Metis of Western Canada

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Metis of Western Canada

ETHNONYMS: Bois Brulé, Chicots, Halfbreeds, Métis, Michif


Identification. Scholars use metis, originally a French term meaning "mixed," to designate individuals and communities who identify their ancestors with historical fur trade communities. These metis communities were distinct from indigenous Indian bands and from the trading posts. Some of these communities used "Metis" (pronounced May-tees) to identify themselves. In recent years native peoples of other origins have chosen to apply the term to themselves. Patrilineally, the Metis acknowledge ethnic origins such as French-Canadian, Highland Scot, Orcadian, and English, among others. Equally important for the Metis of the West were "Eastern Indians" including some Iroquois peoples and vari-ous Ojibwa peoples, including the Nipissings, Ottawas, and Saulteaux. Matrilineally, the Metis look to indigenous Indian bands; largely Ojibwa in the region of the upper Great Lakes, largely Cree on the northern plains and the southern regions of the boreal forest, and largely Dene down the valleys of the Mackenzie River system to the Arctic Ocean. Individuals of mixed European and Indian ancestry who identify with, and are accepted by, Indian bands are viewed as Indians, not Metis.

Location. The Great Lakes Metis appeared in the region of the upper Great Lakes in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. A century later, with their dispersal in the face of American settlement, individuals and families journeyed westward to the Missouri River and to the Red River of the North and beyond. By 1800, Plains Metis were emerging in the valleys of the Athabaska, North Saskatchewan, Assiniboine, and Red rivers. Over the next half-century they extended their presence southward toward the Missouri River and westward to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Today the largest concentration of Metis families and communities is found in the parkland and boreal forest regions of Canada, particularly the prairie provinces, the Northwest Territories, and northern Ontario.

Demography. Before the demise of the buffalo, the Plains Metis were doubling their numbers every twenty years. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Louis Riel, the noted Metis leader, estimated the Metis population of the West at 10,000 to 12,000. At the same time in the Red River Settlement, metis peoples numbered 10,000 to 11,000. Of this number, over 50 percent could be identified as Metis. While the bulk of the Metis traced their origins to the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes fur trade tradition, with its familiarity with the French language and Roman Catholicism, another group of metis people traced their origins to the Hudson Bay fur trade tradition and its familiarity with the English language and Protestantism. These people did not term themselves Metis. They were known variously as "Hudson Bay English," "Country-born," "Red River Halfbreed," and, by some writers, "English metis." They were concentrated in the area of the Red River Settlement and in the valley of the North Saskatchewan River. In latter years, many were absorbed into the settler society. The 1981 census places the metis population in Canada at 98,260, one-quarter of the Indian population. The majority are found in the provinces of Manitoba (20,485), Saskatchewan (17,455), and Alberta (27,135). Many of these metis would identify themselves as Metis.

Linguistic Affiliation. In the nineteenth century, most Metis grew to maturity speaking either Cree or Saulteaux, the language of their mothers. It was the language of the bush as well. Males particularly learned French as a language of "work." Under the influence of Roman Catholic missionaries, French became the language of the community for those families settled near permanent missions. With the advent of settlement at the end of the nineteenth century, English became the language of "business" (outsiders). Until recently, many Metis were trilingual. Today, renewed interest in speaking "better" Cree or Saulteaux accompanies the use of English. In a few communities, Michif, a language with a Cree and Saulteaux structure and grammar, together with Cree or Saulteaux and French terms, is encountered.

History and Cultural Relations

In the latter half of the seventeenth century in the Great Lakes region, the factory system of trading fur ended. To sustain their interests, the French took over the role of the trade chief and his followers in gathering furs from different bands, transporting them to the coastal factory to be exchanged for European manufactured goods and carrying the goods inland to be distributed to the Indian bands with the next spring trade. The en derouine trade (itinerant peddling) that emerged saw a bourgeois (merchant), one among several in a principal post, dispatch small parties of men, led by a commis (clerk), to trade with Indian bands on their own territory. To cement commercial relations with a band, the commis frequently would take a "country wife." In time, should he become a bourgeois, he would gather some of his "country children," particularly first-born males, to join his family in the trading post. By 1725, this two-generation process had established the Great Lakes Metis. Half a century later, farther west, in the river valleys of the northern plains and southern boreal forest, "free men," former engagés (servants) of the trading companies, with their "country families" appeared as les gens libres (the free folk). The traders encouraged them in their pursuit of bison (provisions) and furs. The Indian bands of the region, as kinsmen of the free men's country wives, accepted their presence. In accommodating to a provisioning and trapping niche in the northern plains fur trade, les gens libres emerged as the Plains Metis. By the 1840s, the buffalo robe trade complemented the summer provisioning hunt with family bands of Metis joining with others to establish sizable winter villages in wooded oases on the prairie. They became known as hivernants (winterers).

With time, the Metis found their economic interests tied to commercial capitalist interests outside of the region and witnessed the resurgence of a Metis trading class. These Metis traders were invariably the patriarchal heads of wintering villages on the prairies. It was this new commercial and trading interest that was at the root of the free trade controversy, culminating with the Sayer trial in 1849. The trial saw the Red River Metis successfully challenge the Hudson's Bay Company's use of its royal charter to protect its commercial interests from competition.

On both the summer hunts and the robe hunts, violent incidents could occur, involving the Dakota southwest of the Red River Settlement and, farther west, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The most famous incident was the Battle of Grand Coteau, June 16-19, 1851. Metis from White Horse Plains, a community on the Assiniboine River on the western extremity of the Red River Settlement, came under sustained attack from Yankton Dakota near Dog Den Butte close to the Missouri River. Circling their two-wheeled red river carts to corral their oxen and horses and shelter the women and children, the men charged forth the distance of a gun shot to scrape gun pits in the prairie sod. From these vantage points they inflicted casualties that the Dakota found unacceptable and thus broke off the action. Although conflict would continue into the 1870s, the Metis saw themselves as paramount on the northern plains. It was also as guides and interpreters in the fur trade and later with missionaries and in government service that the Metis gained recognition. Many officials considered them indispensable in conducting negotiations with Indians.

With "the transfer" in 1869-1870, the Colony of Canada replaced the Hudson's Bay Company as the political authority in British North West America. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Metis in Red River initiated a political movement to ensure their interests in the era of settlement. The college-educated Riel garnered sufficient support to establish a provisional government and subsequently to negotiate an agreement with the Canadians that became the Manitoba Act. Riel believed he had negotiated a position of continuing political relevance for the Metis. The surge of settlement in the decade that followed demonstrated otherwise. With the rewards of the robe trade still evident farther west and experiencing discrimination at the hands of Protestant immigrants, many Red River Metis sold their river lots to incoming Canadians and journeyed westward to join existing settlements or to found new ones. Fifteen years later, Louis Riel, now as a religious prophet, led a movement seeking to recapture the political position lost in Red River. Centered in the village of Batoche in the settlement of St-Laurent on the South Saskatchewan River, events progressed to rebellion, ending with the Battle of Batoche, May 12, 1885. Riel was captured, tried, and hanged on November 16,1885. After the rebellion, the Metis were dispersed northward and westward, and survived into the twentieth century owning little land and frequently squatting on Crown land (comparable with public land in the United States).

In the 1930s, the Metis in Alberta persuaded the provincial government to enact legislation creating ten (later eight) "colonies" in the boreal forest region. Similar to Indian reserves, the colonies were to facilitate Metis assimilation into the larger population. Other provincial governments have since initiated a number of programs to address problems of disease, poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, and fairness in the judicial process. With the 1950s, Metis organizations agitated for a decision-making role in programs directed at them. Recently, in Alberta, the Federation of Metis Settlements (formerly colonies) and the separate Metis Association have negotiated relationships with the provincial government that suggest that Riel's objective, Metis survival as a recognized political entity, may be realized. Similar understandings may be emerging in other Canadian jurisdictions. In the United States, some Metis communities in Montana and North Dakota have seen Indian status as a vehicle to achieve recognition as a corporate entity in relations with governments. In a few instances, this view has gained adherents in Canada. At present, however, increasing numbers of Metis are taking purposeful steps to acknowledge a Metis heritage.


When warfare abated in the middle of the eighteenth century in the immediate region of the upper Great Lakes, several trading families left the trading posts to establish extendedfamily villages. Numbers in these villages are difficult to determine, but they would mirror those of neighboring Indian bands, reflecting hunting resources supplemented with subsistence horticulture. Besides settlements near the major forts at Michilimackimac, Sault Ste-Marie, Fort William, and Dearborn, other villages appeared at locations such as Chebougamon, Green Bay, and Prairie du Chien. With the advent of settlement, families dispersed westward, some to the valley of the Red River. By the late 1820s, the Red River Settlement contained the largest Metis community in the nineteenth century. By the 1840s, settlements had emerged at Pembina and St-Joseph in Dakota Territory. In the succeeding decade, settlement emerged farther west at Lac Ste-Anne, later moved to St-Albert near Fort Edmonton, and Lac la Biche. With the robe trade, wintering villages appeared in the Qu'Appelle River valley, at Turtle, Moose, and Wood mountains, and in the valley of the South Saskatchewan River and its principal tributaries. For brief periods, communities such as La Petite Ville, Round Plain, Buffalo Lake, and Tail Creek could number as many as several hundred inhabitants. At the time the bison herds collapsed in the early 1880s, wintering villages were found in the Cypress Hills, south of the Missouri River in the Judith Basin in Montana Territory, and westward in the foothills. The wintering villages disappeared with the bison. Settlements about the missions were absorbed into the communities of the settler society.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Metis were hunters and trappers who practiced subsistence horticulture, raising cereal and vegetable crops on river lots. Bison meat, fresh and processed as pemmican, was the principal food and surplus product generated for sale in the fur trade. Later, the cow's hide taken in winter, the robe, would be the principal surplus product traded. The summer hunt saw the Metis of a particular region gather at a central rendezvous to establish the temporary government of the hunt. By election, the heads of families chose le chef (chief) to be assisted by seven to ten capitaines (captains), each with requisite soldats (soldiers). Rules for the hunt, emphasizing the collective interest over that of the individual, with sanctions, were promulgated. With the end of the hunt, the authority of le chef and les capitaines ended, although they continued to be men of influence and consequence. The format of the summer hunt was followed in the winter village.

In return for the surplus provisions, furs, and robes the Metis supplied to the trader, they consumed products additional to those available in the Indian trade. Besides guns, shot, powder, knives, axes, and blankets, the Metis were heavy consumers of cloth and clothing. Accouterments such as caps, shawls, beads, jewelry, and sleigh bells and pom-poms for dog harnesses found ready buyers. At some locations, fisheries (using nets) from late fall to early winter were of critical importance. With the collapse of robe prices in the 1870s, followed by the collapse of the herds themselves, the Metis shifted to carting and day labor. With the granting of "Halfbreed Scrip" in Canada from the 1870s through to the 1900s, some Metis acquired land in addition to being eligible for homestead entry. Many more took money to finance itinerant farming and hunting. Today, many Metis are successful farmers. Many more, as employers and employees, are involved in small businesses and government service in the boreal forest region. Seasonal labor and government assistance continue to be significant sources of income.

Industrial Arts. The Metis incorporated many of the bush skills and products of their Indian kin into their way of life. The distinguishing feature in their behavior was the emphasis they placed on generating a surplus of selected products. Also, from the world of "work" in the fur trade, many men were skilled fishermen, boatmen, and teamsters. As cartwrights they created, without metal parts, the two-wheeled prairie vehicle, the red river cart. As carpenters they built one-room cabins in a matter of days. On occasion, leather garments cut in a European manner, but beaded in the tradition of the woodlands, was their clothing. An assumption sash, a woven belt, extended across the body from shoulder to waist. A cap or hat of distinction (a tam-o'-shanter at midcentury) completed costuming.

Division of Labor. In their skills and roles, the women reflected their cultural antecedents. In appropriate circumstances they could snare small game, although their activities emphasized the manufacture of clothing and the preparation and preservation of food, in addition to some gardening. The men hunted and trapped, and the women played a critical role in processing pemmican and tanning pelts and robes in surplus amounts for trade. Men skinned and butchered carcasses, but it was the women who produced the final product for trade.

Land Tenure. The Metis in Red River squatted with Hudson's Bay Company approval on river lots of a few rods frontage and extending a mile back from the river. By custom, the subsequent two miles were deemed the "hay privilege" of the river-lot resident. Beyond the hay privilege was common land where, for purposes of haying, local decision governed utilization. The pattern in Red River was reflected in other mission settlements, eventually to be recognized by government survey. Transfers of residence involved compensation for improvements, but not the land itself, until resettlement, surveys, and titles conveyed ownership. With the transfer in 1869-1870 and subsequent legislation, the Metis heads of families were granted rights to the land on which they resided and scrip to the amount of $160 or 160 acres. All Metis children were granted 240 acres of land. Over the years, much of this land and scrip fell into the hands of speculators, leaving large numbers of Metis landless. A dimension of Metis activism today aspires to establish a land base in areas where they have been residents for generations.


The Metis reflected the kinship practices of their cultural antecedents insofar as existing circumstances made this behavior possible. Free men leaving the fur trade frequently maintained social relations with former workmates living either in the posts or as free men. Marriages among their children were instrumental in defining socially les gens libres and succeeding generations of Metis. The kin ties of the country wives of the free men were instrumental in establishing a relationship of tolerance and, in numerous instances, support from neighboring Indian bands. In their behavior, free men acted in a manner that preserved the kin ties of their wives and children with the bands. Both European and Indian practices influenced Metis behavior, but the exigencies of local circumstances dictated practice.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Few fur trade engagés had the ability to emerge as free men. For those who did, a country wife closely connected with the leading family of a prominent Indian band seems to have been instrumental in ensuring survival. The fur trade practice of "turning off" could see a free man, because of age, injury, or illness, decide to leave "Indian country." He would give his family and country outfit to a younger man in exchange for the younger man's willingness to serve as husband and father in the family. In some instances, fur trade officers turned off their country families to skilled servants of ability or to free men. Although some individuals, male and female, continued to find marriage partners in Indian bands, second-generation marriages among les gens libres emphasized themselves as the primary sociocultural entity. Courting and the marriage ceremony involved the exchange of gifts between the couple and their families. Residence after marriage was a function of particular circumstances, with all forms being observed.

Domestic Unit. In the bison days, related nuclear families grouped around the patriarch could be observed. Individual families tended to interests on their own river lots but shared garden produce and the returns of the hunt. They also cooperated in joint activities such as the hunt or the fishery. Such family patterns are still evident today. In areas of poverty and high unemployment, three-generational households reflecting female linkages appear.

Inheritance. Property appears to have been passed to those who provided care to children. In most instances, this was the surviving spouse. Should a widow remarry, however, the property passed to the children.

Socialization. Generally speaking, children were raised permissively, with greater restrictions placed on girls. Ostracism, ridicule, and the threat of external malevolent spirits were used to discipline children. Although aggression was discouraged, males particularly were encouraged to be assertive. Mission schools enjoyed very limited success. Many parents have acknowledged the value of education, but it is only recently that significant numbers of youths are appearing in senior high school classrooms and postsecondary institutions.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The preeminence of the active older male has been a hallmark of Metis behavior since the era of the free man. By the same token, women were of critical importance not only for their social links with Indian bands but for their essential skills in preparing surplus amounts of provision and pelts for trade. As neither the Roman Catholic church nor the women themselves approved of polygyny, the importance of women who exercised these skills in the family was enhanced. The elderly who were capable, as well as children of both sexes, were expected to lend a hand at critical times in the production of provisions and robes. With the collapse of both the provision and the robe trade, men attempted to sustain their position by working as freighters, teamsters, and day laborers. This adaptability allowed some men to continue their leading position, but in other families it was the woman and her kinsmen who became preeminent. This latter development may explain in part why in some Metis communities an emphasis is placed upon "Indian," as opposed to "European-Canadian," traditions in acknowledging their heritage. Today, however, numbers of men as well as women demonstrate assertive entrepreneurial abilities in the many small businesses they have established. They are emerging as a social elite of political consequence.

Political Organization. Family units were the political entity except for the temporary "government" of the bison hunt and the wintering village. In the selection of the temporary chef and other officers, an interplay of ability, social reputation, and family connections seem to explain choices. Not to go unnoticed is the similarity between the conduct of the bison hunt and that of the militia in New France and Lower Canada. In the Red River Settlement, the Metis appear to have remained apart from the Hudson's Bay Company-appointed Council of Assiniboia and the local courts. After 1850, however, members of their community were found on both bodies. With the transfer and the establishment of Riel's provisional government, Metis were involved on both sides in the resulting political conflict. By the end of the decade of the 1870s, the Canadians had largely displaced them in the governments of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Farther west, Roman Catholic missionaries encouraged local government activism. But the independence of families outside of the hunt seems to have remained an enduring political tradition. Following the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885, the Metis appear to have abandoned political activity until the 1930s. The formation of the Metis Association of Alberta to lobby for government action in their interests was mirrored in other jurisdictions with Metis populations. With the post-World War II era, numbers of organizations, sometimes competing, have emerged at both the national and regional level. Family connections are not without importance in many organizations. Yet, increasingly, it is the successful hunter and trader in relations with government who wins elections at the local level. Women as well as men are active in these organizations.

Conflict. In the fur trade, fighting among the men was sanctioned only on occasions such as a boisson or régale (celebration), not at work. Among les gens libres, such fights could prove far more disruptive. As a result, avoidance seems to have been the means of resolving disputes involving those other than young men. On the hunt, social pressure demanded that conflict be avoided. Violent clashes did occur with the Dakota and Blackfoot. The Metis, however, would observe Indian practice in relations with Indians in invoking the pipe ceremony and in offering and receiving gift compensation. Among themselves, these practices are not evident. The entrepreneurial success of particular extended families demarked social and political consequences. Such families were valued in forming marriage alliances. In the Red River in 1869-1870, and later in the Saskatchewan Rebellion, some evidence suggests antagonism between the entrepreneurially successful and those who saw themselves excluded from opportunity in the settled West. Some suggest that this pattern, redefined generationally, has continued to this day. There are tensions as well between those Metis who identify a heritage very closely with past practices in association with the Roman Catholic church and those who argue for a much stronger aboriginal component and in some instances a rejection of European-Canadian elements.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Metis display a wide variation of religious beliefs and practices. Prior to the arrival of missionaries, women followed religious and medical practices appropriate to their gender in the Cree and Ojibwa traditions. The men intertwined a folk Catholicism with various Indian practices and beliefs. Subsequently, both sexes were significantly influenced by Roman Catholic rituals. Since much of this variation occurs at the family and community levels, no all-encompassing set of beliefs and practices can be described for the Metis.


Brown, Jennifer S. H. (1988). "Metis." In The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 2, 1343-1347. Edmonton, Alberta: Hurtig Publishers.

Foster, John E. (1986). "The Plains Metis." In Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience, edited by R. Bruce Morrison and C. Rod Wilson, 375-404. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland & Stewart.

Giraud, Marcel (1945). Le Metis Canadien. Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, Musée Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle.

Giraud, Marcel (1986). The Metis in the Canadian West. Translated by George Woodcock. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.