British Columbia’s 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.