The historic Métis either evolved, or in some cases migrated from the Great Lakes region to the Red River Valley and established settlements along the banks of the Assiniboine, Red and Seine Rivers. This growing Métis population was supplemented with the emigration of voyageurs from present-day Quebec, and the intermarriage of Métis with the local Saulteaux and Cree First Nations.
When the Métis first arrived in the Red River Valley, Rupert’s Land, during the late 1700s, the land was very different from today. Huge stands of natural grass covered the landscape, which is now covered by wheat and other commercial grains. The prairie was full of bison, and a whole Plains First Nations culture, from the edge of the Canadian Shield to Mexico, was dependent on this resource. By 1800, the Métis had adapted their voyageur lifestyle and became buffalo hunters, and came into direct competition with First Nations tribes. The original dominant nations were the Saulteaux, or Plains Ojibwa, the Cree, the Lakota and the Dakota. While the Métis had family ties with these nations, there was often tension between them as they competed for land and scarce resources.
The Red River Métis did not always hunt bison. Most Métis settled in farming communities. Early Métis communities in the Red River region included: St. Boniface. Ste. Agathe, Ste. Anne, St. Norbert, St. Vital, St. Francois-Xavier, and St. Eustache. All of these communities were named after saints, which suggests that the early Métis took Catholicism seriously. Families tended to be large and close knit, and people more often than not married into their extended family. The historic Métis had a vibrant culture and they absorbed many others including French Canadians and First Nations. The kind of society, which existed in Red River in the early 1800s was roughly egalitarian and communitarian. When times were hard Métis buffalo hunters and farmers shared their bounty with the less fortunate. There were some social distinctions among the Métis, with the “progressive” Métis, usually traders, small business people or fur trade bourgeois, and farmers seeing themselves as the social superiors to the nomadic buffalo hunters. The historic Métis organized their society based on prowess rather than by accidents of birth. The most respected members of Métis Society were the good providers, the hunters, gatherers and farmers.
Government structures were informal, consensual and were called in times of need. There was no chief, but often leaders of the hunt - such as Cuthbert Grant or Gabriel Dumont. When emergencies arose, everybody’s voice was heard and decisions were made collectively.
After 1812, the Red River Valley was remarkably cosmopolitan. Many different cultures intermingled and traded. Of all these groups, the Métis had the largest population from about 1800 until 1885. These eighty-five years of settlement saw the rise of Métis nationalism, numerous resistances, the territory’s entrance into Canada, and the dispersal of the Métis and the dispossession of their land base.
Like their First Nations relatives, most Red River Métis harvested natural resources and took part in the traditional seasonal cycle, hunting and gathering in accordance to the four seasons. Moose, deer, caribou, bison, fish, muskrats, rabbits, beaver and wild rice and berries were harvested and were prepared in First Nations traditions. This traditional subsistence cycle was also supplemented with cereal agriculture and garden vegetables. In this way, many Red River Métis did not become reliant on one single resource. However, some historic Métis became too reliant on the bison.
Traditional Red River Métis Seasonal Cycle - Todd Paquin
Waterfowl (migratory ducks, geese, swans) returning north
Government regulations in 1890s forbid the spring hunting of ducks and partridges.
Mink, otter, beaver and muskrat trapping (traditional pattern)
Moose, deer and elk hunting
Bears hunted and trapped
Maple and birch trees tapped for sap
Bison hunt for purpose of paying off debts with the Hudson’s Bay Company incurred in winter and to restock food supplies.
Wolves, wild chickens, rabbits and coyotes hunted
Blueberries, saskatoons, raspberries, currants, gooseberries, chokecherries
Fishing with nets
Major bison hunt to provision posts and secure winter food supply
Major bison hunt to provision posts and secure winter food supply (continued)
Major moose hunting season
Deer and elk hunting
Spawning fish, such as whitefish and salmon
Mink, otter, beaver and muskrat trapping
Highbush cranberries ripen
Weasel and skunk trapping and hunting
Wolves, wild chickens, rabbits and coyotes hunted
Ice fishing with nets
Fishing between October and December forbidden by government regulations in 1890s
Winter bison hunting camps
Bear hunting and trapping
Country Born Métis
The Country Born were mixed-bloods of First Nations and Anglo-Celtic and Orcadian (from the Orkneys) descent, who lived in or around Hudson’s Bay Company posts or the Protestant parishes of the Red River colony. The Country Born never had a strong collective sense of identity like their Francophone Métis cousins. Often, they had ambivalent feeling towards their mixed heritage. Their fathers usually encouraged their mixed-heritage children to abandon their Aboriginal heritage. However, since their fathers were only in the territory for a short time, the Country Born usually lived among their mother’s bands or in the growing mixed blood communities to the south in the Red River Colony. Many worked in the fur trade, some hunted bison, some farmed and some continued to practice the Aboriginal seasonal cycle. Relations between the Métis and the Country Born were not always cordial, and in times of crisis, the two groups could not agree on a common response.
From their fathers, the Country Born inherited much. They spoke English, Gaelic, or Bunji, which was a mix of Scots Gaelic and Cree. They were devout Presbyterians and Anglicans. They embraced British culture such as Celtic dancing, jigging and fiddling, although they were more dour than their more festive Métis cousins. Most of these families still managed to preserve their Aboriginal identity despite the British colonial society. Such prominent County Born families as the Mackays and Isbisters are a testament to this fact.
The Country Born also experienced racism, especially after European and Euro-Canadian women began to arrive in the Red River Colony. Fur trade employees abandoned their First Nations and Country Born wives for European women in the 1840s. The European women resented that their husbands had relationships with “savage” women, and they ensured that society in Red River would resemble society in Canada or in Britain, where class, gender and race divisions existed. These women were fully Victorian, and had a view of women as the “weaker” and “gentler” sex, a role that their hard-working and bush-living Aboriginal sisters did not quite fit.
Country Born also inherited a great deal from their First Nations heritage. They could still speak Aboriginal languages, including Cree and Saulteaux. Like the Métis, they also served as fur trade labourers, interpreters, guides and liaisons between Europeans and First Nations. The Country Born who more strongly identified with their Aboriginal heritage were more likely to have cordial relations with the Métis, and some Country Born married into Métis families.
Although very similar to one another, the Country Born and the Métis could not build a commonality of purpose, a common will, and an alliance to preserve both their Aboriginal identities. The Country Born were usually more sedentary, and depended on the Hudson’s Bay Company or subsistence farming for their livelihood, while the Métis were more evenly divided between farmers and buffalo hunters.
During the two great Métis resistances (In 1869-70 and 1885), some overtures of friendship and mutual support were made between the Country Born and the Métis, however little became of this proposed alliance. Ultimately, the Country Born shied away from armed conflict. Some families such as the Isbisters got along well with the Métis and supported them in their struggles. Nevertheless, over time, the two communities melded into one.
Today the descendants of the Country Born and Métis constitute the same nation.