Loss of Métis Land

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Loss of Métis Land

The Manitoba Act gave the Métis the two elements they needed to ensure their national liberation: 5 control over capital and a share of state power. The Métis were to have title to 1,400,000 acres of land, and land was then a major form of capital. The act granted Red River provincial status and thus gave the inhabitants partial political control over their territory. For the few short months in 1869-70 that the provisional government was in place the Métis people enjoyed complete sovereignty and were, in fact, a nation in the full sense of the term.

The Manitoba Act seemed to promise continued national protection for the Métis, but it soon turned out to be a paper victory. The Métis’ formal political rights were overwhelmed by the brute power of eastern financial interests supported by the Canadian government. Many of the new settlers from Ontario were fiercely anti-Catholic, anti-French and racist. The execution of Ontarian Thomas Scott by the provisional government had whipped up hatred of the Métis, and many settlers came west seeking revenge as part of their new life. Louis Riel, the revolutionary democrat of the plains and symbol of Métis national sentiment, was forced into exile by the Canadian government.

Physical and psychological abuse of the French Métis went unpunished. Many Métis were driven from their land by settlers from Ontario, while Ontarian troops stood by and did nothing to prevent this illegal seizure. As well, the Dominion government deliberately delayed the distribution of the 1,400,000 acres to the Métis. The eastern politicians and financiers felt the removal of this amount of land from speculation was not acceptable.

In the years after 1870 there was a steady migration away from Red River. Some went south to the United States, others, mainly the agricultural Métis, trekked to the mission settlements surrounding Fort Edmonton, and the rest, reverting to their traditional skill, took to the plains and began the new settlements of St. Laurent, Batoche and Duck Lake on the South Saskatchewan River. Only the middle-class English-speaking Half Breeds enjoyed relative immunity from Canadian harassment and were allowed to cross the color line which Canadian bigotry had drawn against the rest of the mixed blood population.6

The new settlements on the Saskatchewan River consisted of a few hundred Métis stretched out for many miles along the river’s banks. Most were plains buffalo hunters and refugees from Red River. In some ways these river settlements represented the highest expression of Métis political organization. Elected councils established laws for the community and for economic activity, passing the first labor laws on the prairies, limiting the hours of work and declaring Sunday to be a holiday. For several years they were politically independent, for while Canada had taken official control, it made little effort during the first half of the 1870s to govern its citizens.

The depth of their democratic expression notwithstanding, the Saskatchewan River settlements could not sustain Métis unity. Red River was the home of Métis nationalism, the Hudson’s Bay Company its rallying point. The dispersal of the Métis from Red River spelled the eventual disintegration of Métis nationalism as a force in the North West.

The plains hunters and Red River exiles who made up the population of St. Laurent, Batoche and the other Saskatchewan settlements recognized by the late 1870s that the days of the fur trade and the buffalo hunt were numbered. Reluctantly abandoning the free life of the hunt, the Métis accepted the inevitability of a more sedentary life on the land. But such a life required a different kind of security - the security of land tenure.

The only concern of the Canadian government and its financier partners, however, was that the Indians and Métis might impede the settlement and exploitation of the West. The disappearance of the buffalo, which left the plains Indians destitute, made it possible for the government to segregate the Indians on reserves. No such solution was possible for the less vulnerable Métis, and the government decided to simply ignore them.

The government managed to alienate white settlers as well as Métis by their policy of ignoring those already settled on the plains. Refusing to grant immediate title to Métis and white settlers who had occupied their land for years, the government’s land agents informed the settlers (those who could speak English) that they would have to wait for three years to get title. Numerous petitions outlining grievances were sent to Ottawa. With an attitude ominously similar to the events preceding 1869-70, the Canadian government ignored the petitions. Frustration gradually turned to suspicion and anger.

By the spring of 1885 the settlers had exhausted all hope in petitions and they looked to the leader who had once before inspired the Métis. After some debate, the Métis, supported by the white settlers, sent a delegation to Louis Riel, who was living in exile in Montana. Riel accepted the challenge.

The Métis struggle of 1869-70 was a struggle for democratic rights and economic freedom and involved a broad alliance of Métis - voyageurs, workers, farmers, Red River hunters, middle-class business men and intellectuals. The rebellion of 1885 was different in important respects. It was an economic struggle for land and, secondly, involved a narrow alliance of Métis workers and plains hunters. Gabriel Dumont, the popular Métis leader, typified the population. Although he ran a ferry service, he was a son of the plains, famous as a buffalo hunter and he identified entirely with the Métis laboring classes.

Despite the purely economic demands, a strong element of national liberation motivated the Métis, and armed confrontation with the Canadian government was almost inevitable. Probably because of this the Métis soon lost the support of their white settler allies. The Métis were fighting a national liberation struggle and that was worth taking up arms. In the end the Métis managed to establish a loose alliance with their Cree Indian cousins, who were fighting their own battles against the deception of the Canadian government and the brutal treatment which was its result.

The frailty of the Métis national will was starkly clear in the aftermath of their defeat at Batoche in the spring of 1885. Already undermined by the decline of the fur trade and disappearance of the buffalo, demoralized by racial abuse and religious bigotry, their interests betrayed by the connivance of the Catholic clergy, Métis national unity suffered its final blow in the flight to exile of Gabriel Dumont and the cynical and illegal execution of Louis Riel.

A final humiliation of the Métis began just before the confrontation on the South Saskatchewan. The Canadian government, belatedly attempting to pacify the Métis, began the distribution of land scrip. The scrip certificates entitled the holder to up to 240 acres of land. However, the government neither consulted nor negotiated with the Métis. The scrip was transferable and, in the end, 90 percent of the Métis were either defrauded of their birthright by banks and organized groups of land speculators or forced to sell because of poverty and the refusal of banks to loan them money to begin farming.

By the turn of the century tens of thousands of poor immigrants were sweeping onto the inhospitable Canadian prairies, establishing villages and towns. A new society arose, ignorant of the history of the place and its native people. The old order was swept aside and as the old Métis social structure disintegrated, there was a rush for safety. Métis national unity was finished, as each individual tried to fit into the new scheme of things joined white workers and farmers in their struggles against the new monopolies in the North West - the banks, railways and corporations.

Many Métis did not find a place. They were forced to live on road allowances or to trek north to the edge of the bush land, avoiding, temporarily, the inexorable push of settlement. Many who had been workers and farmers were now forced by circumstance to go back in time, to retreat to the archaic hunting economy of their past.7 These Métis and the generations that followed them became trapped in an outdated economy which was incapable, in the long run, of sustaining them. These Métis remained colonized, along with their Plains Indian cousins and the nomadic mixed bloods and Indians of the northern bush. The national leaders of the past, the educated elite, were joining a new society, leaving their former allies to complete their liberation on their own.

(Dobbin, Murray, 1981, pp. 22- 25. Reprinted with permission from the Gabriel Dumont Institute.)

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