Métis Scrip - The Foundation for a New Beginning1
"In answer to your letter, I am to say that, as far as this Department is concerned, nothing further can be done...".2
With those words, Peter Douglas, an assistant secretary with the Department of the Interior, effectively absolved the federal government of any further obligation in its delivery of scrip to Patrice Cyr. A resident of the Parish of St. Agathe, Manitoba, Cyr had applied to the Department for the grant which all Métis families were promised in 1870 under the Manitoba Act.3 These grants were meant to extinguish any aboriginal rights to the landscape that they might hold as an indigenous culture. Along with the Indian treaties, they would allow the federal government to convey western lands to new settlers unencumbered by prior rights of use. Land grants were seen as the least expensive way for the government to extinguish the Métis title. If Métis rights were recognized through the same reservation system and financial compensation packages that were already in place for other native groups, the cost of western settlement would have been considerably higher than what the young Dominion was willing to endure.
Patrice Cyr's affidavit attesting to his Métis status was sworn in August 1875 before Matthew Ryan, one of the Commissioners appointed under Order-in-Council to investigate Métis claims in Manitoba. Having a French Canadian father and a Métis mother, there was never any doubt as to Cyr's eligibility to participate in the special land grant for Métis family heads. Indeed, Cyr's application was readily accepted by the Department of the Interior and scrip, in the amount of $160, was issued the following year. About 15 months later, his scrip was supposedly delivered to the Winnipeg law firm of Bain and Blanchard.4
Scrip was a special certificate or warrant issued by the Department of the Interior which entitled the bearer to receive homestead lands, at a later date, upon presentation of the document to the proper authorities. Scrip allowed the Department to issue a land grant without specifying the actual parcel involved. For individual claimants, it had the advantage of allowing them to choose any western lands which were open for settlement without having to restrict their selection to specific reserves, as was the case with some immigrant groups from eastern Europe.
The scrip notes issued by the Department resembled government bonds and were printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company in denominations of $20, $80, $160, and $240; and in 80, 160 and 240 acres.5 When lands in western Canada were first made available to homesteaders under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, the federal government arbitrarily valued farm land at $1.00 per acre.6 Therefore, money scrip in the value of $160 or $240 entitled the bearer to the equivalent number of acres in land.
Money and land scrip could only be redeemed at face value in the purchase of homestead lands through a Dominion lands office. Despite this restriction, a considerable black market in scrip existed in western Canada, where these documents were sold and traded at less than their face value to pay debts and to purchase goods other than land. Although its official policy was to the contrary, the federal government to some extent encouraged such practices. This was particularly true of money scrip, which was not registered in the name of the Métis claimant, but was simply made out "to the Bearer". Without some form of registration, money scrip could be used by anyone - both Métis and non-Métis alike - in their acquisition of western lands, and consequently, it was actively sought by land speculators.
Regrettably, once Patrice Cyr's money scrip was sent west, both the Department of the Interior and the Winnipeg law firm somehow managed to lose track of it. A thorough search of records in Ottawa and Winnipeg failed to uncover any receipts in Cyr's name or any documentation from him transferring power of attorney to Bain and Blanchard. Although Cyr's scrip was eventually used in the purchase of a homestead in southern Manitoba, neither the Department nor Bain and Blanchard could prove conclusively that it was Patrice Cyr who had taken delivery of the document.
Cyr's application became caught in a bureaucratic tangle, with neither the Department nor the Winnipeg law firm showing any willingness to offer him the recompense that was due to him by law. His last correspondence with the Department of the Interior is dated 11 years after he first filed his application. Although Cyr still claimed not to have received his scrip, his polite plea for assistance only elicited a contemptuous rebuke from an indifferent assistant secretary. The Department simply refused to acknowledge that there had been any negligence in its handling of Cyr's scrip, or that it was morally bound to meet the terms of the Manitoba Act.
Apparently, Cyr's experience was not an isolated case. The provincial Métis associations have recorded hundreds of examples where individuals approached the Department to take delivery of their scrip only to find that someone had already signed for it. There are many other cases where an individual's application was refused because the Department already had an application on file, together with receipts and letters assigning powers of attorney to people who were unknown to the claimant. Since most Métis were illiterate, it was not difficult for someone who understood the award system to forge a claimant's signature by simply drawing an "X" on the signature line. The Manitoba Métis Federation estimates that as many as three quarters of Cyr's contemporaries lost their scrip through such fraudulent practices or through outright coercion by land speculators and departmental officials.7
It is highly unlikely that the illiterate Métis understood what they were giving up when they agreed to take scrip. The application procedures developed by the Department were terribly complicated - amounting to several acts of Parliament and some 120 orders in council - and were full of complex legal implications. Some Métis organizations today claim that the process was deliberately made this way in order to make it difficult for their ancestors to exercise their rights and to explore the legal system for alternative arrangements.
For example, a Departmental ruling stipulated that scrip could only be redeemed in Dominion lands which were open for settlement. This ruling made it particularly difficult for some Métis families to obtain their land grant, because the available lands were mostly located in the southern parts of the western provinces. Métis living in the north were required to relocate as much as 200 or 300 miles from their community to find such lands. Since relocation was not an option for most Métis families, many chose to sell their scrip at a fraction of its face value to the land speculators who accompanied the Scrip Commissions.
Interestingly, when the settlement process was in full swing and land values had increased, the amount granted to Métis families in money scrip remained frozen at the original award levels. A Métis awarded money scrip in the 1870s had the potential of purchasing a reasonable size homestead, but later in the 1920s when land prices had doubled and tripled, the same scrip note would only purchase a homestead that was a fraction of the size.
The files listed in this guide document evolving federal policies towards Métis scrip, the procedures instituted by federal government when awarding scrip, and individual case files on the awards of several thousand Métis families. The records are an invaluable source on the genealogy of the first Métis communities. More importantly, they offer primary evidence on the federal treatment of this indigenous group and will eventually constitute a basis from which the Métis can begin building a renewed relationship with the federal government.
1. This chapter is adapted from a piece first published in The Archivist 20 (no. 1, 1993), pp. 12-14.
2. P.B. Douglas to P. Cyr, 30 November, 1886, Library and Archives Canada, RG 15, vol. 199, file HB 5455.
3. 33 Vic., c. 3, s. 31, 1870.
4. All correspondence concerning Cyr's application, including the application itself, can be found in NA, RG 15, vol. 199, file 5455.
5. The scrip awarded to Métis claimants by the Department of the Interior (RG 15) is retained by the NA in two separate series: money scrip (all values) can be found in series D II 8f, and land scrip (all values) in series D II 8i.
6. See 35 Vic., c. 23, s. 29, 1872.
7. The Federation makes these allegations against the Crown in E. Pelletier's, Exploitation of Métis Lands (Winnipeg, 1975).