The concept of citizenship at Red River was not entirely the same as concepts in Canada. Canada, after all, was regarded as a “foreign country” and a “strange power,” by the people of Assiniboia.[i]
a) Diverging Ideas About ‘Civilized’ people
One foreign element visible in Canadian policies directed at Aboriginal peoples was that of the ‘civilized vs. savage dichotomy,’ which was inherited from Europe.
Additional Source Online:
From 1857, the British colonial law, An Act of Gradual Civilization, had promoted the idea that Aboriginal peoples would give up titles to land, cease speaking their languages, and renounce their cultural practices and previously held rights, in return for British citizenship. On reaching the age of majority, male children of parents who had opted for citizenship on such terms, would qualify to vote, to own property, to license a business, and to serve on a jury. They would be allowed to purchase alcohol, and send their children to a public school. With Canada’s Indian Act of 1868, First Nations individuals were not granted full citizenship, with the right to vote, unless they renounced their membership in their community of origin through enfranchisement (accepting citizenship). Enfranchisement was considered to be evidence of ‘civilization’: “that is, it was equated with the abandonment of a culture perceived to be inferior and savage for a ‘superior’ European one.”[ii]
The situation was different at Red River. At the settlement, the people of St. Peter’s parish were held to be “civilized,” at the same time that they were regarded as fully ‘Indian,’ by residents of other parishes. Just as with the Métis of the settlement, it can be said about the ‘Indians’ of St. Peter’s Parish that they built and farmed “like other people.” They went “to church and to courts of law.” Although they recognized the authority of their chief, in all other respects they were “like civilized men, not more uneducated, immoral, or disorderly, than many communities in the old world.”[iii]
In 1870, St. Peter’s Parish was included as a constituency with an elected representative during the creation and operation of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The parish inhabitants (men at any rate) had the right to vote. John Sinclair’s position in the Legislative Assembly as representative of the “settled Indians” demonstrates that any male members of the greater Red River community who were considered ‘civilized’ had a formal say in community affairs. In framing terms for confederating with Canada (in the successive versions of the List of Rights), the Provisional Government of Assiniboia stipulated that it was only ‘uncivilized Indians’ who were to be denied the vote. Such a clause was included in the Manitoba Act (1870), which was ratified by the predominantly Métis Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.
Subsequently, the historical references to ‘uncivilized Indians’ in the List(s) of Rights and the Manitoba Act led to the misapprehension that the Métis of Manitoba were opposed to allowing any First Nations individuals the vote. In fact, the stipulation recognized a difference between people who accepted community governance and the authority of local laws at Red River and people who did not fall under that governance and law. There was recognition that the primary allegiance of many First Nations people was to their own nation: having never agreed to abide by the laws of a foreign state and accept its governance, or having never been forcibly subjugated by a foreign state, they belonged to politically independent nations, and were subject only to their own laws.[iv]
b) British Subjecthood and Canadian Citizenship
At Red River, the settlers considered themselves to be “British subjects” — a point made numerous times in the local New Nation newspaper, the debates of the Convention of Forty, and the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. However, under the HBC charter, they did not enjoy a fundamental right of citizenship — the right to an elected (and therefore representative) government.
The British North America Act, 1867 stipulated how people of self-governing colonies were to be included as citizens within the Dominion of Canada upon confederation.[v] The Act did not, however, address the status of people in a ‘proprietary colony’ such as Red River, where a corporation governed through appointed (not elected) officials.[vi] By 1869, the people of Red River were in a “peculiar” political position, in that they were subject to rulings decreed by the last proprietary government in existence in the British colonial empire — the Hudson’s Bay Company.[vii] The people of Red River responded to the circumstance, of having no guarantees that they would be given rights of full citizenship if their country was annexed to Canada, by making sophisticated political arguments as to their rights as human beings, based on the law of nations/ le droit des gens.[viii]
As self-proclaimed citizens of Assiniboia, people at Red River went through the process of proposing, debating, and agreeing on their rights.[ix] These were recorded in lists and bills of rights produced during 1869–1870 for the Convention of Twenty-four, the Convention of Forty, and the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.
Significantly, the people of Red River demonstrated the ‘rightness’ of protecting their rights by electing representatives to the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.
Sources available online:
Primary Source facsimiles:
- Printer’s proof, “Public Notice to the Inhabitants of Rupert’s Land,” 6 November 1869.[x]
- “Public Notice to the Inhabitants of Rupert’s Land,” in “The Counsel with the French,” Nor’-Wester (23 November 1869).
- “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West” (8 December 1869).
- “Protestation Des Peuples Du Nord-Ouest” (May 14, 1870).[xi]
- Debates of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, 1st Session, Day 2 (15 March 1870),” in which Hon. Thomas Bunn asserts that the Governments of England, Canada, and the HBC have “ignored our rights as British subjects.” Hon. Alfred H. Scott, affirms, “That despite insults and sufferings” the people of the North-West still endure, their loyalty to the Crown remains and will continue, if rights, properties, and customs are respected.
- Draft, Bill of Rights*
- List of Rights, Tabled before Assembly
- The Manitoba Act, 1870*