By William Benoit
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.
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.