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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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There was another line of business in which the Métis had made a large contribution, and that was in the field of guiding which began to open up in the mid-nineteenth century. These expeditions were the result of the Victorian zeal for exploring and the need to finish the work of explorers from the Elizabethan Period. The Sir John Franklin Expedition that set out to map out the North-West Passage from Europe to Asia was assisted and augmented by fur trade brigades and guides. Another major expedition by traders was that of Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson (1836–39) to explore the coast of the Arctic Ocean in Canada and Alaska from the mouth of the Mackenzie River to Point Barrow. The many trips to the North to search for the missing Franklin1 and his team kept the Canadian North in the public awareness and popular interest.

Franklin’s expeditions were significant for many reasons, including their scope and sophistication. However, most interesting was the fact that on the final expedition Franklin and his team went missing. When their remains were found it appeared that they had resorted to cannibalism to survive. By following Franklin’s published accounts,2 it is possible see how he prepared for his disastrous first expedition (1819) to the Arctic. He first hired Orkney boatmen, but by Fort Providence in August 1820 he recorded that they had hired another voyageur and that their expedition included three women and three children. A list of the expedition members in a footnote revealed that they had seventeen voyageurs and two interpreters, one of whom, Pierre St. Germain, was a "Chipewyan Bois Brule" or Métis.3 Franklin ran the expedition under strict hierarchical rules and any Métis and Aboriginals would have had fairly low status even if their role was significant. Before the end of the first expedition, nine of Franklin’s men had died and one was executed. Franklin was greeted as a hero on his return to England. For more on what really happened during that expedition, George Back’s journal has more detail on the lives of the crew.4

Franklin’s second expedition, in 1825 – 1827 with Richardson, was more successful; he had learned from his first expedition. He made sure there was plenty of food and had small sturdy boats made up for travel in the extreme conditions of the Arctic. He also evidently decided to depend more on English sailors than voyageurs. This was recorded by Franklin while wintering at Fort Franklin on Great Bear Lake:

The number of persons belonging to the establishment amounted to fifty: consisting of five officers, including Mr. Dease; nineteen British seamen, marines and voyageurs; nine Canadians; two Esquimaux, Beaulieu and four Chipewyan hunters; three women, six children and one Indian lad; besides a few infirm Indians, who required temporary support.5

The interpreter, Beaulieu, helped manage the hunters, making sure that the expedition was not dependent solely on pemmican. He stored dried reindeer meat and fat, and prepared for sustenance on fish, as did people in the northern forts. The group split up in the spring, at the mouth of the McKenzie. Franklin and his group explored the Arctic coast west, while the group under Dr. John Richardson explored east to the Coppermine River. Both groups made it back to Great Bear Lake without fatalities.

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