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Birth of the Métis Nation
Enriching the French character of 18th and 19th centuries Alberta were the Métis, a new nation of primarily Roman Catholic, French-speaking people born from the intermarriage of French traders and trappers with First-Nations women. With their ability to move between communities and to speak both French and the Aboriginal languages, the Métis were an indispensable element in the success of the fur trade. The term "Métis" is French for mixed, as in a mix of racial origins or of a blend of fibers (linen and cotton blends), and seems to have come into usage in the Great Lakes basin towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.
Given many names by the Europeans—Bois Brûlé, Half-breed, Country-born, The Flower Bead Work People, The Buffalo People, Children of the Fur Trade, Mixed blood, Michif, Chicot, Mountain Men—the French Métis of the North West Company called themselves “Canadiens.” Those no longer under contract (engagé) also called themselves “gens libres" (free traders). Although English Mixed-blood peoples, working primarily for the Hudson’s Bay Company, were also integral to the fur trade, it was the French Métis in particular who were renowned for their skills as voyageurs, trappers, interpreters and guides.
The Métis population of Alberta increased somewhat through migration towards the northwest in the late 1800s, following the Red River Uprising in 1870. Led by Louis Riel, the Métis population of Manitoba expressed concerns about government surveys of Métis land. They feared they would be removed from their farms to make way for English settlers. In November, the Red River Métis organized and peacefully seized Upper Fort Garry in protest and by December had established a provisional government led by Louis Riel and John Bruce. Discussions with the Canadian government were at an impasse in 1870 however, after the execution of Thomas Scott by Riel's government. While the Manitoba Act of that year made Manitoba a province, the Canadian government refused to recognize the Riel government as legitimate. Fleeing persecution, many Métis families sold their farms and left for the western prairies.
French influences are also found in the distinct language of the Métis, Michif. A marriage of French and Cree, the language incorporates French nouns and noun phrases with the Cree verb system. Despite dwindling numbers (current estimates suggest there are fewer than 1,000 Michif speakers), in the late 1990s the Métis Nation of Canada initiated efforts to research and preserve the language. For a Michif pronunciation guide and online Michif lessons, visit the Michif Language Project.
Wade, Mason. The French Canadians 1760–1967. Toronto: Macmillian of Canada, 1968.
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