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

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways

Metis involvement with agriculture began with trading post gardens. Strictly speaking, this is actually horticulture, but of a specific type. The garden would be cultivated as early as it could be worked, and planted before most of the men took the canoe trip out to the Bay with the winter’s crop of furs. In the early days, the gardens probably received limited attention, but managed to produce healthy crops of potatoes, turnips, and other hardy vegetables.
A fur trade journal from 1804 at Brandon House recorded:

May 15th Men at Brandon House, to wit. James Inkster, William Yorston, George Henderson, Humphrey Favell, Jn Easter and Self. Men digging part of the Garden over for the small seeds.

16th sowed Indian Corn, Onions, Beans, Pease Cabbage Thyme Carrots Turnips Millons Pumpkins Marigolds Cucumbers and Calibashis.

[June] 20th Men howing the Potatoes and digging the beds where the onions was sowed as not one of them came up. . . .

[July 6] The seeds from Albany must have been burnt in the curing or Drying or froze in Country, for not one of them will grow here and there never was better soil, the Canadians has Onions every one of them as big as my fist and every seed they bring grows well1.

There were times when the produce from the trading post gardens fed not only the fur trade employees, but also the First Nations people who came in to trade. When conditions were bad during the winter, when hunting was poor, the potatoes and turnips in storage saved the lives of all in the area.

[1801] Feb 19 . . . Several starving Inds came in they brought nothing – they may thank Mr Goodwin for planting so many potatoes as some of them would have surely starved & ourselves very bad off indeed. They are now drunk.2

This type of gardening was also practiced at Fort Edmonton, and the other posts around the prairie region. As Fort Edmonton grew in size, they were able to grow more crops, moving to crops of grain and hay as well as vegetables. In Red River, the people practiced a similar type of agriculture. One of the greatest difficulties between the missionaries and their parishioners was on the subject of farming. The missionaries could not accept planting a garden and then "abandoning" it to go buffalo hunting. However, in a typical season, careful weeding and hoeing early in the season means less need for work during the heat of the summer. By the time the summer hunt was concluded, it would be time to begin harvesting the crops and garden produce.

When the Metis people moved into settlements in the west, they increased the time spent in gardening and crops, as well as caring for domestic animals. One of the earliest records of a missionary’s attempt to develop an agricultural settlement was Rundle’s work with and for the Cree at Pigeon Lake. [See Rundle’s Journal – link] Of course, the missions at Lac Ste Anne (1844), St. Albert (1864?), Lac la Biche (1853), and St. Paul de Metis, were established specifically for the purpose of "settling" First Nations and Metis peoples. That they were in some level successful may be marked by the continued existence of some of the communities.

"At the community of St. Albert, Alberta, the harvest from the fields and gardens [one year] consisted of 700 barrels of potatoes, 200 of cabbage, 11 of carrots, 11 of onions, 150 sacks of wheat and 30 sacks of barley.3"

The recollections of Victoria Callihoo illustrate how the Metis people of St. Albert integrated grain crops, gardens and the use of wild food:

"The season was too short to ripen most of the available varieties of wheat, but barley, potatoes, and root vegetables could be grown. The barley had to hulled by pounding and then it could be eaten in soup, cooked in a frying pan or dried and then roasted black and stewed, to be drunk like coffee. In 1868 at Lac Ste Anne, 700 barrels of potatoes, 200 of cabbage, carrots and onions were grown in addition to some wheat and barley. Fancy extras such as tea and sugar came from the Hudson’s Bay Company store. Moose, deer and the occasional bear were much enjoyed for dinner and their skins provided material for trousers, jackets, moccasins and mittens. Wild ducks and geese were also hunted and could be cooked whole on an open fire.

Everyone picked strawberries, raspberries, saskatoons and cranberries in the summer. Berries could be sun-dried and kept in a bag or used as an ingredient of pemmican. If you had glass containers you could make // various preserves including a kind called "scratch". This delicious jam is prepared with whole chokecherries. The stones are not removed, but bashed into tiny pieces and cooked with the fruit for added flavour. Birch and poplar sap were used for their sugar content 4.

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Life at Red River

Western Settlements

Buffalo Hunting



Métis Traders

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