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Métis Origins

Métis Woman

The term Métis refers to those people born of a mixture of French or Scottish fur traders and Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Assiniboine women. The Métis in the north-west developed as a people, distinct from either Indian or European.1 During the French Era (1600-1760), intermarriage between French traders and Aboriginal women was so common that it is estimated that 40% of French-Canadians in Quebec today can claim to have at least one Aboriginal ancestor.2 Before the end of the French era, a sizable Métis community developed around the Upper Great Lakes. 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 origin of the Métis community is tied with that of the Fur Trade in Canada. The British entered the Fur Trade in 1670 with the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The French had already been actively involved in trade. It was not until the late 18th century that British traders chose to pursue trade in the same way as the French, pushing inland, planting small posts, and sending employees out to find furs. The same rivalry which led the two streams of fur trade companies to compete for customers also led them to plant fur trade posts near each other. This led to fraternizing among the employees, and as a result, children born to First Nations mothers and Orcadian, Scottish or English fathers became the newest additions to the Métis Nation.

The development of the Métis Nation began in colonial New France. While the Catholic Church frowned upon interracial marriage and the Hudson’s Bay Company forbade it outright, First Nations tribes had no qualms about the issue because it echoed their previous practices of intertribal marriages.3 Traditionally, inter-tribal marriages established trade and military relationships. Traders often abandoned their Aboriginal wives and children, at which point most of the abandoned wives would attempt to reintegrate into their former communities. As the number of mixed-blood women increased, they became preferable as marriage partners to non-Aboriginal men, while men of mixed-blood origin were often employed at trading posts.4 However, their jobs were usually low-paying and they were often unable to advance in the company.

As numbers of Métis increased they started to develop a new and distinct culture. Offspring of the French developed their own language, Michif, a language that combined French and Plains Cree. Offspring of English origin developed a language called Bungi, which was a combination of Cree and a Scots dialect from the Orkneys. By the mid-19th century, Métis settlements started to appear around the Great Lakes.

As European explorers started to push further west, traders from New France accompanied them as they opened up new trade territory. On occasion, a few men would choose to stay inland, either as freemen or as employees maintaining an outpost. In such instances, the cycle of establishing relationships with the local Aboriginals would begin again.

The Red River was a place where the Métis distinctiveness grew at a remarkable rate. Red River was composed of French, English and Scottish decent Métis. Much of the business transactions linked the French and English speaking communities. From Red River the Métis communities of the north-west spread further out to as far as Lac Ste. Anne and the Milk River. These settlements were used as hunting locations and slowly over time they came to be a year round community.

Although Red River connected settlements that spread throughout the northwest, there were Indigenous Métis communities that were growing and developing along the same time line as Red River. Trudy Nick and Kenneth Morgan’s Grande Cache: The historic development of an indigenous Alberta Métis population, discusses a Métis community that grew out of a mixing of First Nations and European cultures, but did not initially have a connection to Red River. Grand Cache is a town that is about 128 kilometers northwest of Jasper. French-Canadian free traders traveled inland with the expanding fur trade and met First Nations in this particular area. These people became a Cree-speaking Métis population. As trading routes opened up and the settlements in the Edmonton area began to flourish, many of the Métis families of this particular area traveled to fort communities in the Edmonton and Lac Ste. Anne areas. "It was the establishment of the Lac St. Anne mission in 1842, as much as the proximity of the major trading centre at Edmonton that drew members of the eastern-slopes groups to the Edmonton area in the summer months" (Nicks and Morgan, 1985). The Grand Cache Métis stand as an example of a Métis community who have links to the greater Métis community, but whose genesis is uniquely in Alberta.


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