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The History of Métis Leadership

The Métis have been called the forgotten people—a nation stranded between two worlds, drifting somewhere in the past. Recollections of the Métis are hazy, generally linked with a bitter struggle led by Louis Riel.

Yet the Métis had a strong presence before Riel, and today other leaders have taken his place, addressing concerns that stretch back through history. Beyond any political issue is a culture that is undeniably part of Canada's mosaic.

The Métis were—and are—a people distinguished by their independence, individuality, and resilience. Though a century has passed since Riel died on the gallows, the Métis did not die with him. In 1982, the Métis were acknowledged as an Aboriginal people in the Constitution. As Canadians continue to search for an identity, it is inevitable that the contribution of the Métis will be fully recognized.

The term Métis refers to those people who were born of a mixture of French and Scottish fur traders and Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Assiniboine women. The Métis in the Northwest developed as a people, distinct from either Indian or European. During the French Era (1600 to 1760), intermarriage between white traders and Aboriginal women was so common that it is estimated that 40 percent of French-Canadians in Quebec today can claim to have at least one Aboriginal ancestor. The term Métis should only be applied to those whose sense of identity falls with others who share their mixed-blood culture, and who do not identify with a particular side of their Aboriginal and European descent. Before the end of the French era a sizable Métis community developed around the Upper Great Lakes and later on more communities developed in the Prairies. The origins of the Métis Nation link them with the history of the Fur Trade and the history of Western Canada.

The Métis have a complex political history that dates back to the days of the fur trade, Red River settlement, and battle for recognition during the two rebellions. They were often in disagreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company or the early members of the federal government.
In 1869, an agreement was reached with the Hudson's Bay Company for the transfer of Rupert's Land, which included the Red River Settlement, to the Dominion of Canada. Unfortunately the people of the Red River Settlement were unprepared for this sudden change. What was most disconcerting to the Métis was the new wave of Canadian and American settlers moving into the area. This led to growing concern that the rights of the Red River community would not be preserved. For their part, the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian Government did little to reduce these fears.

This was the climate in Red River when surveyors arrived and began to scribe off lines, across lots, with no explanation. Someone went to fetch Louis Riel Jr who had just returned home from school in Montreal. When he arrived, it is believed that he stepped forward and put his foot on the surveyor’s chain. He warned them that if the survey began again before they heard from Canada about safeguarding Métis rights the survey would be halted by force.

The community was upset and wanted someone to speak for them. Their resentment incensed them. Their highly developed sense of community united them and Riel Jr was one of the few people in the community who not only had an education, but who possessed the trust of his people as well. Riel’s father had also been an influential figure in the community. Meetings were held to discuss how to deal with the surveyors. The Métis were determined that they would not let themselves be chased off land where their families had lived for three generations. A section of the community met and organized themselves as the Comité National des Métis, with John Bruce as President and Louis Riel as Secretary.

The provisional government was formed soon after and this proved to be first time the Métis people had a leader who would fight for their rights to be sovereign. What followed were two infamous battles for Métis rights, recognition, and sovereignty; the Red River Rebellion and the Northwest Rebellion.

While Louis Riel is undoubtedly one of the most famous Métis in Canadian history, most overlook the works of other Métis, such as Adrian Hope and Peter Erasmus, who have helped shaped Alberta and its communities.
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