History of the Metis people in Central Alberta

On June 21st, Canada will be marking the 20th anniversary of the declaration of the annual National Aboriginal Day.

According to the official Government of Canada web site, National Aboriginal Day, “Is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Metis.”

This year has particular significance.

On April 14th, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that constitutionally, the term ‘Indians’ in section 91(24) of the Constitution Act includes all Aboriginal peoples, including not only First Nations, but also ‘non status Indians’ and Métis.

The Supreme Court also ruled that it was not necessary to declare that the federal government owes a fiduciary duty to Metis and ‘non-status Indians’ and that Metis and ‘non-status Indians’ have a right to be consulted and negotiated with. The Court stated that such declarations would only be, “A restatement of the existing law”.

As is almost always the case with Supreme Court rulings, this landmark decision is not the end to all of the important legal issues. Nevertheless, it is now the benchmark from which future negotiations and legal resolutions can begin.

The history of the Metis, across Canada and particularly in Central Alberta, is a rich and significant one.

Unfortunately, much of the earliest history of the Metis in this region has been lost to the mists of time. There were Metis who lived, hunted and trapped in this area for more than 200 years, but whose names and life stories were never properly recorded.

The written record does show that by the middle of the 19th century, Metis freighters were transporting goods on the trails through the region. In the 1870s, the Metis community of Tail Creek, northeast of current-day Delburne, had a seasonal population of up to 2,000 residents. At the time, it was the largest settlement west of Winnipeg.

There are two very old Metis cemeteries, one on the west side of West Park and another on the brow of the North Hill. They bear witness to the fact that the Metis were living in what is now the City of Red Deer in those very early years.

By 1880, there were Metis trappers and freighters living at the Red Deer River Crossing, upstream from the current site of Red Deer.

In 1882, a large group of Metis came out from Manitoba and settled along the river between the mouths of Waskasoo Creek and the Blindman. These remarkable people hauled a steam boiler and engine, a threshing machine and a sawmill, for more than 1,600 kms over rough trails to reach Red Deer.

They started a ferry across the Red Deer River and opened up a new trail, known as the MacKenzie Trail, through Central Alberta.

They got their sawmill operating and provided lumber to other settlers who followed them to the region.

Their threshing machine was used to harvest many of the first crops grown in this district.

Unfortunately, many of the Metis built their homes and started their farms before the first surveyors arrived. This led to a very long battle with the government to try and get their land rights recognized.

Normally, their squatters’ rights would have been legally recognized.

However, the federal government had sold a great deal of land in and around Red Deer to the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company. Several of the Metis farms were located on the land sold to the Company.

After many years of futile legal wrangling, many of the Metis settlers decided to move on in disgust. Their departure left a major hole in the community.

However, those who left did not entirely turn their backs on their old home.

In 1893, the MacKenzie family returned to Red Deer and built the first traffic bridge across the Red Deer River.

They had never built a large scale bridge before, but the one they built lasted for several years. Eventually, the government’s professional engineers came and built a new bridge. It was swept away by the ice in the following spring.

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