Métis Communities in the Red River Settlement: Territory, Identity, and Racialization, 1821-1926

Principal Investigator: Dr. Lisa Schaub

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl

Duration: 2016-2020

In the years from 1821 to 1926, the life of Métis communities in the Red River Settlement – today’s Winnipeg, Manitoba and environs – changed fundamentally. Canada’s development from a British colony to a Dominion within the British Empire was accompanied by an accelerated Euro-Canadian settlement of the Métis homeland on the prairies. In the half-century after 1821, Red River Métis families adapted to an increasingly Europeanized environment and developed distinctive land-based social, cultural, and economic practices that fueled their place-related belongingness and notion of Métis peoplehood. This collective experience led to a profound connection between Métis peoples and the land. By the time the Canadian government incorporated the Red River region into the Dominion of Canada, the Métis had developed the firm belief that they belonged to a distinct community with its own territorial customs and rights. In 1869, they created the Provisional Government of Assiniboia to secure a territory for the Métis within the nascent Canadian Dominion. Yet, the formation of a Métis political elite had paradoxical consequences for the status of Métis collectivity. In the decades following the foundation of Manitoba in 1870, the Red River Métis not only lost their land base which had sustained their way of life and informed their sense of peoplehood but, as a result of Canada’s assimilation policy, their self-image as a distinct community was obscured. Consequently, they disappeared from officially-recognized categories within the multicultural society of the Dominion of Canada. Only with the passage of the Constitution Act 1982 did the national government formally recognize them as one of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

This project examines the histories of five Métis individuals, their extended families, and communities in the Red River Settlement/Manitoba, who witnessed and remembered the transformation of their land-based lifestyle in the nineteenth century. The five individuals include Marie Rose Delorme Smith, Johnny Grant, Louis Goulet, Peter Erasmus, and Norbert Welsh. The study follows their changing relation to land, their diverse understanding of Métis identity, and their eclipse as distinct peoples within Canadian society. It outlines a three-stage process by which the Métis community’s relation to land and self-perception changed in the years from 1821 to 1926. Drawing on a vast variety of archival documents, it shows how these families used the land socially, culturally, and economically, when it was widely untouched by Euro-Canadian settlers, how their land use practices informed their sense of belonging to the Métis peoplehood, and how Canada’s settler colonial policy conflicted with and irrevocably changed their relation to land and self-image as Métis. The dissertation’s central argument is that the land itself shaped Métis identity in the nineteenth century and that changes in the relations between these people and the land on which they lived culminated in an official denial of their identity that was destined to be long-lived.


Schaub, Lisa (2019): Reconstructing Métis Territoriality, Relationality, and Identity in the Life of Norbert Welsh, 1840s to 1880s, in: Ursula Lehmkuhl/Elisabeth Tutschek (eds.), 150 Years of Canada: Grappling with Diversity since 1867 (Münster: Waxmann), 97-118.

Schaub, Lisa (2020): Métis Communities in the Red River Settlement: Territory, Identity, and Racialization, 1821-1926, Trier (Hochschulschriften).