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The Métis
Original title:  Un métis et ses deux épouses, vers 1825-1826

Source: Link


The biography of Métis leader Cuthbert GRANT, who was a central figure in the pemmican war [see An Arduous Task, Marked by a Private War (1812–21)], recalls how the emergence of a national consciousness among his people had a decisive effect on the history of the colony:

“Cuthbert Grant, effectively bilingual, was the first educated Métis to wield a profound influence over the fate of his people. He was largely responsible for implanting in their minds the concept of a Métis nation that played such a vital role in the Red River uprising of 1869–70 and the Northwest rebellion of 1885. Yet Grant was no rebel. Throughout his career he was a staunch supporter of the authority he knew, first that of the North West Company and, after 1821, that of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he made his violent mark in history not as an insurrectionary but as a partisan in a private war between two trading companies struggling within the great political vacuum of the early northwest.”


The Métis people originated, in part, from numerous marriages à la façon du pays (the custom of the country) between fur traders of European descent and First Nations or mixed-blood women, as described in this excerpt from the biography of the businessman, author, and governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) George SIMPSON:

“Before his marriage to Frances, Simpson, like many others engaged in the fur trade, had developed relations with mixed-blood women, formalized in a manner known as marriage à la façon du pays. The agreement to live together involved no legal obligation on the part of the man, though many of the unions were lifelong, and in cases where the man left his partner, he usually made some provision for her welfare and that of her children.”


Through his involvement in traditional Métis activities, Pascal BRELAND, fur trader, farmer, and son-in-law of Cuthbert Grant, took his place among the Métis political, social, and economic elites. His various appointments led him to assist the governors of Red River [see Colonial Administration]:

“[Breland’s] extensive involvement in the fur trade, as both trader and middleman, brought him wealth and social prestige. His nickname, ‘le Roi des traiteurs,’ most likely given to him by the Métis and also used on occasion by French Canadian and Scottish fur traders, probably attests to both his fortune and his rank. According to his descendants he occupied an important position in the Métis’s semi-annual buffalo-hunting expeditions, possibly replacing Grant as captain of the hunt following the latter’s death in 1854.

Breland’s earliest involvement in the political affairs of the settlement occurred when he joined the Métis protest against the HBC’s fur-trade monopoly at the trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer* in May 1849. He was subsequently selected to sit on a committee set up by Louis Riel* Sr to express the Métis’s grievances against the HBC and Adam Thom*, the recorder of Rupert’s Land. Over the next two decades Breland was to occupy several important positions within the Red River settlement’s administrative structure. He sat on its governing body, the Council of Assiniboia, from 19 Sept. 1857 until 10 Aug. 1868 and the council appointed him magistrate (1850, 1861), petty judge (1851), and census-taker (1856), all for the district of White Horse Plain, and member of the board of public works (1856). Appointments such as these for members of the Métis ‘power group,’ although indications of blatant favouritism, were nevertheless awarded to individuals whose wealth and social prominence may have made them ‘natural leaders.’ Some authors have argued that Breland and others like him ‘would have been elected by popular vote, had that machinery existed.’”


The integration of Métis and aboriginal women into colonial high society was subject to progress and setbacks. The life of Sarah McLEOD (Ballenden), daughter of a fur trader and a mixed-blood woman, is a good example:

“As the wife of a rising young officer, Sarah Ballenden enjoyed life in Red River.…

“… Such was this vivacious young native woman’s social success that, according to James Bird, her friends predicted she was ‘destined to raise her whole Cast above european ladies in their influence on society here.’

“In 1850, however, Sarah Ballenden found herself at the centre of a scandal which had serious racial and social repercussions. What appears to have been an indiscreet flirtation on the part of Mrs Ballenden with Captain Christopher Vaughan Foss… provided fuel for gossip.… Anne Clouston, who came out from Britain in the fall of 1849 to marry HBC clerk Augustus Edward Pelly, was piqued at having to give precedence to a woman who by race and reputation she did not consider her equal. She circulated gossip to discredit Sarah and demanded that the governor of Assiniboia, Major William Bletterman Caldwell*, censure her immoral conduct. When John Ballenden left the settlement briefly in June 1850 to attend the annual meeting of the Council of the Northern Department, Mrs Ballenden was subjected to a concerted effort to exclude her from respectable society, led by Caldwell, the Andersons, the Cockrans, as well as Chief Trader John Black* and his wife.”


Tensions between white and Métis residents recurred throughout Red River’s history. Some attempted to reconcile the parties, as seen in the biography of Andrew Graham Ballenden BANNATYNE, businessman and member of the Council of Assiniboia [see The Red River Rebellion and the Creation of Manitoba, 186970]:

“Bannatyne played an important role in the drama of 1869–70, not least in his attempt to bridge the gap of fear and apprehension between mixed-bloods and whites. The racial tension underlying the events in the settlement was illustrated in February 1869 when the often arrogant Charles Mair*, an ally of John Christian Schultz* and the Canadian party, insulted Bannatyne’s wife Annie, a mixed-blood. ‘Mr. Mair got an awful overhauling from Mrs. Bannatyne – it is said she slapt his face and then struck him several times with a riding whip in Mr. B’s store in presence of several persons.’ Bannatyne certainly saw himself as a conciliator in the conflict of 1869–70 but he did not conceal his sympathy for the Métis. Yet his links with the English-speaking community were broad.… As a prominent member of the English-speaking community Bannatyne was called upon to chair many of the tense meetings of the winter of 1869–70, indicating his general acceptability to most residents of Red River. But Bannatyne’s own position was clear. At a meeting of all factions on 26 November, called to determine Winnipeg’s position at the convention of 1 December, Bannatyne was openly sympathetic to the Métis desire to secure terms from Canada.”


To learn more about the evolution of French- and English-speaking Métis communities in Red River as well as their interaction with the white populations between 1812 and 1870, consult biographies in the following lists.


Development and Demands of Métis Communities
Métis and Whites: Relationships and Representations
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