Belonging and Mobility in Métis Communities

Nicole St-Onge (Université d’Ottawa) et Étienne Rivard (Université de Saint-Boniface)

This two-part study examines the origins and development of Catholic Franco-Indigenous populations in the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay watersheds. The two regions were linked by fur trading routes originating in Montreal and following a vast network of waterways that extended from a pair of key staging points: Grand Portage (in present-day Minnesota) and Fort William (located at the mouth of Ontario’s Kaministiquia River). These portage sites facilitated the eastward and westward movement of goods and people across the Laurentian Divide.

The overall aim of the study is to document the development of Catholic Franco-Indigenous communities in North America by focusing on these two examples. Recognizing that shared involvement in the fur trade produced socioeconomic and cultural similarities, we seek to determine whether the locations of Grand Portage and Fort William on either side of the continental divide also produced meaningful differences. Ultimately, we hope to establish the temporal and geographic context of any migrations between these two communities, while assessing other relevant connections.

The study is divided into two components, with each principal investigator leading a separate team of researchers.

Component 1: Étienne Rivard and his team at the Université de Saint-Boniface use the 1850 census as a starting point for analyzing the entire Minnesota Territory, with a focus on that part of present-day North Dakota historically known as the Pembina Region.

Component 2: Nicole St-Onge and her team at the University of Ottawa focus on the Chequamegon Bay area and the Franco-Indigenous community of Lapointe, located on Madeline Island in the southern basin of Lake Superior. Like its counterpart in Manitoba, this team uses the 1850 U,S, census—which lists 74 Franco-Indigenous families residing in Lapointe, Wisconsin—as a starting point.

Adopting a lateral and intergenerational perspective, the researchers seek to assess the longevity of the Métis presence in these communities and determine whether assimilation occurred as rapidly as the literature suggests. Regarding the Great Lakes region, the study is challenging the prevailing view that Métis ethnogenesis never emerged in communities like Lapointe, which developed through the Montreal-based fur trade. Finally, the teams pursue a deeper understanding of any regional ties developed between the two communities, as well as any connections with the Red River Colony. The latter, which became the province of Manitoba in 1870, served as the centre of Métis life in nineteenth-century North America.

The study is also be well aligned with the larger TSMF project. To begin with, it provides an opportunity to develop methodological tools for exploring sociocultural phenomena into which most documentary sources provide only limited insight, due to the influence of racial and colonial ideologies rooted in North America’s dominant Euro-American societies. By identifying Franco-Indigenous families, by analyzing residential and migratory behaviour that may indicate spatial segregation, and by carefully considering complex kinship structures, the research teams can pursue complementary investigative approaches capable of shedding light on unique living and cultural realities.

Furthermore, the study is producing a new and useful data set on Métis life by matching data from successive censuses (longitudinal approach) along with data from the various nominal censuses and newly constituted “family” samples. Finally, the study is generating original cartographical data capable of highlighting not only the interplay between the different levels at which Métis life, migration events, and cultural flows can be observed, but also the contributions made to the project by heritage partners like the Société historique de Saint-Boniface.