Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Métis Nation in the Collection of Library and Archives Canada — Related Themes

The images featured here represent a small selection of Métis content—maps, artwork, photographs and textual records. The themes below touch upon some key dates and events in Métis history. Explore these themes and more in the collections of Library and Archives Canada.    

  • Mapping Canada, 1670 to the Early Twentieth Century

    Prior to the arrival of Europeans, First Nations and Inuit groups, with their distinctive cultures and traditions, inhabited what is now Canada for thousands of years. Beginning in the late 15th century, the first French and British expeditions arrived, initially settling in the Atlantic region and eventually moving west- and northward. By the early 1600s, the wealth to be made through the fur trade brought more French and English explorers. These maps show the evolution of geopolitical boundaries in what are now the eastern Prairies, tracing the development of the Métis Homeland.

    The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was founded on May 2, 1670, when King Charles granted a charter to his cousin, Prince Rupert. Under the charter, the HBC became the “true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors” of Rupert’s Land, a vast area of 3.1 million hectares constituting the Hudson Bay watershed.

    In 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada for $1.5 million. Centred round the Red River settlement, Manitoba became a province in 1870. The boundaries of Manitoba, nicknamed the “Postage Stamp Province” because of its tiny size, were extended after 1881 north- and westward.

    This map includes the District of Keewatin, the province of Manitoba and the North-West Territories. Because the North-West Territories were so vast, they were divided into districts, three of which are seen in this map – Assiniboia, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

  • The Fur Trade

    From the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries, the fur trade was a vast commercial enterprise. This fiercely competitive business dominated two areas—the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes system and Rupert’s Land—which encompassed the Hudson Bay and James Bay drainage basins. The main rivals in Rupert’s Land were the Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1670, and the North West Company, which was founded in 1784. They merged in 1821 under the Hudson’s Bay Company banner.

    American-born Peter Pond was one of the founders of the North West Company. His explorations to find new fur resources took him west of Lac Île-à-la-Crosse (in what is now Saskatchewan) to the Peace River (in what is now Alberta). This map shows trading posts and portages, as well as locations where Pond wintered.

    Cumberland House is one of the oldest continuous Métis communities. Founded in 1774, it was used as a depot for eastbound furs, westbound trade goods and pemmican that fed voyageurs en route to Lake Athabasca (in what is now Saskatchewan).

    Located in northwest Saskatchewan, Portage La Loche was used by fur trade brigades from Fort Garry (what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba) to the Athabasca and Mackenzie regions. The brigades brought supplies to the numerous posts along their routes, and furs were transported to York Factory on Hudson Bay for shipment to England.

    Humphrey Lloyd Hime was hired as a photographer for the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition in 1858. The first of its kind in Canada to use photography, the expedition was commissioned by the Canadian government to establish a reliable trade route between Lake Superior and the Red River.

    Known as the “Voyageurs' Highway,” this 4,800-kilometre canoe route connected Montréal, Québec and Fort Chipewyan (in what is now Alberta). There were 42 portages, varying in length from 36 metres to 1,600 metres. This map shows the 800-kilometre segment between Fort William (now Thunder Bay, Ontario) and Upper Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), Manitoba.

  • The Battle of Seven Oaks, June 19, 1816

    In 1814, the Governor of the Red River colony issued the Pemmican Proclamation, prohibiting the Métis from selling their pemmican to the fur brigades. The proclamation declared that no one “shall take out any provisions, either flesh, dried meat, grain, or vegetable.” It was the Governor’s attempt to guarantee adequate food supplies for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). This had an effect on Métis livelihoods and on the ability to do business of HBC’s rival, the North West Company, which employed the Métis and felt that the proclamation was a ploy to monopolize the fur trade. Lord Selkirk’s attempt to establish an agricultural colony at Red River further aggravated the Métis, as it posed a threat to their traditional way of life. The dispute over the pemmican supply resulted in the Battle of Seven Oaks and the deaths of 21 Selkirk settlers and one Métis.

    This map shows the Red River Colony, cart trails and routes taken by European settlers and Métis. It also indicates where the Battle of Seven Oaks happened—near the intersection of Main Street and Rupert’s Land Boulevard in what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba.

    William Coltman was hired by the Governor of Lower Canada (now the province of Quebec) to investigate the Battle of Seven Oaks. Having taken depositions from both sides, Coltman prepared a report that sympathized with the North West Company’s position while condemning the use of violence by both sides. Today, this report is one of the best sources on the fur-trade war and a key document in the history of the Métis Nation.

    The ballad is a narrative of the Battle of Seven Oaks, written from the Métis viewpoint. It was composed by Pierre Falcon, a North West Company employee who witnessed the battle on June 19, 1816. It states that the Métis were confronted by the English (Selkirk Settlers) and that "the Governor is full of ire and forthwith tells his men to fire." The ballad became an anthem that was sung during the Red River Resistance in 1870.

    More than a century after the Battle of Seven Oaks, Charles William Jefferys created this romanticized depiction of the confrontation. Jefferys replaced the Métis with First Nations men. Drawing upon racial stereotypes of the time, he portrayed the First Nations as the aggressors on horseback, while the Selkirk settlers, on foot, appear to be the defenders or victims of this violent event.

  • The Buffalo Hunt

    Usually held in spring and autumn, the buffalo hunt was integral to Métis culture. Hunting provided a livelihood and helped sustain the Métis way of life. Men, women and children participated, travelling in caravans over hundreds of kilometres. The hunt was also an important social event, providing an opportunity for extended kinship groups and families to spend time together.

    During his travels to the Red River area in 1823, William Keating, an American geologist, encountered a group of Métis buffalo hunters. His written description of their attire—blue capotes (wool coats) secured with a sash, calico or painted muslin shirts, moccasins, leggings fastened with beaded garters and hats decorated in the “Indian manner”—was also captured by artist Peter Rindisbacher in this 1822 watercolour.

    Horses were introduced to the prairies towards the late 1700s, creating a dramatic change in lifestyle amongst Indigenous societies. Horses revolutionized the buffalo hunt, making it possible to travel greater distances and hunt buffalo from horseback instead of driving herds off cliffs or into enclosures.

    Hudson’s Bay Company trader and author Joseph James Hargrave published Red River in 1871. Describing the Métis’ skill and efficiency during a hunt, Hargrave wrote: “The hunters enter the herd with their mouths full of bullets … a bullet is dropped from the mouth into the muzzle … the salivated bullet … adhere[s] to the powder … the discharge is instantly effected without bringing the gun to the shoulder."

    Boat brigades faced demanding, physical work. As the fur trade expanded west, traders regularly ran out of food, and, in the subarctic, starvation was common. By the late 1700s, traders added pemmican to their diets. This high-energy food was created by combining meat and fat of a large game animal, such as buffalo, and local berries. Trading posts then took on a crucial new role as food depots.

    Métis women travelled by cart to where the buffalo carcasses lay. There, they would cut up the meat to transport it back to the camp. Several days later, when the meat had dried, the group would move on to the grazing site of a new herd, or return to their homes if they had enough food.

  • Nationhood

    In 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Dominion of Canada, raising concerns amongst the people in the Red River area (largely Métis) about the impact on their lands and livelihood. Their anxieties were exacerbated by the arrival of Canadian surveyors at Red River and the appointment of an English-speaking Lieutenant Governor for the territory in advance of the transfer. After forming a provisional government, the Métis and other Red River residents chose Louis Riel as their leader.

    In November 1869, Riel took control of Upper Fort Garry and formed a provisional government. The Canadian militia arrived in August 1870 to assert the Canadian government’s presence and establish order. Fearing for his life, Riel vacated the fort before the militia entered it. This woodcut portrays the artist’s interpretation of this event.

    With Red River residents pledging to resist until their rights were guaranteed, the Canadian government agreed to negotiate with the Métis Provisional Government. After the Manitoba Act was ratified by the Métis Provisional Government, it was passed by the Canadian Parliament, creating the province of Manitoba and protecting specific rights of Red River residents.

    Like the Métis, First Nations Plains tribes were experiencing great hardship—buffalo herds were disappearing, great tracts of land had been signed away in treaties, and the once wild and expansive prairie was being lost to European settlement. As a result, some First Nations peoples became allies of the Métis during the North-West Resistance.

    Throughout the 1870s and 1880s the government continued to develop and settle the West, causing fear and apprehension amongst the Métis and First Nations. Their anxiety culminated, in 1885, in the North-West Resistance, a violent, five-month insurgency against the government. These photographs by Captain Peters capture some of the Canadian militia’s actions before and during the final battle at Batoche.

    This map poster was one of the more sensational items produced by the government during the North-West Resistance. The depiction of a scalping was a propaganda tactic likely used to incite fear amongst European settlers and to foster sympathy for the government.

    The North-West Resistance ended with the Battle of Batoche on May 12, 1885. Overpowered by the Canadian militia, the Métis and their allies were defeated after three days of fighting. The loss resulted in their surrender and the execution of Louis Riel, as well as the collapse of the provisional government.

  • Scrip

    Scrip certificates were first issued to Métis in Manitoba as part of the terms of the Manitoba Act, initially enacted in 1870, and were redeemable for land or money. These grants were seen as the least expensive way for the government to extinguish Métis title, allowing it to give western lands, unencumbered by prior rights of use, to new settlers. The Métis were promised title for lands they already farmed, as well as an additional 567,000 hectares of farmland for their children.

    Scrip notes were issued by the Department of the Interior. Resembling government bonds, they were printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company in denominations of $20, $80, $160, and $240, or for 80, 160 or 240 acres. Scrip was generally awarded to Métis heads of families and to children of Métis heads of families.

    Money scrip was issued in exchange for the extinguishment of certain claims. These notes were issued "to the bearer" and could be applied to the purchase of, or as a down payment on, any Dominion lands which were open for entry.

    The Métis were dealt with individually, unlike First Nations, whose treaty process dealt with them on a collective basis. As was often the case with the numbered treaties, scrip commissioners travelled to Métis communities where the Métis would gather to fill out applications.

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