Metis Family Networks and the Invention of the Canadian West
Updated: May 16
The Red River settlement was inhabited for most of the nineteenth century by Metis, descendants of First Nations women and European fur traders. After Canada acquired Red River in 1870, the community abruptly relocated. Historians continue to debate the reasons for their dispersal: some argue that the Metis were cheated out of their land, others that they migrated in pursuit of economic incentives to the West, others claim that the Metis failed to adapt to a new social order. I engage with this debate by considering changing conceptions of space and family in both Metis and Euro-Canadian society. Colonization imposed new models of gender and space on the prairies, leading to the invention of the Canadian West. The Metis adapted thanks to expansive, interconnected, and mobile networks of trade and family. But the core, racist hostility of the Canadian colonial project towards Metis syncretism consistently threatened the Metis, leading to their dispersal and, often, their assimilation.
“Metis” is a contentious historical category demanding some theoretical orientation. The Metis are traditionally characterized as biological and cultural hybrids of First Nations and European colonials. Popular histories usually accept this implied binary, positioning the Red River Metis as a midpoint between agrarian Canadian settlement and the “primitive” fur trading First Nations. But according to Brenda Macdougall, describing the Metis “as the physical manifestation of a ‘middle ground’ between Indians and Europeans” erases the specificities of Metis society. In fact, their “very existence abrogates the relevancy of the [racial] classification structure.” Following Macdougall, this essay treats Metis identity as distinct, dynamic, Indigenous, and syncretic. Historians also sometimes adopt Euro-Canadian linguistic and religious divisions to categorize the Metis; they often refer to Francophone-Catholic “Métis” and Anglophone-Protestant “hybrids.” These distinctions are significant but not encompassing, so for the purposes of this essay, Metis — without an accent — refers to interconnected English and French-speaking communities of mixed descent.
Gender defined the early fur trade society from which the Metis emerged. Very few European women ever participated in this society, but First Nations women were integral to it. Marriages connected the First Nations that hunted for furs and their European buyers. Indigenous women made moccasins, snowshoes, and pemmican essential to the long-distance winter journeys of European traders. They also leveraged their economic value to preserve the autonomy that First Nations women enjoyed relative to European women. These marriages occurred outside of the supervision of European ecclesiastical authority. Fur traders traveled often, so marriages rarely adhered to European religious and moral strictures; marriage ceremonies also combined Indigenous and European traditions, further distancing these relationships from the European standard. Rather than being subsumed into colonial society, First Nations women integrated their families, particularly their children, into their homeland. Family ties facilitated the relative equality, interdependency, and cultural exchange of European-First Nations contacts in the early days of the fur trade.
By the nineteenth century, the prairies began to transform in the British imperial imagination. In colonist propaganda, landscape painting, and travel writing, the land changed from a wilderness to a fertile agricultural frontier ready for the vanguard of civilization. In this framework, First Nations were an anachronism; the Metis could perhaps be integrated, if they left behind their fur trading roots. Race reified as the Metis settled into subsistence farming around the Red River. The Anglican Church Missionary Society worked to Christianize the region. They contrasted “permanent” settlement and “Christian” families to the unchurched marriages and mobile life of the fur trade. British women arrived in small numbers by the 1830s. Coming straight from the highly stratified upper-class British society, they showed open contempt for people whose lifestyle or race did not match the ideal of British civilization. British women became prized status symbols for Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) officers, challenging the status of Indigenous men and women in fur trade society. The HBC held a monopoly on the fur trade, so opportunities for Metis men were limited to working for or selling fur through the company. Their employment prospects deteriorated as racial hierarchies became rigid. James Sutherland, a European employed by the company and married to an Indigenous woman, complained that although his sons “got a better Education than I had when I came to this country […] it will be no use to them.”
Indigenous and British women actively competed for social capital. In the late 1840s, after numerous conflicts between intolerant British wives and Metis and First Nations wives, even Governor George Simpson, a supporter of Canadian colonization, had to intervene in favour of the old order. He declared that “European ladies can seldom accommodate themselves to the want of society in Hudson’s Bay and affect a supercilious air of superiority over the native wives and daughters of gentlemen in the country”. He instead recommended that officers look for wives among the Metis women from the Red River settlement. Simpson's decision exemplifies how Canadian ideas of Metis hybridity reinforced racial hierarchies: he presented Metis women as a happy medium between civilized white women and uncivilized First Nations women. But the pressure prompting his decision stemmed from the fact many HBC officers valued their Metis and First Nations wives, recognized their economic contributions, and would not endure attacks on their families. Besides, the HBC benefitted from protecting the status quo — and their monopoly — in Rupert’s Land, so they could not yet embrace the “civilizing” mission that British women represented.
The archive privileges interactions between Euro-Canadian and Metis society, but the Metis also interacted regularly with nearby First Nations. In the Red River region, the Metis and Salteaux maintained distinct communal identities, but the identities of individuals overlapped and shifted situationally. They intermarried and collaborated to fish, hunt buffalo, and trade across a vast territory. Men from both groups worked as seasonal labourers for the HBC and even mutinied together because of poor working conditions. They escaped punishment through shared knowledge of the land and shared family networks. Despite the Euro-Canadian emphasis on permanent settlement and the Metis adoption of subsistence agriculture, Metis identity was not attached to a plot of land. Rather, they identified with the territory and people encompassed by their familial and economic network — including, but not limited to, First Nations across the prairies.
The unique qualities of Metis society helped it adapt to new economic opportunities. In the 1840s, the U.S. army’s demand for buffalo robes offered a huge market for Metis hunters and traders who circumvented the HBC monopoly. Metis and First Nations women prepared the buffalo hides, so they were directly integrated into this growing economy. Some Metis couples began relocating over winter to semi-permanent settlements to the west for better hunting. As the fur trade expanded westward, so did the family networks of the Red River Metis. As happened between early fur traders and First Nations women, Metis women already in the region economically integrated men from the Red River. Many new Metis families in the English River District in northwest Saskatchewan included fathers from the Red River by the 1860s. In addition, the English River District community maintained familial and economic ties with Cree and Dene in the region. By expanding their role in the fur trade, the Red River Metis simultaneously adapted to an increasingly capitalist economy and strengthened their Indigenous connection to the land.
As the economic historian Irene Spry observed, the buffalo hunt transformed the environment from a shared resource to a competitive one. Hunters moved farther west each year to keep up with demand. By the late 1860s, as Canada looked to annex the Red River, land was on the brink of transforming again, this time into property. Settlers from Ontario arrived in Red River hoping to claim squatter’s rights. They were hostile to the Metis, believing that the future of the prairies was Euro-Canadian. When a Canadian government survey party arrived in 1869 the growing fears of the Metis erupted into the Red River Rebellion, led by the charismatic Louis Riel. Canada eventually agreed to negotiate with the rebels. Their negotiations culminated in the passage of the Manitoba Act of 1870.
The Manitoba Act drastically redefined the space of the Red River settlement and precipitated the dispersal of the Metis by making the region Canada’s fifth province. The Metis with Riel claimed collective ownership of land as an alternative to Indian title. Their claim stemmed from the fact that they were “descendants of the original lords of the soil”. This right was based on matrilineal descent; First Nations and Metis women rooted them as a community to the land. Instead, Metis individually received scrip redeemable for land or money. The Manitoba Act extinguished their Indian title and reduced the Metis claim to private property that could be acquired by Euro-Canadians. Scrip facilitated the dispossession of the Metis while racially justifying it — the Metis were simply too primitive to succeed in a competitive market.
Metis life in the Red River settlement soon became exceedingly difficult. Racist settlers from Ontario picked fights in the street. Convoluted scrip systems prevented Metis — particularly those that spent their winters hunting buffalo — from legally claiming the land they lived on. Depredated buffalo stocks and a series of agricultural crises in the early 1870s caused economic hardship. The Red River Metis fled to the growing settlements to the west, and only 7% of the population of Red River was Metis by 1886. Migrants joined settlements around the Saskatchewan river, creating prosperous farms and continuing to participate in the fur trade. But the Canadian colonial project still threatened Metis land and society. Euro-Canadian settlers made manifest their vision of a white, Christian, agrarian West wherever they went. Faced with these pressures, many Metis assimilated fully into Euro-Canadian or First Nations society.
As they assimilated into Euro-Canadian “pioneer” society, some Metis preserved their traditions and even shaped their new environment with these traditions. Doris Jeanne Mackinnon’s microhistory “Metis Pioneers” illustrates this process. Marie Rose Delorme Smith was born a French-Catholic Metis and grew up among the fur traders of the Red River. When buffalo trade in the region became untenable, she and her Euro-Canadian husband traveled to Pincher Creek and opened a ranch. The town was new and poorly resourced, without reliable help from a doctor. Smith practiced Metis midwifery and medicine for both Euro-Canadian settlers and First Nations women. She acquired medicinal ingredients through trade relationships with First Nations across the region. She also traded with First Nations hunters for buffalo hides, which she prepared using skills she learned while wintering with her family. She made the hides into traditional Metis clothing, giving them to her children, and selling them to Euro-Canadian settlers and tourists. Smith's Metis connections to the land and to First Nations facilitated the Canadian colonial project, yet Canadian racism increasingly prevented her from embracing her Metis identity. As an older woman, when she wrote of her early life on the plains, she distanced herself from her Metis upbringing. In this narrative, she became a “homesteading pioneer” and matriarch of the new Canadian prairies. Yet in private, she transmitted her Metis heritage to her children and grandchildren. Some of her grandchildren fully adopted Euro-Canadian identities, but one ran for president of the Métis Nation in 2011. Smith's story is one of colonial appropriation and erasure, but also of Metis adaptability and persistence.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the prairies had become the Canadian West. Euro-Canadians isolated and dispossessed Indigenous peoples in the region. Gender became rigidly European and Christian. The Metis, who did not fit the strict racial and social categories of the new colonial order, were threatened by these changes. Yet the same connectivity and mobility that contradicted the Canadian colonial paradigm gave the Metis tools to adapt, resist, and participate in the transformation of their homeland.
 Brad Milne, “The Historiography of Métis Land Dispersal, 1870-1890,” Manitoba History 30, (Autumn 1995).  Brenda Macdougall, “The Myth of Metis Cultural Ambivalence” in Contours of a People : Metis Family, Mobility, and History, ed. by Nicole St-Onge, et al., (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press), 2012, p. 426.  Macdougall, “The Myth of Metis Cultural Ambivalence”, p. 423.  Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, (Winnipeg, Watson & Dwyer), 1999, pp. 58-9  Ibid., pp. 12-5, 78-80.  Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1987, pp. 102-107  Friesen, The Canadian Prairies, p. 96.  Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, (Winnipeg, Watson & Dwyer), 1999, p. 176.  Gerhard Ens, Homeland to Hinterland: the changing worlds of the Red River Metis in the nineteenth century, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1996, p. 52.  Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, (Winnipeg, Watson & Dwyer), 1999, p. 187.  Carol M. Judd, “Native Labour and Social Stratification in the Hudson's Bay Company's Northern Department. 1770-1870,” Canadian Review of Sociology/revue Canadienne De Sociologie 17, no. 4 (1980), p. 311.  Nicole St-Onge, "Uncertain Margins: Métis and Saulteaux Identities in St-Paul des Saulteaux, Red River 1821-1870,” Manitoba History 53, (October 2006).  Gerhard Ens, Homeland to Hinterland: the changing worlds of the Red River Metis in the nineteenth century, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1996, pp. 72-80.  Brenda Macdougall, One of the Family : Metis Culture in Nineteenth-Century Northwestern Saskatchewan, (Vancouver: UBC Press), 2010, pp. 18-20.  Irene Spry, “The Great Transformation: The Disappearance of the Commons in Western Canada,” in Man and Nature on the Prairies, ed. Richard Allen (Regina: University of Regina, 1976), pp. 21-45.  Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1987, pp. 116-7.  Darren O’Toole, “Métis Claims to ‘Indian’ Title in Manitoba, 1860-1870,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 28, no. 2 (2008), pp. 253-5.  O’Toole, “Métis Claims,” p. 249  Chris Andersen, “Mixed” in "Métis" : Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood, (Vancouver: UBC Press), 2014, pp. 42-3.  Irene Spry, “The Great Transformation: The Disappearance of the Commons in Western Canada,” in Man and Nature on the Prairies, ed. Richard Allen (Regina: University of Regina, 1976), pp. 21-45.  Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1987, pp. 196-202.  Doris Jeanne Mackinnon, Metis Pioneers : Marie Rose Delorme Smith and Isabella Clark Hardisty Lougheed (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press), 2018, p. 344.  Doris Jeanne Mackinnon, Metis Pioneers : Marie Rose Delorme Smith and Isabella Clark Hardisty Lougheed (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press), 2018, pp. 267-271  Ibid., p. 252  Ibid., p. 286  Ibid., p. 323  Ibid., p. 323
Andersen, Chris. “Mixed” in "Métis" : Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014, 26-58.
Conn, Heather. “Manitoba Metis Federation Case.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2021.
Ens, Gerhard. Homeland to Hinterland: the changing worlds of the Red River Metis in the nineteenth century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
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Judd, Carol M.. “Native Labour and Social Stratification in the Hudson's Bay Company's Northern Department. 1770-1870.” Canadian Review of Sociology/revue Canadienne De Sociologie 17, no. 4 (1980): 305-14.
Macdougall, Brenda. “The Myth of Metis Cultural Ambivalence.” Contours of a People : Metis Family, Mobility, and History, edited by Nicole St-Onge, Caroline Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall. Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012, 422-464.
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Macdougall, Brenda. “Reading Metis Family Life into Colonial Records.” Ethnohistory 61, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 27-56.
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Milne, Brad. “The Historiography of Métis Land Dispersal, 1870-1890.” Manitoba History 30, (Autumn 1995). URL: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/30/metislanddispersal.shtml.
O’Toole, Darren. “Métis Claims to ‘Indian’ Title in Manitoba, 1860-1870.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 28, no. 2 (2008): 241-270.
Sprague, D. N, and R. P Frye. The Genealogy of the First Metis Nation: The Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement, 1820-1900. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1983.
Spry, Irene. “The Great Transformation: The Disappearance of the Commons in Western Canada.” Man and Nature on the Prairies, edited by Richard Allen. Regina: University of Regina, 1976, 21-45.
St-Onge, Nicole. "Uncertain Margins: Métis and Saulteaux Identities in St-Paul des Saulteaux, Red River 1821-1870.” Manitoba History 53, (October 2006). URL: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/53/uncertainmargins.shtml.
Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties : Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1999.