Early History

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Aboriginals: Metis/Olive P. Dickason

Although today the Metis are particularly identified with the three prairie provinces, the mixing of the aboriginal peoples and Europeans has occurred from coast to coast. In the early days of New France, official policy encouraged this: Samuel de Champlain told the Huron that “our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people.” This was general French colonial policy at the time, a reflection of the fact that France’s political dominance in Europe depended in part upon a large population at home, with a consequent reluctance to encourage emigration, even for purposes of empire. The alternative was to send out small groups of people, almost all men, who would intermarry with local inhabitants to produce new French populations overseas.

In Canada, difficulties with an unfamiliar and demanding climate as well as the requirements of the fur trade also encouraged intermarriage, placing as they did a premium on the survival skills and kinship networks of an Amerindian and, later, a Metis wife. According to a description by an eighteenth-century observer, Sieur de Diéreville, such unions were arranged with the father of the bride-to-be for a negotiated amount of trade goods. “The Girl, who is familiar with the Country, undertakes, on her part, to sell his Merchandise for a specified length of time; the bargain is faithfully carried out on both sides.” That these arrangements worked to the collective advantage was generally acknowledged.

A closely related aspect was the dependence of early fur-trade posts for a large part of their food supplies upon Amerindian hunters, who were known as “homeguards” because they set up their base camps around the posts. Inevitably, there was intermixing with post personnel. The English had similar experiences when they established themselves on Hudson Bay in 1670, despite an official policy that was the opposite of that of the French: London’s best efforts to prevent intermarriage were unavailing in the face of the exigencies of the trade, not to mention those of survival in the “Little Ice Age” (c. 1450–1850).

The policy of creating one nation discouraged the emergence of a separate Metis identity during the French regime. In the atmosphere that initially prevailed in Acadia and New France, cultural conformity was more important than racial origins; thus, mixed-blood children identified with one side or the other of their heritage. The fur trade, where the Amerindian connection was important, encouraged identification with the Amerindian side. When this led to the “French becoming Savage simply by living with the Savages,” officials had second thoughts, and by the eighteenth century they were discouraging intermarriage, or at least trying to control it. A counterbalancing factor was involvement in colonial wars. French/Amerindian military alliances favoured identification with the French, who had both power and prestige. One of the best known products of this was Bernard-Anselme d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin (1689–1720), whose mother came from a line of Abenaki chiefs and whose father belonged to the minor French nobility; Bernard-Anselme became a French officer and commander in Acadia. Another factor favouring French identification was the comparatively close presence of colonial officialdom, as well as that of the common enemy, the English. As a result, the Metis communities that developed in Acadia generally considered themselves to be French, even as they recognized their blood ties with Amerindians. The choice was between being Amerindian-French or French-Amerindian; the concept of a nation in between, that was neither one nor the other, was latent but not yet developed.

A different situation emerged on the western frontier. In the Ohio valley (the “Old Northwest”), far from the centre of colonial administration, the fur trade was the dominant economic activity and the English were more successful than they had been in the Maritimes in competing for Amerindian alliances. This combination of factors favoured the qualifications of the Metis as trappers and traders, as interpreters and go-betweens in the continuing English-French confrontations, and as effective forest fighters in the colonial wars.

Amerindian influence in the way of life that developed in the Ohio valley was strong; marriages, for instance, were usually contracted à la façon du pays, “according to the custom of the country,” which was, of course, Amerindian. In spite of missionary worries, such adaptations did not influence the French Metis to give up their Catholicism, which was retained to a remarkable extent even in the absence of clergy. Subsistence depended upon what was available locally, which meant hunting, gathering, and fishing, sometimes supplemented with small-scale farming. Wild rice and various roots were harvested where available, as was maple and birch sap for processing into syrup and (in the case of maple sap) into sugar. What social distinctions there were tended to be dictated by fur-trade connections; the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) had a more formal hierarchical structure than the later-appearing North West Company (NWC). Many individuals were “freemen,” in trade as well as employment, providing various services (as hunters, guides, voyageurs, and interpreters, among others).

Their sense of cultural identity found an expression in dress, which combined Amerindian and European elements; the Red River coat, made out of Hudson’s Bay Company blankets, and the arrow (Assomption) sash, derived from Iroquois burden-strap designs, are well-known examples. The arrow sash has since become a badge of Metis national identification. Pipe smoking, an Amerindian inheritance, was universally popular, with tobacco often being mixed with chopped dogwood bark – kinik-kinik. The Metis of the Ohio valley were well on their way towards thinking of themselves as a “New Nation,” but they were forestalled by the creation of the United States of America in 1783 and the consequent rush of European settlement, which overwhelmed their communities.

It was the “Far Northwest” (particularly today’s Manitoba but also Saskatchewan and Alberta) that provided the setting which allowed for the crystallization of Metis national sentiment: isolation, the continuing importance of the fur trade, and the growing importance of the buffalo hunt. Far removed from centres of authority, Metis communities developed their own self-regulated, semi-nomadic way of life, mobile when necessary for hunting, trading, and trapping, semi-sedentary where supplementary subsistence farming was practical. An outstanding example was Red River at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers (the site of today’s Winnipeg), a strategic location since it linked York Factory on Hudson Bay with St Paul, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River. It was situated within the huge but imprecisely delineated HBC land grant known as Rupert’s Land, considered by many today to be the Metis homeland. As the Metis define the grant, it included the two Dakotas as well as Minnesota and Montana.

The Scottish settlers who arrived in Red River in 1812 under the auspices of Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, in collaboration with the HBC, were not only too few to challenge the dominance of the Metis, they were also dependent upon them for subsistence during the settlement’s first difficult years; instead of overwhelming the Metis, the settlers acted as a catalyst that sharpened Metis awareness of their own distinctive culture and way of life. The economic basis for this phenomenon, the fur trade, by this time was dominated by two rivals: the British monopoly that was the HBC, with its quasi-governmental powers over Rupert’s Land, and the freewheeling combination of partnerships that made up the NWC. The French-language Metis were for the most part connected with the NWC, which had emerged during the 1780s largely under Highland Scottish leadership. The “Nor’Westers,” as NWC traders were known, encouraged the Metis as free traders and supported their claims to land by virtue of their Amerindian heritage. Although Metis of French descent were in the majority in the region, by this time others were represented in the national mix; some of those who would become the most active nationalists would be of English, Scottish, or other extractions. This complex of racial, cultural, commercial, and political diversities created a situation that was without counterpart elsewhere on the Canadian frontier.

Interaction of Europeans and Amerindians on the northwest coast followed a different pattern from that in the other parts of the country. For one thing, the climate was such that special survival skills did not have to be learned; for another, the coastal fur trade lasted for less than a century, soon giving way to agriculture, fishing, and lumbering, among other forms of economic activity such as gold mining. Nor did colonial rivalries have as direct an impact as in the east or the Ohio valley, so that military alliances with First Nations were not a political necessity; in fact, the very suggestion of such a move by ex-fur trader Governor Sir James Douglas aroused considerable unease on the part of the settlers. All this meant that, on the northwest coast, Amerindians and Europeans never developed the symbiotic relationships characteristic of other regions. There never was any question of support, official, economic, or otherwise, for the mixing of races. The Metis fact was not important, even though Douglas’s wife, Lady Amelia, was a Metis from the North-West Territories.