Many languages besides English and French were spoken at Red River Settlement. Some visitors to the settlement were no doubt bi-lingual, but they might have spoken any two languages from among those indigenous to North America, or from among those spoken in Europe or elsewhere.

Red River Settlement was situated in a region where trade activity among multiple peoples was pronounced. Trade between peoples who spoke different languages had been going on in North America (including the region that became known as Rupert’s Land), long before fur traders from Europe arrived. An ability to communicate effectively has been fundamental to negotiating trade throughout human history.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that by 1869–1870, a minority of people at Red River Settlement spoke only one language. Any unilingual people were probably newcomers who had migrated to the settlement from the British Isles by way of Canada. It is also possible that there were some unilingual French newcomers.

Although Métis people at Red River might have been associated with ‘French’ or ‘English’ parishes, most likely spoke multiple languages. The Métis at Red River Settlement during 1869–1870 were, after all, people of fur-trade descent. Many were still directly engaged in the fur trade, while the rest, even if they were principally farmers, traded and bartered as a day to day means of supplying their households and of running profitable businesses. Because the Métis who settled at Red River had a wide variety of historical antecedents — with different families having parents and grandparents from points all over North America as well as multiple points across oceans — many and varied languages had been introduced into different families over time. Additionally, because trading with neighbours at Red River (not to mention working alongside them[i]), required communicating with those neighbours, learning their languages was a matter of common sense. It is reasonable to suspect that a significant number of Métis people at Red River could converse in at least three languages and that more than a few spoke as many as nine.

Aside from English and French, other non-Aboriginal languages brought to the settlement by settlers and fur-traders included: Gaelic (both Scottish and Irish variants); Norwegian; German; Yiddish; Polish; perhaps Swedish; and even Spanish.[ii] However, fluency in any of those languages conferred little ability to communicate widely. By 1869, Scottish Gaelic had some purchase among elder Selkirk Settlers at Kildonan Parish. It is possible that German and Polish could still be heard at the neighbourhood along the Seine River, in St. Boniface Parish, that had first been established, c. 1816, by settlers formerly of the de Meurons and de Watteville regiments.[iii] Yiddish and Spanish, though they might seem unlikely to have been useful languages at the settlement, perhaps came in handy when conversing with J.J. Sondermann, a tailor with business premises in the Town of Winnipeg, or with William Gomez da Fonseca (a.k.a. Don Derigo Nojada Gomez da Silva Fonseca), a trader and merchant also in Winnipeg.[iv]

There is little doubt that non-Aboriginal settlers found it to be in their best interest to learn Aboriginal languages in order to get on in business and to get along socially at the settlement.

[i] See A.C. Garrioch, The Far and Furry NorthA Story of Life and Love and Travel in the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Winnipeg: Douglas-McIntyre, 1925), 64, who recounts an instance where the oarsmen entertained themselves and passengers by swapping terminology from three different languages.

[ii] See Blain, “The Bungee dialect of the Red River Settlement,” 6, 145, 275; Victor Turek, “Poles Among the De Meuron Soldiers,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions ser. 3, no. 9 (1952–1953 season), http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/demeuronpoles.shtml (accessed 22 February 2013).

[iii] Hall, “Perfect Freedom,” 3, notes that historiography about the settlement is not clear about the numbers of former de Meuron and de Watteville soldiers to arrive in 1816, followed by Swiss settlers in 1821, and then to remain in the settlement after the flood of 1826.

[iv] See Randy R. Rostecki, “Fonseca, William Gomez,” DCB, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=40837 (accessed 22 February 2013; and J.J. Sondermann, advertisementNew Nation (11 February 1870), 3. Sondermann appears to have been Jewish, from Germany (his son [?] J.G. Sonderman began the German Society at Winnipeg in 1871). A number of Jewish settlers at Red River were descendants of fur traders out of Montreal. See, for example, Arthur A. Chiel, “Manitoba Jewish History - Early Times,” MHS Transactions ser. 3, no. 10 (1953-54 season), http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/jewishhistory.shtml (accessed 27 February 2013); and “John Lyons (c1786-1875): Margaret Kipling (c1790-1875),” Red River Ancestry, http://www.redriverancestry.ca/LYONS-JOHN-1786.php (accessed 27 February 2013).