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:

A Brief History of the term ‘Civilized’, Provisional Government of Assiniboia site.

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:

Transcriptions:

[i] Library and Archives Canada [LAC], “Printed Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West, by Bruce, John and Louis Riel, opposing the establishment of Canadian authority,” http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3993000.

[ii] Wendy Moss, and Elaine Gardner-O’Toole, Law and Government Division, “Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws,” (November 1987; revised November 1991), BP-175E, Government of Canada website, http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp175-e.htm, additionally note, “the enfranchisement of Indians was one of the major objectives of federal Indian legislation. Enfranchisement brought the end of special legal status and the end of legal acknowledgement of a separate Indian identity. To the government, it meant the end of its special legal obligations and the successful absorption of a minority culture.  ... From a human rights perspective, enfranchisement policies, whether voluntary or compulsory, have had a number of objectionable aspects. Voluntary enfranchisement has required Indians to prove that they were civilized in order to leave the legal regime of the Indian Act and to exercise civil and political rights available to non-natives such as the right to vote or to homestead Crown land.”

After the initial confederation of 1867, provincial regulations in Canada determined who would vote in federal elections. Except for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the provinces used Acts of legislation to “in one way or another” disqualify ‘Indians’ from voting. The Acts did not define the term ‘Indian.’ Thus, depending on the time, place, and who was making up the voter’s list, enfranchised ‘Indians’ and people who opted out of treaty may have been denied the vote as well.

Canada’s Indian Act originated in 1868 as a statute that built on existing official statements regarding ‘Indians’ and laws. All along, throughout the Act’s existence, it had provided that “Indians could become persons by voluntarily enfranchising — renouncing Indian status.” The possibility of obtaining the right to vote appears to have been held out as an incentive to enfranchise for a protracted period of time (although in practice not all people who were enfranchised necessarily attained the right to vote). Despite being offered the right (theoretically at any rate) to determine their children’s future through voting, First Nations people overwhelmingly resisted enfranchisement.

See Canada, “Act providing for the organisation of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada,” http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100010196/1100100010198; Canada, “Act providing for the Organization of the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada,” http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/aboriginaldocs/stat/w-1868m.htm; Canada, “CAP VI. An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians, the better management of Indian Affairs, and to extend the provisions of the Act 31st Victoria, Chapter 42 (Assented to 22nd June, 1869),” LAC, http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/aboriginaldocs/stat/w-1869j.htm; See also Bill Henderson, “Notes on the Indian Act,” The Indian Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-5 (Annotated), BloorStreet.com, http://www.bloorstreet.com/200block/sindact.htm; and Jo-Anne Fiske, and Evelyn George, “Seeking Alternatives to Bill C-31: From Cultural Trauma to Cultural Revitalization through Customary Law,” Status of Women Canada electronic resource (2006), http://www.lynngehl.com/uploads/5/0/0/4/5004954/fiske_and_george.pdf.

[iii] See the Earl of Southesk, quoted in G.F.G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions (London: Longmans Green and Company, 1936; reprint, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 7.

[v] Various versions of the Act exist online — regrettably many posted by Canadian sites are incomplete, contain typographical errors, are revised versions of the original, or are cached behind a paywall. The above link is to a 'primary document' version that dates to 1867, placed online by the National Archives in England, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1867/3/pdfs/ukpga_18670003_en.pdf.

[vi] O’Toole, "The Red River Resistance of 1869-1870: Machiavellian Moment of the Métis of Manitoba," Ph.D. diss. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 2010), notes that Paragraph 4 of the preamble mentions, and Section XI: 146 of the BNA provides for, the eventual transfer of remaining British North American colonies and territories to the new Dominion of Canada. Section XI, Admission of Other Colonies: 146, requires the acceptance of the respective legislatures of the Crown colonies of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and British Columbia before the Imperial Crown could admit them [separately] to the Canadian federation. The section does not, however, provide for consultation with the population of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s [HBC's] ‘plantations and colonys’ about terms of transferring Rupert’s Land and the North-western Territory to Canada.

[vii] James Ross, debates, 6th Day , Convention of Forty, Provisional Government of Assiniboia site.

[viii] Also known as the jus gentium, the law of nations was a body of law, commonly resorted to throughout Europe, which had come about by a combination of custom and written law that traced back to the Corpus Juris/ Iuris Civilus codified by Emperor Justinian of sixth-century Rome. Alexander Begg, document 5, 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), 411–413, supplies an example of Red River reference to the le droits de gens: a letter by ‘Deux Métis’ and printed in the Saint-Hyacinthe Courrier declares settler loyalty to the Queen and the HBC and assert that surveyors from Canada had “disregarded the law of nations” by working in Red River under the name of “an alien authority.”

[ix] Louis Riel, 16 November 1869 , Convention of Twenty-four, Provisional Government of Assiniboia site.

[x] “Following Confederation Images Collection,” Social Studies, Learn Alberta, http://www.learnalberta.ca/content/sscanic/html/followingconfederationimageViewer.html?index=9. See also “Convention of Twenty-four,” Provisional Government of Assiniboia site; Bruce Peel, Early printing in the Red River Settlement 1859-1870 (Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers, 1974), 6; Archives of Manitoba [AM], MG3 A1/1, printed notice and photocopy, Red River Disturbance Collection, 1869–1908; and Glenbow Archives, M 6058, “Red River Rebellion scrapbook” (1869-1870), 12, Archives Society of Alberta online, http://www.albertaonrecord.ca/iw-glen-343.

[xi] The protestation was presented by President Louis Riel to the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, during Session 2, Day 10. Riel explained “I desire to prove to the Canadian Confederacy that here in Rupert’s Land we are not divided — that we are acting in concert — and that we protest against the sentiments recently avowed in public in Western Canada, concerning us. But I merely submit the matter to this hon. House. I do not insist on it. If hon. members desire to adopt any such protest, it will be for them to say. It might, perhaps, be deemed unnecessary that this House should take any action in the premises.” Hon. Andrew G.B. Bannatyne, moved that “the consideration of the question” be postponed. The Assembly voted in favour of Bannatyne’s motion.