Metis land claim in court — scrip snapped up by 1870s speculators

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Given a free hand, the Canadian militia that had arrived with British Col. Garnet Wolseley from  the East, commenced to hunt out suspected supporters of Riel and members of the provisional government (Riel remained out of their  reach), whether anglophone or francophone. 

On September 23, 1870, a mob chased Elzear Goulet into the Red River, throwing rocks at him until he drowned. The English half-breed James Tanner died after being thrown from his buggy. Soldiers paraded the hapless Constable James Mulligan through the village bound to a cart and then incarcerated him in his own jail. In addition, rival newspaper offices were ransacked and elections were disrupted by armed hooligans. 

Dr. John Schultz, the leader of the Canadian Party during 1869-70, personally administered a horse-whipping to the editor of the New  Nation, Thomas Spence, on September 6, 1870, after he had criticized the actions of the militia and Schultz. Men under Schultz’s command then destroyed the newspaper’s printing press. 

A mob marched on a St. Boniface polling booth for the federal election of September 1872 near the home of Roger Goulet. Schultz’s father-in-law  opened fire with a pistol into the crowd at the polling booth to intimidate voters supporting the candidacy of HBC governor Donald Smith. Fortunately, the pistol-wielding James Farquharson wasn’t much of a shot and no one was hurt. 

Schultz warned Manitoba Lieutenent-Governor Adams Archibald not to make any arrests. Schultz insinuated that if any arrests were made then the militia members under his control would ensure subpoenas wouldn’t be heeded and that civil  war would erupt. 

The objection to Smith’s candidacy is  explained by the fact that, besides being  covetous of Metis land, the Canadians  also coveted the extensive landholdings  of the HBC. Their hatred of the HBC  had its roots in the “monopoly” the  Company held prior to Manitoba becoming a province, which they felt hindered the “progress” of the settlement and kept others from “sharing in the wealth” of the land. 

But, the best explanation for the Ontarians’ quest for land is that they firmly believed it was Canada’s manifest destiny to become the stewards of the North-West in order to exploit its riches. 

Archibald futilely asked for the help of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to restore his authority in Manitoba. Instead of receiving Macdonald’s support, Archibald was told not to touch Schultz because he was a friend of the government, although “this should not deter you from pursuing a firm course in the way of vindicating the law.” 

What Macdonald failed to tell Archibald is how he could vindicate the law when the militia was solidly in the camp of the Ontarians. 

After militiamen broke into jail to free  one of their members — arrested for gambling and lightly disciplined — Joseph Royal, Manitoba’s attorney-general, asked Archibald, “What protection can we hope for from a government whose soldiers are the first to make fun of the law and its authority.” 

It was in this atmosphere of violence and the power struggle for the spoils of a new province that the question of Metis lands guaranteed under the Manitoba Act was being addressed. Under the act, 1.4-million acres of land was to be set aside “for the benefit of the families of the half-breed residents.” 

Opposition soon arose as to how the  details of the grant would be worked out. The Anglican Bishop of Rupert’s Land, Robert Machray, worried about setting aside so much land for “a special class of people and religion.” He echoed the common complaint among the Ontarians that once the land was granted, it would not be “improved and occupied.” 

The bishop wrote to Canada’s Governor-General John Young, Lord Lisgar, on July 16, 1870, that such “an arrangement will not in the end be suffered to stand and it will create endless agitation and


The Ontarians didn’t want special status given to the Metis. Instead, they favoured a policy of first-come, first-served — and they were to be always first. 

What hindered the entire process was the fact that the details of how the transfer of land claims were to occur hadn’t been worked out prior to the passage of the Manitoba Act. The result was confusion and bitterness surrounding what the delegates negotiating Manitoba’s entry into Confederation believed they had accepted and what the government was later prepared to cede. 

Archibald began the process of awarding land to the Metis and paving the way for other settlers by negotiating  Treaty One which was signed on August  3, 1871, and extinguished aboriginal land claims in the province. In anticipation of the successful signing, he issued a proclamation for Metis residents to select townships for individual

allotments. The Metis were then to claim strips of  land along the rivers, amounting to about one-sixth of the province’s area. 

The Metis had become accustomed to  river lots of 12 chains (792 feet) along the Red and Assiniboine rivers and roughly two miles deep, yielding about 200 acres. But, the Canadian government wasn’t prepared to accept such generosity.  The minister in charge of the Dominion Lands Branch denounced Archibald for “giving countenance for the wholesale appropriation of large tracts of land for half-breeds.” 

The lieutenant-governor was then advised by the minister to “leave the Land Department and the Dominion Government to carry out their policy without volunteering any interference.” 

The land agency representing Ottawa in Manitoba recommended in January 1872 that the 1.4-million acres be taken from 68 townships drawn at random from open prairie in Manitoba’s 408 townships with redeemable scrip being issued to the individual children of Metis families. 

Sanford Fleming in his book of his adventures in the West, while seeking a rail route to the Pacific, wrote somewhat naively that “there is room to spare for all, after doing the fullest justice to the old settlers (Metis).” 

But, he did correctly recognize that another trend would soon dominate. The Metis because they “do not like farming ... and they therefore make but poor farmers; and, as enterprising settlers with a little capital come in, much of the land is sure to change hands. The fact that land can be bought from others, as well as from the government, will quicken instead of retarding its sale.” 

By the end of 1872, The Manitoban was reporting that speculators had commenced to buy up the rights to scrip. It was reputed that one individual already held scrip to 40,000 acres in Winnipeg. 

To prevent speculation in scrip, the Manitoba government was prepared to pass a bill preventing heads of families from selling their children’s allotments. 

When the province was told that such  legislation was unconstitutional, Ottawa  stepped in with an order-in-council taking away the right of heads of families to  become involved in the allotment of  240-acres for each child. 

Heads of families, who could prove residency on land before the creation of  the province, were given scrip valued at  $160 or 160 acres of land. It was ruled  that scrip could be sold and transferred because to allow otherwise was deemed to be unconstitutional. 

The first issue of the Manitoba Free Press on November 30, 1872 told of “half-breeds” in 1871 being asked by government officials to select unoccupied land between the Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba as part of their land grant, and “make improvement on it, go to the office to have it recorded.” 

The Free Press said immigrants had also been asked to select land in the same area, so that when the Metis went to have their claims registered, they were told “it was bought and paid for by men in Ontario.” 

The “best of the land is being sold to Ontario capitalists, who will let it lie unimproved for years, till it rises in price, thereby hindering the progress of settlement.” 

In another instance, new settlers from Ontario began to homestead on land that showed signs of occupation in the Pembina Mountains along a stream they called the Boyne. When the actual Metis landholders returned from the buffalo hunt to the area they called Riviere aux Ilets, they found the Ontarians preparing to make the Metis’ homes their own. Archibald had to intervene on behalf of the Metis to prevent an armed conflict. 

Because the Metis felt unsafe in Manitoba, Catholic Father Kavanagh of White Horse Plains wrote that “many (Metis) are putting their land up for sale” and moving westward. 

Archibald conceded that the situation in Manitoba was so precarious for the Metis that many felt they lived in “a state of slavery.” 

The attitude of the Canadian Party is best shown by the statement of the saloonkeeper Davison who said, “The pacification we want is extermination.  We shall never be satisfied till we have driven the French half breeds out of the country.” 

The Manitoban published accusations of Metis being coerced into selling their scrip which was snapped up by speculators at fire-sale prices. 

But, it can also be said that many Metis were more than willing to sell their  scrip because they didn’t want to be tied to a set piece of land in a province under  the control of a central authority. These  Metis moved westward to continue their traditional, unfettered lifestyle of pursuing buffalo. What they failed to realize is  that buffalo were on the verge of extinction and their free-and-easy lifestyle was  also under threat because of this fact. 

By 1876, so much scrip had reached  the speculative market that what had been previously valued at $160 for 160 acres was reduced to a mere $50 cash. 

Meanwhile, legislation was being passed and order-in-councils were being  issued to define who was actually eligible  to receive scrip redeemable in land and patents for land. Depending upon the time and the circumstances, those eligible

either diminished in number or


Increases were often due to the need to get more land into the hands of speculators. Numbers diminished because land  agents frequently disallowed claims to land because they believed the Metis did  not make improvements or failed to show long-term occupation. Those Metis that could prove occupancy and improvements under the government’s rules received a patent for their land. 

The real problem for many Metis claims of landownership was that they  were predominately involved in the annual buffalo hunt and were frequently away from “home” for extended periods of time. 

By 1886, the redistribution of Metis land to immigrants was

regarded as the normal state of

affairs, and an order-in-council pegged the deadline for late applicants of scrip to May 1, 1886. 

But, some land was awarded later when allotments were cancelled after recipients were found to be ineligible. 

An interesting footnote to the awarding of land occurred in 1898, when a more sympathetic Liberal government headed by Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier issued an order-in-council approving a claim made on behalf of Louis Riel’s son and heir Jean.

The difficulty of determining what was and what wasn’t honoured under the Manitoba Act

remains just as contentious today as was the case when  the province was in its infancy.