The Manitoba Act
A History of Broken Promises
On December 1st, 1869, the lands the Métis knew as their own would come under attack. This attack would not be from armies or battalions, but instead, from the sale of the ground right beneath their feet.
December 1st, 1869 marks that day that the transfer of land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Dominion Government of Canada became complete. This transaction marks one of the largest transfers of territory and sovereignty in the history of the world.
To the Métis, this transaction dramatically affected their stability and left many feeling much more uncertain about their future. The Métis right to land was now questioned and forces much larger than the community at Red River were mobilizing to take full advantage of this newly acquired landscape.
Prior to the transfer of land, the Métis families in the Red River area had lived peaceable lives. They set up systems of land ownership and governance structures and life moved generally followed the flow of the fur trade and the little farming that was conducted in the area.
As it became clear that the land controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company would be transferred to the Dominion Government, both the Dominion forces and the Métis took stock of their positions. The events during the year of 1869 leading up to the proclamation of the Manitoba Act are referred to as the Red River Rebellion. The Red River Rebellion comprised the various acts of resistance to the Dominion encroachment onto their land and systems of ownership.
As response to the escalating events of 1869, in January of 1870 the Métis provisional government led by Louis Riel issued a List of Rights. It was intended that this List be brought to Ottawa to petition the government.
The list contained the following statements:
- That in view of the present exceptional position of the Northwest, duties up goods imported into the country shall continue as at present (except in the case of spirituous liquors) for three years, and for such further time as may elapse, until there be uninterrupted railroad communication between Red River settlement and St. Paul, and also steam communications between Red River settlement and Lake Superior.
- As long as this country remains a territory in the Dominion of Canada, there shall be no direct taxation, except such as may be imposed by the local legislature, for municipal or other local purposes.
- That during the time this country shall remain in the position of a territory, in the Dominion of Canada, all military, civil and other public expenses, in connection with the general government of the country, or that have hitherto been borne by the public funds of the settlement, beyond the receipt of the above mentioned duties, shall be met by the Dominion of Canada.
- That while the burden of public expense in this territory is borne by Canada, the country be governed by a Lieutenant-Governor from Canada, and a Legislature, three members of whom being heads of departments of the Government, shall be nominated by the Governor General of Canada.
- That after the expiration of this exceptional period, the country shall be governed, as regards its local affairs, as the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec are now governed, by a Legislature by the people, and a Ministry responsible to it under a Lieutenant- Governor, appointed by the Governor General of Canada.
- That there shall be no interference by the Dominion Parliament in the local affairs of this territory, other than is allowed in the provinces, and that this territory shall have and enjoy in all respects, the same privileges, advantages and aids in meeting the public expenses of this territory as the provinces have and enjoy.
- That, while the Northwest remains a territory, the Legislature have a right to pass all laws local to the territory, over the veto of the Lieutenant-Governor by a two-third vote.
- A homestead and pre-emption law.
- That, while the Northwest remains a territory, the sum of $25,000 a year be appropriated for schools, roads and bridges.
- That all the public buildings be at the expense of the Dominion treasury.
- That there shall be guaranteed uninterrupted steam communication to Lake Superior, within five years; and also the establishment, by rail, of a connection with the American railway as soon as it reaches the international line.
- That the military force required in this country be composed of natives of the country during four years. [Withdrawn after a vote of 16 yeas to 23 nays.]
- That the English and French languages be common in the Legislature and Courts, and that all public documents and acts of the Legislature be published in both languages.
- That the Judge of the Supreme Court speak the French and English languages.
- That treaties be concluded between the Dominion and the several Indian tribes of the country as soon as possible.
- That, until the population of the country entitles us to more, we have three representatives in the Canadian Parliament, one in the Senate, and two in the Legislative Assembly.
- That all the properties, rights and privileges as hitherto enjoyed by us be respected, and that the recognition and arrangement of local customs, usages and privileges be made under the control of the Local Legislature.
- That the Local Legislature of this territory have full control of all the lands inside a circumference having upper Fort Garry as a centre, and that the radius of this circumference be the number of miles that the American line is distant from Fort Garry.
- That every man in the country (except uncivilized and unsettled Indians) who has attained the age of 21 years, and every British subject, a stranger to this country who has resided three years in this country and is a householder, shall have a right to vote at the election of a member to serve in the Legislature of the country, and in the Dominion Parliament; and every foreign subject, other than a British subject, who has resided the same length of time in the country, and is a householder, shall have the same right to vote on condition of his taking the oath of allegiance, it being understood that this article be subject to amendment exclusively by the Local Legislature.
- That the Northwest territory shall never be held liable for any portion of the L- 300,000 paid to the Hudson's Bay Company or for any portion of the public debt of Canada, as it stands at the time of our entering the confederation; and if, thereafter, we be called upon to assume our share of said public debt, we consent only, on condition that we first be allowed the amount for which we shall be held liable.
By May 2nd, 1880, after much debate and negotiation, the bulk of the above list was brought before the House of Commons for debate. The new Act under debate was now entitled the Manitoba Act and amongst its provisions included land rights and entry into Confederation for the Métis of Red River. On May 12th, the Act passed and in doing affirmed both rights for the Métis and for their Children.
Sections 32 and 33 of the Act were of special importance as they answered the questions of Métis land rights. These sections read as follows:
(2) All grants of estates less than freehold in land made by the Hudson's Bay Company up to the eighth day of March aforesaid, shall, if required by the owner, be converted into an estate in freehold by grant from the Crown.
(3) All titles by occupancy with the sanction and under the license and authority of the Hudson's Bay Company up to the eighth day of March aforesaid, of land in that part of the Province in which the Indian Title has been extinguished, shall, if required by the owner, be converted into an estate in freehold by grant from the Crown.
(4) All persons in peaceable possession of tracts of land at the time of the transfer to Canada, in those parts of the Province in which the Indian Title has not been extinguished, shall have the right of pre-emption of the same, on such terms and conditions as may be determined by the Governor in Council.
(5) The Lieutenant-Governor is hereby authorized, under regulations to be made from time to time by the Governor General in Council, to make all such provisions for ascertaining and adjusting, on fair and equitable terms, the rights of Common, and rights of cutting Hay held and enjoyed by the settlers in the Province, and for the commutation of the same by grants of land from the Crown.
With the act in place and all parties agreeing to the terms set forth in it, on June 15th, 1870, Manitoba became Canada’s fifth province.
For many Métis, the protection and terms set forth in the Act were viewed with optimism and hope. Unfortunately, it would not take long for the agreement to become frayed and the Dominion Government exert its power in an overt and dominating manner.
As the ink was still drying on the paper, the Dominion government moved 1500 troops into the Red River area. Settlers also began to arrive. Attitudes in Ontario were also ambivalent about this new ‘half-breed’ Province and offered little public support for fair and honest dealings with the Métis.
Between the signing of the Act in 1870 and 1880, the Dominion government tried on a number of occasions to have various portions of the Act amended or changed. Despite a ruling that prevented changes to the actual Act in 1871, the Dominion Government did succeed in passing a number of statues that directly affected how the Métis accessed their lands and how lands were held in families. It is suggested by some historians that only “about 15% of the claimants of allotments of the 1.4 million acres received and made use of their land.” (John Weinstein, A Quiet Revolution West: The Rebirth of Métis Nationalism, 2007.)
The constant frustration of battling an inflexible and difficult government combined with the never-ending flood of new settlers to the region left many Métis wondering if their traditional homeland was worth fighting for any longer. For many, that answer became no and a shockingly high number of Métis emigrated from the traditional homeland. The migration of many Métis families away from the Red River area is documented through census records of the area. These records show that Manitoba’s Métis population dropped from 83% in 1870 to a mere 7% in 1886.
Many of these Métis would leave their new Province for better lands, better chances of success and areas where they could carry on their lives as formerly. Many families found themselves living in the environs of Batoche.
Unfortunately, little did these people know that the events at Red River would pale in comparison to what would unfold on the fields of Batoche.