BC Métis History

Métis have been documented in BC as early as 1793, when Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Expedition traversed the Rockies and established a signpost marking at North Bentinck Arm [near Bella Coola, BC] on July 22 nd , 1793. The Western Mackenzie Valley Drainage Basin, which now falls within the boundaries of southern Yukon and northern British Columbia, encompasses a vast area drained by the Mackenzie, Laird, Finlay, Stikine, Peace, Parsnip, and Halfway Rivers. The area includes the modern settlements of Frances Lake and Fort Grahame in the west, to Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John’s in the south and to the British Columbia-Alberta border in the east.

David Thompson’s Expedition into BC occurred around 1800. Thompson documented the presence of 20 Métis families in the Flathead Valley, Kootenays. Ethnologist James Teit noted a band of Iroquois who settled at Tete Jaune Cache in 1816. According to Teit, they spoke Cree and French and were noted for having traded flower beadwork leggings with the Shuswap. They were known by the Shuswap (and documented by Teit) as “Le Mechif.” Other notable Métis expeditions into BC are as follows: Simon Fraser (1805), Sinclair Expedition (1841, 1854.)

In 1851, a small corps of volunteers was formed to enforce justice on Vancouver Island. They were known as the Victoria Voltigeurs. They were mostly Métis of French-Canadian and Iroquois descent. Their military uniform consisted of a sky-blue capote with a red woolen sash. The Voltigeurs frequently accompanied Royal Navy expeditions to intimidate First Nations along the Northwest coast. The Voltigeurs were the first military unit and police force in BC and they existed until March of 1858.

Perhaps one of the most striking, albeit unknown, features of Métis history in BC is the fact that Métis existed in positions of political and economic power during the early years of the colonial and provincial governments. For example, Joseph McKay (founded Nanaimo,) Lady Amelia Douglas (wife of Sir James Douglas,) Josette Legace (wife of John Work, HBC Chief Factor and member of Legislative Assembly, also the largest landowner on Vancouver Island,) Isabella Ross (first female land owner in BC,) and Simon Fraser Tolmie (BC Premier 1925-30) are all identified as Métis.

Métis were on the Pacific Slope well before the exertion of government control around 1858. They were also recognized by the Federal government as having a rights bearing community in the Fort St. John area, evidenced by the fact that the area was included in the Half-breed Commission associated with Treaty 8. The Métis in BC were both connected to historic Métis families and also to the Mixed Aboriginal communities that developed in BC during the colonial era. The Métis built their influence in this province to a point where they were in positions of political power. However, European newcomers and their discriminatory attitudes, in addition to a hostile legal regime in BC, forced the Métis underground but it did not extinguish our culture, history or social structures.

Métis Nation British Columbia (MNBC) was established in 1996 as the representative organization for Métis in BC. In 2002, representatives of the Nation formalized the “National Definition” of Métis, which was used by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 2003 Powley decision. In 2003, the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia entered into a major tripartite agreement with the Métis in BC. MNBC is the first Métis government in the history of BC to demonstrate the will, determination and consistency required to enter such a monumentally important understanding. Further negotiations between the Provincial Government and MNBC resulted in the 2006 Métis Nation Relationship Accord. Métis Nation British Columbia continues to push for respectful recognition and reconciliation of our inherent Aboriginal rights, and our existence within the Canadian federation.

Brodie Douglas, B.A.
Central Registry Database Records Clerk

Métis History In Canada

 The Historic Métis emerged as a distinct people and nation on the plains of western North America during the late 1700’s. As the fur trade expanded westward many of the employees, who were of European origin, found it both necessary and convenient to establish familial relationships with First Nations women. These relationships resulted in children of Mixed Aboriginal ancestry. Although the fur trade companies eventually adopted a policy of discouraging such unions between employees and First Nations, they also had an economic interest in delaying large-scale agricultural settlement, thereby limiting the choice of marriageable women for the fur trader in the North West. As a result, Mixed Aboriginals married other Mixed Aboriginals and they developed a culture that was not European nor First Nations but rather a fusion of the two cultures. Historians refer to this fusion as “Ethnogenesis.”

In 1811, The Hudson’s Bay Company granted Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, land within the Red River for the purpose of establishing an agricultural settlement to supply the expanding fur trade with provisions. However, the influx of settlers disturbed the traditional lifestyle of the Métis, specifically their harvesting and commercial practices. Within five years of their arrival, in 1816, armed conflict erupted between Selkirk’s colonists and the Métis then under the leadership of Cuthbert Grant [Jr.] This battle has become known as the Battle of Seven Oaks and it was the first time that our national flag, the first indigenous flag to Canada, was flown. This flag is still the iconic flag of the Métis Nation and is evidence of the fact that, by the early 19 th Century, the Métis recognized themselves as having a distinct national consciousness.

Shortly after Canadian Confederation, the Federal Government made an effort to acquire the land owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and in 1869 successfully acquired Rupert’s Land from the HBC. At that time, it has been suggested the Métis constituted 85% of the total population of Red River settlement, which was estimated to be 11,400 people in total. In addition, two key events occurred within the Red River, in 1869, and contributed to a growing sense of Métis Nationalism. The first event was the formation of the first Métis Nation Provisional Government under President Louis Riel. The second event was the actions and subsequent execution of Ontario Surveyor Thomas Scott by Riel’s Provisional Government.

Despite negotiating the Manitoba Act, 1870, Louis Riel was exiled to the United States of America where he remained until 1884. Furthermore, after Manitoba joined Confederation, Federal troops were dispatched to the Red River under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley with the intention of establishing Canadian sovereignty. The actions of the federal troops created an atmosphere among the Métis of Red River that many historians describe as a “Reign of Terror,” and it resulted in an exodus of Métis to Saskatchewan and into the Northern United States.

In the early 1870s, under the leadership of Gabriel Dumont, Métis in Saskatchewan began petitioning the Federal government for recognition of their Métis rights. However, the Federal government did not take action until 1879, when they amended the Dominion Lands Act. The amendment had little effect on addressing Métis grievances, and in 1884 the Métis again enlisted the services Louis Riel to assist them with their efforts in addressing their rights.

Together, Riel and Dumont organized a second Métis Nation Provisional Government, an in 1885, the Métis successfully engaged Canadian Federal forces at the Battle of Duck Lake and at the Battle of Fish Creek. Despite the initial victories of the Métis, the Canadian Government was able to quash the Métis at the Battle of Batoche, the final military engagement between Métis and Canadian forces. Following the Battle of Batoche, the Métis were again driven westward. This time their exodus brought them to Northern Alberta and the Peace River district of BC.

Louis Riel Day

On November 16th, we celebrate Louis Riel Day.
Although most of us have heard of him, not everyone remebers why. He has been described as charismatic, a leader, a rebel, a traitor, the Father of Manitoba and even insane. So who is the Louis Riel and how did he get his own holiday? Louis Riel was born in 1844 at the Red River Settlement. He was the first of 11 children, born to a Métis father and French Canadian mother. He was elected president of the provisional government formed during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, and negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Canada in 1871. Louis Riel was elected to Parliament 3 times, but never took his seat. He returned to the Northwest at the request of the Métis during the initial stages of the Northwest Resistance in 1884. Following the defeat of the Métis at Batoche, Riel was tried for treason. His lawyers tried to plea insanity as his defense, but Louis Riel denied those claims. He was found guilty of High Treason in May 1885. Despite the jury recommending leniency, he was sentenced to hang. During his own life, Riel was recognized as the father of Manitoba and is currently acknowledged to be a founding father of Confederation in Canada. In addition to advocating for Métis rights, Riel also fought for greater religious freedom, French language rights, First Nations rights, and greater gender equality throughout the Northwest. Riel died as a staunch advocate for the Métis and as a defender of minority rights in general. It is Riel’s legacy that continues to attract Métis to remember the ideals and values that he died defending. For that reason, Métis across the homeland commemorate the anniversary of his death, as opposed to the day he was born. It is a day to celebrate the lasting culture and impact that Métis have had on Canadian society. It is a day to recount that Métis have long advocated democracy and freedom of expression for all Canadians. In fact, in one of his trial speeches, Riel prophetically stated that he will perhaps be one day acknowledged as more than a leader of the half-breeds, and…will have an opportunity of being acknowledged as a leader of good in this great country.

I suppose the half-breeds in Manitoba, in 1870, did not fight for two hundred forty acres of land, but it is to be understood there were two societies who treated together. One was small, but
in its smallness it had its rights. The other was great, but in its greatness it had no greater rights than the rights of the small, because the right
is the same for everyone.
~ Louis Riel

In 1885 approximately 300 Métis men took up arms alongside Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont.

… and going down the coulee I saw Gabriel and he asked where the horses were .. It was the last time I saw Gabriel … Suddenly someone called out to me “ There they are, coming down the coulee with their cannon” I looked and saw them coming down and I shouted to the young men, ‘Take Courage, Take courage pray to God’

Report of Charles Trottier on the Battle of April 24, 1885.

Prayer of the Council 1885

Lord, Our God,
Thou art the Father of mercy and consolation;
We are several French Canadian Metis
Gathered together in Council,
Who put our confidence in Thee;
Grant that we may not be covered with confusion,
Ever defend us from this,
Enlighten us in our darkness of doubt,
Encourage us in our trials,
Strengthen us in our weakness and
Succour us in the time of pressing need

Amen 

~ Louis Riel 

Batoche (arial video)

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Métis Culture, Heritage and Language

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Conclusion

With all that the Métis people have faced throughout the years, we continue to share our culture through dance, song, dress, knowledge of the land and language to keep them alive for future generations. For we are the Métis Nation and are no longer the “Forgotten People”.