The purpose of this module is to develop an understanding of the cultural make-up of the Red River Settlement, 1869–1870. Research reveals that during this period, the permanent residents of the settlement were primarily Métis people — in other words, they made up a predominant demographic at Red River.

Censuses are primary sources used to research the demographic make-up of the settlement.[i] Analysing demographics is one way to study of the lives of ‘ordinary people’ of the past — individuals for whom little in the way of written descriptions of their lives exist.[ii] Censuses that record such characteristics as country of origin, nationality, and religion are useful in tracing the cultural influences at work in a population. Censuses taken at Red River Settlement are revealing in this respect, but they also have limitations. Censuses were designed for specific purposes and therefore did not record everything. In some instances, details about people were recorded as falling under ambiguous categories such as ‘other’ and ‘unknown.’[iii]

Related Media

Sauteaux [Saulteaux] Indians (rabbit skin dresses) opposite Fort Garry

Panoramic view of Fort Garry and St. Boniface

St. Boniface, Red River Settlement

Fort Garry and the Steamer "International"

[i] On the uses made of censuses, see Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics, and the Census of Canada, 1840-1875 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). Curtis examines census-making as a historical process closely related to nation-state formation and a consequent desire for population control. He traces the history of Canadian censuses through analysis of enumerations made in 1841/2, 1847/8, 1850/1/2, 1860/1, and 1865/71. He demonstrates that populations were imagined properties that were open to manipulation through the use of statistics. In turn, Curtis shows that statistical analysis was a mathematical exercise with an imaginary aspect of its own. Statistics represented the translation — which is a subjectively determined act — of actual but qualitatively ambiguous subjects into highly defined objects amenable to quantification. In the 19th century, this statistical translation was reified as a means of establishing truth scientifically. Curtis argues that social construction is highly evident in census making. In the past, human beings were abstracted and positioned in virtual time and space in order that their social relations could be disciplined, and this disciplining could be justified on the basis of empirical evidence. Curtis demonstrates that there was nothing neutral or impartial about the census making endeavor in the 19th-century Canadian context.

[ii]Demographic history is the study of historical populations and demographic processes, using censuses or similar statistical data. Other useful primary sources for the Red River Settlement are local registers of births, marriages, and deaths. Beginning in the 1960s, and certainly by the 1970s, demographic history (also known as cliometrics), became an important niche within social history.

[iii] See “Census making and census taking at Red River,” Red River Censuses page, Provisional Government of Assiniboia site.