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Manitoba History: Review: D. N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885

by Diane Payment
Canadian Parks Service

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

D. N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988, 240 pp., ill. ISBN 0-88920-958-8.

This important study is part of the revisionism in Métis history that has taken place in the last decade. The introductory historiographical essay provides a critical review of the interpretations which have dominated writings on the Métis. An imperialist British tradition, evolutionist racial theories and anti-French-Catholic biases permeated most of the literature until the 1970s, while so-called pro-Métis writings tended towards the polemic. Some of these views are unfortunately still in evidence. Sprague’s work, however, provides a new perspective to the early history of the province of Manitoba through the analysis of the correspondence of Sir J. A. Macdonald. As Prime Minister, except for a term between 1867 and 1891, he virtually dominated Canadian policy and development during this period. His National Policy was hinged on the control and transformation of Western Canada “in the interests of Dominion.” A key element of this policy was the dispersal and dispossession of the Native inhabitants of the North-West and re-settlement by Euro-Canadians. Whether the Macdonald government followed a clear-cut plan in the implementation of these policies remains unclear. Macdonald’s personal motives and less than honourable intentions are quite evident but his actions were essentially inconsistent and opportunistic.

The background and events leading to the Resistance of 1869-1870 are reviewed from a Métis perspective in chapter 3. The “obdurate Pere Ritchot’s” key role in the negotiations with Ottawa is the focus of chapter 4. The “assertion of Canadian authority” and the “elimination of the Riel factor” in the 1870s left the Métis powerless. Macdonald even deceived his Quebec lieutenant, George-Etienne Cartier, on the amnesty issue in order to appease Ontario prejudices after the Provisional Government’s execution of the abusive Thomas Scott. Sprague provides a most lucid and skillful analysis of the land claims issue in Manitoba in the subsequent chapters. Section 32 of the Manitoba Act theoretically guaranteed Métis land rights and usages while section 31 lay aside 1.4 million acres (565,000 hectares) “for the benefit of Half-breed residents.” However, “la coutume du pays” and “les droits des gens” were not respected. A series of amendments to the Manitoba Act regarding improvements and occupancy delayed or prevented the delivery of patent and ensured that the Métis would not secure a land base. The introduction of scrip (certificates generally worth $160 and $240 negotiable for land or money, depending on the issue) which was transferable and in the case of land scrip, selected by lottery, facilitated acquisition by speculators. By 1886, the redistribution of Métis lands to newcomers was a fait accompli. The interventions of some “friends of the Métis,” namely Rev. Ritchot and M.P. Joseph Royal, were to no avail. The indignant and exasperated Ritchot lashed out at Macdonald and his associates and accused them of deliberate deception (p. 136). The absence of a government based on a Métis and “Halfbreed” majority representation likewise prevented the passage of legislation safeguarding their rights and traditions. The evidence of collusion between government officials and business interests to isolate the Métis in this instance is convincingly argued.

It was not surprising, under these unfavourable conditions, that the Métis sought a new homeland in the North-West. This migration which began in 1873, accelerated in 1878 and became a veritable exodus in 1882. Sprague has emphasized that it was the desire to secure a land base and the principles of self-determination and freedom which guided resettlement and not the pursuit of the elusive buffalo and “primitive” ways. The trading activities of Salomon Venne and Xavier Letendre in the Saskatchewan district in the 1870s testify to their business acumen and “progressive” outlook, while the economic diversification of the “hunters, freighters and farmers” suggests resiliency and new directions. Regarding the developments in Saskatchewan in the 1880’s, however, I have some problems with the evidence of an outright conspiracy by Macdonald and local “agents provocateurs” to foment a rebellion to offset the CPR crisis. The machinations of the Prince Albert clique, more specifically Lawrence Clarke and D. H. Macdowall, who disliked and feared Riel cannot be denied. In their accounts, however, the Métis suggest that the resort to arms was the inevitable outcome of unsuccessful diplomatic negotiations. Clarke’s inflammatory remarks merely ignited the spark of “la guerre nationale” (as cited in the Depositions of the Métis in Papers of the Societe historique Métisse and in the Journal de 1’abbe Cloutier, as well as Louis Schmidt’s account). There were many factions and “conspirators” in the South Branch settlements in 1884. Was Charles Nolin a double-agent, or as suggested by Gabriel Dumont, a vacillating and fearful man? The missionaries’ actions were also contradictory. Resentful of Riel’s ascendancy over the Métis, Father Andre plotted his demise. But Father Fourmond was admonished for his support of the Métis and Father Touze broke down and left the Oblate order. Similarly, Baptiste Boucher Sr. was a member of the Exovidate and fought in the battles while two of his sons refused and fled. Macdonald had a long-standing personal vendetta against Riel and by ignoring him or refusing to negotiate with him as leader, he provoked the Métis. But I would suggest that the armed resistance was Métis inspired and directed and that Macdonald’s policies and agents played a crucial but not exclusive role in the events of 1884-1885. An investigation of Métis written and oral accounts may provide other clues to the complexity of the resistance movement.

Sprague has presented important new evidence in this study, but the identification of the Irishman O’Donoghue as Thomas Scott’s executor is not supported by Métis tradition. Those who formed the court-martial “brought the secret to their graves” although both Andre Nault and Ambroise-Didyme Lepine were pressured to talk by Father Morice and the media in the 1910’s. Francois Guillemette, who reportedly delivered the coup de grace, was shot in Pembina.

It would have been interesting if the author had included photographs of the Métis as well as of the “Canadians” in the publication. In sum, however, it is important to stress that Canada and the Métis is a significant contribution to the study of the Métis and in the vindication of their rights as an indigenous people in the West.

Jean Caron Sr., seated, wife Marguerite (nee Dumas), with son Albert and granddaughters Emma and Marie on their farm at Batoche, circa 1895. The Carons left St-Norbert, Manitoba for the West in 1872, first settling at St-Laurent de Grandin and then at Batoche, Sask. in 1881. Although Caron first made entry for river lot 52 in 1884, he only obtained patent in 1903, almost 20 years later. The family remained on the land until the 1970s when the property was incorporated into Batoche National Historic Site.
Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, OMI Collection

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