On Sunday, Jan. 20th, the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery, in conjunction with Library and Archives Canada, officially launched a new exhibit ‘Hiding in Plain Sight: Discovering the Metis Nation’.
A huge crowd turned out for the event – a reflection both of the high quality of the exhibit and the growing interest in indigenous history.
The title of the display is very apt.
The Metis were key to the development of Central Alberta. Frequently, they were the ones who started the first farms, schools, churches and industries in the region.
Nevertheless, their stories are not often included in the local histories.
There is evidence that the Metis lived, hunted and trapped in this area for at least 200 years.
For example, the sandstone cliffs in the Red Deer River Canyon east of Red Deer used to have names carved into the soft stone, with dates going back to the early part of the 19th century. Unfortunately, years of erosion and vandalism have obliterated these early inscriptions.
There is archaeological and some written record of extensive Metis communities by the middle of the 1870s, largely in the Buffalo Lake area.
Those communities, such as Tail Creek and Boss Hill, had seasonal populations of up to 2,000 during the height of the great bison hunts. However, as the bison vanished, these places went into serious decline.
There are some records that suggest that there were also small settlements of Metis trappers and freighters living at the Red Deer River Crossing and along the Blindman River. The Whitford family, who had operated a trading post at Tail Creek, later established a stopping house where the Calgary-Edmonton Trail crossed the Blindman River.
In 1882, a large group of Metis settlers came out from Headingly, Manitoba and settled along the Red Deer River between the mouths of Waskasoo Creek and the Blindman River.
These remarkable people hauled a steam boiler and engine, the area’s first threshing machine and a sawmill over rough trails from Manitoba to 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. For a while, they operated a school next to this ferry. Many of the early Metis residents became community leaders.
They served as justices of the peace, school trustees, census enumerators and returning officers for elections.
In 1883, the first church service in the Red Deer district was held in the home of one of the Metis farmers. In 1887, they organized the first local Anglican congregation.
Unfortunately, many of the Metis built their homes and started their farms before the first surveyors arrived. As so often happened elsewhere in western Canada, this led to very long battles to get their land rights recognized.
Normally, their squatters’ rights should have been legally recognized. However, the Federal Government had sold 115,000 acres of land in Central Alberta to the Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company. Many of the Metis farms were located on the land sold to the Company.
When M.J. Charbonneau, of St. Boniface, Manitoba, conducted surveys in the Red Deer area in 1883-1884, he documented many of the Metis’ river-lot farms in his log books.
Moreover, in 1887 a petition was submitted to the federal government, signed by most of the local settlers in the area, asking that the title to all of the existing farms be granted even if they were on land sold to the S.L.H. Co.
The Government did not deal with the matter for seven years and then claimed that too much time had passed for anything to be done for the claimants.
Faced with either paying an absentee company for the farms they had developed or moving away, 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.
Their bridge lasted for several years. Eventually, the government’s professional engineers came and built a new bridge. It was swept away by the ice the following spring.