The story of the Metis people is conjoined with the anti-monopolist policy western society identifies itself with. One wonders in whose eyes the actions of the Northwest Company against the Hudson’s Bay Company’s take over bid would appear mistaken. A settlement is planted right across the trade route of a company. It causes a reaction, albeit a very extreme one. The leader of the group, Cuthbert Grant leads the revolt and then somehow goes on to become a community leader.
The term “freeman” in many of the history books, generally refers to a Metis fur trader. He might have been a voyageur, a trapper, a trader, a fisherman or a trip man. In other words he did what he had to to survive. His character might have been a little questionable but his skills were not.
In 1841, Governor George Simpson decided that he would send a party of colonists overland to Oregon under James Sinclair, a Scots Metis. This would keep a British presence there as well as reduce the population of the colony. That in turn, would reduce the illegal traffic in furs. Oregon at the time was much larger than today, including Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana.
Sinclair was one of the leading freighters and private traders in the settlement and a possible threat to the company. In June 1841, 23 families set out for Edmonton House, 1500 kilometres away. They would risk being swept away crossing the Saskatchewan River, a mile wide at some points. They would be travelling in “Indian Country” where the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Piegan and Cree fought over the land.
The orders Simpson left at Edmonton House were ignored by Sinclair who decided to seek a little glory for himself by finding a different route. They traveled on to Banff and Canmore to cross the Bow River. Soon, they realized they would have to abandon their carts and form a mule train. The animals, not used to carrying loads, threw off their loads and the company had to repack.
Nine days later, the company passed through the Columbia River Valley and onto the Kootenay Plains. They were finally on the west side of the divide, in a land of glaciers. After passing through Canal Flats, they followed the Kootenay River southward. and through Idaho. A stop at Fort Colville and on to Fort Walla Walla ( Fort Nez Perce). Again, on their way to Fort Vancouver, they passed through hostile country. Finally, they arrived at Fort Vancouver where HBC Governor Simpson awaited with bad news.
Similarly to the arrival at Red River in 1812, Simpson could not meet his promises. Authorization from London had not come through. There would be no houses, cattle or plows. Chief Factor of Fort Vancouver and Head of the Columbia District, John McLoughlin, would be of no use, he had become convinced of the “Manifest Destiny” of the Americans after the wagon trains started pouring into the country. Many of the settlers decided to leave for the Willamette Valley and their families remain there to this day.
During this time, the decision about where the border between Canada (Britain) and the United States would run was being argued. It became known as the “Oregon Question”. The British argued that territorial law stated that only lands that had been discovered and settled, conquered or ceded, could be acquired by a country. Still, Simpson did not see how the company could provide for and establish agricultural colonies in the land fast enough.
Canada being run from abroad by nobility who viewed it only as a colony and a source of profit in the face of the determination and quick action of the Americans was not a winning proposal. On June 14, 1846, Simpson walked away with a line running the 49th parallel and losing a huge and productive area. Once again, the Metis people showed their courage and resilience against an indifferent government.