Métis Nation river lot plans

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 William Benoit

An oil painting depicting a person on a Red River cart being pulled by an ox on a dirt road. In the background, there is a small white house and two other small buildings.
“Manitobah” settler’s house and Red River cart (c013965k)

Library and Archives Canada holds plans of Métis river lots that the Canadian government produced, as required by the Manitoba Act and the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory. These river lot plans are important pieces in understanding the Métis Nation. The plans are invaluable to the entire Métis Nation because they show where Métis ancestors lived before Canada’s acquisition of the region. While these river lot plans do not include any Michif, they clearly show where this language originated in Red River, and they also delineate the families that spoke this unique Métis heritage language.

A large map showing narrow rectangle river lots and the names of the owners of the lots, written in red ink. At the top of the map is a compass, indicating north.
Plan of river lots in the Parish of Lorette, Province of Manitoba; surveyed by (signed) G. McPhillips, Deputy Surveyor; examined and certified by (signed) A.H. Whitcher, Inspector of Surveys; Dominion Lands Survey Office, Winnipeg, February 16, 1878 (e011213852)

The Métis created settlements across the Métis Nation Homeland. The cradle of this homeland was the Red River Settlement. By 1869, there were 12,000 inhabitants there, of which 10,000 were Métis, and 7,000 of those Métis were children.

King Charles II granted the territory known as Rupert’s Land to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670. This territory comprised all of the land watered by rivers flowing into Hudson Bay. These areas included what is now the whole of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta, southern Nunavut, and northern parts of Ontario and Quebec. In the United States, Rupert’s Land included parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

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 the territory to Canada, under section 146 of the British North America Act, 1867 (now the Constitution Act, 1867), effective July 15, 1870. This was subject to the making of treaties with the sovereign Indigenous nations. They had to provide their consent to the Imperial Crown’s exercising its sovereignty in accordance with the limitations and conditions of the Rupert’s Land documents and the treaties.

The Métis in Red River did not agree with the transfer and were concerned that it would threaten their way of life. They were uneasy about their land rights and their democratic rights under the proposed new regime. The federal government sent out survey parties prior to the transfer of Rupert’s Land. Their surveys were to be carried out in accordance with the Ontario style of survey, in squares, instead of the system of long, narrow lots with river frontage used by the Métis. The new system cut across properties already in existence. On October 11, 1869, proclaiming that the federal government had no right to act without permission, 16 Métis stopped a crew of surveyors on a Métis river lot. This challenge to the way that the Government of Canada conducted these activities served notice that the residents would need to be consulted and have their rights guaranteed.

In November 1869, the Métis seized Upper Fort Garry and established a provisional government. The Métis government drafted a list of demands that Canada had to satisfy before they would accept incorporation into Canada. The result was the Manitoba Act. The Manitoba Act “arrangement” is one of the foundational deals (or compacts) that led to Canada’s expansion westward.

Under the Manitoba Act, the intention was to respect the concern of the Métis for their traditional lands. This took two forms: a provision to protect the existing land holdings of the 3,000 Métis adult landholders (section 32), and a provision to give 7,000 Métis children a “head start” in the province with a land grant of 1.4 million acres (section 31).

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 people. The processing of land under sections 31 and 32 was slow and fraught with corruption. As a result, many Métis sold their promised interests in the land and moved outside of the province that they had helped to create. The 1874 plan of river lots in the parishes of St. Norbert and St. Vital is included below as an example that depicts the early stages of the Métis diaspora. It also documents land speculation by individuals such as Donald Smith of national railway fame, and the Roman Catholic clergy’s attempt to create and maintain a French-speaking enclave in advance of the oncoming wave of immigration.

The Métis river lot maps are very important documents today because they are used to identify and register citizens of the Métis Nation.

A large map showing narrow rectangle river lots and the names of the owners of the lots, written in red ink. A railroad and a river are shown on the map.
Plan of river lots in the parishes of St. Norbert and St. Vital, Province of Manitoba (e011205909)

Visit the Flickr album for images of Métis Nation river lot plans.


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: 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.