Bill Waiser

Kids playing in the water at Ile-a-la-Crosse.

Métis once not counted in census

It’s census time again. Statistics Canada is counting heads, as well as gathering other information that will be invaluable for planning and future genealogical historical research.

The Canadian census used to be taken in the first year of every decade — in other words, in 1871, 1881, and so on.

But so many immigrants were pouring into Western Canada in the early 20th century that Prime Minister Laurier stepped outside the decennial cycle and ordered a special census of the three prairie provinces in 1906 to serve as a kind of statistical snapshot of the phenomenal growth.

The statistics, in the words of the federal minister of the Interior,  told a “magnificent success” story.
In Saskatchewan alone, the 1901 population (91,279) had jumped 182 per cent in just five years (257,763).

Over eighty per cent of Saskatchewan’s population in 1906 was also rural, a reflection of the farming economy.

The provincial north, on the other hand, slipped into economic irrelevance, as less than one per cent of the population lived in the region.

The other noteworthy data from the 1906 census were the sex and age breakdown. Men not only dominated Saskatchewan society — there were roughly three men to every two women (1.46 to 1) — but two of every three men were single.

It was also a young population. Two-thirds were under forty-five, including a large number of people in their prime working years.  This preponderance of single, young men would characterize the Saskatchewan workforce into the 1930s.

More than anything else, though, the 1906 special western census was significant for who was left out.
The 1901 census listed approximately 10,000 “halfbreeds” or Métis living in the future province of Saskatchewan. But for the 1906 census, the category was dropped.

It was as if the Métis, with their rich customs and traditions, distinct dress, and “michif” language, had disappeared as a separate group, or were not worth counting.

This statistical neglect belied their central role in much of the province’s early history, first in the Montreal- and London-based fur trade and then in the pemmican and buffalo robe trade, freighting, and early farming and ranching.

Indeed, just a generation earlier, according to the 1881 census for the region, 70 per cent of the population was aboriginal. And of that percentage, fully one-third were mixed-descent or Métis.

There was also significant intermingling between Indian, Métis, and white peoples. Again, according to the 1881 census, 70 per cent of the formal marriages in the region were interracial. This ratio was even higher — at least four mixed marriages for every five unions — if informal unions are also considered.

But in 1905, Saskatchewan wanted to leave its territorial past behind. The new province pinned its destiny on one dominant culture (Anglo-Canadian), engaged in one dominant activity (commercial agriculture) in one dominant region (the southern half of the province).

Individual and community relations were irrevocably changed as aboriginal ancestry was now regarded as a liability — something to be hidden, if not purged. Métis people, meanwhile, generally had neither place nor future in the new agricultural West.

The sheer number of homesteaders effectively swamped the Métis and pushed them to the fringes of the new society taking shape in the new province. They were quickly made to feel inferior because of their aboriginal heritage and distinct way of life, even in their own communities.

Prince Albert’s initial beginnings as an English Métis community, the Isbister settlement, for example, were forgotten, if not downplayed. Many Métis living throughout southern Saskatchewan squatted illegally along road allowances, near Indian reserves, or just outside white communities and survived on casual or seasonal jobs in town, on local farms, or in the bush.

The increased contact with other groups soon drove many to assimilate to the dominant anglophone culture if they wanted a chance to fit in and prosper. They were also forced to identify themselves simply as French or English at census time.

The removal of the Métis category in the 1906 census — coincidentally, the same year that Métis elder Gabriel Dumont died — was supposed to mark a turning point in the province’s racial makeup.

Fortunately, despite decades of discrimination and isolation, it never happened. The Métis remain a vital part of the province and its identity today. And the category has been part of the census since 1991.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Kids playing in the water at Ile-a-la-Crosse.
Photo: Louis Cochin, courtesy Rene Charpentier
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Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca
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Bill will launch his new book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, on June 10 at 7 p.m. at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon. Everyone is welcome. Admission is free.