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The Métis

A Metis family in southern Alberta in 1890. Led by Louis Riel, most of the Red River Métis - and many other residents of the Red River Settlement as well - resisted Canada's takeover of the Hudson's Bay Company territories. Their actions in 1869-70 gained Manitoba provincial status, although the actual area of Manitoba was a fraction of its current size. French and English speaking people of mixed European and Aboriginal background represented the bulk of the population of the new province. A census taken in 1870 reveals that the new province had a total population of 11,963 people. Of this number 558 were defined as Indians. There were 5,757 Métis and 4,083 English-speaking Mixed Bloods. The remaining 1,565 people were of European, Canadian or American background.

Metis meeting with Scrip Commission at Fort Dunvegan, Alberta in 1899. The Manitoba Act creating the province specified that 1.4 million acres of land be set aside for Métis and Mixed Blood families. It was decided that this land would go to both the heads of families and children and that other pre-1870 settlers should also get land. People could also request certificates that could be traded for land. In total, over 1 million hectares - or almost 2.5 million acres - of land were eventually set aside for Métis and other early Red River residents. Remaining land was made available to new settlers under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872.

This act allowed settlers to claim a homestead of about 60 hectares (160 acres) or one quarter section of land for a fee of $10.00. Homesteaders also had to build a house and start their farm within five years in order to be granted their land. Other land was used to help pay the Hudson's Bay Company for giving up its charter, to pay for schools, and as land to help finance railways. (map of a typical township showing even numbered sections available for homesteading and odd numbered sections used to finance railway construction, sections 11 and 29 for schools and section 8 and three-quarters of section 26 for the HBC).

These new land arrangements had a profound effect on the first residents of the North west Territories. Increasingly, First Nations were limited to making a living on their reserve lands, many of which were not well suited to farming. Some bands chose not to settle on reserves immediately and many moved further west in the hope of continuing their traditional way of life.

A Metis family near Fort Chipewyan, Alberta in 1899, during the Treaty 8 expedition. Similarly, despite being granted land, many Métis left the Red River area. Some probably saw new opportunities to hunt and trade in less settled areas, and may have been quite happy to sell their allotted land to land companies or new settlers. Others felt pressured to leave when their requests for land were rejected and when their claims to river lots were turned down. Politicians, sympathetic to the Métis, argued that Métis lands were often simply confiscated and much of the land granted for their support never benefited them. Instead it was purchased by fraud or at prices well below its real worth.

Despite these changes, however, many Métis people chose to stay in Red River and to adjust to new conditions. Those who moved west, either because they felt pressured to leave or because they saw new opportunities to make a living on the western plains, joined a Métis population that already lived in well-established communities along the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers and around many surviving fur trade posts. Communities such as St. Albert, Lac la Biche, Buffalo Lake, Victoria Settlement and Duhamel in Alberta (hot links here) provided homes for Métis and Mixed Blood families. Some of these families came from Red River, but many traced their roots back to local marriages at nearby missions and trading posts.

Like many First Nations people, large numbers of Métis embraced the new opportunities offered by growing settlement in the 1870s and 1880s, but as buffalo herds dwindled and fur trade companies shifted their operations northward, conditions changed. Unlike First Nations groups, the Métis and the families of former fur trade employees were expected to integrate themselves into the new settlement society. This was not such a large problem as long as the numbers of new arrivals remained relatively small. However, by the 1890s, a huge wave of new settlers would change the face of western Canada, including Alberta, forever.

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.