The story of the Métis in Canada is one of a unique people. Genetically and culturally, their formation represents a mixture of European (primarily French) and Native (primarily Cree). Their language, Michif, is one of the clearest examples of that fact, being partially French (mostly the nouns) and partially Cree (mostly the verbs).
The Métis came into being during the eighteenth century, when the fur trade was extending west into the Prairies. The French voyageurs who manned the big canoes made personal connections with Natives in the area-very personal when it came to Plains Cree women. The marriages between the two (whether or not they were sanctified by the Catholic church) were practical for both cultures. Their children learned from each people.
From the Native culture they learned how to hunt buffalo and how to prepare pemmican, the staple food for the fur trade. European culture taught them how to farm and how to build and use the big ox-driven carts they utilized to carry large loads of pemmican from the hunt to their homes.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were several thousand Métis, most of them around the area of present day southern Manitoba.
The Métis developed a sense of nationhood not only from their distinct culture but from battles they won. One of the "enemies" that they fought was the Hudson’s Bay Company. This organization had been given most of what is now Canada in 1670 by King Charles II, who had little idea of what he was giving away so freely: a monopoly of trade on the lands drained by the waters that flow into Hudson Bay.
In 1811, Lord Selkirk, a leading official in the Hudson’s Bay Company, arranged for settlers to be brought to what is now the Winnipeg area. The settlers got along with the Métis, whose land they were sharing, but the governor of this new colony made enemies with the Métis by declaring that they should not be providing pemmican for the fur trade, as the trade was an H.B.C. monopoly. This conflict came to a head in 1816 when Governor Semple and about 25 of his men challenged the leader of the Métis, Cuthbert Grant (c.1793-1854) and a slightly smaller group of his people. When the smoke cleared, the governor and his men were dead, as was only one of the Métis. A song was composed to celebrate this victory (unfortunately referred to as the Seven Oaks "massacre" in many history textbooks). The people started calling themselves the "New Nation" and the song became their national anthem.
For several generations the Métis had worked for the Northwest Company, a rival of the H.B.C. based in Montreal. In 1821, the H.B.C. absorbed its competitor and could truly be said to hold a monopoly after that date. But the Métis (continued) to challenge the company. This came to a head in 1849 when a Métis named Pierre-Guillaume Sayer, among others, was charged with trafficking in furs. Despite the fact that he was charged, he was let go once the trial was over. This perhaps reflected the fact that a good number of armed Métis were waiting outside the courtroom.
The Métis inherited the political alliances and enemies of the Cree mothers, grand-mothers, and great-grandmothers. They fought alongside the Assiniboine and Saulteaux, and fought against the Dakota Sioux and the Blackfoot. In 1851, a group of Métis met and defeated a much larger force of Sioux at the Battle of Grand Coteau, another victory for the New Nation.
This sense of self came under severe threat during the 1860s. In 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation, the new country began negotiating with the H.B.C. for a massive transfer of land. People moving out to the West at that time included in their numbers "Canada Firsters," who arrogantly declared to the Métis that the future of the West belonged to them and not the "half breeds." The antagonism was exacerbated by the presence of outsiders surveying land held by the Métis for generations. In 1869, the Métis took action. A 25-year-old, college-educated man named Louis Riel emerged as their leader. They formed a provisional government and blocked entry of the Canadian governor at the U.S-Canada border. Their government had the support of most people but made the unfortunate mistake of imprisoning, and eventually executing, an especially obnoxious White, Protestant, Ontarian by the name of Thomas Scott, an action that would have dire consequences for Louis Riel.
In 1870, most of the proposals put forward by the provisional Métis government were put into legal place by the Manitoba Act. The Métis had their rights to the land recognized through legal papers known as "scrip." Riel’s status became an unusual one. He was officially exiled by the federal government but time and again he was elected to parliament by the people of Manitoba, both Métis and non-Métis alike.
In the Manitoba of 1871, there were 9,800 Métis, 5,270 of whom were French-speaking (the rest spoke English). In the same area there were only 1,600 Whites, and a greater number, undetermined, of Cree. That was to change with the westward migration of settlers. With them came land speculators and government officials who were not above working out scams to cheat the Métis of their scrip. The laws relating to scrip changed 11 times over 12 years and most Métis ended up moving west into what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta.
In the 1880s, the Métis found themselves in a similar situation to that which they had faced earlier in Manitoba. They again called upon Louis Riel, then living peacefully in Montana, to lead them in what would become known as the Second Riel Rebellion. [Note: Other sources refer to this event as "Resistance.] They would lose this time, thanks to the technology against them (i.e., the new railroad, steamboats, and the precursor to machine guns) and due to Riel’s reluctance to fight. He would be hanged in 1885, largely because of his authorization of the execution of Thomas Scott years earlier.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Métis were still in an uncertain political position. Some, in Alberta, live in what are termed "colonies," developed during the 1930s. They have been fighting for royalties for the oil and gas extracted from their land. Other Métis organizations suffer from the lack of definition of who is and isn’t Métis and from a lack of federal recognition of their status.
Source:(Steckley, John L. and Bryan D. Cummins, 2001, pp 98-100. Reprinted with permission from Prentice Hall.)