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]