History of the Métis — Our Culture and Heritage

Posted on: July 26, 2019

Alberta is a wild country, even today. In the 1700s, it was even more so, but it was not empty or unoccupied: Indigenous peoples lived on and managed the land.

In the 1800s, European trappers and fur traders arrived into Alberta, seeking the bounty of the land. Many of these early European settlers started to put down roots and married first nation women, commonly referred to as ‘country wives.’ Their descendants are the Métis people of today.

The Métis were recognized as one of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada in the Constitution Act of 1982.

Who Are the Métis?

The Métis quickly developed their own language, known as Michif, as well as their own arts and crafts styles, which combined both sides of their heritage.

The most well-known element of their culture is their music. A favoured instrument is the fiddle, used to play upbeat jig music that combines Celtic and traditional French songs. The best known of this is the Red River Jig, which has evolved over time into many different versions. It is usually accompanied by a dance influenced by French dance, Scottish jigs and First Nation dance steps.

What is the History of the Métis?

The Métis people have existed as a distinct culture since the 18th century. Until the 19th century they lived at peace, building settlements that tracked the fur trade routes and were centres of exchange along waterways and watersheds. They led a highly mobile lifestyle, and built extensive connections, with kinship and community as their central values.

In the early 19th century, they came into conflict with the Hudson Bay Company; a conflict that became physical with the Battle of Seven Oaks. The Métis people, led by Cuthbert Grant, fought men from the Hudson Bay Company to protect their livelihood from the company’s attempts to take over the entire fur trade. The Métis flag, featuring a white infinity symbol on a blue background was flown during this battle and it was the first time it was recognized by non-Indigenous people. It remains the flag of the Métis Nation today, and is the oldest flag born on this land still in use today.

The Red River Métis settlement (now Winnipeg) was also a scene of conflict. At the time, it was organized according to traditional French ideas of land ownership, with river lots running along the edge. Canada attempted to force the locals to “modernize” their way of property and life, which led to the Red River Resistance in 1869. This ended with a treaty encoded in the Manitoba Act, recognizing the Métis’ land, language and education rights.

Like so many such treaties at the time, it was ultimately ignored. Many Metis chose to leave rather than deal with the settlers, forming settlements in Saskatchewan. Conflict continued, though, culminating in the Battle of Batoche in 1885. This was the largest battle ever fought on Canadian soil, and was the last stand of the displaced and weakened Métis. Their leader, Louis Riel, was executed by hanging. The buffalo vanished from the plains thanks to the new settlers’ practice of overhunting. More Métis fled west to settle in Alberta and British Columbia.

In 1982, they were formally recognized as their own nation within Canada, but by this time a lot of damage had already been done. Despite this, though, Métis culture and language has proved resilient and survives.

How Can I Learn About the Métis While Visiting Alberta?

In 1928, the Métis Nation of Alberta was founded to represent the Métis and to attempt to establish their own land.

In the late 1930s many of the towns and cities in Alberta began as Métis communities and in 1938 due to the Métis Population Betterment Act the government began to take Métis issues more seriously and began to build settlements which fall within our primary area of interest – Kikino Métis Settlement, Fishing Lake Metis Settlement, and Elizabeth Métis Settlement.

Kikino Métis Settlement
Kikino is located in northwestern Alberta, with a population of about 1100. It is a rural settlement with an economy centered around construction, ranching, and its oilfield. Tourism is also important, with several resorts and campgrounds including the Silver Birch Resort and Campground.

Fishing Lake Métis Settlement
The settlement at Fishing Lake is in on the eastern border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, northeast of Edmonton. It is a great base not just for cultural tourism, but for numerous outdoor activities (including, of course, fishing). In fact, tourism is a major part of the local economy. The settlement has a strong association with Louis Riel and his followers, and a thriving art scene that makes it well worth a visit.

Elizabeth Métis Settlement
Elizabeth is in northeastern Alberta, close to the City of Cold Lake and within an easy trip from Edmonton. Although it is the smallest of Alberta’s eight Métis settlements, it remains interesting, and it also includes a beautiful wildlife preserve. Nearby Cold Lake is gorgeous, with a provincial park and some great fishing.

Métis Crossing
Located not far northeast of Edmonton, Métis Crossing is a major Métis cultural gathering and interpretive centre. Including outdoor historical homesteads, it sits on five original Métis river lots on the North Saskatchewan River. With 672 acres of land and a brand-new Gathering Centre, they will be open all year starting January 2020. Métis Crossing offers a variety of activities, including nature trails, traditional arts and crafts, cultural interpretive programs around trapping, Métis cultural experiences, and hosts a variety of community events and concerts.

The history of the Métis is a fascinating tale of oppression and remarkable resilience. Their contribution to the culture of our region and our country cannot be ignored. Visitors to Alberta should spend some time exploring the culture, history and, the music of these amazing people. To find out more about the opportunities to explore Métis culture, visit Travel Lakeland today.

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