It could have been St. Boniface, N.D.

But for an imaginary line drawn by two governments who knew little about the West, today’s St. Boniface could very well have been in Pembina, North Dakota. The drawing of a boundary line, however — along with the wishes of Hudson’s Bay Company officials — showed how distant decisions could affect local common sense.

Left to their own devices, the Metis and the French-Canadians of Rupert’s Land would have preferred to settle permanently at Pembina for the very logical reason that food was more plentiful and the Red River didn’t flood as severely as further north. “No one is in a hurry to come live at The Forks to die of starvation,” explained Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher to the Bishop of Quebec in August 1822.

Like the first Selkirk settlers, and the Metis before them, Provencher and his missionaries concluded that survival during the winter months was only possible at Pembina, some 115 kilometres (70 miles) south of The Forks, close to the wintering grounds of the bison herds. Early experience also showed that the Red flooded regularly at the Forks and early frosts often killed crops. Many Metis felt Pembina was the logical choice for permanent settlement.

And yet, Provencher had received his instructions to establish his mission at The Forks, on the east side of the Red River on land given to the Catholic Church by the Earl of Selkirk. Consequently, in July 1818, Provencher started work on his first chapel. Come mid-September, however, lack of food made it clear that the trek to Pembina was necessary. So it would be for the next four years, with the mission of Pembina ever gaining in importance (500 residents, an almost finished church, a school and a presbytery) while the mission of St. Boniface at the Forks remained a collection of unfinished buildings.

Distant decisions, however, brought St. Boniface back to the forefront. 

After the War of 1812, the British and American governments had chosen the 49th Parallel as the boundary between their territories. Pembina was just south of the border, on the American side, out of the jurisdiction of the HBC and the Canadian church hierarchy.

With the death of Lord Selkirk, the destiny of the Red River Colony was in the hands of John Halkett, Selkirk’s brother-in-law. Having toured the colony in the spring of 1822, Halkett was not impressed with the progress of the St. Boniface mission. Furthermore, he was worried that Pembina would become the headquarters for American fur traders. He wrote to the Bishop of Quebec, demanding that Provencher abandon the Pembina mission.

Although Halkett did not meet Provencher personally during his visit, he left him a letter of instruction, reproaching him for having invested in Pembina to the detriment of St. Boniface. And so in the winter of 1822-23, Provencher and his missionaries spent their last winter in Pembina. Provencher announced that they would be abandoning the mission in the spring and invited the Metis families to relocate at Red River.

Some families followed the missionaries north, and on seeing how destitute The Forks were, settled at St. Francois Xavier (White Horse Plains). Many more would follow later, after Sioux raids and after Pembina was transferred (temporarily) to the state of Minnesota. Combined with increasing numbers of French-Canadian settlers, they formed the nucleus for today’s St. Boniface.

— from Manitoba 125: A History: Vol. 1, Rupert’s Land to Riel, 

Great Plains Publications, Winnipeg,