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Manitoba History: Book Review: John Francis Grant, A Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant

by Adele Perry
History Department, University of Manitoba

Number 62, Winter 2009

Johnny Grant lived an interesting life in eventful times. He was born to a Métis mother and a fur-trader father at Fort Edmonton in 1833, and until his death in 1907 he lived all around the borderlands of western North America in territories that would be reorganized in his lifetime as Montana, Idaho, Manitoba, and Alberta. Here, historian Gerhard J. Ens publishes Grant’s detailed memoir in its complete form, carefully annotated, illustrated and introduced.

Grant’s memoir is itself a complicated document. Ens writes that it was “Dictated by Johnny to his wife Clothilde Bruneau sometime between 1905 and 1907” (viii) and revised significantly by her thereafter. Yet Bruneau’s preface seems to give herself the status of author rather than recorder. “I will endeavour,” writes Bruneau, “to do my best in the following pages to relate the incidents in my husband’s life” (xlv). Grant himself did not read or write English. Whether Bruneau should be acknowledged as an author of some kind, not simply of the preface but the memoir itself, seems a question worth asking.

However and by whom it was created, this memoir documents a remarkable period of change in north-western North America and one person’s role in some of it. At 317 pages not including notes, it is a lengthy reminiscence and rich in personal, political, and social detail. The memoir is divided into seventy-five chapters whose explanatory titles emphasize Grant’s geographic location and role in events that were, by the early 20th century, acknowledged as historically significant. Grant’s birth and family history, his upbringing by paternal relatives in Lower Canada and his return to the fur trade in his teens absorb the first part of the memoir. It then turns to Grant’s time as a relatively wealthy independent trader in present-day Montana, married in to Shoshone kin networks through his wife Quarra. In middle age Grant moved to Red River, travelling with sixty-two wagons, twelve carts, one hundred and six men and unnumbered women and children. Among these were some of the twenty-four children that would be born to Grant by eight different partners and the seven he would adopt.

Grant arrived in Red River in 1867 to join a Métis community with a rich social life and mixed seasonal economy. There he married Bruneau, an orphaned eighteen-year-old daughter of an elite Métis family. Grant’s memoir recalls Red River in the late 1860s as egalitarian and prosperous. He recalled, “One pleasant feature of the country was the general friendship that existed between all classes, rich and poor, and of any nationality or creed” (157). The annexation of Red River to Canada and the resistance that followed in the winter of 1869-1870 changed that. Grant ended up opposed to Riel, and began what would be a modest and largely backroom role in Manitoba politics that would last for another twenty years. Grant was a farmer, a shopkeeper, and later a mill-owner. He was also heavily involved in speculation of lands granted to Métis, including himself and his children, under Section 31 of the Manitoba Act. In 1891 Grant and Bruneau moved to Alberta, where he died in 1907.

Grant was a wheeler-dealer who loved women, dancing, horses, and was “kind hearted” towards children (182). His politics and his racial identity were fluid and situational, and lived out in a backdrop of massive social change and shifting boundaries. Grant’s memoirs can be interpreted by historians in a number of ways. For Ens, Grant is an exemplar of the rise and fall of a particular Métis identity and economy, one that moved strategically between Indigenous and settler worlds as opportunity arose. This argument is a version of the one presented in his influential 1996 book, Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing World of the Red River Métis in the Nineteenth-Century. Grant’s memoir also sheds light on the questions of family, kinship, and identity raised by Heather Devine in her recent, prizewinning book, The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenesis in a Canadian Family. Read through a different lens we might see Grant’s memoir as evidence for a 19thcentury Métis reckoning of masculinity, one that emphasized an expressive heterosexuality, fatherhood, generosity, care, and the affective ties of kin and community, both lived in proximity and across geographic space. Perhaps this was another of the gendered and intimate possibilities challenged by the process mapped by Sarah Carter in her The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (2008). But whatever we make of it, Johnny Grant’s memoir and Ens’ careful editorial work and painstaking research provide historians with a valuable and accessible resource.

Page revised: 9 July 2021

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