When the Government of Canada presented itself at our doors it found us at peace. It found that the Metis people of the North-West could not only live well without it, as I have already shown in the course of this article, but that it had a government of its own, free, peaceful, well-functioning, contributing to the work of civilization in a way that the Company from England could never have done without thousands of soldiers. It was a government with an organized constitution, whose jurisdiction was all the more legitimate and worthy of respect, because it was exercised over a country that belonged to it.
What did the Government do? It laid hands on the land of the Metis as if it were its own. By this one act it showed its plan to defraud them of their future. It even placed their present condition in jeopardy. For not only did it take the land from under their feet, it even took away their right to use it. Thus deprived of its axis in the world, at the beginning of its existence, the Metis element is in a much sadder position than even the poor class among the immigrants. No matter how poor the immigrants might be, by the very fact that they grew up in a developed society, they came to the North-West with a precious moral dowry of habits of economy, of the arts and excellent aptitudes. They are rich and able to earn their living. They form a prosperous society, and in the more of less complete enjoyment of their land become industrious people.
But the Metis at the beginning of their career, as they are today, had not yet attained this degree of progress. To take away their country was to weaken the strength of their character; by reducing them to a painful fight for every mouthful of food was to take from them the power to achieve this progress. With a little observation it can easily be seen that each nation, each tribe, in its most primitive state, has possessions which its country furnishes in abundance without needing to labour greatly at transforming them into material for subsistence.
God, who is their Father, so endows them, first because He is good, and then because He wishes that the gratitude of all mankind be raised towards Him. Finally, it is part of His kind plan that each people be happy from its beginning, that it have reason to bless the name of God, as much for the favours it receives from Him in its cradle, as for the wealth and opulence which crown its work and undertakings at later periods in its life.
I address this question to all those enlightened by ideals of truth and simple justice. Does justice allow a stronger people to snatch away the homeland of a weaker people? Humanity answers no. Human conscience condemns such an act as criminal and its grievous consequences are many and difficult to measure. It is an evil that brings murder with it. One's native land is the most important of all things on earth. Above all it is made holy through the ancestors who pass it on. To take it away from the people it gave birth to, is as abominable as to tear a mother from her little children at the time they need her most. But the fatherland is called the fatherland because it is the gift of God, our Father; a priceless heritage - I should say, rather, a divine heritage! A people who unjustly take away the native land of another, commits the greatest sacrilege, because all other sacrileges seem to me as only parts of it.
Well! With regard to the Metis, the Ottawa Government is guilty of just that.
If at least, when plundering their inheritance if it had only shown enough conscience to pay them yearly even a semblance of interest.
It took care to treat with the Indians. It recognized all their little camps with their chiefs. It is true that the Government slandered Big Bear and his tribe in the eyes of the civilized world, because Big Bear and his Crees, while not enlightened enough to demand the full value of their land, had nevertheless enough good sense and knowledge to be unwilling to yield them up without reasonable compensation.
It is true that finding the other Indians more timid and less farseeing than Big Bear, the Government was tricky enough not to recognize their right to estimate their lands and set a price on them. It is true that these transactions with ignorant human beings that were given the respectable name of treaties, were only clever tricks to conjure away the possessions of the others. It is true that instead of killing the Indians in a large number as it would have liked by total starvation, it set up among them a sort of agency appointed, it seemed, to make them disappear more slowly with putrid, rancid pork, meagre inedible bacon; and by the widest possible spread of venereal disease, to plunge Indian women and girls, around the forts, into a state of demoralization impossible to describe. All this is true. But it is still a fact that the Government at least recognized the Indians in some way, leaving to the chiefs somethings of their position, a sort of peace and, to a certain point, some consideration of their tribes.
To the Metis nothing! In 1872, during the treating with the Indians at Lake Qu'Appelle, the Metis reminded the Lieutenant-Governor of their rights. They explained that their rights in the Canadian North-West were not inferior to those of the Indians and that they could not let their country be taken in that way. He answered that the Government would treat with the Metis, when it had finished treating with the Indians. Having already dealt with the Metis, the Government knew that it would have to pay them. And the Indians might have asked for more than it wanted to give. So by treating with the Indians first, it could hoodwink them as it wished and take advantage of their ignorance, hoping all the time that the immigrants would be so numerous and have the upper hand, and so it could say, "Here, that is all. We owe you nothing more."
In the same year of 1872 the Government set aside for the Metis of Manitoba one-seventh of the land that had been granted to them. It made a kind of distribution among them saying to those in the North-West, "Wait, you will get as much." Five years passed in patient waiting.
In 1878, the Metis petitions from the Territories began to knock at the official doors in Ottawa. In the autumn of 1887 these petitions became widespread.
Lake Qu'Appelle, Red Deer, Wood Mountain, Cypress Hills, Edmonton, Victoria, Battleford, Lac La Biche, the settlements of St. Laurent and Prince Albert demanded justice. Their respectful complaints were treated with contempt. They were indeed respectful, these claims of a people humbly asking in their own homes for the return of their own property from the audacious intruders who had deprived them of it.
The voice of the venerable Bishop of St. Albert vibrated in unison with the beloved people of his diocese. How may entreaties did not Msgr. Grandin make to the Federal Minister expecially during the last six years? How many letters filled with gentleness and with strength left his saddened Bishop's palace begging the Government to act justly with regard to the Metis? The situation grew daily so deplorable, that the entire clergy felt it had to add its pressing protest to that of the people. The Grand-Vicar of St. Albert diocese, the Rev. Father Leduc even went with a delegation to carry the grievances and the petitions to the capital. The Rev. P. Andre, Superior of the Saskatchewan Oblates, went several times to the Battleford Government, to inform the so-called master of the North-West what the Metis people were saying and wanting all around them, even as far as the Government's forts; that they must have sufficient compensation for their lands. The Reverend Father's presentations were not listened to. No answer. No satisfaction.
Prince Albert, a Metis settlement long before Confederation was formed, raised its voice. Mr. James Isbister and other Metis, who had been the first to open up that place, drafted and redrafted petition after petition and despatched them to Ottawa. These were not even acknowledged. On the south branch of the Saskatchewan, the French-Canadian Metis had settled. Their colony dated from 1868, with a large settlement of about two hundred families.
In this colony existed a Metis Government, of which the Canadian Government could not become trustee unless by the consent of the people. Because this consent had neither been asked nor given, the Council of the Metis of the Saskatchewan and their Laws of the Prairie continued to be the true Government and the true laws of that country, as they virtually still are today.
At their head was a dedicated man, always ready to render service, hospitable, amiable, of a loyal and honest character whom it was good to have as a friend; a hunter renowned in all the North-West, an able voyaguer, but also a warrior terrible to encounter, noble in affections. The Blackfoot knew him as fearless and valiant. The Crees respected him in war and loved him in peace.
His reputation had long been established among the tribes at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, on the Prairies, on the banks of Red River, beyond the frontier boundary to the source of Milk River and along the Missouri; one of the most chivalrous men of the New World, Gabriel Dumont, my kinsman.
At the time when the Indians were to be feared, the Metis of the South Branch had settled near one another closely on lots much longer than wide. They asked the Ottawa Government to survey them in this manner. This was not granted.
The Metis had their hay lands; the Government took them.
They had commons and pasture lands for their horses and cattle; it took them, too.
They had woodlots; the Government seized them. They could no longer have the wood they needed, without paying a special tax, without buying a permit.
The lands that they owned and which belonged to them once, by the Indian title, twice for having defended them with their blood, and thrice for having built and lived on them, cultivated, fenced, and worked them, were returned to them for a consideration of two dollars an acre.
Translated by Elizabeth Maquet. 1982