Canadian authority in the Northwest Rebellion. As in 1869, they were worried about title to their river lots, which were unsurveyed and were therefore omitted from the survey adopted by the Department of the Interior. The Métis demanded a distribution of land and scrip, as had occurred in Manitoba after 1870.
The Métis action at Batoche encouraged several bands of indigenous nations (Cree, Assiniboine, and Sioux) to take up arms. Threatened with a general rising across the Northwest Territories, the Canadian government put down the rebellion by force at the Battle of Batoche (May 9-12, 1885). Riel was captured, and was hanged on November 16, 1885, after being convicted of treason, and some of his followers were sentenced to prison terms.
After the unsuccessful uprising of 1885, the Métis lost most of their political influence, although the government did extend the distribution of scrip beyond Manitoba throughout the prairie provinces. Some Métis stayed in small agricultural communities on the prairies, while many others moved into the forests of northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, where they could still make a living by hunting, fishing, and trapping. Their numbers were gradually augmented by so-called nonstatus Indians, that is, indigenous people who had lost their rights in Indian reserves—lands reserved for indigenous nations in recognition of their being the original inhabitants. Nonstatus Indians usually lost these rights through intermarriage with whites or Métis.
In 1938 the government of Alberta established eight Métis settlements, somewhat like Indian reserves, in the northern part of the province. Today their residents are engaged in a variety of pursuits, including agriculture, forestry, and oil and gas development. There are many other villages in the western provinces as well where the population is largely Métis.
With the passage of time, most Métis in western Canada have adopted the English language, and the old distinction beween English-speaking Protestant and French-speaking Catholic Métis has lost most of its relevance. Since the 1960s, the Métis identity has been applied in a more general way, and people of mixed indigenous-white descent in all the provinces now call themselves Métis.
The Métis in this new and broader identity have acquired considerable political influence. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Canadian Constitution of 1982 designates them as an aboriginal people, with aboriginal rights. Aboriginal rights include use or ownership of resources, based on occupancy of the land before European colonization, and may include self-government. The extent of such rights is unclear and is usually established case by case in the courts.
There are several national and provincial Métis organizations that sponsor political action as well as lawsuits attempting to win aboriginal hunting, fishing, and land rights. Thus far, they have not had much success in Canadian courts.
In the 1991 census, about 75,000 people identified themselves as Métis. Far more Canadians have some degree of indigenous-white mixture in their ancestry, but most of these identify themselves either as status Indians registered under the Indian Act or as white Canadians. To be a Métis in contemporary Canada is less a matter of race than of self-identification with Métis history.