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Alberta's Francophone Heritage
Background, People, Culture, Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource and Alberta Lottery Fund

 

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The Country Wives
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The Country Wives

Métis Families

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Sketches of Métis children done by Lieutenant Robert Hood of the first Franklin Expedition.

All of these men, from the first independent "coureurs de bois" to the contract bound "engagés" had no qualms about engaging in relations with Aboriginal women. Their employers did not frown upon these relationships either. In many cases, the woman's family contacts could be a big help in the trade, and additionally, she could also prepare the food and the clothing for her husband, freeing him for business pursuits. Several Aboriginal women are known to have aided their husbands in expeditions by serving as guides and translators, notably with Alexander Mackenzie and with the Lewis and Clarke expedition. As there was no clergy or civil authority, most of these unions were unofficial, and became known as "mariages à la façon du pays," or country marriages.

French remained an important language of communication for the offspring of the voyageurs, as the children often followed their fathers and pursued careers in the fur trade. They called themselves not only voyageurs, but Chicots, a term which is no longer used, and Bois-brûlés (Burnt-Wood people). Later, as the brigades expanded further to the West, those who over-wintered, the "hivernants" called the seasonal trippers by the none too flattering term of "mangeurs de lard" or salt pork eaters. The term "métis," used for centuries in Europe to describe individuals of mixed origins, after New World contact came to be applied to those born of Amerindian and European lineage, as it still is today. The term had the same meaning in French Canada, applying to the offspring of indigenous and French-Canadian unions. However during the 19th century, with the ethnogenesis of the Métis nation, the term took on a nationalist meaning to distinguish the French speaking people of combined European and Aboriginal descent of the Canadian West.

As the fur trade expanded beyond the Great Lakes, across the prairies and into the north-western region of the Canadian Shield, the Métis population continued to grow. In the Canadian West, the French Métis, as well as the children of the British fur traders, lived and worked across the entire territory and (before the creation of the 49th parallel boundary) also hunted and travelled in what is now American territory.

Following Peter Pond’s discovery of the Portage-La-Loche in 1778, which gave access to the rich furs of the Athabasca basin, the newly established North-West Company (NWC) from Montreal sent 300 Canadians into the region to man the brigades and carry the furs midway through the portage. Rival fur trade companies were also created, notably the XY Company which was eventually absorbed by the NWC, as well as several American Companies such as the Pacific Northwest Company, owned by John Jacob Astor of New York, and the American Fur Company out of Montreal, also owned by Astor. As they were considered to be the best men for the work, all of these companies hired French-Canadians to man the canoes, and Iroquois and Ojibwas also came out for the furs. Typical of the fur trade companies, during the early 19th century, the American Fur Company had a staff of 400-500 employees away on fur trade expeditions.

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