Manitoba: Kwaata-nihtaawakihk—A Hard Birth

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

By William Benoit

The year 2020 marks an important year in the history of Canada. One hundred and fifty years have gone by since the 1870 transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada. It is also the year that Manitoba entered Confederation. This was no small feat. There were discussions as to whether the Canadian government would create a province or just keep it as a vast territory.

The Métis would push Canada toward creating the new province.

Painting of a person holding a riding crop above his head, standing on a sleigh being pulled through the snow by a rearing brown horse.

Breaking a Road in Manitoba (e011072986)

Manitoba would be the first addition to the list of four original Canadian provinces: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There was no template to use. Deep, careful and altruistic thinking about the future should have been the order of the day. Instead, for the Métis, what resulted from the experience were feelings of displacement, trauma and resilience. In post-Confederation Manitoba, the position of the Métis deteriorated. New settlers from Ontario were hostile. Métis elders, over generations, described that period as a “Reign of Terror” against the Métis.

Métis Nation Elder Verna DeMontigny recently described the province-building exercise that led to Manitoba as a hard birth, or Kwaata-nihtaawakihk in the Michif language. It was certainly difficult.

The Supreme Court of Canada, in its 2013 decision in Manitoba Metis Federation Inc. v. Canada, provides a detailed narrative of the Métis people, the Red River Settlement, and the conflict that gave rise to the Manitoba Act and Manitoba’s entry into Canada:

The story begins with the Aboriginal peoples who inhabited what is now the province of Manitoba—the Cree and other less populous nations. In the late 17th century, European adventurers and explorers passed through. The lands were claimed nominally by England, which granted the Hudson’s Bay Company […] control over a vast territory called Rupert’s Land, which included modern Manitoba. Aboriginal peoples continued to occupy the territory. In addition to the original First Nations, a new Aboriginal group, the Métis, arose—people descended from early unions between European adventurers and traders, and Aboriginal women. In the early days, the descendants of English-speaking parents were referred to as half-breeds, while those with French roots were called Métis.

On November 19, 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company surrendered Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory under its letters patent to the British Crown. By Order-in-Council dated June 23, 1870, the British government admitted these territories to Canada, under section 146 of the British North America Act, 1867 (now the Constitution Act, 1867), effective July 15, 1870.

It took almost eight months from the Hudson’s Bay Company surrender until the completed land transfer took full effect.

The Canadian government, led by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, intended to absorb the territories and open them up to settlement. Before this could happen, Canada would need to deal with the Indigenous peoples who were living in these territories. Under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Canada was duty-bound to treat with the sovereign Indigenous nations to obtain their consent to the Imperial Crown to exercise its sovereignty over them. Written more than a hundred years before, the proclamation’s purpose was to organize and manage the newly expanded British North American territories after the Seven Years’ War. Included in the proclamation were regulations to stabilize relations with Indigenous peoples through the regulation of trade, settlement and land purchases on the frontier.

A drawing of people sitting in a circle around a person standing in the middle who is speaking. There is a building with people sitting and standing on the balcony in the background.

The Manitoba Indian Treaty; a chief lecturing at length at the Stone Fort (the Métis man seated on a chair within the circle may be the translator) (e010967476)

Therefore, for the First Nations, the process would be to enter into treaties, whereby they agreed to settlement of their lands in exchange for reservations of land and other promises. The government policy with respect to the Métis was less clear.

A sepia photograph of a town with buildings on either side of a wide dirt road with wagon tracks.

Main Street, Winnipeg, looking south, 1879; the street’s width was to accommodate the space needed for Red River Carts (e011156541)

Prior to confederation with Canada, white settlers had begun pouring into the Red River, displacing the social and political control of the Métis. This led to resistance and conflict. To settle the conflict and assure annexation of the territory, the Canadian government entered into negotiations with representatives of the Métis-led provisional government. The result was the adoption in 1870 of the Manitoba Act, which made Manitoba a province of Canada.

The Manitoba Act is a constitutional document with many treaty-like characteristics. It enshrines the promises and obligations that Canada has to the Métis people. These promises represent the terms under which the Métis agreed to surrender their claims to govern themselves and their territory, and to become part of Canada. These obligations remain in force today.

The Métis Nation is an internationally recognized Indigenous people. In Canada, it is one of three Indigenous groups with constitutionally entrenched Aboriginal and treaty rights, alongside First Nations (“Indians”) and Inuit (“Eskimos”). The Métis Nation Homeland is a vast area of land in west-central North America. The Métis, as the Founders of Manitoba in 1870 and Canada’s negotiating partners in Confederation, continue to play an important role in Canada’s development.

(In Michif: Li Michif Naasyoon nishtowinikaatew oobor lii piyii pi li moond nishtowiinikasowak li moond autochtone. Daan li Canada si te payyek enn band di moond avek lii dray tretii daan li constitution, aloon bor li Promii Naasyoon pi li Ziskimoo. Li Michif Naasyoon Nataal li piyii mitoni kihchi-mishow, li taryaen daan li sawntrel west Nor America. Lii Michif, koum li fondateur di Manitoba daan li 1870 pi Canada’s naasaasyi-iwow di maashkihtonikaywin daan li Confederation, kiiyapit il li enportaan daan li Canada’s oosishchikeywiin.)


William Benoit is the Advisor for Internal Indigenous Engagement in the Office of the Deputy Librarian and Archivist of Canada at Library and Archives Canada.

Manitoba history and the penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry, 1871–1877

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

By David Horky

The records documenting the Manitoba Penitentiary’s beginnings at the “Stone Fort” (Lower Fort Garry), from 1871 to 1877, are almost as old as the province of Manitoba itself and are a testament to the turbulent origins of the new province. Many of the records from this early period of the penitentiary, such as the Inmate Admittance Books, Warden’s Order Books and Surgeon’s Daily Letters, held at the Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), are also available online at Canadiana Héritage. There are also various other documents pertaining to the Manitoba Penitentiary held by LAC or other sources, many of which are accessible online. Together, these records supply details about the penitentiary and some of the inmates themselves, providing a fascinating perspective on Manitoba’s early history immediately following its creation in 1870.

The Stone Fort

A black-and-white photograph of a white building with a dark roof behind a fence.

Fur store, interior of Lower or Stone Fort, 1858 (e011156706); this building housed the original Manitoba Penitentiary and Asylum from 1871 to 1877

The Manitoba Penitentiary was established at Lower Fort Garry in 1871, shortly after Manitoba entered Confederation as the Dominion of Canada’s fifth province in 1870. The fort was originally built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1830 on the western bank of the Red River, 32 kilometres north of the original Fort Garry (in present-day Winnipeg), and it served as a trading centre and supply depot for the Red River settlement.

The Stone Fort had previously been the headquarters for the British and Canadian troops under the command of Colonel Garnet J. Wolseley. This military force was sent by the Canadian government in 1870 to establish peace and maintain order following the Métis-led Red River Resistance that ushered in the creation of the province of Manitoba. Ironically, the Canadian troops, particularly those from Ontario, were widely accused of conducting a “Reign of Terror” (English only) of violence and intimidation with impunity against the Métis of the Red River settlement.

When Wolseley and the British troops vacated the fort in 1871, the Canadian troops were relocated to Upper Fort Garry and the Fort Osborne barracks. One of their number, Samuel L. Bedson, a quartermaster sergeant in the 2nd (Quebec) Battalion of Rifles, remained behind to serve as the first warden of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry.

Within the fort, the stone warehouse was converted into a prison for criminals and an asylum for people living with mental illness. Bars were added to all windows and dormers, the western doorway was blocked up, the eastern door was adapted for prison security, a signal mast and ball were added, and palisades were erected.

No ordinary prisoners: Indigenous inmates and Manitoba’s history, 1871–1877

A two-page ledger with handwritten entries.

Inmate Admittance Book, 1871–1885 (T-11089, Image 810; R942-29-1-E, RG73-C-7)

The number of inmates listed on the admittance register for the first couple of years of the Manitoba Penitentiary’s operations was quite small, only seven. In 1871 and 1872, the crimes listed involved horse theft, petty larceny, theft, and breaking and entering. Even at this early date, the inmates had surprisingly diverse origins: a Swede, a few Americans, an Englishman, some Canadians from Ontario, and a few from the Red River settlement itself. Included in this early listing is a person identified in 1874 as a “lunatic”—a harsh term then used to describe someone living with a mental illness. The penitentiary, both here and at its later location at Stony Mountain, served as an asylum for these people until the opening of the provincial asylum in 1886 in Selkirk, Manitoba, which was the first of its kind in Western Canada.

The admittance register recorded the names, convictions and sentences of this initially small number of inmates. However, other sources provide information about the circumstances leading to their imprisonment. In the case of Indigenous prisoners from First Nations and Métis communities incarcerated at the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry, the context of contemporaneous events within the Red River settlement, and more broadly the Northwest Territories, is especially important.

In fact, the very first inmate listed on the admittance register in May 1871 was John Longbones from the Dakota First Nation, sentenced to two years for “assault with intention to maim.” A few years later in 1873, two other men from his community, Pee-ma-ta-kow and Mc-ha-ha, would be sentenced to prison at Lower Fort Garry for larceny and breaking-and-entering respectively.

The small number of First Nations inmates at Lower Fort Garry at this time reflected the fact that they were being punished for breaking the law—and being caught—within an established settler community. Indeed, at the time, the broader applicability of the law of the Dominion of Canada to the outlying regions of the northwest was not recognized by First Nations peoples, nor was there then a means to enforce it.

On the question of extending the laws of the Dominion of Canada to First Nations communities, the Manitoba Penitentiary was to play a significant, if largely symbolic, role. The Canadian government sought to prepare the way for the orderly settlement of the new province of Manitoba and the recently acquired Northwest Territories. With an increasing number of newcomers arriving from Eastern Canada (particularly Ontario) and abroad, the Canadian government attached great importance to negotiating treaties with First Nations as a key element in establishing “peace, order and good government” in the Canadian West.

A typed page from a government report.

Adams G. Archibald, July 29, 1871, Report of the Indian Branch of the Department of the Secretary of State for the Provinces, 1871 (e18710014)

As fate would have it, the first of these treaties took place under the shadow of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry on July 25, 1871, as the topics of law and punishment became central issues in the negotiations. In a report by the Indian Branch dated July 29, 1871, Adams George Archibald, the first Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, describes his meeting with the Chiefs of the Chippewa and Swampy Cree to negotiate the signing of Treaty No. 1. To his astonishment, the Chiefs were unwilling to proceed until first a “cloud was dispersed.” Archibald learned that the Chiefs were troubled by the imprisonment of a number of their brethren at the Manitoba Penitentiary for breach of contract and desertion of service with the Hudson’s Bay Company. In reply to the Chiefs’ demands for their freedom, Archibald insisted, “every offender against the law must be punished.” Nonetheless, given the importance of the treaty to the Canadian government, he assented to their release, not as a matter of law but as a “favour” extended on behalf of the Crown. Negotiations then resumed, and Treaty No. 1 was signed a few days later on August 3, 1871.

At the same time that the Canadian government was initiating treaties with First Nations, there was also growing concern with continued Métis unrest in the Red River settlement. Angered and frustrated with the Reign of Terror perpetrated by the Canadian militia and with the broken promises over the protection of their rights and land, a small number of Métis allied themselves with a group of Fenians operating across the American border at Pembina (in present-day North Dakota). The Fenians were Irish nationalists living in the United States who sought to capture Canadian territory to exchange for Irish independence from British rule.

In October 1871, a few Métis participated in the Fenian-led raid (English only) on a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Emerson, near the American border. Intended as a prelude to a potentially wider incursion on the entire Red River settlement, the raid was foiled by the intervention of the American cavalry from Pembina. Some captured Métis participants were later taken by Canadian officials to Winnipeg for trial for “feloniously and unlawfully levying war against Her Majesty.”

Only one of these Métis, Oiseau Letendre, is among the small number of inmates recorded on the Manitoba Penitentiary admittance register for 1871. Listed as being from Red River, Letendre actually resided across the American border at Pembina. No reason is given for his incarceration, although it clearly shows that he was given a hefty 20-year sentence. A small note subsequently added indicates that he was later released in 1873 by order of the Governor General.

A lined page with handwritten entries. The words “capital case” and the number 1673 are written at the top.

Oiseau Letendre was tried before Mr. Justice Johnson in a capital case at Fort Garry, Manitoba, for levying war on Her Majesty; the sentence was commuted to [imprisonment] for 20 years, 1871–1872 (e002230571)

Records from his capital case file indicate that Letendre was a buffalo hunter and cart driver on the trails that transported goods between Fort Garry and St. Paul. Letendre had numerous family ties to the Red River settlement and the community of Batoche along the South Saskatchewan River. Consequently, Dominion officials were fearful that Letendre’s opposition to the Manitoba government was not an isolated case, so he was made an example and sentenced to hang. In an act of clemency, Letendre’s sentence was commuted to 20 years by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. However, as Letendre claimed American citizenship, substantial diplomatic pressure was exerted by the United States government for his release. Consequently, Letendre was granted a pardon by the Governor General in January 1873 on the condition of his exile from Canada until the expiry of the 20-year sentence.

Shortly after Letendre’s release, there was another and even more high-profile case involving the arrest and trial of a prominent Métis individual who was also incarcerated at the Stone Fort, though briefly. Ambroise Lépine, Louis Riel’s adjutant in the provisional government, was arrested in September 1873 and tried for his involvement in the execution of Thomas Scott during the Red River Resistance in 1870. Ironically, both he and Riel opposed Métis involvement in Fenian plans to invade the Red River settlement. In fact, while both were still fugitives, they returned surreptitiously in October 1871 to lead volunteer troops from St. Boniface to defend the settlement against the Fenian threat.

After his capture, Lépine was initially conveyed to the Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry for “safe keeping.” It is not clear how long he was incarcerated there, as his imprisonment was not recorded on the inmate admittance register. At some point toward the end of 1873 or the beginning of 1874, Lépine was transferred to the new provincial prison that was being built next to the courthouse in Winnipeg. This is where Lépine’s subsequent trial took place and where he later served his sentence.

Lépine’s trial was followed with intense interest not only in Manitoba, but also throughout the country. As would be the case a dozen years later with Riel’s trial in Regina, Lépine’s trial in Winnipeg also polarized the nation, provoking his condemnation in Ontario while evoking sympathy for his cause in Quebec. And like Letendre, Lépine was initially sentenced to hang. However, the Governor General eventually commuted his sentence to two years but nonetheless revoked his civic rights indefinitely. Later, Lépine was even offered a full amnesty subject to exile for five years, but he refused and served his full sentence, finally obtaining his release in October 1876.

Hand-drawn portraits of four men on a page.

Frontispiece to the book Preliminary Investigation and Trial of Ambroise D. Lépine for the Murder of Thomas Scott, 1874 (a digitized version is available at Internet Archive); Lépine is at the bottom, Riel at the top, and Lépine’s lawyers J.A. Chapleau and Joseph Royal are to the left and right respectively

End of an era

Many of the issues encountered during the early history of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry, reflecting the turbulent origins of the province and its uneasy relations with First Nations and Métis communities, would have wider repercussions as the Canadian government promoted settlement further westward.

By 1877, the Canadian government had negotiated most of the numbered treaties 1 through 7 with First Nations, covering vast portions of the Northwest Territories in present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. This paved the way for the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the advancement of colonial settlement across the Prairies. Conversely, as settlement progressed, the situation of many First Nations became more desperate as their traditional means of securing food supplies were increasingly compromised or—in the case of the bison hunt—had suffered irreversible collapse.

The Métis communities of the Red River settlement were also reeling under the pressure of more settlers pouring into Manitoba from Eastern Canada and abroad. Despite the assurances made in the Manitoba Act, the Métis had suffered from the Reign of Terror conducted by the Canadian Militia and from land swindles perpetrated in the law courts. Consequently, thousands of Red River Métis left Manitoba in the 1870s in a westward diaspora, either joining pre-existing or establishing new Métis communities in present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Perhaps in anticipation of encountering increased trouble in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories from the desperate and dispossessed, the Canadian government took steps to extend the long arm of Canadian law in the northwest. Territorial courts were established for prosecution, and the North West Mounted Police was created for enforcement. Moreover, preparations were being made as early as 1872 to replace the Stone Fort at Lower Fort Garry with a new and larger federal penitentiary to serve as the site of punishment for the entire region.

Thus, the era of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry ended with the completion of the new Manitoba Penitentiary at Stony Mountain in 1878. By this time, Manitoba was also entering a new era in the nation’s history, assuming its role as the “keystone province,” the administrative and logistical centre for all of Western Canada.

The Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada also has many of the records of the Manitoba Penitentiary at Stony Mountain (or Stony Mountain Penitentiary, as it was later called), available online at Canadiana Héritage, but they are deserving of many more, equally fascinating, stories.


David Horky is a senior archivist in the Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada.

Centuries of kinship—Exploring Métis identity through genealogy

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Delia Chartrand

Examining the ancestry of my father, Maurice Emile William Chartrand, has brought me closer to my own Métis roots. I am what could be called “a modern Métis.” I did not grow up on my traditional territory, like my father did on his homestead near Inwood, Manitoba. Rather, I grew up in a small mining town in northern Manitoba. I did not grow up speaking my traditional language. Michif was not an option in our household as my father had long forgotten how to speak what he called “Bush French.”

I did listen to Métis fiddling music at family reunions and to my father’s colourful stories of growing up on the land, but there was not a huge year-round family presence, living as we did, isolated in the North. Over time, many Métis of newer generations have become a more geographically dispersed people, moving farther from our communities and territories. Sometimes I wonder if we are not merely revisiting our atavistic “coureurs des bois” traits, which I assume are built into the DNA of many of us.

A handwritten and typed document

A page of the scrip affidavit for Josephte Chartrand (e000011889)

Studying genealogy has been an important way for younger generations of Métis like me to rediscover their roots and the successive generations of ancestors, both Indigenous and European, who found each other and created a unique people who embraced aspects of both cultures. Prior to the formation of the Métis Nation in the late eighteenth century, patterns emerged in the immigration and migration of European settlers, as well as in the marriage and cohabitation trends amongst settlers and Indigenous cultures. These can be seen when tracing familial roots.

My particular family tree stems from various regions of France, such as Gironde and Picardie. These regions are recognized as common areas of origin for early New France settlers. For example, Jacques Lussier, who was baptized in 1620 in Rouen, Normandy, and Marie Guyon, who was baptized in 1624 in St. Jean de Mortagne, Perche, are among my ancestors.

In New France, long before the Métis Nation coalesced, military alliances with neighbouring First Nations became critical. Those relationships are reflected in my genealogy. The French and Huron initially had a symbiotic relationship by allying themselves against their long-standing opponents: the British Empire and the Iroquois Nations. Evidence of the threat of conflict between the Huron and Iroquois can be found in my genealogy. The passing of my 9th generation grandfather, Nicolas Arendanki, in 1649 is marked by the phrase “Huron tué par les Iroquois” [“Huron, killed by the Iroquois”]. Arendanki’s daughter, Catherine Anenontha/Annennontak would go on to marry French settler Jean Durand dit Lafortune in 1662. The lives of these ancestors demonstrate the conflict among First Nations in the region during the colony’s early years and affirm the practice of marriage between the Huron and French settlers. And while the children of these unions would have been of mixed descent, they were not considered to be Métis.

As French settlers moved farther into the interior of the continent, intermarriage with other First Nations peoples began to occur and tied to these marriages were different social and economic impacts. Marriage records support these findings. Diversity among marriages to women of different Indigenous groups can be found with much frequency among my ancestral grandparents who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In my research, I noticed French men from Quebec marrying various Indigenous women, who were often designated by their first names followed only by a remark regarding their specific Indigenous group ties. Some of these historic terms are no longer in use.

A watercolour painting of two white buildings with a river in the foreground. There are two boats on the river.

St. Boniface, Red River Settlement by William Henry William Napier (c001065k)

In my family, the historical documents state that Laurent Cadotte, baptized in 1766 at Ste-Genevieve-de-Batiscan, Quebec, married Susanne Crise/Cree in St-Boniface, Manitoba; Etienne Boucher married Marie Siouse/Sioux; Pierre St-Germaine married Louise Montagnaise/Chipewyan; and Joseph Rocque married Amerindienne/Amerindian—no first name was given. This movement into the interior and the increased rate of intermarriage indicates many if not all of these individuals were involved in the fur trade. They likely depended on marriage and familial ties to Indigenous groups as a means to solidify their economic stability as they pursued hunting and trapping for furs.

The changing political structures of the nineteenth-century fur trade led to successive generations of mixed heritage families who no longer identified with either an exclusively European or Indigenous cultural framework, but who instead developed their own sense of cultural expression through a coalescence of cultures. This collective of people were referred to as the Métis Nation.

While Métis identity is often linked to certain families of dual descent within Red River, it is important to recognize that there are communities located outside the settlement. One such settlement is St. Laurent, a location on Lake Manitoba in the southwestern part of the province. My family traces its more recent genealogy to St. Laurent. By the late 1820s, those Métis who lived in semi-permanent settlements in that area were uniquely involved in various subsistence patterns, such as fishing and salt production, as a result of the demand for provisions coming from other established posts around them.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the St. Laurent region in Manitoba was permanently settled by four Métis families: the Chartrands, the Pangmans, the Lavallées and the Sayers. The Chartrand and Lavallée surnames are particularly significant to me. The matrilineal line of my father’s genealogy stems from Marie Rose Germaine Lavallée, baptized in St. Laurent in 1918, or Granny as I knew her. The patrilineal line stems from Joseph Gedeon Harvey Chartrand, baptized in 1907 in St. Laurent. Although we never met, I’m told he went by Harvey.

Colour photograph of a man and a young girl smiling at the camera with a white camper and a car in the background.

A contemporary example of Métis kinship. The author is pictured with her father, Maurice Chartrand, circa late 1990s.

There are many variants comprised within the cultural term “Métis.” I wanted to provide a closer look at the development of just one of the unique Métis communities in southern Manitoba. By examining eleven generations in the family tree of my father, Maurice Emile William Chartrand, we can connect to the personal stories of seventeenth-century French immigrants to New France, through to the European traders who migrated into the interior. A specific focus on the marriages occurring over the last four centuries shows the gradual development of just one example of interconnected Métis heritage.

Personally, I like to think about all the grandparents who came before me. How they shared their distinct cultural perspectives and teachings with one another in order to create new communities and unique identities for their children. And I smile a little knowing my parents did the same for me, a self-professed modern Métis.

If you are interested in learning more about your family’s story or your Indigenous identity, you can find more information on Library and Archives Canada’s genealogy pages.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Delia Chartrand is an archivist for the Listen, Hear Our Voices project at Library and Archives Canada.

Mighty Indigenous Warriors: From Egypt to the First World War

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour and Sara Chatfield

When First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation were recruited in 1914 to fight in the First World War, enlistees were not aware of the new reality of 20th-century warfare. As a prelude to the First World War, in 1884, approximately 56 Kanienkenha:ka (Mohawk), 30 Ojibway and 19 Métis men were recruited for Britain’s six-month Nile expedition in Egypt totalling 400 men. The men were chosen for their strength, endurance, and skill in handling boats and rafts—qualities that were needed to navigate up the numerous cataracts and rapids of the Nile River. They did not see active battle, as they arrived two days after the city of Khartoum, Sudan had fallen, and British Major Charles G. Gordon had been killed. The expedition returned with the loss of 16 men and stories of what they had seen. Along their journey on the Nile, they saw monolithic temples and statues carved out of hillsides at Abu Simbel, the Sphinx of Giza, the pyramids, exotic markets and Egyptian life in Cairo.

A black-and-white photograph of a large group of men standing in front of the Parliament buildings.

Canadian voyageurs in front of the Parliament Buildings, a detail from the “Canadian Nile Contingent,” 1884. (c002877)

Three decades later, their next involvement in an overseas military expedition was with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) in the First World War. It was an opportunity for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation soldiers to see the world, and to prove their courage and combat skills. Soldiers were facing a major change in combat style and warfare. The new reality of war involved the use of chemical warfare, machine guns, fighter aircraft, armoured vehicles, and trench warfare.

Our latest Co-lab challenge, Correspondence regarding First Nations veterans returning after the First World War, illustrates some Indigenous peoples’ experiences during the war, touches upon how their communities coped during their absence, and gives information about their lives after they returned home. These documents provide us with information that the Personnel Records of the First World War may not. They offer information such as what the solider planned to do after the war, if he owned land or farm animals, or if he was suited to farming. There is also information about whether the soldier suffered any lingering disabilities, who they lived with, and if they had any dependants.

Created by the former Department of Indian Affairs, these records are unique in that an overseeing federal “Indian Agent” included personal information and comments on the returning First Nations soldiers. In contrast, this was not the case for non-Indigenous soldiers, as no similar sets of records exist for the rest of the CEF.

A page from the “Indian Agent’s Office,” Chippewa Hill, Saugeen Agency, February 14, 1919.

Document from RG10 Vol 6771 file 452-30 sent to Duncan Campbell Scott from T.A. Stout on February 14, 1919, providing information about John Besito. (Image found on Canadiana)

This personal information became part of the federal government files in Ottawa. The records are also unique in that the “Indian Agents” delved into the soldier’s post-service life. The information that was collected included gratuitous private information and personal judgements about the veterans and the civilian lives they returned to. For example, the “Indian Agent’s Office” notes dated February 1919 for Private John Besito from Saugeen Agency, Ontario, state, “He has a location of fifty acres in the Reserve. He has a house and some improvements on his location.”

As well as administrative information, such as CEF regimental numbers and membership in First Nation agencies and bands, these records also give us genealogical information. For example, the names of three deceased soldiers are listed in a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs dated February 12, 1919, written by the “Indian Agent” of the Griswold Agency in Manitoba. The letter states that the deceased soldiers are from Oak River and Oak Lake Reserves. The letter also includes the CEF regimental number of one of the deceased, Private John Taylor, and that the Department of Indian Affairs paid a pension to his wife and two children. Other correspondence informs us that Private Gilbert Moore, who was killed in action on March 24, 1918, left behind parents in poor circumstances and that they applied for a pension; and that Private Thomas Kasto left a mother who received a pension.

A black-and-white studio portrait of a First World War soldier in uniform and holding a rifle.

Photograph of Canadian Expeditionary Forces soldier Michael Ackabee. (e005176082)

As well as providing information about the soldiers who fought with the CEF, these files make reference to women in First Nation communities who provided funds to help with the war effort to organizations such as the Red Cross, the Girls Overseas Comfort Club, and the Canadian Patriotic Fund. Women in the communities knitted socks and made shirts to add to the “comfort boxes” that were mailed to the men overseas. They also fundraised by making beadwork, woven baskets, and quilts to sell at box socials and fairs.

Indigenous soldiers who survived the war often returned home changed, both positively and negatively. Sapper Peter Taylor, a Kahnawake soldier, suffered the rest of his life with complications from mustard gas poisoning until he passed away in 1955. Private Tom Longboat, the Olympic long distance runner from Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, returned home from his duty overseas in France to find his wife had remarried after receiving word that he had been killed.

A black-and-white photograph of two men in First World War military uniforms smiling and buying a newspaper from a young boy. The man on the right is accepting a newspaper from the boy and giving him money in exchange.

Private Tom Longboat, the Onondaga long distance runner, buying a newspaper from a French boy, June 1917. (a001479)

Many who returned home were affected mentally and physically. We give our gratitude for their sacrifices and service, and they will be forever acknowledged, honoured, and respected.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour is a project archivist and Sara Chatfield is a project manager in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division of the Public Service Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Louis Riel’s ill-fated Ottawa journey

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Anna Heffernan

During his lifetime, Louis David Riel was a controversial figure—a leader of two uprisings, regarded as either a hero or a traitor—but today he is recognized for his contributions to the development of the Métis Nation, the province of Manitoba, and Canada. In 1992, he was named a founder of Manitoba, and in 2016, he was recognized as the province’s first leader. Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been celebrated as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a rich selection of materials relating to Louis Riel and the movements he led. The We Are Here: Sharing Stories project digitizes Indigenous-related materials in LAC’s collections. One of our priorities is to digitize the documentary legacy of Riel to make it more accessible to Métis Nation communities and researchers. While Riel is one of Canada’s most famous historical figures, some aspects of his life story are less known.

Most Canadians will recall that Louis Riel led the Red River Resistance in 1869–1870. At this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their rights to Rupert’s Land, granted to them by the British Crown, to the Dominion of Canada. Métis Nation and First Nations peoples who traditionally inhabited the area did not recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claim to the land, and therefore saw this as an illegitimate sale. In response to the sale of their homelands, Louis Riel and his colleagues formed a provisional government, pictured below, at Fort Garry.

A black-and-white photograph of 14 men, arranged in three rows (the front two rows sitting and the back row standing), with Louis Riel seated in the centre.

Louis Riel (centre) with the councillors of the provisional government in 1870 (a012854)

However, not everyone supported Riel’s provisional government. A group of Ontario settlers were captured by the provisional government’s forces while preparing to attack Fort Garry. One of the group, Thomas Scott, was executed for insubordination on March 4, 1870. Despite this incident, negotiations with Canada continued, and Riel successfully negotiated the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. When the negotiations were complete, a military expedition was sent from Ontario to enforce Canadian control over Manitoba. Many in Ontario viewed Riel as a traitor and murderer for the execution of Thomas Scott. Fearing for his life, Riel fled to St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the less-well-known stories of Louis Riel’s life is his ill-fated journey to Ottawa. In 1873, Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba, and he was re-elected twice in 1874. Riel travelled to Ottawa to take his seat, but his foray into federal politics was to be short-lived. His attempt to sit in the House of Commons is documented in our collection by some interesting material. The first item is the test roll bearing his signature, pictured below, which every Member of Parliament signed upon taking the oath.

Page with six columns of signatures. Louis Riel’s signature is seen at bottom right.

Caption: Page from the House of Commons test roll signed by Louis Riel (e010771238)

Going to Ontario at this time was an enormous risk for Riel. After the execution of Thomas Scott, Ontarians reacted with anger—particularly Protestants, because Scott had been a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization. In response, the premier of Ontario offered a $5,000 reward for Riel’s capture, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. In Parliament, a motion to expel Riel was brought by Mackenzie Bowell, an Orangeman from Ontario. The motion passed, and Riel would not return to the House of Commons, despite being re-elected a third time. The second piece of material relating to Riel’s journey to the capital is the photograph below. Before leaving hastily, Riel had his photograph taken in Ottawa, inscribed with the caption “Louis Riel, MP.”

Sepia-tone vignette photograph of Louis Riel facing the camera, with handwritten inscription underneath reading “Louis Riel, MP.”

Caption: Studio portrait taken in Ottawa after Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba (e003895129)

In 1875, Riel went into exile in the United States. From 1879, he lived in Montana Territory, where he married Marguerite Monet, dite Bellehumeur, in 1881. They had three children. He followed the buffalo hunt and worked as an agent, trader, woodcutter and later teacher. Riel returned to Canada, to Batoche in what is now Saskatchewan, in July 1884.

The test roll and the photograph of Riel in Ottawa are examples of how even some of the small items in our collection can illuminate moments in Canadian history. By researching and digitizing more of the Indigenous documentary heritage in our collections, we aim to share the stories not only of famous figures like Riel but also of many other Indigenous people in Canada.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

Guest curator: Adam Gaudry

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


The Selkirk Treaty, 1817

Image of the Selkirk Treaty, a large handwritten document with the Europeans’ signatures and Chiefs’ marks at the bottom.

The “Selkirk Treaty”, July 18, 1817, signed by the undersigned Chiefs and warriors of the Chippewa or Saulteaux Nation and of the Killistino or Cree Nation and the Rt. Hon. Thomas, Earl of Selkirk, for King George III. (MIKAN 3972577)

Lord Selkirk saw Canada as the next big thing in farming. His vision included Scottish and Irish settlers. It excluded the land’s First Nations peoples and the Métis.


Tell us about yourself

In my academic life, I research Métis identity and political history. This means that a lot of my writing is focused on 19th-century Métis communities. I’m interested in how Métis viewed the major social, economic, and political forces that shaped their lives and how they organized themselves to influence (and thrive in) a changing prairie west. I’m Métis, and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Black-and-white photo of Thomas Douglas dressed in a black jacket, white waistcoat, and white cravat.

Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk (1771–1820). (MIKAN 3526168)

The Selkirk Treaty of 1817 was an agreement between Lord Selkirk—a land-speculating Scottish Earl and major Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) shareholder—and the Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg (Cree and Saulteaux) in the Red River Valley of what is now southern Manitoba. It allowed for the settlement of Scottish settlers in exchange for a substantial amount of tobacco as “an annual present,” or as Anishinaabe saw it, rent.

Before 1817, Selkirk had tried to settle the land without the permission of local Indigenous peoples by way of a land purchase from the HBC. The pretension to own this 116,000 square mile tract over which he had no presence or influence over was understandably infuriating for those who did in fact “own” the land. Between 1812 and 1816, substantial complaints were raised by many Indigenous leaders, dismissing the absurdity of an unknown outsider claiming to own their territory and threatening action against any outsider who would settle their lands.

This opposition was most pronounced among the bois-brûlés, the “New Nation” of the northwest, who would soon call themselves the Métis. Indigenous communities were also nestled in a complex network of alliances that linked them to two rival fur trading companies—the pro-settlement HBC and the anti-settlement North-West Company, the latter which had significant overlap in membership with the bois-brûlé leadership. In the summers of 1815 and 1816, bois-brûlé soldiers dispersed Selkirk’s first settlers and actively barred outside settlers in the Red River Valley. On June 19, 1816, the bois-brûlé emerged victorious from a spontaneous engagement with HBC servants, killing 21 of them, then seizing their fort, and later Selkirk’s settlement at Red River. While Métis weren’t party to this treaty with Selkirk in 1817, Métis agitation over 1815–1816 was a major motivator in the treaty’s negotiation, and it nonetheless shaped Métis-HBC relations for generations afterwards.

Watercolour of the fight showing the two sides armed with guns facing each other across a field under a cloudy blue sky. One side is mostly unmounted white HBC employees and the other side is mounted Métis and North-West Company employees.

The Fight at Seven Oaks, June 19, 1816, by Charles William Jefferys. (MIKAN 2835228)

Given the failure of Selkirk’s settlement to win favour with the prevailing political powers in the Red River Valley by 1816, Selkirk undertook the long journey to the region to bring about some form of resolution of the hostility. He thus negotiated with local Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg to gain permission to settle Scottish families at Red River, in exchange for substantial annual presents that he called “quitrent.” While the treaty was understood by all involved as allowing for peaceable settlement by outsiders, there was little consensus on what the treaty meant in terms of land ownership. For years afterwards, Selkirk and the HBC claimed that the treaty assured the surrender of Indigenous lands to Selkirk and the Company. For Indigenous peoples, it established a long-term rental agreement that recognized them as the landlords while bringing new people into their country, it provided generous annual gifts for Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg, and it solidified a new alliance with a powerful aristocrat. The Selkirk Treaty is important because the document shows that when attempting to gain ownership of the Red and Assiniboine River watersheds, British leaders needed to navigate ongoing Indigenous title via treaty if they wished to settle their subjects there.

The account of the treaty written down by Selkirk’s entourage is itself fascinating in its inherently contradictory language and confused terminology. Indeed, both of the above interpretations can be pulled from its text. However, it’s my opinion that if read critically, this treaty recognizes Indigenous peoples as “landlords” of the Red River Valley, relying upon feudal language to describe a tenancy relationship that would have been obvious to a Scottish nobleman.

The document is seemingly contradictory. On the one hand the document states that the Nehiyaw and Anishinaabe chiefs agreed with Selkirk “to give, grant and confirm unto our Sovereign Lord the King, all that Tract of Land adjacent to Red River and Assiniboyne River” for “the use of the said Earl of Selkirk, and of the Settlers being established there.” But on the other hand, it states that Selkirk would “annually pay to the Chiefs and Warriors” an annual “Present or Quitrent” of “one hundred pounds of good and merchantable Tobacco” from Selkirk, his heirs, and successors.

What I think is particularly telling in this regard is the language describing this exchange as a quitrent relationship. A common custom in Selkirk’s day, quitrent was a feudal practice in which a tenant farmer paid an annual fixed rent on the land that a peasant farmer occupied, which released him from all other duties owed to his lord. Older feudal conventions required peasants to contribute labour towards public works and military duties defined by their lord. But by the 19th century, in order to maximize their profitability, many estates consolidated all of these various feudal duties into fixed quitrents, or regular payments that replaced all other obligations. As a feudal institution, quitrent explicitly recognized the ownership of the land by the feudal lord as well as institutionalized a specific feudal relationship between lord and tenant. It was generally known in the 19th century that quitrent did not transfer the land title to the tenant and the land remained the property of the feudal lord. Being himself a land-owning nobleman in Scotland, the language of quitrent would have been a concept Selkirk and his associates understood intuitively. Thus, Selkirk also describes a relationship in which he gave an annual quitrent, 100 lbs. of merchantable tobacco, to his landlords in exchange for a right to settle tenant Scottish farmers on the lands around the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Such an interpretation is also consistent with how Anishinaabe chiefs understood the treaty. Chief Peguis, one of the treaty’s signatories, was adamant that the treaty outlined an annual rental agreement for this tract of land. In 1859, Peguis gave a formal statement, recounting that “no final bargain was made; but that it was simply a loan… I say positively the lands were never sold.” And according to Manitoba historian J.M. Bumsted, Peguis’ son, Henry Prince, likewise told a Métis assembly in 1869 that “the land had only been leased and the annual gratuity now paid…by the HBC was part of the rental.” From the perspective of Peguis and his son, the treaty did nothing to change the ownership of the land in the Red River Valley, which continued to rest with the Indigenous peoples rather than with Selkirk, the Company, or the Crown. Indeed, since Selkirk was the one paying an annual quitrent; he was in the tenant role, in other words, Indigenous peoples were his landlords.

Selkirk in attempting to secure ownership and title of Indigenous lands through treaty-making, intentionally or not, ended up reinforcing Indigenous ownership of the land he wished to settle. Likely this was all he could do in an era of Indigenous political and military ascendency in the West. Having had his countrymen routed by a bois-brûlé party the summer before, he wasn’t exactly in a position to demand control of Indigenous lands, and Indigenous peoples have never been willing to surrender their land and their independence to others. Selkirk’s treaty is therefore an important reminder of Indigenous political power in the early 19th century. It was bois-brûlé power that forced Selkirk to negotiate and it was the Nehiyawak and Anishinaabeg who navigated Selkirk through a terrain of Indigenous power and diplomacy. Selkirk was only able to gain permission to settle his countrymen on Indigenous land in exchange for an annual quitrent, due to those who assumed the role of the country’s landlords. Thus this treaty is a record of a negotiation that initially sought the surrender of Indigenous lands, but Selkirk only succeeded in reinforcing Indigenous political and territorial primacy, by recognizing the ongoing ownership of others to the lands he wished were his own.

A thin line outlines Selkirk’s grant on the map of Assiniboia.

Map of 1817 Showing Lord Selkirk’s Grant of 116,000 Square Miles known as Assiniboia Including the Forts in The Five Forts of Winnipeg by George Bryce, ca. 1885. (AMICUS 5279616)

A map of the Red River settlement depicting the railway, settlements, and forts. A legend across the bottom lists the different points on the map.

Red River Settlement Facsimile of Section of Map 1818 in Lord Selkirk’s Colonists: the Romantic Settlement of the Pioneers of Manitoba by George Bryce, ca. 1909–1910 (AMICUS 5614009)

Canadians are usually taught to see treaties as documents intended to induce Indigenous peoples to surrender their rights and title, much in the way that Selkirk attempted in 1817. But the history of diplomacy on this continent is both ancient and complex. Rarely, (if ever) did Indigenous peoples see treaties with European empires as alienating land or jurisdiction. Instead treaties, like this one, sought to work out new ways for different peoples to benefit from each other’s presence on the same territory. Selkirk and his settlers were being welcomed into a new place to share in the bounty of the prairie landscape—for a price—and this also involved an ongoing recognition of the original inhabitants of the territory and ensuring that they too would benefit from the increased presence of Europeans. This treaty should remind us that the Indigenous peoples who negotiated these agreements were both powerful and sophisticated diplomats and able to force European negotiators to accept the norms of Indigenous diplomatic systems.

There are also pitfalls to viewing Indigenous-British treaty-making as rooted primarily in land cession and Indigenous disempowerment. Treaties were negotiated in public and in front of large audiences in ways that would ensure accountability moving forward. In these cases those present could remember what was discussed, what was agreed to, and of course what was not. In most cases, Indigenous peoples did not discuss, let alone agree to the permanent alienation of their lands. Much like Peguis and Henry Prince they remember only agreeing to share the bounty of their lands with new allies. Treaties like this sought mutual benefit, not restructuring political relations along lines of massive political inequality. If we view treaties as cession documents—not living, breathing agreements—we miss their purpose, indeed, this is why Selkirk’s treaty—indeed all Indigenous-Crown treaty-making—is so poorly understood. Most historians of the prairie west have long failed to understand either Indigenous motivations or the Indigenous diplomatic context in which negotiations were taking place. By first listening to Indigenous voices—past and present—that understand things differently, and secondly, permitting Indigenous voices the authority to narrate our own histories and political relationships, we’ll get a fuller, more accurate view of history.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

The same issue emerges when attempting to understand Indigenous-Crown treaties that follow Selkirk’s treaty in the West. The Numbered Treaties (Treaties 1-11, negotiated 1871–1921) are also said to have extinguished Indigenous title to the lands, turning it over the Crown—a claim that Indigenous peoples deny, arguing that no such discussion occurred and that their ancestors never agreed to such a thing. So much of this seems rooted in the imperial mentality that Indigenous peoples are too primitive and unsophisticated to have either understood what was being negotiated or were duped by more sophisticated agents of the Crown. These assumptions are both baseless and grounded in a normalized racism reinforced by generations of Canadian colonial practice. As Selkirk’s treaty shows, Indigenous peoples were well aware of what Europeans wanted, and were able to exert their own influence on events, meaning that treaty negotiations were just that—negotiations.

In later treaty-making, Indigenous peoples also were successful in guiding negotiations within their well-established diplomatic traditions. They negotiated the entry of new settlers onto their territory in exchange for ongoing annual presents which would recognize their ongoing stake in the territory. While the Numbered Treaties are still viewed as cession documents by the federal and provincial governments, Indigenous intellectuals take a different (and nearly unanimous) view that these agreements established an enduring relationship that recognizes Indigenous rights and title, rather than extinguishing them. As Canadians are beginning to think more critically of these agreements, developing a better framework from which to approach Indigenous-Canada and Indigenous-Crown relations is paramount.

A critical reading of the treaty documents in conjunction with the written records of the negotiation and the oral tradition is vital. Like Selkirk’s treaty, it is possible to read one line of an official document and assume that it eliminated Indigenous rights and title forever, but we must also go much deeper and understand the sophisticated new relationships being envisioned by all involved. Historians in particular have an obligation to take a broader view of these relationships and engage a broader archive of sources, some of which may not have been written down. In an era of reconciliation, intellectuals must look beyond standard accounts and standard approaches to narrating those accounts. Indigenous peoples have long held different histories about these events, and Canadian intellectuals must take those seriously. Critical readings of these events will allow us to see beyond the contemporary colonial context to see the different relationships envisioned by our ancestors in how we were to live together. Treaties, like the Selkirk Treaty, all provide guidelines for just relationships and co-existence—we just need to look more carefully at them, in order to realize that vision.

Biography

A colour photograph of a young man wearing a white shirt and tie, sitting in a field.

Adam Gaudry, credit Amanda Laliberté

Adam Gaudry, Ph.D., is Métis and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. His research explores 19th-century Métis political thought, the formation of a Metis-Canada treaty relationship in 1870, and the subsequent non-implementation of that agreement. This project argues for the ongoing existence of a “Manitoba treaty” between the Métis people and Canada that necessitates the maintenance of a respectful and bilateral political relationship between the treaty partners. This work is being revised for publication as a book. He received his Ph.D. from the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria, and his MA in Sociology and BAH in Political Studies from Queen’s University. For his doctoral research on historic Métis-Canada relations, he received the Henry Roe Cloud Dissertation Writing Fellowship at Yale University. He is also a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded Métis Treaties Research Project. He has published articles in Native American and Indigenous Studies, the Wicazo Sa Review, aboriginal policy studies, and the Canadian Journal of Native Education along with chapters in edited collections on Métis identity, research ethics, and methodology.

Related Resources:

  • Library and Archives Canada. Treaties, Surrenders and Agreements
  • M. Bumsted, Fur Trade Wars: The Founding of Western Canada, Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, c1999. AMICUS 20975923
  • M. Bumsted, The Red River Rebellion. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, c1996. AMICUS 15446457
  • Sharon Venne, “Understanding Treaty 6: An Indigenous Perspective,” Pp. 173–207 in Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equity, and Respect for Difference, Michael Asch, ed., UBC Press, c1997. AMICUS 15883635
  • Michael Asch. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, University of Toronto Press: 2014. AMICUS 42148617

Do you have Indigenous ancestry? The census might tell you

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

Many individuals do genealogical research to determine whether they have an Aboriginal branch in their family tree. For some, this is simply to confirm or disprove a family story. For others, the research is connected to self-identity, empowerment, possible registration in Aboriginal organizations or funding connected to self-identification.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) cannot make any determination about whether you are Aboriginal, but our documents can assist in your research.

Sadly, sometimes, our family stories are just that—stories. Likewise, family photographs may lead us to make false assumptions. Are we seeing something that is not really there?

You might find the answer in census returns.

Identifying First Nation, Métis or Inuit in historical census returns

Seeking an understanding of Aboriginal identity through family histories and genealogical research can be a challenging task in Canada. Two systems of definitions exist—one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice. Continue reading

Is self-identification essential to being Métis?

Creating item level descriptions for materials entrusted to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is a serious task and staff work diligently to ensure such descriptions are useful. To assist researchers, descriptions must be as complete as possible.

There is a common belief among those researching LAC’s Aboriginal material that the institution can always clearly identify such material by group, place and date. Unfortunately, when an item is entrusted to LAC, this level of detail is often missing; whenever possible, however, LAC provides supplementary information.

The Métis pose an additional challenge. While we can easily identify Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont as Métis and describe related records accordingly, not all Métis individuals publicly self-identify as Métis. So, are they really Métis? Continue reading

Project Naming is Expanding!

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

In early 2002, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) teamed up with the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, to create Project Naming. The goal was to digitize photographs of Inuit from present-day Nunavut in LAC’s photographic collections in order to identify the people depicted in the images. At the time of the launch, LAC expected that the project would be concluded the following year. We never imagined that this initiative would become such a successful and popular project with the public.

To mark the annual National Aboriginal History Month in June 2015, LAC is pleased to announce the launch of Project Naming. While the project still includes communities located in Nunavut, it will be expanded to Inuit living in Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories), Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Labrador), as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada. Project Naming: 2002–2012 will still be available online, but new content will only be added to the new project site.

Project Naming: 2002–2012 began with the digitization of 500 photographs from the Richard Harrington fonds. Since then, LAC has digitized approximately 8,000 photographs from many different government departments and private collections. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support from Inuit and non-Inuit researchers, nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified, and this information along with the images is now available in the database.

Over the years, LAC has received many wonderful stories and photographs from members of the public who have reconnected with their family and friends through the photographs. Among these was a photograph shared by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society that organized several community slide shows during the winter of 2011. Mona Tigitkok, an Elder from Kugluktuk, discovered her photograph as a young woman during one of these gatherings.

Colour photograph of an elderly Inuit woman wearing a fur-trimmed floral parka posing in front of a screen with a slide projection of her photograph when she was a young woman, taken at a community hall.

Mona Tigitkok posing with a picture of herself taken more than 50 years ago, Kugluktuk, Nunavut, February 2011. Credit: Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

Author and historian, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, has used Project Naming, both personally and professionally. In her words:

I was first introduced to Project Naming a few years ago through my work in the Inuit heritage field, but there is also a personal connection for me—the database allows people to search by communities in Nunavut so I’ve discovered photographs of relatives and community members.

It was not uncommon in the past for photographers not to name the subjects of images. Often photo captions were simply “group of Eskimos” or “native woman” and so on. One afternoon, over tea, I showed some of the photographs from the Project Naming database to my mother, Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster, and we were able to add a few names to faces from our home community of Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq). I felt a sense of satisfaction in identifying unnamed individuals in photographs and providing names to replace nondescript captions provided by the photographer. In a sense, when we do this we are reclaiming our heritage.

Photograph of a young Inuit woman wearing a turtle neck sweater looking away from the camera.

Photograph of the late Betty Natsialuk Hughson (identified by her relative Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster). Taken in Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, 1969 (MIKAN 4203863)

Project Naming allows people to not only identify individuals in images, but to add information including corrections to the spelling of names in an online form. It is well worth checking out the database, especially with an Elder, because seeing the image opens up discussion.

As part of my work I manage a Facebook page Inuit RCMP Special Constables from Nunavut to acknowledge the contributions of our Inuit Specials and pay tribute to them. Last year I posted a portrait photograph that I found on the Project Naming database of Jimmy Gibbons, taken in Arviat in 1946. Special Constable Gibbons was a remarkable man who joined the RCMP in 1936 and retired to a pension in 1965. This post was met with many enthusiastic likes, shares and comments from S/Cst. Gibbons’ descendants saying that he was their father, uncle or great-grandfather. Some people also simply said “thank you.” Shelley Ann Voisey Atatsiaq proudly commented, “No wonder I wrote earlier that I highly respect the R.C.M.P. I’ve got some R.C.M.P-ness in my blood. Thank you for sharing!”

Black-and-white photograph of a close-up of an Inuit man wearing a knitted vest and tie standing outside.

Jimmy Gibbons, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Special Constable, Arviat, Nunavut, August 1, 1946 (MIKAN 4805042)

For more information about the history of the project, read the article Project Naming / Un visage, un nom, International Preservation News, No. 61, December 2013, pp. 20–24.

As with the first phase of the project, LAC wants to hear from you through The Naming Continues form.

Start your search for Aboriginal content

The North-West Rebellion (North-West Resistance)

There are few historical events in our national story that solicit stronger opinions and create more debate than the disputes of 1870 and 1885 between the Métis in Western Canada and the Government of Canada. Various names refer to these two series of events, and their usage often reflects the loyalties, opinions and even biases of the user. Today, we see the application of such terms as rebellion, resistance, insurgency and disputes.

A cartoon drawing of Louis Riel with an angel’s wings, a devil’s tail, and a halo overhead but off to the side. He has the stem of a maple leaf in his mouth, as if it were a blade of grass.

Louis Riel portrayed as a devil with angel wings, by Dale Cummings (MIKAN 3018796)

Arguably, the debate on the events of 1870 and 1885, Louis Riel, and the place of the Métis in our history and contemporary Canadian society has had an enduring effect on our national psyche. In March, 1885, an article published in The Globe of Toronto stated: “It is not given to every man to have caused two rebellions. In the history of the Dominion, Sir John Macdonald and his friend Riel alone have won that distinction.”

A black-and-white reproduction of a newspaper clipping from The Globe of Toronto in 1885. It is an article about the North-West Rebellion.

A newspaper clipping from The Globe of Toronto, 1885 (MIKAN 521291)

To put things into context, the 1870s saw the disappearance of the bison herds, pushing many First Nations peoples to near starvation. As for the Métis, the loss of the bison on which they also depended brought hardship that was further compounded by the end of the fur trade.

The Métis of the North-West Territories felt that the established North-West Council failed to represent their interests. They sought assurances from Ottawa that the titles to their river-lot homesteads and farms would be guaranteed in advance of any large-scale influx of settlers.

The Métis sent more than 70 petitions to Ottawa in an attempt to address these grievances, none of which were responded to. In the eyes of the Métis, the federal government was indifferent to any attempt to redress territorial grievances and protect occupant rights.

Frustrated white settlers newly arrived in the North-West Territories were also waiting for their property titles, as they were necessary for obtaining loans to improve their farms. At the same time, widespread dissatisfaction with the First Nations treaties and rampant poverty prompted Chief Big Bear, of the Plains Cree, to attempt to renegotiate the terms of the treaties. Hence, the First Nations issues and grievances were largely unrelated to those of the Métis and white settlers apart from their commonly held belief of a neglectful, distant and imperial Ottawa.

As a result, the Métis decided to resist any subsequent actions by the federal government. When Louis Riel organized an “illegal” provisional government, it incited Ottawa to assert its sovereignty in the North-West Territories.

A black-and-white print taken from The Illustrated London News, 1885. The sketch shows a column of soldiers marching through a winter landscape.

The Rebellion in the North-West Territories of Canada: Colonial troops marching over the ice of Nipigon Bay, Lake Superior, from The Illustrated London News, 1885 (MIKAN 2933970)

The North-West Rebellion (or North-West Resistance) was a violent, five-month uprising against the Canadian government, fought mainly by Métis militants and their First Nations allies.

A pen-and-ink drawing over pencil depicting a wooded battle scene with the Métis behind a barricade firing against the approaching British army. The Métis are greatly outnumbered.

Battle of Batoche, 1885, by Charles William Jefferys (MIKAN 2835223)

With the Métis defeat at the Battle of Batoche (in present-day Saskatchewan), the North-West Resistance had essentially ended. For many, including Louis Riel and Chief Big Bear, the consequences were swift and direct.

A black-and-white photograph of a man seated, wrapped in a blanket. He is looking directly at the viewer.

Chief Big Bear, 1886, by William Topley (MIKAN 3358338)

Métis and First Nations communities would suffer severe and lasting consequences from the events of 1885. In addition, relations between the French and the English and the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of Canada would be set back for years to come.