An essential first point to be made about this research project is that it is not directly focused on such topics as government funding, political autonomy, and/or debates about who should and should not be considered “Métis”. These are all valuable conversations to be had amongst Métis and non-Métis people alike, as they are at the core of the evolving sense of Métis nationality, economic viability, and cultural identity that undeniably impacts the overall research (and this will be discussed openly at times throughout). However, the focus of this project is to remain on the built environment in an attempt to elevate design-related topics in Métis cultural conversation and education. To be clear, the nature of the research positions Métis culture as essential to our national identity and worthy of further discussion in architectural discourse. It is also my position that all architecture sits somewhere on a gradient of political and ideological intent, so to negate this would be entirely naive.
I begin this post with this because of my decision to initiate a discussion on ‘Métis architecture’ with the Alberta Settlements. As a Métis person with relatives and descendants throughout the prairies and Western Canada, this seemed like a natural place for me to begin at a personal level. However, there are also a few other significant factors. For example, Douglas Cardinal is the most often cited “Métis” architect in the world and is from Alberta. There is another essential characteristic about Alberta, however, that does not exist in the other provinces and territories – a geopolitical boundary, which provides distinct advantages in initiating a spatial discussion about culture and design as it is possible to focus on what is ‘in’ and/or ‘out’ of the boundary.
It is also essential to note that the decision to focus on the prairies for this project is not to negate or underemphasize self-identifying Métis communities in other parts of the country (or the USA for that matter), but rather to keep the project of a manageable size and to focus on the architecture of Red River westward because it is, arguably, where the Métis as a politically distinct ‘nation’ became widely recognized as a cohesive aboriginal culture with a unified voice and a clear set of demands that they were willing to fight for. I am very consciously aware that many other histories of Métis people in Canada exist (or métis with a small ‘m’ depending on where one sits in ongoing debates surrounding registry), and I hope to consider some of these narratives in future research.
With this being said, it is worthwhile to briefly explain the settlements and how they came to be. In 1929 the Canadian government and the, then, three provinces engaged in a series of landmark negotiations called the Natural Resources Transfer Agreements, which transferred control and administration of crown lands from federal to provincial jurisdictions. Up until this point the federal government had allowed the Métis (and ex-treaty Indians) to squat on land if pursuing a traditional livelihood of fishing, trapping, and hunting.(1) Once the land was transferred to the provinces, they opened up new areas for homesteading and this deeply concerned the Métis people already living in these regions. When the St. Paul des Métis colony was dissolved in 1909 (originally formed by Father Albert Lacombe during the 1890s), there were subsequent petitions made to the government to establish a reserve for the Métis that were outrightly refused. Nicole O’Byrne aptly summarizes the unfolding situation.
Concerned that their squatters’ rights would be abolished by the province in favour of opening up the land for agricultural settlements, the Métis started planning a strategy to lobby the provincial government for land to be set aside for a variety of uses including agriculture hunting trapping and fishing…There were no government services of any kind, and the Métis were ineligible for provincial relief programs because they did not hold title to their lands…As the federal and provincial governments made plans to transfer control and administration of natural resources from the former to the latter, the Métis squatters started to organize to protect the few rights they possessed and to petition the provincial government for a land grant. (2)
The Métis in Alberta during the 1930s have been described as “desperate” (3) and “deplorable” (4), and like many other groups such as the farmers and workers in the region, were seeking governmental assistance to deal with the lasting effects of the Depression. (5) During this time, a group of Métis from Fishing Lake approached a man named Joseph Dion to assist them in pursuing a land claim. Dion, a First Nations school teacher in Frog Lake who had been teaching Métis children at the Keheewin Indian Reserve School (despite them not being entitled to attend), emerged as an invaluable voice for the Métis, joining Liberal MLA Joseph Dechene in a series of propositions to the government to take action with regards to the Métis in the region. As O’Byrne writes, it was during Dion’s subsequent trips to Métis communities across the province that he met Jim Brady, a Métis leader and committed Marxist, who revealed in a subsequent letter to Dion that his “central motivational idea during the early years of the Métis land movement [was that] The Métis have no other weapon except organization,” a phrase adapted from Vladimir Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.(6)
Other leaders of the Alberta Métis during these years alongside Brady and Dion, were Malcolm Norris and Peter Tomkins. As Don McLean writes,
Malcolm Norris and Jim Brady…were revolutionary socialists, at home in either the Metis of the White communities in the West during the 1930s. It is the efforts of these men [Dion, Brady, Norris and Tomkins] that rekindled the tradition of democratic participation that had for so long been characteristic of the Metis. (7)
On December 28, 1932, a meeting occurred between 33 elected Métis councillors from across the province, Joseph Dion, and the Deputy Minister of Lands and Mines to accomplish the following: to address the aims of the “Half Breed Association”, to decide on suitable lands for their communities, and to address education for Métis children.(8) It is here that the Metis Association of Alberta (MAA) was formally recognized, and this led to a more earnest government study of the conditions of the Métis the following year, a study that concluded the future of the Métis was of ‘grave concern’ given they were “much worse off socially and economically than the Indians living on reserves.” (9) This led to the establishing of a commission (Ewing Commission) in 1934 where the MAA presented its case for the establishment of the settlements and the outcome of this commission (the details of which are outlined in various places such as the O’Byrne and Harrison citations below) eventually led to the incorporation of the Metis Betterment Act, passed by the Alberta legislature in 1938. Under this act, land for Métis communities had been set aside at Big Prairie (now Peavine), Kikino, East Prairie, Elizabeth, Fishing Lake, Gift Lake, and Paddle Prairie, as well as five other areas that have since been discontinued.
The Betterment Act had achieved what the Métis of Alberta had long coveted – recognition of their right to a homeland that would support their lifestyle and bring economic stability, yet the terms of the Act were not ideal for the Métis. For example, under the Metis Rehabilitation Branch of the government, an appointed supervisor was to “oversee the Métis on the settlement and control all external interactions,” (10) a situation that fostered an already problematic paternalistic relationship. The Act also set out to protect the Métis from creditors by disallowing them to use their property to secure bank loans or mortgages, but according to O’Byrne this created a ‘ward-like status for settlement members’ and “guaranteed that Métis economic interests would be heavily regulated and supervised by the state.”(11) Subsequent legislative acts since have helped to secure both self-governance (the Constitution of Alberta Amendment Act, 1990) and ownership of the land (Metis Settlements Land Protection Act, 2000) which has improved the sense of autonomy of the settlements and guaranteed their future.
One thing that must emphasized here is the stark contrast between the Métis settlement homesteaders and the ‘typical’ Canadian family during these years. Given that most of the settlers arrived with very little possessions or financial assets of any kind, they were quite literally starting from scratch. They often arrived with horse drawn trailers and built their homes with the logs available to them on the land. It is easy to forget that the majority of post-WWII Canadians were enjoying many domestic conveniences such as homes with lawns, televisions, and a family car, visits to the cinema, etc. while the Métis were living a traditional life hardly distinguishable from their ancestors of previous centuries.
To better understand the role of architecture and design amongst the Alberta Métis, I travelled to six of the eight settlements during the summer of 2014 to observe their built environments and listen to elders and community members about their thoughts about buildings and design in general in their communities. Each of these visits are summarized in this blog but more details will be written in future publications.
(1) O’Byrne, N. 2013. ” ‘No other weapon except organization’: The Métis Association of Alberta and the 1938 Population Betterment Act.” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association/Revue de la Société historique du Canada. 24:2. 311-352. p. 315.
(2) Ibid. pp. 315-6.
(3) Harrison, J. 1985. Metis: People between two worlds. Vancouver: Glenbow-Alberta Institute. p.96
(4) O’Byrne, p.323.
(5) Harrison, p.96.
(6) O’Byrne, p.320.
(7) McLean, D. Home From the Hill: A History of the Metis in Western Canada. Regina: Gabriel Dumont Institute. p. 250.
(8) O’Byrne, p. 322.
(9) Ibid, p. 326.
(10) Ibid, p. 341.
(11) Ibid, p. 342.