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The Origins of Metis Nationalism and the Pemmican Wars, 1780-1821

by Fred J. Shore

The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
Edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart
Manitoba Historical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-921950-12-8

Rupert’s Land in the early 1800s was on the periphery of empire and not much different from areas undergoing imperial development elsewhere. In this instance, two dissimilar fur trade systems were locked in competitive warfare. The European antagonists were the men and officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) while Aboriginal people were represented by the First Nations [1] and Metis Peoples. By the late 1700s the competition had degenerated into full-fledged warfare culminating in the “Battle of Seven Oaks.” From the beginning, however, the two fur trade systems represented by the warring companies had very different relationships with the indigenous populations and herein lies the root cause of this unfortunate event.

To profit from the fur trade, the HBC developed a hierarchical structure dependent upon forts and trading posts. The men and officers were required to remain in the posts and to encourage the “Indians” to come to them. Although this approach changed over time, the result of the original policy was a group of Aboriginal women separated from their kin and living in close proximity to the forts. Their children were raised in as close to an “English” cultural setting as their fathers could devise. These children eventually grew up to be more English than native but at no time did they ever develop nationalistic tendencies. Their goal was to be accepted in the imperial scheme as equals. However, the racism inherent in the Empire prevented this and the “Country-Born,” as they were sometimes called, inherited the contradictory ambitions of their fathers. Denied acceptance as equals and Englishmen, they tried harder to perfect themselves to no avail.

The French, for their part, did not depend entirely upon forts and instead moved in with the Aboriginal people and in the process were acclimatized to the Aboriginal culture. When their children arrived on the western plains and found there the necessary ingredients for cultural, economic and political development, they began the process of nation building even though they were not at first aware that that was what they were doing. As they developed their own language, customs and traditions, they did not look to any other group for acceptance. They did, however, remain as close as possible to the fur traders because this was where they gained their livelihood.

The French fur trade system originated in the St. Lawrence River Valley and, as it expanded westwards and northwards, it contributed to the development of the Metis. The story of the origins of these people has been dealt with elsewhere [2] and does not need to be repeated here except for one important fact. The Metis originated from the cultural melding of two peoples, the French and the First Nations. What resulted was a new culture created by the Metis from their collective experience. The template upon which they built their world involved the presence of the horse and buffalo in an area where distance to fur sources combined with rampant competition to provide an economic basis for an enterprising people. As a result, it was only in Rupert’s Land that the Metis found the necessary ingredients to set down their national roots. In the final analysis, the Pemmican Wars were not just two fur trade factions engaged in competition by “other means” but also the crucible wherein Metis nationalism was forged.

One interpretation assigned to the rise of the Metis Nation was that it was a construct of the NWC who hoped to make use of Metis military skills for their war effort. Several Metis leaders did listen to the suggestions of the NWC bourgeois but in this the only explanation for the rise of Metis nationalism? For over five hundred years the “primitive” paradigm has been assigned to Aboriginal people by the colonizers and it is still difficult for certain individuals to understand that indigenous peoples could and did govern themselves prior to European arrival in the “New World.” If the NWC did not create the Metis nation then, when and how did it come into existence? The answer to this question can be found in the dynamics of the Metis people themselves and the stress caused by war.

The Metis in Rupert’s Land were the product of a social system devised by themselves from the materials at hand. Their basic unit was the extended family with its wide circle of social, economic and political resources. While some of the families chose to remain close to the Aboriginal way of life, others engaged in practices similar to those of the Europeans. The glue that held them together was their culture.

The Metis developed a new language, “Michif,” from the French used by their fathers and the Aboriginal languages used by their mothers. In practice it was neither French nor Aboriginal but a new language unique to the people who used it. The Metis were also fierce individualists who saw personal honour and freedom as the ultimate expression of existence. They were keenly aware that collective action was sometimes necessary and in time they developed a form of government that could exist for a predetermined length of time and then dissolve itself. This allowed them the strength of collective action while at the same time guaranteeing them the right to retain their individualism. Their clothing was also based on their combined ancestry but with unique twists which made it decidedly Metis and nothing else. In all aspects of Metis life the ability to adapt and redesign for their own purposes became a hallmark of the people.

The range of social and economic practice evident in the Metis people around 1800 was evidence of the rapid development process they were undergoing. Their nascent class system was an inheritance from the bourgeois of the NWC tempered by the individualism of the Metis. The role of the extended family meant that the move to increased collective action necessary for political leadership to develop was slowed by the demands of family. In practice around 1800, the Metis were a loosely connected collectivity of families ranging from those with bourgeois-like inclinations to those with a decidedly Aboriginal world view. The lower classes were the voyageurs, tripmen, hunters, trappers and labourers. The middle class were those who were practicing or attempting to be bourgeois. The upper class were few in number and not very evident before the 1820s. All three classes were upwardly and downwardly mobile and none of them had coalesced into a definite form before the Battle of Seven Oaks. However, they did exist in essence and combined with Metis individualism and family structure were the basis upon which the nation was being built.

Metis paddlers by George Finlay
Source: Glenbow-Alberta Institute

In the turbulent years before the Battle, the Metis were for the most part unaware of their burgeoning nationalism. Their preoccupation was in gaining advancement within the NWC or in “free trade” for themselves. Most of them were involved in seasonal employment of some sort and spent most of the rest of the year living on their own resources. As the preponderant force in the NWC at the lower levels of employment they were, however, intimately tied to that Company’s fortunes. It is this connection which as lent credence to the off-repeated story that the Metis Nation was created when certain NWC bourgeois convinced Cuthbert Grant, among others, that the HBC was trammelling underfoot the freedoms and land that belonged to the Metis. For young Metis middle class aspirants, the role of bourgeois in their own community was an attraction in itself. However, the leadership role this necessitated was only possible if the rest of the Metis, or at least a majority of them, agreed with their leaders.

Possessed of all the necessary ingredients for nationhood but mostly unaware of the process they were undergoing, the Metis found themselves major players in the Pemmican Wars which escalated in ferocity after 1790. These wars, which had their most serious result at La Grenouilliere in 1816, were the catalyst which brought the idea of Nationhood to the forefront and onto the agenda of the Metis people. Their nascent class interests, founded in the French fur trade system and combined with the economic possibilities inherent in NWC success in the war, were the motivating forces in getting many Metis to accept the idea of a “New Nation.” Given the wide range of territory they used in the pursuit of their way of life, the idea that the HBC, already their sworn enemy, was in fact attacking their right to use their homeland as they saw fit, was a short leap of faith to take. The progress of the war also provided for collective experiences which strengthened the political acumen of the new Metis leadership.

Fort Douglas in 1817, from a sketch by Lord Selkirk
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Challenged by the demands of the war, many Metis came to realize that collective action was increasingly necessary if they were to protect their economic basis. In typical Metis fashion, they solved the problem of individualism versus necessary collective action in their own way. As they were to do repeatedly in the years to come, they formed small forces under “Captains” chosen by the soldiers who agreed to serve under them. In this respect, they were acting in a manner which was not much different from the way in which the First Nations went to war. However, the rampant individualism which as the mark of First Nations’s warfare was not evident in Metis military tactics. They adopted a European method for fighting but kept an Aboriginal method for determining the rules and leadership under which they would operate. Most importantly, as far as the individual Metis was concerned, they also ceased to be subject to the rules once the crisis which had spawned the need for collective action had expired. Although little concrete written evidence exists to show that meetings to determine the rules and to chose the leaders took place before 1816, enough evidence of this collective military action exists to make the claim plausible. Even more importantly, the fact that crisis oriented meetings based on consensus were the preferred method of Metis government after 1821, indicates that the experiences of the Pemmican Wars were the beginnings of Metis political collectivism.

It appears that the bourgeois of the NWC suggested the “nation” concept to the Metis for their own reasons and that the Metis leadership accepted the idea because it was something that readily fit in with their current stage of national development. The other Metis who agreed with the idea did so because they were intimately tied to the economic stability of the NWC and organized military action was one way by which to ensure success. The election of “captains” and the success of Metis military units strengthened the role that such systems could play in the future. The fact that Metis organization disappears after Seven Oaks to a great extent, also indicates that Metis individualism won out over collective action once the crisis was over. More importantly, the fact that this system of collective action at the local and national level reappeared when the need arose after 1821 demonstrates that the Nation born during the Pemmican Wars was quite capable of defending itself when attacked. Inevitably, the existence of the Metis National Committee in 1868-1869 was the culmination of the Metis Nation’s government system born some fifty years previously.

It appears then that some time before the Battle of Seven Oaks, the Metis adopted a system of Government based on Aboriginal consensus methodology wherein they determined the rules to be followed and where they chose leaders to follow. However, in action they emulated the European hierarchical method and followed their leaders religiously. The combination of Aboriginal and European systems was further adapted by the cultural determinants of the Metis. The result was a system of government which could be effective while remaining invisible when it was not needed.

The Pemmican Wars were the stimulus which pushed nascent class interests and Metis social, political and cultural practice into a functioning mould. Success in moving pemmican around The Forks and in carrying on a war also provided positive reinforcement for the Metis. Seven Oaks was just one in a list of Metis successes that was beneficial for themselves and the Company with which they were associated. Once the war was apparently over, however, the Metis should have suffered increased economic problems since it was their enemy who had the victory. However, the subsequent history of Red River does not bear this out.

In the years after 1816, the Metis moved first to Pembina and then to Red River and proceeded to carry on a lucrative trade with new partners in the United States. They also defended themselves and Red River against Aboriginal enemies from the south and later from the new Dominion to the east. The National Committee that spawned the Provisional Government and the Confederation negotiations in 1870 had a direct link to the systems set up by the Nation around 1800.

In conclusion, it appears that the Metis were in fact slowly coming to national stature when they were rapidly and successfully stimulated to realize their potential and to accept the title and practice of nationhood. The suggestion may have come from certain NWC bourgeois but it fell on fertile ground and woke the people to the realization of who and what they were.

Notes

1. “Aboriginal people(s)” refers to all Aboriginal people, Indian, Inuit and Metis. “First Nations” refers to those people who have traditionally been called “Indians.”

2. J. Peterson and J. S. H. Brown, eds., The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Metis in North America, Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 1985.

Page revised: 5 October 2011

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