Manitoba History: The Historiography of Métis Land Dispersal, 1870-1890
by Brad Milne
The Manitoba Act or 1870 provided substantial land grants to the Métis at Red River. Section 31 set aside 1.4 million acres of land for distribution among the children of Métis heads of families residing in the province, while section 32 guaranteed all old settlers, Métis or white, “peaceable possession” of the lots they occupied in the Red River settlement prior to 15 July, 1870. Subsection 32(5) guaranteed allotments of land to commute the rights of hay and common in the outer two miles that accompanied many of the old river lots. Additional legislation of 1874 granted $160 scrip, redeemable in Dominion lands, to all Métis heads of families.  However, as most students and scholars of Métis history are aware, very little of this land and scrip remained in Métis hands by the late 1870s. Instead, the period from 1870 to 1890 saw the widespread dispersal of the Métis from Red River.
In the last two decades, a virtual “explosion in Métis scholarship” has emerged to determine why this large scale migration occurred.  With native political organizations and the governments of Canada and Manitoba embroiled in an on-going court battle, various scholars have received generous financial support to investigate Métis land claims in Manitoba. For two scholars in particular, Douglas Sprague and Thomas Flanagan, the Métis dispersal has become a subject of bitter dispute. Flanagan, a University of Calgary political scientist and a historical consultant for the federal Department of Justice, believes that the federal government fulfilled the land provisions of the Manitoba Act. On the other hand, Sprague, a historian retained by the Manitoba Métis Federation to undertake research into Métis land claims, argues that through a process of formal and informal discouragement, the Métis were victims of a deliberate conspiracy in which John A. Macdonald and the Canadian government successfully kept them from obtaining title to the land they were to receive under terms of the Manitoba Act of 1870. Although Sprague and Flanagan remain the central combatants in this historiographical battle, significant research has been conducted by many other scholars, most notably Gerhard Ens and Nicole St-Onge.
In short, the issue of Métis land dispersal is controversial and is the focus of an impressive historiographical debate. This article will not add to the debate. It is designed to help those who are not specialists in Métis history gain an understanding of the state of the argument over land claims.
Early studies of Métis history and the formation of the province of Manitoba passed quickly over the implementation of the Manitoba Act.  Drawing from the pioneer works of individuals such as Alexander Begg and George Bryce, scholars like G. F. G. Stanley and Marcel Giraud viewed the dispersal of the Métis as a clash between primitive and civilized societies. Although Stanley criticized the Canadian government for its “ministerial incompetence, parliamentary indifference and administrative delay,” he did not see the federal government’s administration of the Manitoba Act as a conspiracy to dispossess the Métis.  Instead, his cultural-conflict theory held that the fate of the Métis was sealed by the westward advance of agricultural settlement. Marcel Giraud also indicated that there was “plenty of delay and incompetence on the government’s part” but argued that dispersal of the Métis was caused by their own inferiority.  In his opinion, the Métis were “incapable of understanding any plan of life other than nomadism.”  W. L. Morton, meanwhile, rejected Stanley’s belief that the Red River Métis were uncivilized. Instead, he argued that they were prevented from becoming an agrarian civilization by hunting and voyaging activities that “bound them ineluctably to nomadism and barbarism.”  In his opinion, the dispersal of the Métis was caused by their own defects of character. “It was their tragedy that the instability and violence of Riel, reflecting the inherent instability and violence of his own uncertain people, ruined his achievement and destroyed his nation.” 
According to Joe Sawchuk, professor of native studies at Brandon University, the works of individuals such as Stanley, Giraud, and Morton were flawed because of their basic misunderstanding of the nature of Métis society which identified the Métis as a primitive people. As a result of this misunderstanding, these early studies misinterpreted Métis-white relations as well as the Métis reaction to the Manitoba Act and the various scrip programs administered by the Canadian government.  With this in mind, it may be said that the most important aspect of these early studies was their failure to question the presumption of government good faith.
As a result, this traditional view was seriously challenged during the 1970s when native political organizations such as the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan and the Manitoba Métis Federation began to commission research in support of their land claims. In doing so, these organizations began to discover “glaring inequities of process.”  Funded by grants from the Secretary of State, the Manitoba Métis Federation conducted several research projects to determine whether or not the Canadian government administered sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act in a legal and morally responsible manner. One such project was D. Bruce Sealey’s Statutory Land Rights of the Manitoba Métis, published in 1975. Another was Emile Pelletier’s Exploitation of Métis Lands, which listed 6267 allotments of 240 acres made under section 31. Pelletier then categorized the sale of each grant as legal, illegal, ambiguous or speculative. In doing so, he found that 529 land grants covering 126,960 acres were sold illegally while 580 sales involving 139,200 acres were ambiguous cases. 590 land grants covering 141,600 acres consigned to Métis children were obtained by land speculators for resale who earned profits for themselves of 100 percent to 2000 percent.  Although Pelletier did not characterize the administration of sections 31 and 32 as blatant illegality, the reader was left with the impression that the federal government made a concerted effort to dispossess the Métis. Drawing from the works of Sealey, Pelletier and others, the Manitoba Métis Federation published an official statement in 1978 in which the native political organization concluded that the federal government’s record in the treatment of Métis concerning river lots and scrip was racist. According to their findings, “all elected representatives as well as members of the bureaucracy knew that the Métis were being exploited and indeed they contributed to the exploitation.”  Findings of the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan confirmed those of the Manitoba Métis Federation and its paid consultants.
In 1978, the Manitoba Métis Federation moved to a more professional level of research when they hired Douglas Sprague, a historian at the University of Manitoba, to undertake research into Métis land claims. Soon after, Sprague began to lay the foundation of what has been called the dispossession thesis. In two articles published in 1980, “The Manitoba Land Question, 1870-1882,” and “Government Lawlessness in the Administration of Manitoba Land Claims, 1870-1887,” Sprague argued that the Manitoba Act was “nothing more than a gesture,” that the Métis were victims of a deliberate conspiracy in which John A. Macdonald and the Canadian government sought to prevent the Métis from claiming title to the land they were to receive under sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act.  Acting under pressure from Ontario interests, the federal government dispossessed the Red River Métis in the following way.
The Manitoba Act was officially recognized by one of the first amendments to Canada’s constitution, an Imperial Statue known as the British North American Act of 1871. According to Sprague, the Department of Justice blatantly ignored the sixth section of this act which declared that “it shall not be competent for the Parliament of Canada to alter the provisions” of the Manitoba Act.  By doing so, the Canadian government was able to revise sections 31 and 32 to facilitate the dispossession and dispersal of the Métis population. The first amendment, passed in 1873, reduced the number of people eligible for allotments under section 31 from ten thousand to less than six thousand.  Winterers, protected under section 32, were dealt with much more harshly.
In rejecting the cultural-conflict theory developed by early historians such as Stanley and Giraud, Sprague used surveyors’ records to suggest that by 1875, the vast majority of Métis people were persistent settlers, interested in keeping all the land they could get for farming. In the older parishes, for example, the Métis were cultivating their land as extensively as the original white settlers.  As Sprague repeatedly pointed out, however, the mostly illiterate Métis were unable to hold onto the land for very long. In his opinion, they were victims of a market they could hardly understand. As a result, they were soon swindled of their allotments and scrip by unscrupulous speculators and government officials.
In 1981, one year after the publication of Sprague’s revisionist articles, the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Native Council of Canada, which at the time represented both Métis and non-status Indians across Canada, filed a statement of claim with the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench contending that amendments to the Manitoba Act between 1873 and 1884 were illegal alterations of the law. The Métis resorted to litigation at this time because their talks with the governments of Manitoba and Canada to achieve a land base and self government had not produced results.  While taking action in the courts, the Manitoba Métis Federation continued to fund the research of Douglas Sprague. The result of this financial support was a study entitled The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation, completed by Sprague and Ronald Frye in 1983. Through extensive use of census returns, parish registers, surveyors’ field notes, Half-breed Commission records and genealogical affidavits collected by Canadian government officials in 1865, Sprague and Frye compiled six genealogical tables of the Red River Métis from 1820 to 1870.
The first table, “Genealogy of Red River Households, 1818-1870,” provided vital statistics such as religion, race and birth place of persons known to have been heads of families before 1870. Table two included parish, family size, farmed acreage and personal property including horses, cattle, farm implements and carts of those who were awarded land between 1814 and 1835. Hudson’s Bay Company use of the Red River Colony as a labour pool with specifics for employment was illustrated in table three, “Contract Employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company.” Table four, “Geographical Location of Children of Manitoba Families, 1870,” was drawn primarily from the 1870 census and documented the location of households and the names and ages of children involved. Table five detailed the Dominion’s recognition of land occupancy after 1870 while the final table dealt with the dispersal and relocation of the Métis after 1870.
While Sprague and Frye provided a useful, brief history of the development of the Red River Métis and their dispersal north and west, The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation was much more important for the tabular information it contained. Drawing from the records of the period, the two scholars developed an integrated data base which compiled thousands of entries categorized in such a way as to provide information on date and place of birth, male and female heads of families, children and religion. In some cases, family households could be traced vertically across two or three generations and horizontally within entire kinship networks. In addition, parish, farm size and usage, equipment and the number of horses and cattle owned could also be determined. According to University of Manitoba historian Gerald Friesen, Sprague and Frye’s ground-breaking study provided researchers with a method of testing their theories on such elements as wealth accumulation, class stratification and family formation. Frits Pannekoek, Director of Alberta Historical Resources, stated that the integrated data base would enable descendants of the original population to trace the genealogy of their ancestors to determine where they lived, what they did with their land before 1870 and, more importantly, whether or not their occupancy was recognized by the government of Canada in the form of a land grant during the period of the disposal of Manitoba land claims between 1870 and 1882. 
In 1985, D. N. Sprague collaborated with P. R. Mailhot to publish an article entitled “Persistent Settlers: The Dispersal and Resettlement of the Red River Métis, 1870-1885.” Using quantitative techniques of family reconstitution to document the relocation of both French and English Métis from Red River to the Saskatchewan Valley, Mailhot and Sprague argued that by 1870, the Métis were committed settlers but various forms of pressure from the federal government drove them off the land. According to their statistical evidence, 550 of 938 Métis families in the 1870 census were overlooked by land surveyors between 1871 and 1873. Of that total, 501 did not receive patents. Similarly, 400 of 844 native English families were missed, 341 of which did not emerge as patentees.  In their opinion, this was a result of land surveyors being “more interested in boundaries than in counting people or their improvements.”  The consequences of this action were devastating as less than 10 percent of overlooked Métis were able to pass improvement standards imposed by the Dominion government’s administration of the Manitoba Act.  Métis discouraged by federal government delays and non-patentees who could not provide sufficient evidence of occupation or improvements left the province in search of available, free river front property. To Mailhot and Sprague, land-loss was a prelude to migration.
During the same year in which Mailhot and Sprague’s article was published, the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Native Council of Canada, which represented Métis nationally, sued the Canadian government on behalf of all present day Métis living in Manitoba. Known as the Dumont case, after Manitoba Métis Federation President Yvon Dumont, this lawsuit was filed to correct what they viewed as “a major inequality of law over the past 120 years.”  While pursuing Métis land claims through the courts, the Manitoba Métis Federation also continued to finance the research of Douglas Sprague. This led to the completion of Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885, published in 1988.
In writing this book, Sprague’s central purpose was to explain how the Red River Settlement, “one of the most persistent populations of North America from 1820 to 1869,” dispersed so completely after 1870.  Basing his work primarily on the letters and papers of John A. Macdonald, many of which were not used by previous scholars, Sprague argued that the Government of Canada never intended to fulfill the land provisions of the Manitoba Act; that there was “less reliable intention than filled the public ears, and more dishonesty than ever caught the public eye.”  In keeping with the dispossession theory introduced in his articles of 1980, Sprague revealed how ultra vires amendments to sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act were part of a deliberate conspiracy to dispossess the Métis at Red River. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, meanwhile, was portrayed as a villain who used government delays to place the Métis in administrative limbo while authorities worked to flood the territory with white, Protestant settlers from Ontario. According to Sprague, federal government culpability could also be seen in Macdonald’s failure to speak out as the Liberal government continued to deny the Métis their land rights between 1874 and 1878.
As in his previous works, Sprague also identified the fraudulent tactics used in speculation of Métis land and scrip. According to Sprague, Manitoba Chief Justice E. B. Wood and a large majority of the province’s legal profession profited personally in transactions involving Métis land and scrip. Civil servants and elected officials also took part, realizing that it was virtually impossible to prove fraud under the existing system.  Similarly, legislation justifying the sale of land allotted to children lacked the safeguards ordinarily required in connection with transactions involving children. The result, according to Sprague, was that heads of families and children never received the money scrip or land they were supposed to have sold. In terms of the pending Dumont case, this would mean that the aboriginal rights of the Red River Métis were never extinguished.
Another important aspect of Canada and the Métis was Sprague’s belief that a direct link existed between the North West Rebellion of 1885 and the problem of financing Canada’s national railway. Using Macdonald’s personal papers as evidence, Sprague argued that Canada’s first Prime Minister provoked a Métis riot into a rebellion, thereby getting Parliament to vote in favour of funding the Canadian Pacific Railway. Apparently, “few people other than (George) Stephen knew how closely the Métis loss had been joined to the railway’s gain.” 
As will be shown, Sprague’s dispossession thesis has been the subject of much criticism. Nevertheless, he does not stand alone in his belief that the governments of Manitoba and Canada did not act in good faith. Although Gerhard Ens joined the Department of Justice research team in 1986, his earlier work on the provincial government’s role in the sale of Métis children’s allotments cast Manitoba politicians, civil servants, lawyers and judges in a negative light. Drawing heavily upon the records of the Commission of Inquiry into the Administration of Justice as to Infant Lands and Estates, appointed by the provincial cabinet in 1881 with hearings held between 9 November and 5 December of the same year, Ens argued that there was widespread collusion among the Manitoba government, land speculators, and Judges of the Court of Queen’s Bench. While sufficient legislation was in place by the end of 1878 to protect the interests of Métis children, Ens showed that it was consistently ignored by the legal profession.  Like Sprague, Ens also identified the provincial and federal governments’ disregard for Métis legal rights as a catalyst to the Métis emigration from Manitoba between 1870 and 1890.
The dispossession thesis has also been supported by the work of Nicole St-Onge, a researcher who has never received financial backing from a native political organization. Using parish files for individual river lots, St-Onge analyzed the dispersal of the Métis from Pointe a Grouette, a settlement which, after 1870, became the French-Canadian village of Sainte Agathe. St-Onge discovered that amendments made to the Manitoba Act in 1874 and 1875 seriously weakened the land claims of Métis hunters, most of whom wintered on the plains and had difficulty passing occupation and improvement standards. As a result of federal government delays and denials, this class of Métis “sold, abandoned or were swindled out of their claims for small amounts of money.” 
In her study of Pointe a Grouette, St-Onge also discovered a strong correlation between the socio-economic status of Métis families prior to 1870 and the number of years it managed to retain property after Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. Métis hunters left Pointe a Grouette in the mid 1870’s because government officials had assessed their land as unimproved. Unlike affluent Métis, they had few ties to the bureaucracy and could not effectively challenge adverse decisions made on their claims. Affluent and/or farming Métis, on the other hand, were not affected by amendments made in 1874 and 1875, only leaving after 1878.  In her Masters thesis, St-Onge stated that the dispersal of affluent Métis was a result of their inability to protect their interests against more affluent and better connected easterners.  As her published article of 1985 pointed out, however, the most important reason was more likely the fact that, by 1878, their claims had still not been settled.
Don McLean is another individual whose work supported that of Douglas Sprague. In 1985, while employed as a research associate at the Gabriel Dumont Institute, McLean published a book entitled 1885, Métis Rebellion or Government Conspiracy?. Although he gave the Métis land dispersal only brief attention, McLean supported Sprague’s earlier findings regarding the extinguishment of Métis land claims through scrip. In his opinion, scrip commissions of the Department of the Interior “turned a blind eye to the blatant breaking and circumventing of regulations by speculators ... [O]ften wrapped in the verbiage of patriotism, the scrip transactions of the bankers and speculators often earned them a fortune at the expense of the Métis.”  The main thesis of McLean’s study, that the federal government provoked the North West rebellion in order to save the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy, was the same theory later put forth by Douglas Sprague in Canada and the Métis. However, as will be discussed in more detail later on, both McLean and Sprague have been subjected to severe criticism for their failure to provide hard evidence of a government conspiracy. To scholars such as Thomas Flanagan, the theories of revisionists such as Sprague, St-Onge and McLean are easy to postulate but difficult to prove.
Thomas Flanagan was, and continues to be the sharpest critic of Douglas Sprague and the dispossession thesis. Although their historiographical battle did not really begin until 1986, the year in which Flanagan began to investigate Métis land claims for the federal Department of Justice, the political scientist had begun to re-examine Métis history several years earlier. A biographer of Louis Riel, Flanagan’s first study relating to the Métis land dispersal was a 1983 article entitled “The Case Against Métis Aboriginal Land Rights.” In this article, he argued that the Canadian government made a historical mistake by granting the Red River Métis aboriginal rights in 1870.  First of all, the Métis did not exist until the commencement of Indian-white relations. Although modified by Indians, Métis food, clothing, housing, and their agrarian practices were based on the European model. With this in mind, Flanagan concluded that Métis aboriginal rights were conceived out of political expediency in 1870 to pacify the insurgents at Red River.
In keeping with this theory, Flanagan argued that the best method to minimize the damage caused by providing the Métis with aboriginal rights would be to emphasize the word “existing” in section 35(1) of the Constitution Act of 1982. In his opinion, this would allow Métis descendants to be compensated as individuals, provided they had proof their ancestors did not receive their entitlement. At the same time, it would also prevent native political organizations, fuelled by the research of revisionists such as Sprague, to seek compensation as corporate entities. 
In 1983, Thomas Flanagan continued to publish studies on the Métis in the context of present day aboriginal rights. In As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: A Reader in Canadian Studies, the political scientist wrote a chapter in which he argued against the belief that Louis Riel had a theory of aboriginal rights. During the same year, while working on the Riel Papers project, Flanagan completed a book entitled Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered. The stated purpose of this publication was to challenge a campaign, led by the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan, to grant Riel a posthumous pardon in connection with the centennial of the rebellion to take place in 1985. 
Although the central theme of this work was Riel’s role in the North West Rebellion, Flanagan also provided his own interpretation of the Métis land dispersal. In doing so, he portrayed the Red River Métis as a non-agrarian people unable to adjust to the Dominion Lands settlement scheme. He also successfully challenged the belief that the mostly illiterate Métis were ignorant of the true value of their land and an easy mark for speculators. The reader will discover, for example, that it was not uncommon for the Métis to sell their patents to more than one person. More important however, was Flanagan’s belief that the Métis received fair value for their land.
Flanagan also refused to connect government errors to create an intentional dispossession scheme. Although Flanagan admitted that government employees “made mistakes in judgement” and the Department of Interior had “special problems of dishonesty and inefficiency,” he did not see the Métis land dispersal as the result of a deliberate government conspiracy.  In his opinion, the Métis were poorly advised by their missionary priests and unrealistic in their expectations. As a result, the rights and wrongs of the Manitoba land question could be found on both sides.
Riel and the Rebellion caused a minor flurry of controversy shortly after its publication in 1983. In addition to harsh criticism from some reviewers, the Métis Association of Alberta denounced Flanagan as a racist and called for his dismissal from the University of Calgary.  In light of new evidence, particularly the discovery of a schedule of St. Laurent cases investigated by Prince Albert lands agent George Duck, Flanagan attempted to answer his critics in a 1987 article entitled “Métis Land Claims at St. Laurent: Old Arguments and New Evidence.” Using this new evidence, Flanagan reasserted the view expressed in Riel and the Rebellion: despite many delays and administrative errors, federal government actions in the period before the outbreak of the North West Rebellion demonstrated a “clear intention” to deal effectively with Métis grievances.  Although this article dealt specifically with the handling of Métis land claims at St. Laurent, rather than the dispersal of the Red River Métis, it is important to mention because of its implications regarding government good faith. To this end, Flanagan stated that if the federal government was to be faulted, it was primarily for a breakdown in communications in which it failed to take “extra effort to explain its actions rather than for the substance of its actions.” 
In addition to proving there were government lapses in communication, perceived by Riel and the Métis as evasion and delay, Flanagan used the newly discovered schedule of St. Laurent cases to substantiate an important conclusion reached in Riel and the Rebellion, namely, that “it was an error not to have extended the river-lot survey to comprise the whole St. Laurent colony.”  In terms of government culpability, he stated that there was “no evidence to show the mistake was other than a matter of surveyors’ judgement in the field.”  Despite this error, the government refused to resurvey quarter sections along the river into river lots. Instead, squatters were to make entry for de facto river lots by adding together twenty acre legal subdivisions. To Douglas Sprague, this was a “provocative denial” of Métis land claims because de facto river lots on quarter sections involved odd-numbered sections which, according to Dominion Lands regulations, were not open for homestead but were reserved for preemption at a fixed price. Thus, the St. Laurent Métis would have to purchase the land outright, at one dollar or two dollars per acre.  Using the new evidence, however, Flanagan denounced the findings of Sprague as mere speculation.
In 1986, one year prior to publication of “Métis Land Claims at St. Laurent,” Flanagan began working as a historical consultant for the federal Department of Justice. With the Dumont case before the courts, the Riel biographer was hired to investigate the validity of Métis land claims in Manitoba brought forth by the Manitoba Métis Federation. As part of this agreement, Flanagan was also given the right to publish his findings. One study completed under this agreement was “The Market for Métis Lands in Manitoba: An Exploratory Study,” published in Prairie Forum during the spring of 1991. In this article, Flanagan used the data on the fate of children’s allotments, heads of families scrip and military bounty warrants to show that the Métis were not victims of a market beyond their comprehension. Instead, he believed they were willing participants who made every effort to realize a good return on their lands and scrip.
According to the empirical evidence presented by Flanagan, the Métis, as a group, received fair value for their land and scrip, particularly when evaluated against the context of contemporary prices. “Letter carriers in Winnipeg earned $400 a year, prison guards $600. The average allotment sale price of $193 was thus the equivalent of several months wages from a full-time job.”  By standards of the 1870s, these were considerable sums of money. Flanagan also addressed the reasons why so many Métis kept their allotments and scrip for such a short period of time. According to his findings, the Métis tended to move in large, clan-like groups. Because the partition of reserve land into 240 acre parcels made it difficult for Métis families and their relatives to resettle as a group, children’s allotments and heads of family scrip were sold to finance the departure from Manitoba. By moving to the North West, Métis families would be able to preserve their social homogeneity. Other Métis used the money to buy horses and guns to follow the buffalo-robe trade westward.  While some Métis felt the push of English Protestant immigrants to Manitoba, Flanagan argued that most Métis sold their land and scrip because money was more useful to them than land was at that period of time. The decision to sell out and move on was not a result of federal government land policies. Flanagan’s comparison of Métis scrip relative to military bounty warrants cast further doubt on the dispossession thesis, as well as the belief that race was a primary consideration in the market for Métis lands in Manitoba.
Without question, the capstone of Flanagan’s work on Métis land claims thus far has been Métis Lands in Manitoba. Published in 1991 and based on research conducted while working for the Canadian Department of Justice, Flanagan argued that the governments of Manitoba and Canada “fulfilled, if not over-fulfilled, the land provisions of the Manitoba Act.”  Loaded with empirical evidence and supported by meticulous citation of government documents and public and private correspondence, this book left the reader with no alternative but to question the findings of scholars such as Douglas Sprague. Although there were government delays in administering sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act, as well as cases in which Métis patents were seized under fraudulent circumstances, Flanagan provided much evidence to show that the governments of Manitoba and Canada acted in good faith. In his opinion, we can only question whether or not the federal government should have treated the Métis with more paternalism. 
As in “The Market for Métis Lands in Manitoba,” Flanagan showed that very few Métis were exploited in the market for land in Manitoba. With their main economic activities - hunting, trading and freighting - shifting west-ward, the Métis sold their patents because they believed the advantages of getting cash in the short term outweighed the benefits of farming in the more distant future. Although Métis who sold their patents at low prices in the 1870s probably wished they had held onto them until the boom of the early 1880s, “such situations are universal in a market economy. The Métis did what they did for reasons that seemed good at the time.” 
Another important aspect of Métis Lands in Manitoba was the author’s use of survey registers, not discovered until 1988, which showed the great lengths to which surveyors went to record the details of Métis occupation in the parishes. According to a previous study conducted by Mailhot and Sprague, land surveyors may not have been part of a government conspiracy to overlook the Métis but they were certainly careless in mapping locations of occupants and their improvements. As a result, many families in the 1870 census were not documented in the surveyors’ field notes. This, in turn, made the Métis vulnerable to dispossession because it became more difficult for them to pass occupation and improvement standards.  According to Flanagan, however, Mailhot and Sprague were wrong because they based their conclusions on field notes and did not know about the missing registers.  In Flanagan’s book, the reader is left with the impression that no expense was spared to satisfy the original settlers and that the Dominion Lands survey could not have been instrumental in dispossessing the Métis at Red River.
To Flanagan, the perception of the Manitoba Act was also very important. In his opinion, there were two versions of the act: the text enacted by the Canadian Parliament and the Abbe Ritchot’s vision of a French Métis enclave in southern Manitoba. While the text went into the statute book, Ritchot provided the Métis with his own version when he returned to Red River in the summer of 1870. The result, according to Flanagan, was a legacy of bitterness which resulted in present day litigation against the governments of Manitoba and Canada.
The most credible support for Thomas Flanagan’s theory that the Canadian government acted in good faith comes from Gerhard Ens, a history professor at Brandon University. Although his 1983 article on the sale of Métis children’s allotments painted an unflattering picture of Manitoba lawyers, politicians and civil servants, Ens’ subsequent work demonstrated clear disagreement with the dispossession thesis. In “Dispossession or Adaptation: Migration and Persistence of the Red River Métis, 1835-1890,” Ens argued that the dispersal of the Métis between 1870 and 1890 was not the result of dispossession by the federal government, nor was it caused by the inability of the Métis to adjust to settled society. Instead, it was an adaptive, innovative response to new economic opportunities. 
Through extensive use of Red River Censuses for 1835, 1849 and 1870, North West half breed scrip applications, and the land records of both the Department of the Interior and the Winnipeg Land Titles office, Ens shed much light on Métis persistence and migration patterns. In doing so, he discovered that the decision to migrate was a function of the changing Métis family economy and their involvement in the buffalo-robe trade. After 1850, Métis families involved in this trade had to take up specialized occupations that left little time for farming. In addition, as the large bison herds moved westward, continued involvement in the buffalo-robe trade necessitated emigration.  As a result, emigration began well before Manitoba’s entry into Confederation and continued to the mid-1870s when the buffalo-robe market collapsed. Like St-Onge’s study of Pointe a Grouette, Ens also was convinced that the dispersal of the Métis was related to class.
By studying the parishes of St. Andrews and St. Francois Xavier in detail, Ens also found very few cases of non recognition by surveyors and no evidence that claims were refused because of lack of proof of occupancy.
The most recent contribution to the historiography of the Métis land dispersal has come from Thomas Flanagan and Gerhard Ens. Funded by the Department of Justice for possible use in the pending Dumont case, “Métis Land Grants in Manitoba: A Statistical Study” was published in May of 1994. Unlike their previous works, this article compiled a much larger data set, involving river lots and commutation grants as well as children’s grants. By doing so, Ens and Flanagan hoped to provide a more “systematic test of the revisionist thesis.”  They argued that the Dominion government provided the benefits promised to the Métis by the Manitoba Act and related legislation. In fact, they believe that less than 5 percent of the eligible population did not receive the benefits to which they were entitled.  According to Ens and Flanagan, this would have been individuals or families who left in the early 1870s, thus making it hard for them to apply for their entitlements. Benefits sold by Métis families, meanwhile, were used to generate thousands of dollars in revenue for the family. Clearly, they were not victims exploited by a market system they could not comprehend.  Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that Ens and Flanagan could find no evidence in favour of the revisionist belief that difficulty in obtaining title drove the Métis to emigrate from Manitoba.
Both sides of this historical battle have been criticized on numerous occasions. While Douglas Sprague successfully challenged previous interpretations of the Métis dispersal, his dispossession thesis has convinced very few contemporary scholars. The main reason for this is his failure to provide hard evidence in support of his conclusions. In Thomas Flanagan’s opinion, Sprague is much too eager to condemn the governments of Canada and Manitoba in order to vindicate the rights of the Métis.  As a result of this eagerness, Sprague often interprets situations and events in ways much different from other scholars. Sprague was convinced, for example, that the execution of Thomas Scott was an accident for which the Métis provisional government should not have been held responsible. With little evidence to support his theory, he stated that it was a mock execution in which William O’Donoghue, a spectator of the event, discharged his revolver as the firing squad shot a round of blanks. In Canada and the Métis, Sprague, himself, admitted that “some of the gaps and poorly supported conclusions” of his work would have to be remedied by future historians.  The fact that government conspiracy theories are easy to postulate but hard to prove can also be seen in the work of Don McLean. According to J. R. Miller, McLean “must hold the record for the number of times such formulations as ‘must have’ or ‘it is very likely’ or ‘it is difficult to find direct evidence’ appear.”  While Nicole St-Onge was successful in proving that class was a significant factor in determining when a Métis family or individual left Manitoba, scholars such as Thomas Flanagan and Gerhard Ens agree that St-Onge failed to establish that the cause of their leaving was their inability to establish their claims. 
On the other hand, Thomas Flanagan has been described as a “political scientist uncomfortable with the concept of aboriginal rights in general and Métis aboriginal rights in particular.”  Both Flanagan and Gerhard Ens have been criticized for their interpretations of primary source material and their failure to provide sufficient evidence. In their case, much of the strong criticism has come from Douglas Sprague. In a review of Métis Lands in Manitoba, for example, Sprague stated that Flanagan’s “citation of documents in the wrong chronology and his inflated claims of certain evidence while ignoring or distorting too much of the rest” asserted more than it proved.  To Sprague, Canada’s delays and denials accounted for far more migration than Ens and Flanagan are willing to concede. In his opinion, “justice delayed was quite literally justice denied.” 
One area in which Sprague and Flanagan will always be questioned is their scholarly objectivity. Recent historiography of the Métis land dispersal points to a dangerous situation in which “history could well become advocacy; that historians, however careful and well intentioned, will, like the piper, tend to play the appropriate tune.”  While it is unlikely that Sprague or Flanagan have or would consider distorting facts or excluding evidence that does not support their thesis or fit the needs of those who have commissioned the research, they will always be accused of partisanship. J. R. Miller was correct when he stated that as more Métis, Indian and Inuit land claims proceed to the courts, “historians are going to have to think about if and on what terms, they are going to participate in remunerative judicial jousting so as to maintain not only their integrity, but also that of their discipline.” 
Although the government of Canada has admitted that there were a few random injustices in the administration of sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act, they also believed that too many documents had been lost or destroyed to form an accurate picture of the era. As a result, the entire matter was deemed inappropriate for present day consideration in the land claims process or for litigation.  In April of 1991, however, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected Canada’s motion to have the case dismissed on procedural and technical grounds and ruled that the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench would hear arguments on the constitutionality of the federal government’s legislation and Orders-in-Council. That is where the legal situation stands at present. As part of this legal process, it is quite possible that Ens, Flanagan, and Sprague will be called upon to appear in court as expert witnesses. If, in a hypothetical situation, the Court of Queen’s Bench were to base its decision solely on their research, it seems highly unlikely that the Manitoba Métis Federation would be successful in their lawsuit. Although Douglas Sprague has successfully challenged previous interpretations of the Métis dispersal, most contemporary scholars agree that his evidence does not support the existence of a deliberate government conspiracy to dispossess the Métis. While Flanagan and Ens also lack a “smoking gun,” their belief that the Canadian government fulfilled the land provisions of the Manitoba Act has been much better supported. Nevertheless, as Flanagan and Ens’ recently published article shows, this historiographical battle is not yet over.
1. Thomas Flanagan, “The Market for Métis Lands in Manitoba: An Exploratory Study,” Prairie Forum, Volume 16, Number 1 (Spring, 1991), p. 1.
2. Joe Sawchuk, “The Métis: A Bibliography of Historic and Contemporary Issues,” in Samuel W. Corrigan and Lawrence J. Barkwell (eds.), The Struggle for Recognition: Canadian Justice and the Métis Nation (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications Inc., 1991), p. 208.
3. Thomas Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1991), p.1. The preface of this work provides a brief but very informative historiographic overview of the Métis Land Dispersal.
14. D. N. Sprague, “The Métis Land Question, 1870-1882,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 15, Number 3 (Fall, 1980), p. 74.
15. D. N. Sprague, “Government Lawlessness in the Administration of Manitoba Land Claims, 1870-1887,” Manitoba Law Journal, Volume 10, Number 4 (1980), p. 68.
18. Sprague, “The Manitoba Land Question, 1870-1882,” p. 81.
21. Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba, p. vii.
23. P. R. Mailhot and D. N. Sprague, “Persistent Settlers: The Dispersal and Resettlement of the Red River Métis, 1870-1885,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, Volume XVII, Number 2 (1985), p. 4.
28. D. N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), p. ix.
35. Nicole St-Onge, “The Dissolution of a Métis Community: Pointe a Grouette, 1860-1885,” Studies in Political Economy, Number 18 (Autumn, 1983), p. 162.
37. Nicole St-Onge, Métis and Merchant Capital in Red River: The Decline of Pointe it Grouette, 1860-1885 (Masters Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1983), p. 128.
38. St-Onge, “The Dissolution of a Métis Community,” p. 159.
40. Thomas Flanagan, “The Case Against Métis Aboriginal Rights,” Canadian Public Policy, Volume 9, Number 1 (March, 1983), p. 314.
43. Thomas Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1983), pp. 11-12.
48. Thomas Flanagan, “Métis Land Claims at St. Laurent: Old Arguments and New Evidence,” Prairie Forum, Volume 12, Number 1 (Spring, 1987), p. 245.
50. Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion, p. 51.
51. Flanagan, “Métis Land Claims at St. Laurent,” p. 251.
53. Flanagan, “Métis Land Claims at St. Laurent,” p. 252.
54. Thomas Flanagan, “The Market for Métis Lands in Manitoba: An Exploratory Study,” Prairie Forum, Volume 16, Number 1 (Spring, 1991), p. 16.
57. Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba, p. 225.
60. Mailhot and Sprague, “Persistent Settlers,” p. 5.
61. Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba, p. 158.
63. Gerhard Ens, “Dispossession or Adaptation? Migration and Persistence of the Red River Métis, 1835-1890,” Canadian Historical Papers (1988), p. 122.
71. Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba, p. 8.
72. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, p. 187.
75. D. N. Sprague, “Métis Land Claims,” in Ken Coates (ed.), Aboriginal Land Claims in Canada: A Regional Perspective (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd., 1992), p. 197.
76. D. N. Sprague, Review of Thomas Flanagan’s Métis Lands in Manitoba, in Canadian Historical Review, Volume 73, Number 2 (June, 1992), p. 262.
77. D. N. Sprague, “Dispossession vs. Accommodation in Plaintiff vs. Defendant Accounts of Métis Dispersal from Manitoba, 1870-1881,” Prairie Forum, Volume 16, Number 2 (Fall, 1991), p. 153.
78. J. E. Rea, “The Historian as ‘Hired Gun’,” The Beaver, Volume 72, Number 2 (April-May, 1992), p. 53.
80. Sprague, “Métis Land Claims,” p. 202.
Page revised: 5 October 2011