In Rupert’s Land and the North-West, prior to the creation of Manitoba in 1870, there was no straightforward way to classify people so that they would accord with perceptions of the French-English duality that had characterised British North America from 1763 — particularly in the Upper and Lower/ West and East Canadas (Ontario and Quebec) — and that persisted after the creation of a single Dominion of Canada in 1867. Two examples that illustrate changes in approaches to classification over time are set out below.

a) Defining People, 1818:

In 1818, as part of the process of resolving violent disputes at Red River Settlement between the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] and its rival, the North West Company [NWC], trials took place at the Assizes of York, Upper Canada. Court reporter, Samuel Hull Wilcocke, attempted to clarify who was contesting whom, by defining categories of people associated with the fur trade at the time. According to Wilcocke’s definitions:

  • the term English/ Anglois [sic] meant: “An Englishman, the English,” but, in the context of the fur trade, it also “applied exclusively to the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whether English, French, or Half-breeds.”
  • Likewise, although the term French/ François [sic] meant “A Frenchman, the French,” in the fur trade context, it “applied exclusively to the Canadian fur-traders,” regardless of country, language, or nation.
  • He noted that “Half-breeds,” was an English-language term that was synonymous with the French-language terms “Métiʃs” [sic: long s in source] and “Bois-brulés.” All three terms were “names given to the mixed population which exists in the North-West arising from the connection of Europeans or Canadians with Indian women.”[i]

Thus, at the time that Wilcocke was writing, ‘French’ in the fur trade meant ‘operating out of Montreal’ and English meant ‘operating out of England’ — regardless of the cultural background or spoken language or nationality of a person associated with the fur trade.

b) Defining People, 1870:

By 1869–1870, ideas about who could be counted as ‘French’ and who should be counted as ‘English’ at Red River Settlement do not appear to have been particularly precise.[ii] Depending on who was doing the counting and for what purpose, one might be described as belonging to either classification — sometimes because of one’s cultural background, or spoken languages, or nationality, but sometimes regardless of those factors.

Determination seems to have depended primarily on where people lived, only secondarily on their heritage, and lastly on whether they spoke either language (though perhaps the criteria were not always judged in that order).

At Red River people lived in parishes. A ‘French’ parish meant the first church built there was instituted by Catholic religious orders from Quebec, and an ‘English’ parish meant the first church built there was instituted by a Protestant religious order out of Britain.

Sometimes Kildonan Parish, where the original settlers spoke Gaelic, was counted as English (meaning ‘not French’), but other times it was described as ‘Scotch’ — the first church built there was Presbyterian. St. Peter’s Parish likewise appears to have had a dual identity. Sometimes it was described as the ‘Indian parish,’ because it was situated in Chief Peguis’ First Nation territory and was inhabited by members of his band. At other times, however, St. Peter’s was counted as ‘English’ — for example during the elections for the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The latter occurrence might have been a reflection of the fact that a number of Métis families of Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trade descent lived in the parish (making the population there partly English/ Bungee speaking and overwhelmingly ‘not French’), or because the first church built there was instituted by a Protestant religious order out of Britain.

St. Andrew’s Parish was also counted as ‘English,’ although by 1830 the parishioners there were described as “Orkney, English, Scotch, French, Welsh, Norwegian, Negro, and Jewish halfbreeds,” and likewise spoke Bungee.[iii]

[i] Samuel Hull Wilcocke, ed., Report of the proceedings connected with the disputes between the Earl of Selkirk and the North-West Company at the assizes, held at York, in Upper Canada, October, 1818 (Montreal: Printed by James Lane and Nahum Mower, 1819), xiii–xiv. Wilcocke felt justified in adding:  “Métiʃ, [sic: long s in source] is a corruption of the Spanish Mestice [sic]; and the term of Bois-brulé is said to be derived from the sallow complexion of the half-breeds being compared to the appearance of a forest of fir-trees that had been burnt, an occurrence frequent in those parts, and which assumes an universal brown and dingy colour.” While there is no question that those who laboured in the North-West would exhibit sun-burned visages, a conjecture, equally as likely as that of Wilcocke, would be that the group name ‘Bois-Brulé’ was a contraction referencing Étienne Brûlé, the first and fabled coureur de bois. See Olga Jurgens, “Brûlé, Étienne,” DCB, (accessed 22 February 2013). See also John Pritchard, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, and Frederick Damien Heurter, Narratives of John Pritchard, Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, and Frederick Damien Heurter, respecting the aggressions of the North-West Company, against the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon Red River (London: John Murray, 1819), 14, 18, also 39, 77, where the term “half-breed” is used as a counter-distinction from “natives,” which term is reserved for “Indians”; see also page 75, where Heurter also refers to “Bois-brulés” as a group name among North-West company personnel. The term “Metiss” appears once (page 19), in the Narratives, in a section of speech originally made in French by Alexander McDonell, translated into “Indian language” by Joseph Primeau, and finally re-translated into English by Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun. Throughout the rest of his narrative — and those of Pritchard and Heurter — “half-breed” is used. Pritchard, however, asserts that the ‘half-breeds’ antagonistic to the Selkirk Settlement — “servants of the North-West Company” — self-identified “for the first time” as “‘Bois-brulés,’ and the ‘New Nation,’” c. 1816.

[ii] See, for example, Alexander Begg, Alexander Begg’s Red River journal: and other papers relative to the Red River resistance of 1869-1870, ed. W.L. Morton (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), who does not clarify to whom exactly he is referring when he alludes to group activity or movements, affinity, and responsibility. He generally portrays “half breeds” as either “English” or “French” without any apparent awareness of whether they spoke those languages or lived in parishes nominally designated according to English or French religious orders. Sometimes he uses the term “Native” — meaning born in the region — but does not confine it to those of Aboriginal heritage. It is not always clear whether those whom he designates “English speaking settlers” include any who are not Selkirk Settlers (and possibly Gaelic speaking), or who are not Canadian. The activity of ‘Half breads’ (speakers of Aboriginal languages or not) is therefore under-acknowledged in Begg’s version of events.

[iii] Rev. William Cockran, quoted in Eleanor M. Blain, “The Bungee dialect of the Red River Settlement,” M.A. thesis (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1989), 6.