A Print by Kenojuak Ashevak & a Diagnostic


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The late Kenojuak Ashevak , considered one of the pioneers of Inuit art, saw her first-ever print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed, included in the 1959 Cape Dorset collection. The early work points to the distinctive style for which the famed artist would become renown. (Historymuseum.ca) (Photo credit: CBC.ca)

The Red Fox by Kenojuak Ashevak (Photo credit: Nunatsiaq News (See Aboriginals in North America)

I apologize for not posting for a long time. There has been a change in my life, but it is not a serious change.

Here is my story. A few weeks ago, I told my doctor that my memory was playing tricks on me. Test confirmed mild cognitive impairment. I will lose my driver’s license and my precious little red Toyota.

Do not be alarmed. I was not diagnosed until the early 1990s, but I have suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME since 1976. Victims get lost in mid-sentence and don’t remember words and names. I continued working and had a successful but shorter career than I would have liked. The only difference between the old and the new diagnostic is age. I am now older. But it could simply be that moving tired me out and that taking a mortgage, at my age, was stressful. Life is not always easy.

In short, I could not work on posts for several days because I was making various arrangements that would allow me to stay home for many long years, despite mild cognitive deficiency.  Ironically, destiny led me to purchase a lovely apartment in the appropriate building. It has elevators, a heated interior swimming pool, and, as I have told you in an earlier post, it is located very near a small market place that includes a post office and most of the facilities I require.

My next post is on Métis leader Gabriel Dumont and the North-West Rebellion. Métis and Amerindians were losing their land, so surveyors can cut it up into little squares while a railroad was being built that woul take citizens from sea to sea: A Mari usque ad Mare, the Canadian motto.

Canadian Confederation was very costly,

As a leader, Gabriel Dumont was second only to Louis Riel. They resisted losses brought by Canadian expansion westward. The video inserted below is a fine account of events that took Canada from sea to sea, but a post is necessary.


Gabriel Dumont (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

© Micheline Walker
19 April 2018
updated 20 April 2018








Aboriginals in North America


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Acclaimed Cape Dorset artist Kenojuak Ashevak’s striking Red Fox is predicted to be one of the most popular prints of this year’s collection. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CAPE DORSET FINE ARTS)

Photo credit:  Nunatsiaq News


Aboriginals in Canada

King Philip’s War (20 September 2015)
Bernard-Anselme and Joseph d’Abbadie: Sons of a Different Mind (16 September 2015)
Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie, Baron de Saint-Castin (11 September 2015)
The Métis in Canada (4 June 2015)
The Red River Settlement (30 May 2015)
Canada’s Amerindians: Enfranchisement (24 May 2015)
Residential Schools for Canada’s Amerindians (21 May 2015)
The Art of Kenojuak Ashevak (19 May 2015)
Inuit Art (17 May 2015)
Au pays des jours sans fin (16 May 2015)
Aboriginals in Canada (14 May 2015)
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (Indigenous Foundations) (6 May 2015)
Louis Riel as Father of Confederation (22 May 2012)

Aboriginals in the United States

Welsh Native Americans: Madoc’s Story (11 October 2015)
The Ten Lost Tribes: Native Americans (24 September 2015)
King Philip’s War (20 September 2015)
“The Song of Hiawatha,” completed (1 September 2015)
“The Song of Hiawatha,” as Amerindian Lore (29 August 2015)
“The Song of Hiawatha,” a Prologue (27 August 2015)
Comments on Aboriginal Tales (23 August 2015)
The Deluge and other Amerindians Myths (21 August 2015)
Collecting Amerindian Folklore (17 August 2015)

Fiction (Complete text)

“The Humming-bird and the Crane” (14 August 2015)
“How the Bear Lost its Tale,” a Cherokee Fable (4 August 2015)

Collections online


© Micheline Walker
22 May 2015

The Red River Settlement. 2


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Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post was part of a longer post: Louis Riel, Hero or Rebel. It is also related to posts one can find under The Voyageurs PostsAboriginals in North America and the two Canadiana posts: Canadiana.1 and Canadiana.2. These are pages. It is also associated to The Red River Settlement, a post. Yet, somehow, it is new.

In The Red River Settlement, I wrote about the conflict that arose between the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC, established in 1670) and the North West Company (NWC, established in 1789). York Factory, the HBC’s trading post, was too distant a location for Amerindians. In the words of one critic, Joseph Robson,

the Hudson’s Bay Company ‘have for eighty years slept at the edge of a frozen sea; they have shewn no curiosity to penetrate farther themselves, and have exerted all their art and power to crush that spirit in others to take pelts to fur traders.’

Therefore, the HBC built trading posts inland and started to use riverways and employ  voyageurs. Wikipedia has a complete list of HBC trading posts.


Winter Fishing on the Ice by Peter Rindisbacher, 1821 (Photocredit: Wikipedia)


Summer View in the environs of the Company Fort Douglas on the Red River by Peter Ridinsbacher, 1822 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Riverways were the highways of the day, which I noted in an earlier post, hence the lots of the Red River Colony being narrow and deep. Inhabitants had their boat, a canoe, “at the ready” at the river end of their lot. Swiss-born Artist Peter Ridinsbacher  left a visual testimonial of this juxtaposition of lots. In the images above, one can see the canoes at the river end of narrow lots and adjoining houses. The ice was also used in winter. Peter Rindisbacher lived in the Red River Settlement at the time the fur companies, Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company  were merged, in 1821.


American Indian hunting buffalo  by Peter Rindisbacher, circa 1830  (Photo credit: Alamy)

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Buffalo hunting in the summer by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Earl of Selkirk settles the Red River Colony

  • the Earl of Selkirk
  • the end of the fur trade
  • crofters
  • the great plains

This story has a happy beginning, despite glitches and the disastrous Battle of Seven Oaks.

The Earl of Selkirk, a philanthropist, set about finding land for the Scottish crofters  who had lost their home. Many settled in Nova Scotia, i. e. New Scotland. My neighbours, Dr Cecil MacLean, professor of French at St. Francis Xavier, and the Honourable Allan J. MacEachen, one of the finest politicians in the history of Canada, were both descendants of crofters. Mr MacEachen spoke Gaelic. The video inserted at the bottom of this post tells the story of crofters Lord Selkirk helped relocate to the Red River Colony. The crofters would live in the Canadian great plains which was fine territory for farmers. They were excellent recruits.

In order to acquire the land he needed to found the Red River Colony, the Earl of Selkirk and his family bought a large number of shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). In fact, the Earl of Selkirk became the majority shareholder.

The fur trade was drawing to a close for want of beavers, which meant a complete change of lifestyle for voyageurs. Retired voyageurs, such as Louis Riel’s grandparents, Jean-Baptiste Lagimonière or Lagimodière and Marie-Anne Gaboury, settled in the future Winnipeg, However, many young voyageurs did not prove suited to farming. So, as the fur trade declined, they became guides to explorers in search of the Northwest Passage and a way to the Pacific Ocean, north of the South Pass (Wyoming). Truth be told, voyageurs and Amerindians opened up the continent, but as employees rather than employers. They were employed by explorers.

Settling the Red River Colony was extremely difficult. Allow me to quote Wikipedia:

In July 1811 Miles Macdonell sailed from YarmouthEngland to the Hudson’s Bay post at York Factory with 36 primarily Irish and Scottish settlers. Due to persuasive efforts of the North West Company only 18 settlers actually arrived at Red River in August 1812. As the planting season had ended before the settlers could complete the construction of Fort Douglas, they were forced to hunt bison for food and were completely unprepared for the arrival of 120 additional settlers in October.

(See the Red River Colony, or Assiniboia, Wikipedia.)

In short, although crofters —farmers, were excellent recruits to the great plains, they had to face hunger. They needed pemmican from the nearly extinct “buffalo.” Pemmican was the food of the fur trade and it would also be the food of explorers. Amerindians and Métis prepared pemmican for voyageurs. Voyageurs were customers.

However, newcomers faced not only hunger, but also the coldest and harshest winters in Canada, south of the Arctic. I lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, for a year and loved it, but it was cold. However, the worst our new Canadians had to cope with, other than memories of a lost land, were warring factions: the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), chartered in May 1670 (at first, a fur-trading company), and its rival, the North West Company (NWC), founded in 1789 and headquartered in Montreal.


The Red River and the Assiniboine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Fort William (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Northwest Passage Routes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Regiments, Rindisbacher and Ermatinger

In the first edition of this post, I failed to note that, in 1816, several disbanded members of the Régiment de Meuron, or Meurons, “a regiment of infantry originally raised in Switzerland in 1781” and commanded by Charles-Daniel de Meuron, mercenaries (i.e. professional soldiers), chose to settle in the Red Riv er Colony. (See Régiment de Meuron, Wikipedia). They had seen action in India, as a British Infantry, in Canada, under Sir James Charles Prévost, at the Battle of Plattsburgh, during the War of 1812, and in the Red River Colony, as discharged soldiers in the Pemmican War.” In 1816, when the regiment was disbanded, half of De Meurons‘ 640-men strong infantry settled in Canada and many chose to live in the Red River Colony. So did members of the disbanded De Watteville’s Regiment.

Later, some of its [Régiment de Meuron] soldiers also served at the Red River Colony. Some 150 recently discharged soldiers from the Régiment de Meuron and De Watteville’s Regiment, still retaining their uniforms, participated in the Pemmican War. Rue des Meurons in the Winnipeg suburb of Saint Boniface is named after the regiment.

(See Régiment de Meuron, Wikipedia.)

Among recruits to the Red River Colony was the family of Swiss artist Peter Ridinsbacher, whose lovely watercolours depicting Aboriginals, Métis, and the Red River Colony are a precious legacy. The Ridinsbachers lived in Assiniboina or the Red River Colony. Their home was flooded in 1826, which was calamitous. Peter’s family decided to leave Assiniboina, or the Red River Colony, for the United States. (See 1826 Red River Flood, Wikipedia). They therefore moved to Wisconsin, but ended up settling in St. Louis, Missouri, where Peter died, “possibly of cholera,” (Wikipedia) at the age of 28.

Another inhabitant of Assiniboina was Swiss musician Edward Ermatinger, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee who ended up settling in St. Thomas, Ontario. His collection of the words and music of French Canadian folksongs, the voyageurs répertoire, as well as a “Red River March” he composed, may be the only connection to have come down to us.


The Battle of Seven Oaks by Charles William Jefferys (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Battle of Seven Oaks

Our fur trading companies competed not only for the best and the most pelts, but they also needed pemmican.

On 8 January 1814, fearing famine, Miles Macdonell, who was appointed first governor of Assiniboia, the Red River Colony, in 1811, issued the Pemmican Proclamation. The Pemmican Proclamation forbade the exportation of food from the Red River Colony (HBC territory), which angered both the Métis and employees of the North West Company. They believed it was a ploy on the part of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Six months later, Miles Macdonnell also issued a proclamation banning the “running” of buffalo with horses.

Hostilities culminated in the Battle of Seven Oaks (The Canadian Encyclopedia). A group of Métis had retrieved pemmican from the Hudson’s Bay Company, claiming it had been stolen. The canoes came down the Assiniboine escorted by Cuthbert Grant, an Anglo-Métis, who was the son of Cuthbert Grant père, a Nor’Wester from Scotland, and a Métis mother. Young Cuthbert was educated in Scotland.

On 19 June 1816, a band of Nor’Westers, Métis mainly, led by Cuthbert Grant (NWC) was returning from retrieving pemmican allegedly stolen by the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were to meet Nor’Westers at Fort William, but were intercepted by Robert Semple who had replaced Miles Macdonell. Semple was the governor of Rupert’s Land. A Nor’Wester, François-Firmin Boucher, was dispatched to speak to Robert Semple’s men. Someone fired a gun. Reports suggest the shot was fired by one of Semple’s men. A battle ensued which took 21 lives, including the life of Robert Semple. Only one of Cuthbert Grant’s men was killed, a 16-year-old. Discouraged, many settlers left the Red River Colony the very next day. François-Firmin Boucher spent two years in prison, but the Métis were exonerated by W. B. Coltman, a Royal Commissioner. (See The Battle of Seven Oaks, Wikipedia, Coltman’s Report, and  Transcribing the Coltman Report – Crowdsourcing at Library and Archives Canada, posted on .)

Métis songwriter Pierre Falcon wrote a song about the Battle of Seven Oaks:  La Chanson de la Grenouillère, grenouille meaning frogs. (See The Minnesota Heritage Songbook.)

The Bison

The animal that roamed the great plains was often called a buffalo, which was a misnomer i.e. the wrong name. To tell the difference between the bison and the buffalo, Britannica suggests focusing on the three H’s: “home, hump, and horns.” Bison have a hump and their horns are shorter. Bison, not buffaloes, therefore lived in the great plains of North America. Interestingly, French Canadians call(ed) the buffalo a bison, which happens to be the correct name. For a very long time, I thought bison was the French translation of buffalo. It isn’t. The buffalo is un buffle in French and bison is both a French and an English word. Bison does not have a plural in English.


The Royal Proclamation of 1763 empowered Amerindians and Métis. We do not know whether or not Métis residents of the Red River took the Pemmican Proclamation seriously. But it could be they didn’t. As I suggested in Louis Riel, Hero or Rebel, it is altogether possible Louis Riel looked upon his government as genuine and the execution of Thomas Scott as legitimate. But he was blamed. He could not take his seat in the House of Commons and he hid for fifteen years. Rupert’s Land belonged to North-American Indians, but colonists felt entitled to land that did not belong to them but which they claimed and then sold. John A. Macdonald’s government bought Rupert’s Land.

As for the settlers who left the Red River after the The Battle of Seven Oaks, they made the right decision, but thousands of United Empire Loyalists, those who would not live in an independent United States, took refuge in the British colony immediately north of the fledgling United States.

Despite difficult beginnings, The Red River Settlement would be a permanent settlement. We have a Winnipeg and a Saint Boniface. In the late 1860s, when Canada or William MacDougall and surveyors entered their community, the varied inhabitants of the future Winnipeg lived peacably. The Earl of Selkirk died in 1820. His death allowed a merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company (1821), and ended a merciless conflict.


Sources and Resources 


Love to everyone and Joyeuses Pâques, Happy Easter 


[1] Amy TikkanenWhat’s the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo? The Encyclopædia Britannica

Landing_of_the_Selkirk_Settlers_Red_River_1812 (1)

Arrival of Settlers at the Red River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
1st April 2018

The Singing Voyageurs


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Expedition Doubling Cape Barrow, July 25, 1821, by Sir George Back

Expedition Doubling Cape Barrow by Sir George Back, 25 July 1821, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More on the voyageur’s personality

The explorers left testimonials about the voyageur’s personality. According to Sir John Franklin, they were “creatures of the moment.” Sir George Simpson writes that they loved to eat and that, if a piece of equipment was good, they said that it came from France or “la vieille France de Londres,” London’s old France, and were “witty.” [i]

Sir George Back (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for the explorers, they knew the name of every single one of their voyageurs. Most of these explorers came from Scotland. Obviously the Scots and the voyageurs got along very well. By the way, the gentleman who lost so many of his voyageurs was Admiral Sir George Back, FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society] (6 November 1796 – 23 June 1878). I have therefore edited my last post accordingly and, in doing so, I discovered that Sir George Back was an excellent artist.

When they were working for explorers, the voyageurs may have transported pelts. However, when employed by explorers such as Simon Fraser and Sir Alexander MacKenzie, they did not. They were simply finding their way, dangerously, to the Pacific. At that time, they also worked for travellers who were gathering information on Canada.

HMS Terror Thrown up by Ice by Sir George Back

The Singing Voyageur

The voyageurs did sing. We know for certain that they sang mostly old French songs and that their favourite song was “À la claire fontaine.” During the ten years he was in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1819-1829), Edward Ermatinger (1797-1876) collected eleven voyageur songs. They are traditional folksongs.

As for songs composed by the voyageurs, we know of three:

  • Épouser le voyage (To Wed the Voyage),
  • Les Bois-Brûlés (The Brullis), (Pierre Falcon),
  • Le Six mai de l’année dernière (Last Year on the Sixth of May).

The Bois-Brûlés were Dakota Amerindians.  As for the Sixth of May, that was the date on which the voyageurs left for “les pays d’en-haut,”  the north or, literally, the countries above.

These were published in the Beaver, a Canadian journal, by Marius Barbeau, the “founder of Canadian anthropology.” There can be no doubt that these songs are authentic voyageur songs.

Moreover, Grace Lee Nute lists voyageur songs. For the most part, the songs she discusses are well-known traditional folksongs. There are two exceptions:

  • C’est dans la ville de Bytown [Ottawa] (It’s in the town of Ottawa)
  • Parmi les voyageurs (Among the Voyageurs)

Parmi les voyageurs is unquestionably a voyageur songHowever, loggers also left from Ottawa. They too had to find a living and left for the winter to work as lumberjacks.  As a result, C’est dans la ville de Bytown could be a forestier song or both a voyageur and forestier song. Forestiers worked in the lumber industry. They were lumberjacks or river drivers, riding the wood down riverways.

Sadly, W. F. Wentzel’s collection of voyageur songs has been lost. W. F. Wentzel, a  Norwegian trader of the far North West, was also a fine musician. He therefore transcribed voyageur songs that could have been an extremely valuable source to later generations of collectors and ethnologists.

Let us read Grace Lee Nute:

“It is a great pity nevertheless, that Wentzel’s large collection of these songs has not survived. His musical gifts added to his unusual command of languages would surely have made the collection invaluable. Moreover, he collected the songs of the voyageurs, and “mentions the indecorous quality of some of their [the voyageurs’] songs.” [ii]

Also lost are the songs of Pierre Falcon, except Les Bois Brûlés, an account of the Battle of Seven Oaks. Falcon wrote canoe songs that have probably been destroyed due to their ‘smutty’ character. Métis called themselves Bois Brûlés. They were not as dark as Amerindians.

Fortunately, we still have the eleven songs that Edward Ermatinger collected.


[i] Quoted by Nute in The Voyageur (St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987 [1931]), pp. 244 and 255.

[ii]Mr W. F. Wentzel, Letters to the Hon. Roderic McKenzie, 1807-1824,” in Masson, Les Bourgeois, 1:71. Quoted in Nute’s The Voyageur, p. 155.

I am including, below, Blanche comme la neige, a folksong. Sir Ernest MacMillan composed a choral setting of this song. I do not have Sir Ernest’s setting, but we have the song. Blanche comme la neige is featured as a Christmas song, but it could be a song about winter and purity. It tells the story of a young woman who feigned death not to be raped. She is placed in a coffin and discovered, three days later, by her father. She tells him she has preserved her virginity: “pour mon honneur garder,” (to keep my honour).

One of the McGarrigle sisters died in 2010. It saddens me to know that they are now forever separated. Besides, it is difficult to find good renditions of folksongs.  I do not know the origin of Ce matin.



© Micheline Walker
18 January 2012

John Jacob Astor & the Voyageur as Settler and Explorer


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Signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier is shaking hands with United States Ambassador to Russia John Quincy Adams; British Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Henry Goulburn is carrying a red folder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Treaty of Ghent, 1814

In my last post, I mentioned Dr Bigsby. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on 24 December 1814, put an end to the War of 1812, a war between the British and the Americans.  Under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, an official border had to be drawn between Canada (British) and the Union (American). Our Dr Bigsby was with the Commission whose members drew the border between Canada and the United States. Also engaged in drawing the border was Simon Fraser, an explorer. (See Treaty of 1818, Wikipedia)

Because many voyageurs worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company, it could be that our canotier was among the last persons to realize that Nouvelle-France had become a British colony.

However, the voyageur‘s world changed when the border was traced between Canada and the United States. Moreover, because of the Louisiana Purchase, the central part of the United States was no longer a French colony. Napoléon had sold a third of what constitutes the present-day United States.


The Purchase was one of several territorial additions to the U.S. (See Louisiana Purchase, Wikipedia)

Louisiana: the green area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Consequences

Following the The Louisiana purchase, 1803 and the Treaty of Ghent, 1814, Grand-Portage ceased to be part of a territory that had been considered French or English territory. Settlers would soon begin arriving in both Manitoba, a British possession, and in Minnesota. As for our voyageur, he had to use other trading-posts and was still in the employ of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The American Fur Trade Company, 1808

At this point, the United States entered the fur-trade business. On 6 April 1808, John Jacob Astor (17 July 1763 – 29 March 1848), German (Waldesians)- born Johann Jakob Astor, established the American Fur Company and also established the Pacific Fur CompanyRamsay Crooks, John Jacob’s employee and his successor, hired American canoemen, but his employer would never have become the richest man in the world had  Congress not allowed him to hire Canadiens.

The Americans recruited by Ramsay Crooks did not prove equal to the task. They could not work in unison. They carried guns, quarreled among themselves, and killed North-American Indians. So Ramsay Crooks decided that an exception had to be made to the Embargo Act of 1807.

Ramsay Crooks therefore wrote to Astor:

“It will still be good policy to admit freely & without the last restraint the Canadian Boatmen. these people are indispensable to the succesful prosecution of the trade, their places cannot be supplied by Americans, who are for the most part are [sic] are too independent to submit quiety to a proper controul, and who can gain any where a subsistence much superior to a man of the interior and although the body of the Yankee can resist as much hardshiip as any man, tis only in the Canadian we find that temper of mind, to render him patient docile and persevering. in short they are a people harmless in themselves whose habit of submission fit them peculiarly for our business and if guided as it is my wish they should be, will never give just cause of alarm to the Government of the Union it is of course your object to exclude foreigner except those for whom you obtaine licences.” [i]

As a result, during Thomas Jefferson‘s presidency, the American Fur Company was allowed to employ Canadian voyageurs, which it did, with considerable success, for twenty years. In fact, John Jacob Astor, whose great-grandson perished in the sinking of the Titanic, had a fine employee in Gabriel Franchère (1786-1863). Franchère and voyageurs sailed to the mouth of the Columbia River. They travelled on the Tonquin, under the command of Jonathan Thorn, an impatient and hard man. The Tonquin left New York on 8 September 1810 and arrived at the Columbia River on 12 April 1811 to establish the first American-owned (if Canadian-staffed) outpost on the Pacific Coast, Fort Astoria (present-day Astoria, Oregon).” [ii] 

You will note that I have used bold letters to write “if Canadian-staffed.” Nute writes that “John Jacob Astor, the prince of American fur-traders and the organizer of the largest American fur company, is said to have remarked that he would rather have one voyageur than three American canoemen.” [iii]

Gabriel Franchère (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gabriel Franchère (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Note on Gabriel Franchère

When the American Fur Company surrendered to the North West Company, in 1812, Gabriel Franchère found his way back to Montreal where, temporarily, he remained in the employ of John Jacob Astor. Franchère is the author of a book entitled Relation d’un voyage à la côte du Nord-Ouest de l’Amérique septentrionale dans les années 1810, 11, 12, 13, et 14 (Narrative of a trip to the American North West in the Years 1810, 11, 12, 13, and 14). It would seem that the book is the possession of Marianopolis College, in Westmount, Montreal. 

What I would like to point out here is that Franchère did not stay in Montreal. He returned west and died in Minnesota, where Astor’s men settled when they retired from what we could call “active duty.” It shoud also be pointed out that this was a most articulate gentleman who nevertheless worked as a mere clerk not to say voyageurs and had so loved his work that home had become Minnesota. As for voyageurs in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), most of its employees retired in neighbouring Manitoba (Canada).

The Explorers 

Beaver pelts had been very precious because they were used, among other things, to make hats. Remember the high hats. But as John Jacob Astor realized, the beaver had nearly become extinct, which for him meant abandoning the fur trade. As I have noted, a large proportion of his men settled in Minnesota when they could no longer carry two bales, or when steam boats replaced the canoe. They had opened up a very large number of forts and “[t]hey, with their traders, were thus the first white settlers of most of these areas.” [iv]


But what of the intrepid hommes du Nord, the North men, or young voyageurs?  As it happens, “[i]t was they, too, who did the actual exploring of the interior, for the greater explorer, like Alexander Henry, Jonathan Carver, and Alexander Mackenzie [who] relied on their canoemen for knowledge of navigable streams, portages, wintering grounds and other topographical features.” [v] 

A new canoe was used, mentioned in The Voyageur & his Canoe “The Kootenay-Salish canoe was built for the rapid rivers of southern BC [British Columbia], with both ends extending out under the water (art work by Lewis Parker).” [vi]

The Kootenay-Salish Canoe by Lewis Parker (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

In short, we have just learned about a third employer. As well, we saw that most voyageurs remained where they had worked, thereby becoming settlers, and that the more intrepid worked for explorers. I am sure that Simon Fraser had voyageurs in his employ when he chartered British Columbia. The Kootenay-Salish canoe was their canoe.


Canoemen by David Morris


Love to everyone 

[i] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageurs (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1987[1931]), pp. 203-204.

[ii] Wikipedia, “Pacific Fur Company”           <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Fur_Company>

[iii] The Voyageurs, p. 6.

[iv] Nute, op. cit., p. 10.

[v]  Ibid.

[vi] James Marsch, “The Birchbark Canoe,” in the Canadian Encyclopedia <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/birchbark-canoe-1>

Un Canadien errant, 1842, La Bonne Chanson

© Micheline Walker
28 March 2018
[14 January 2012]





Translation by Leonard Cohen

Un Canadien errant (A wandering Canadian, )
Banni de ses foyers, (banned from his hearths, )
Parcourait en pleurant (travelled while crying)
Des pays étrangers. (in foreign lands.)
Parcourait en pleurant (travelled while crying)
Des pays étrangers. (in foreign lands.)
Un jour, triste et pensif, (One day, sad and pensive, )
Assis au bord des flots, (sitting by the flowing waters, )
Au courant fugitif (to the fleeing current)
Il adressa ces mots: (he addressed these words:)
Au courant fugitif (to the fleeing current)
Il adressa ces mots: (he addressed these words:)
“Si tu vois mon pays, (If you see my country, )
Mon pays malheureux, (my unhappy country, )
Va dire à mes amis (go tell my friends)
Que je me souviens d’eux. (that I remember them.)
Va dire
Leonard Cohen translates Un Canadian errant

The Voyageur & his Canoe


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“Voyageurs at Dawn” by Frances Anne Hopkins, (1871) (1838–1919)

Grace Lee Nute, a pioneer

Several books have been written about the voyageurs, but Grace Lee Nute is our pioneer. She published her The Voyageur in 1931 (D. Appleton and Company). That book is still one’s best reference.

The Voyageur‘s clothes

At the beginning of her second chapter, Nute quotes missionnary Sherman Hall:

[m]y man dresses himself in the habit of a voyageur, that is, a short shirt, a red woolen cap, a pair of deer skin leggins which reach from the ancles a little above the knees and are held up by a string secured to a belt about the waiste, the aziōn [breech cloth] of the Indians, and a pair of deer skin moccasins without stocking on the feet. The thigh are left bare.  This is the dress of voyageurs in summer and winter.[i]

As Grace Lee Nute writes, there are missing items: “a blue capote, the inevitable pipe, a gaudy sash.” The gaudy sash is “une ceinture fléchée,” a wool belt with an arrow (une flêche) design, made by French Canadians. It resembles the Irish woven belt but is wider and features the arrows.

Nute adds that the voyageur also wore a “gay beeded bag or pouch hung from the sash,” quite similar to the Scottish Highlander’s hair horse sporran. The voyageur stood out in a crowd.

Dr Bigsby, whom we will meet in my next voyageur post,

was disappointed and not a little surprised at the appearance of the voyageurs. On Sundays, as they stand round the door of the village churches, they are proud dress fellows in their parti-coloured sashes and ostrich-feathers; but here they were a motley set to the eye: but the truth was that all of them were picked men, with extra wages as serving in a light canoe [ii]

“Quetico Superior Route, passing a Waterfall by Frances Ann Hopkins (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

A Hierarchy among Voyageurs

There was a hierarchy among voyageurs. We had:

  • hivernants (winterers): they stayed during the winter, trading and manning the “fort;”
  • hommes du Nord (northern men): outstanding voyageurs who travelled further inland and opened up Forts from Athabasca to Fort Vancouver, established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. Sometimes these voyageurs accompanied explorers such as Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye (17 November  1685 – 5 December 1749) and his four sons and Simon Fraser (20 May 1776 – 18 August 1862), an employee of the North West Company until its merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821.
  • mangeurs de lard (pork-eaters), who went back and forth between Montreal and trading posts such as Grand-Portage.

The Canoes

One voyageur song is entitled “Épouser le voyage,” or to marry the voyage. The voyageur saw his work as a profession. As for the canoe, it was his home. Voyageurs travelled in their canoe and the canoe was the voyageur’s roof for the night. He slept underneath his upside-down canoe.

Origins of the Canoe

A voyageur learned how to make a canoe from what he could find in the wood. The birchbark canoe was of course borrowed from the Amerindians, but it was pointed out to me that there is a resemblance between the Longships used by Vikings and the York boat. However, the York boat was a boat, not a canoe. Yet the canoe resembled the Longships, except that it was relatively small. Europeans have long fished off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. There is a pre-history to history (recorded history) just as there is an oral tradition preceding the written tradition.

In Newfoundland, there is a town named Port aux Basques, which would indicate that Basques fishermen probably fished nearby or used the channel located close to Port aux Basques. The Trans-Canada highway ends, or begins, at Port aux Basques.

Voyageurs used birchbark canoes:

Making a Birch Bark Canoe (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

“In building a canoe, bark is stripped from the birch, placed inside a staked frame, sewn and attached. Ribs are fixed in position and seams sealed with spruce gum (artwork by Lewis Parker).” [iii]


There were several types of canoes used by voyageurs, but the first two were the most important.

  • “The famous canot du maître or canot de Montréal, on which the fur trade depended, was up to 12 m long and carried 6 to 12 crew and a load of 2300 kg over the route from Montréal to Lake Superior.” [iv]
  • “The smaller canot du nord  or North canoe carried a crew of 5 or 6 and a cargo of 1360 kg over the smaller lakes, rivers and streams of the Northwest.” [v]
  • The canot bâtard or bastard canoe was a mid-size canoe.

However, voyageurs also used Amerindian canoes.

  • “The birchbark canoe of the Algonkian peoples was ideal for travel by rivers and lakes separated by narrow watersheds or portages (artwork by Lewis Parker).” [vi]
  • “The Kootenay-Salish canoe was built for the rapid rivers of southern BC, with both ends extending out under the water (artwork by Lewis Parker).” [vii]

The Algonkian Canoe, Lewis Parker (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The York Boat was named after the Hudson’s Bay Co’s York Factory. “It was one of 3 types of inland boats (the others being scows and sturgeon-heads) used by the HBC, and the most suitable for lake travel.” [viii]


York Boats on Lake Winnipeg by W. J. Phillips (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia [courtesy Glenbow/4615])

Love to everyone

[i] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageurs (St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1987 [1931]), p. 13.

[ii] Op. cit., p. 15.

[iii] “Birchbark Canoes,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/birchbark-canoe/>

[iv] loc. cit.

[v] loc. cit.

[vii] loc. cit.

[viii] “York Boat,” The Canadian Encyclopedia <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/york-boat/>


The Tonquin, 1811

The Tonquin, 1811

© Micheline Walker
14 January 2012

The Voyageurs & their Employers


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Hudson’s Bay Company Ships
Prince of Wales and Eddystone bartering with the Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait, NWT. Watercolour by Robert Hood (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-40364) (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

The Hudson’s Bay Company ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone bartering with the Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait by Robert Hood (1819) (Hudson Strait, Wikipedia)

The French Régime

During the French régime, the voyageurs or canoemen who travelled to the heart of the continent to collect beaver pelts were hired by a “bourgeois” who used the selection criteria I listed in my last post:

  • short legs,
  • a powerful upper body, and
  • a good singing voice.

The Hudson’s Bay Company

Matters changed when Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636–1710) and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers (1618–1696), discovered the sea we now know as the Hudson’s Bay. They collected enough beaver pelts to fill a hundred canoes. Having done so, they travelled to Canada which, at that point in history, was the western part of Nouvelle-France. The eastern part was l’Acadie, comprising Maine, part of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Radisson and Groseilliers thought that officials in Canada would be interested in their discovery: one could harvest the coveted pelts travelling by boat, large boats. Officials confiscated the fur Radisson and Des Groseilliers had brought back. It was proof of their discovery. They were treated like coureurs des bois, mere adventurers, not to say criminals.

Rupert of the Rhine

Prince Rupert of the Rhine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Radisson being very shrewd, he and Des Groseilliers went to Boston to seek the help  they required to travel to England. The Bostonians agreed to take them to England where a member of the royal family, Prince Rupert of the Rhine (17 December 1619 – 29 November 1682), took an interest in the findings of the two explorers. He financed a trip to the Hudson’s Bay. The first ships to venture to what would be Rupert’s Land were the Eaglet and the Nonsuch that left England on June 3, 1668. The Company was chartered on 2 May 1670. That is how the Hudson’s Bay Company was established.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)

is the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world.[I]

Rupert's Land showing York Factory

Rupert’s Land showing York Factory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The British Régime

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed on February 10, 1763 by France, Britain and Spain, France relinquished its claim on its two provinces of New France. The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War, an international conflict.

The North West Company

After New France became a British Colony, a second Fur Company was founded, the North West Company, and it established its headquarters in Montreal. The most prominent figures in the newly-founded company were Benjamin Frobisher, his brother Joseph, and Simon McTavish.

The Fight at Seven Oaks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(please click on the picture to enlarge it)

The North West Company competed with the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1779 to 1821, when a merger was negotiated. The conflict between the two companies reached an apex on 19 June 1816 when Robert Semple, Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land challenged a party of Métis at Seven Oaks. The Métis were allies of the North West Company. Semple and 20 of his men were killed.

The Merger

This event served as a catalyst in the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. After the merger, the man in charge, was the immensely capable and pleasant Sir George Simpson (1787 – September 7,  1860), a Scots-Quebecer. Sir George Simpson was Governor-in-Chief of Rupert’s Land and administrator over the Northwest Territories and in British North America (now Canada) from 1821 to 1860. He was knighted by Queen Victoria.

To sum up, let us simply say that we had voyageurs working for

  • a “bourgeois,”
  • The Hudson’s Bay Company (1670 – ),
  • The North West Company, revived in 1990, but not a fur-trading company,
  • a merger (1821-1860; end of the fur trade).

However, by 1821, only one company remained: the Hudson’s Bay Company.

York boats were used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to transport furs in the Northwest. The sails could be used in open water. (Canadian Encyclopedia)


[i] written by ARTHUR J. RAY, reviewed by SASHA YUSUFALI , accessed on January 12, 2012.  <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/hudsons-bay-company>

[ii] written by CORNELIUS J. JAENEN, accessed on January 12, 2012.  <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/treaty-of-paris-1763>


Arne Dørumsgaard, arr.
Frederica von Stade (1945- ) sings early French songs (3), (Edinburgh, 1976)

© Micheline Walker
13 January 2012

The Voyageurs, continued


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Signing of the Treaty of Ghent. The leading British delegate Baron Gambier is shaking hands with the American leader John Quincy Adams. The British Undersecretary of State for War and the Colonies, Henry Goulburn, is carrying a red folder. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Past Articles

My post entitled Louis Riel, hero or rebel (20 March 2018) was very long, too long. I  will mention the settlement of the Red River Colony by the Earl of Selkirk, but the details will constitute a separate post.

I had researched material concerning the voyageurs in a series of six posts published in 2012. I had also written posts mentioning the Treaty of Ghent, In 1814, a border between the future Canada and the United States was drawn. The Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. As for the Pemmican War, they opposed voyageurs from the Hudson’s Bay Company (established in 1670) and voyageurs North West Company, established in 1789, with headquarters in Montreal. Two voyageurs posts feature Gabriel Franchère and the men he took from New York to Fort Astoria, located in present-day Oregon. Franchère was in the employ of John Jacob Astor‘s Pacific Fur Company and the earlier American Fur Company, incorporated in 1808. John Jacob was allowed to hire Canadiens voyageurs despite the Embargo Act of 1807.  Moreover, following the Treaty of Ghent, fur trading posts that had been British became American fur trading posts. Gabriel Franchère, a clerk and trusted employee of John Jacob Astor’s lived in Minnesota.

Future Articles

  • the “School Questions”
  • the Exodus

However, earlier posts do not refer to certain events that followed Louis Riel’s death. For instance, the population of Canada West had been Catholic and Anglican. Matters changed as Canada moved westward. The purchase of Rupert’s Land gave Canada the territory it needed and the Orange Order opposed the arrival of French Canadians in Ontario. At this point, we have the “School Questions:” the Ontario Schools Questions; the Manitoba Schools Question, and the New Brunswick Schools Question. I wonder if, and to what extent, French-Canadian habitants tried to move to Ontario and provinces west of Ontario.

Nearly a million French-speaking Canadians moved to the United States, including my paternal grandfather and other relatives, when the thirty acres granted habitants by La Compagnie des Cent-Associés (see The Canadian Encyclopedia) could no longer be divided and French-speaking Canadians had yet to acquire skills one needed in the business world.

Nearly a million French Canadians moved to the United States. That episode of Canada’s history is called the exodus. Protestants in New France had also fled to the Thirteen Colonies after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. New France was a province of France.


Sources and Resources

The Minnesota Heritage Song Book (lyrics and translation)


Reign of Louis XIV of France. French Huguenots arriving in Dover (England) after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1685. Coloured engraving.
January 01, 1900 (Photo credit: Getty Images)


Thirteen Colonies (dark pink). Louisiana is situated on the left side. It belonged to Spain in 1775, but was mostly a French colony. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

M’en revenant de la jolie Rochelle


La Bonne Chanson (l’abbé Gadbois)

Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869 (Photo credit Wikipedia)  

© Micheline Walker
22 March 2018



The Voyageurs: hommes engagés


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Shooting the Rapid, 1879, Frances Ann Hopkins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shooting the Rapids by Frances Ann Hopkins, 1879 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Voyageurs

The voyageurs were the French-speaking Canadian boatmen or canoemen, who travelled in birch-bark canoes from Ottawa or Lachine, to fur-trading posts in what is now Manitoba and Minnesota, Grand-Portage being the main trading post.

  • First, they had to short-legged. Being short-legged was important because they had to transport as much fur as possible relatively small canoes and much of the fur was stored under each canoeman’s seat in the canoe. There was very little room for their legs.
  • Second, a strong upper body was an essential characteristic. They sometimes had to go from one waterway to another waterway and when they did, they carried fur (usually beaver pelts) and personal supplies on their back, bundles called bales, they carried on their backs, weighed more than 40 kilos (about 90 pounds), perhaps a conservative figure. And they also had to carry their canoe.  These parts of their trips were called a portage (from the French porter: to carry).
  • Third, they had to be good singers.

The Singing Voyageurs

Travellers to North-America, fur traders, employees and governors of fur-trading companies, such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, historians, and others often reported that the Canadien voyageur, sang as he paddled canoes filled with precious pelts.

Les Trois Cavaliers fort bien montés (The Three Well-Mounted Horsemen), a folksong, inspired Irish poet Thomas Moore to give it new words in 1804. It became the famous Canadian Boat Song.

In Kitchi-Gami [i], J. G. Kohl writes that “They [the voyageurs] were chosen men! The best singers in the world:”

C’était des hommes choisis ! Les plus beaux chanteurs du monde!

Le Portage

Portages were so difficult that the men often chose to “shoot the rapids.” At such times, I doubt that they sang. “Shooting the rapids” was dangerous and many men died.  Alongside the rivers the voyageurs used to go from Lachine (Montreal), or Ottawa, the usual points of departure, to what is now Manitoba and Minnesota, there are little white crosses. The voyageurs left small white crosses where boatmen had die.

The Contract: voyageurs and coureurs de/des bois

We have to distinguish between the voyageurs who had a licence to work in the fur trade and those who roamed the forests without the proper permit, called coureurs de/des bois. As for the voyageur, he was a hired man: an engagéBut the coureurs des bois were adventurers. They roamed the woods without a permit and if they got caught fur-trading, they faced sanctions and the beaver pelts they had not sold were confiscated.

These men usually signed a three-year contract which meant that they often left behind, a wife and children to whom the earnings of the voyageur were usually sent.  However, many men lived with Amerindian women or married Amerindian women. Their children were Métis.

However, some voyageur wanted to marry a French-Canadian woman and simply waited. Canada’s Louis Riels grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, went to Quebec to marry Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first white woman to settle in Western Canada. Their daughter Julie married a Métis named Louis Riel and they had a son they named Louis Riel. Several Métis remained in Manitoba, but the Battle of Batoche took place in Saskatchewewan. Many retired in Minnesota, USA. Those who did had usually been employed by the American Fur Trade company, founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808.


I will continue to tell the story of the voyageurs, but let this be the background. We have actually gone a long way.  For the time being, I will continue to reflect on the fact that these men sang despite the dangers they faced and their isolation from their home.


© Micheline Walker
12 January 2012

[i] G. Kohl, Kitchi-Gami. Wanderings Round Lake Superior (London: Chapman and Hall, 1860).  Available in paperback, with an introduction by Robert E. Bieder, under the title Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985 [1860]).

The Beaver

The Beaver

Louis Riel, Hero or Rebel


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Buffalo at Sunset

Buffalo at Sunset by Paul Kane (National Gallery of Canada)

“I have done three good things since I have commenced: I have spared Boulton‘s life at your instance, I pardoned Gaddy, and now I shall shoot Scott.”
(Louis Riel, Wikipedia)


Riel, Louis and the First Provisional government, 1869 (courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-1039-1) (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

132c7732-6818-4002-b060-1a78ecef2729 (1)

March 4, 1870. Protestant Orangeman Thomas Scott is executed on orders from Louis Riel (from the Illustrated Canadian News, April 23, 1870/Glenbow Collection) (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia) 


Executing Thomas Scott is in fact the worst thing Riel ever did. “Some historians say this was one of Riel’s most fatal errors.” (See Execution of Thomas Scott, A Country by Consent.) It was.

Irish-born Thomas Scott, an Orangeman from present-day Ontario, was captured when he and his party tried to break into Fort Garry, the former Red River Colony and future Winnipeg. He could have been freed on the condition that he leave the valley, but he wouldn’t leave the valley. He was a member of the Orange Order, named after Dutch-born Protestant king William of Orange, anti-Catholics Protestants who looked upon French Canadians as “morally inferior:”

Its [the Orange Order’s] members generally viewed Roman Catholics and French Canadians as politically disloyal or culturally inferior. Some Orange members argued that their association was the only one capable of resisting Catholics who, they believed, were subservient to the Pope’s spiritual and political authority and who were therefore disreputable crown subjects.

(See Orange Order, The Canadian Encyclopedia)

As an Orangeman and very anti-Catholic, Thomas Scott repeatedly taunted his captors and threatened to kill Riel.” (See Execution of Thomas Scott, A Country by Consent.)  Moreover, Orangemen had a “penchant for violence and secrecy.”

Colonial administrators in Upper CanadaCanada West were at times thankful for their loyalty and service, and other times disparaged their penchant for violence and secrecy.

(See The Orange Order in CanadaThe Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Canada buys Rupert’s Land

One can understand that after Canadian Confederation, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, and his government might wish to expand westward. In 1867, the United States had bought Alaska from Russia. Moreover, the United States had developed an ideology, Manifest Destiny (c. 1850), which suggested that Americans “were destined to expand across North America the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, etc.” (See Manifest Destiny, Wikipedia.)

Therefore, John A. Macdonald and his government purchased Rupert’s Land, a vast territory, named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who supplied Pierre-Esprit Radisson with a ship, the Nonsuch, that took him near the center of the continent. For men employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670, portages were minimized. The HBC’s trading post was York Factory, built in 1684.  However, in 1774, the Hudson’s Bay Company built Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River, its first western inland post. “Brigades” of canoes would go down waterways to acquire beaver pelts used to make top hats or chapeaux haut-de-forme. At this point, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North-West Company became fierce competitors until the merger of the two companies in 1821.

This [Rupert’s Land] amounted to an enormous territory in the heart of the continent: what is today northern Québec and Labrador, northern and western  Ontario, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, south and central Alberta, parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and small sections of the United States.

(See Rupert’s Land, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)


Rupert’s Land (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Winter Fishing on the Ice by Peter Ridinsbacher, 1821 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Red River Colony

However, although one can understand Prime Minister John A. Macdonald‘s wish to expand the new Canadian Confederation westward, but he did so without consulting the inhabitants of the Red River Colony, depicted above in Peter Rindisbacher‘s art, many of whom were Métis. The Earl of Selkirk had settled the Red River Colony in the early decades of the 19th century. So, the Colony’s citizens were alarmed because of the influx of immigrants that followed Confederation. New Canadians were moving West in a manner that did not reflect the way the Earl of Selkirk’s had settled the community. (See The Red River Settlement, Canada’s First Peoples and Lord Selkirk’s Grant, CBC.ca) It was located at the juncture of the Red River and the Assiniboine, in modern-day Winnipeg.

When he returned from studying in Montreal, Louis Riel, the grandson of Jean-Baptiste Lagimonière, or Lagimodière, and Marie-Anne Gaboury, noticed that life was changing in the Red River Colony and that it was not changing to the benefit of the Métis, who numbered 10,000. For instance, “[t]he Métis did not possess title to their land, which was, in any case, laid out according to the seigneurial system rather than in English-style square lots.” (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.) French seigneuries were narrow strips of land on the shores of the St. Lawrence. Given that they were narrow, several seigneuries could be built on each side of the St. Lawrence River. Such a configuration facilitated transportation.

In short, entry of the Red River Colony into Confederation seemed a takeover.

The Red River Rebellion

A timeline of events

On 20 August 1869, a survey party arrived. On 11 October, the survey’s work was interrupted so, on 16 October, a “Métis National Committee” was formed at which point Louis Riel was summoned by the HBC-controlled Council of Assiniboia and “declared that any attempt by Canada to assume authority would be contested unless Ottawa had first negotiated terms with the Métis.” (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.) On 2 November, unilingual William McDougall, who had just been appointed Lieutenant Governor of  Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory, attempted to enter the settlement. McDougall had participated in the purchase of Rupert’s Land. He and George-Étienne Cartier had gone to London seeking funds to purchase Rupert’s Land. Métis “led by Riel seized Fort Garry [present-day Winnipeg].” (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.) The Métis formed a Provisional Government, the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, on 6 December and on 27 December 1869, Louis Riel became its President. On 4 March 1870, 28 year-old Irish- born Thomas Scott was executed by firing squad, but he may have been left to die of his wounds. (See Louis Riel, Library and Archives Canada.)

The execution of Thomas Scott: a mistake

The execution of Irish-born Ontario Orangeman Thomas Scott, on 4 March 1870, is central to an account of the Red River Rebellion and to the fate of French-speaking Canadians in western Canada. Thomas Scott was violent. “He took part in a strike in 1869, for which he was fired and convicted of aggravated assault.” Therefore, he may have attempted to kill Louis Riel. Moreover, “Scott backed the annexation of the Red River Settlement to Canada, and the rest of his life revolved around this conflict. Scott had persecuted many metis, or “Half Breeds” in Winnipeg, and his first town, Ottawa, with a mysterious man named Gnez Noel.” Members of the Orange Order “generally viewed Roman Catholics and French Canadians as politically disloyal or culturally inferior.” (See Orange OrderThe Canadian Encyclopedia.)

In fact, colonial administrators were of two minds with respect to members of the Orange Order.

Colonial administrators in Upper CanadaCanada West were at times thankful for their loyalty and service, and other times disparaged their penchant for violence and secrecy.

(See Orange Order in CanadaThe Canadian Encyclopedia)

In short, Thomas Scott was not a model citizen. On the contrary. Yet, would that, however “violent and boisterous” he was, 28-year-old Thomas Scott had been spared a death sentence, if only out of compassion.  I should think a pardon would  have prevented Riel’s own demise and, perhaps, allowed French Canadians to settle west. Thomas Scott was a very young man whom almost everyone would have forgotten, but who would, henceforth, be considered a martyr taken into captivity at Fort Garry, and murdered by a so-called government of ‘Half Breeds.’

Besides, was the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia a government? In their own eyes, they were. Yet, if French Canadians were “morally inferior,” one would surmise that French Métis, a blend of French Canadians and Aboriginals, at first, were morally inferior to French Canadians. I doubt that the Métis Provisional Government, or the  Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, could be taken seriously and I believe it could not anticipate the impact of the execution of Thomas Scott (The Canadian Encyclopedia). I suspect that for many Canadians, Métis could not form a government.

In fact, it would be my opinion that Riel was very angry, which is the reason he would be committed to an asylum in the mid-seventies. After the Red River Rebellion of 1870, he was elected to Parliament three times, but he was never allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons. It has been suggested that Riel suffered from megalomania, which could be the case, but, first and foremost, he was very angry and had reason to be.

His [Riel’s] mental state deteriorated, and following a violent outburst he was taken to Montreal, where he was under the care of his uncle, John Lee, for a few months. But after Riel disrupted a religious service, Lee arranged to have him committed in an asylum in Longue Pointe on 6 March 1876 under the assumed name “Louis R. David[.]” Fearing discovery, his doctors soon transferred him to the Beauport Asylum near Quebec City under the name “Louis Larochelle.”

(See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.)


The inhabitants of the Red River Colony, the Métis and Aboriginals especially, had a right to their land. It had belonged to the Hudson’s Company Bay since 1670, but colonial powers usurped the land they occupied. As for the Red River Colony, it had also been settled. The Earl of Selkirk‘s family had bought sufficient shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company to acquire the land he settled, but that land have been claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, not purchased.

However, the notion that land in North America had been claimed, not bought, was probably lost on John A. Macdonald and his fledgling government. It had been lost on all colonial powers and colonists. By modern standards, it seems legitimate on the part of the European citizens of the Red River to determine their relationship with Canada.

The Red River Colony occupied land that had been bought by Lord Selkirk.  One could say that it was not Rupert’s Land. One could argue that William McDougall and his surveyors were trespassing on land bought by the Earl of Selkirk, that now belonged to the citizens of the Red River Colony, the future Winnipeg, which means that the inhabitants of the Red River Colony had rights. Although Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché and Hudson’s Bay Company governor William MacTavish, advised caution on the part of John A. Macdonald’s government, the Canadian minister of public works,  William McDougall, ordered a survey of the area, he and his men arrived on 20 August 1869. (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.)

(See Alexandre Antonin Taché.)

As for John A. Macdonald, at this stage, he was still inexperienced. He therefore  purchased Rupert’s Land, part of which belonged to the Red River Colony (Upper Fort Garry) was located, without consulting its inhabitants, which led to the Red River Rebellion. Following the Red River Rebellion, there was little room in Western Canada for Catholics, French Canadians, and Métis. A committee of three travelled to Ottawa:

Riel’s Provisional Government sent Father Noël-Joseph Ritchot a close adviser of Riel’s, Alfred Scott, a Winnipeg bartender, and Judge John Black, to Ottawa to negotiate with the Canadian government.

(See The Birth of Manitoba, Manitobia.)

The news of Scott’s execution arrived ahead of them. John Schultz and Charles Mair, who had both been imprisoned by the Provisional Government for a period of time, were now in Ontario and determined to turn public opinion against Riel.

(See The Birth of Manitoba, Manitobia.)

canada_change_1870-07-15 (1)

The Manitoba Act 1870

Yet the Red River Rebellion did lead to the Manitoba Act of 1870 (la Loi sur le Manitoba), a negotiated entry into the Canadian Confederation.

The Manitoba Act reads as follows. It is

[a]n act of the Parliament of Canada that is defined by the Constitution Act, 1982 as forming a part of the Constitution of Canada. The act, which received the royal assent on May 12, 1870, created the province of Manitoba and continued in force An Act for the Temporary Government of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territories when united with Canada upon the absorption of the British territories of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory into Canada on July 15, 1870.

(See Manitoba Act of 1870, Wikipedia.)

The Wolseley Expedition

However, no sooner was the Manitoba Act of 1870 signed than John A. Macdonald, fearing the United States would annex Manitoba, dispatched the Wolseley Expedition (or Red River Expedition) to “restore order.” The Expedition left Toronto in May 1870 reaching Fort Garry, or the Red River in late August 1870.

After a journey lasting three months of arduous conditions, the Expedition arrived at, and captured, Fort Garry, extinguished Riel’s Provisional Government and eradicated the threat of the U.S. being able to easily wrest western Canada from Confederation.

(See Wolseley Expedition, Wikipedia.)

Riel flees (1870)

Riel fled the Red River upon the conclusion of the Wolseley Expedition (Wikipedia). During the 1879s, he was elected into office three times, but was never allowed to sit in the House of Commons. After his illness, a nervous breakdown, he went to the United States, worked as a teacher and married, Marguerite Monet, à la façon du pays, and fathered two children. He returned to Canada in 1885, summoned by Gabriel Dumont, he was taken prisoner when Métis were defeated at the Battle of Batoche, Saskatchewan, (in May 1885).


How does one conclude?

Louis Riel attempted to protect land the white man, Europeans, had taken from North-American Indians, Amérindiens. However, Riel made the mistake of condemning Thomas Scott to death, giving a martyr to the Orange Order and pursuing Riel for fifteen years and executing him? The Métis were not recognized as an aboriginal people until the Patriation of the Constitution (The Canadian Encyclopedia), in 1982.

As for the Métis List of Rights (A Country by Consent), recognized in the Manitoba Act of 1870, they were short-lived rights. In 1890, Manitoba passed An Act to Provide that the English Language shall be the Official Language of the Province of Manitoba (See Manitoba Act, The Canadian Encyclopedia). In March 1890, the government of Manitoba “passed two bills amending the province’s laws on education: An Act respecting the Department of Education and An Act respecting Public Schools.” These bills abolished the province’s dual school system: Catholic and Protestant. French-speaking children attended English language schools.

Orangemen disparaged the Jesuits’ Estates Act of 1888 and resented the influx of French Canadian Catholics into Eastern Ontario at the turn of the 20th century. Finally, in the debates surrounding the Manitoba Schools Question and the Ontario Schools Question, Orangemen vigorously agitated against Catholic education because of its ties to the French language.

(See Orange Order, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Moreover, “[t]he Order [Protestants] was the chief social institution in Upper Canada.” (See Orange Order in Canada, Wikipedia.)

As for Riel, he was neither a hero or a rebel, but a victim, a victim of colonialism. Amerindians were nomadic, which they could not be after the purchase of Rupert’s Land. Colonial powers gave themselves rights they did not have. Riel was executed for High Treason, after the Battle of Batoche, following the North-West Rebellion (1885).


Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1877 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sources and Resources


  1. French Canadians as a Founding Nation (19 January 2018)
  2. Louis Riel, as a Father of Confederation (2012 & 2018)
  3. Voyageurs Posts (a page)

Sources and Resources

À la claire fontaine 


© Micheline Walker
20 March 2018