Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: June 2016

Cree and Assiniboine reluctant to travel to Hudson Bay to trade

When King Charles II granted the Hudson’s Bay Company a monopoly in 1670 over the trade and commerce of all lands that drained into Hudson and James bays (called Rupert’s Land), the English seemed poised to dominate the Canadian fur trade by securing direct access to the interior.

But instead of pursuing its advantage and venturing inland, the HBC established permanent posts or “factories” (as they were called) on the rim of the Bay.

The governing London Committee was obsessed with keeping company operations as contained and secretive as possible, while exercising a firm hand over its employees at controlled locations.
HBC’s success consequently depended on its ability to attract Indian trading parties to the Bay each spring.

In a sense, company posts were like downtown department stores, while the 20th-century advertising phrase, “Meet you at the Bay,” had deep historical meaning. But how much Indian trade was actually conducted by the HBC?

In the 1690s, as many as 420 Cree and Assiniboine canoes might have arrived annually at York Factory at the mouth of the Hayes River. But these numbers fell to the low 300s in the early 18th century.

It’s not a large number of canoes given the huge drainage basin area of the Nelson-Hayes rivers.

Four hundred canoes might represent no more than 800 men from the entire region west and southwest of Hudson Bay — even less when it is realized that women often accompanied these trading parties, in part because of their skill in steering and tracking canoes.

It could even be argued that interior Indians were actually under-represented during the early years of the Bay trade.

One reason that the Cree and Assiniboine were reluctant to make the trip to York Factory was the distance involved.

Indians travelling from Saskatchewan had the choice of three possible canoe routes, all starting in the east-central part of the province: the “Upper Track” from Cumberland Lake; the “Middle Track” from the Saskatchewan River just below The Pas; and the “Lower Track” near the mouth of the Saskatchewan River at Grand Rapids. All three routes avoided the dangerous Nelson River in favour of the canoe-friendly Hayes.

When HBC servant Henry Kelsey travelled inland with the Assiniboine in June 1690, it required almost a full month for the group to return upriver to the northern edge of their home territory near present-day The Pas. Even allowing for less time going down river because of the current, the trading trip probably required a minimum of eight to 10 weeks when the time spent trading at the post is also included.

Because of the need to move quickly, Indians were pushed to the edge of their survival abilities. They often arrived starving at York Factory.

The prolonged absence of the Cree and Assiniboine from their home territories also meant that subsistence activities were limited, and that too threatened their well-being and that of their families.
The common response by distant groups was to go every second or third year or never again, while those bands living closest to York Factory absorbed most of the trade items by default.

Another factor discouraging Indians from tackling the arduous trip to the Bay was a shortage of trade goods at the posts. HBC supply ships were delayed by ice conditions or simply failed to arrive.

Indian trading parties had to make do with the few trade items that were available or remain there until the early fall for the next supply ship. This delay proved deadly for some Indian traders who headed upriver too late in the season; others endured great suffering and usually did not come back the following season.

What also limited the number and size of trading parties was that the fur trade was only one aspect of Cree and Assiniboine life at the time.

Other activities and opportunities, such as raiding expeditions or communal bison hunts, generally took precedence over trading.

HBC servants arrogantly assumed that Indians would want to trade and chastised those who did not come to the bay for being “lazy.”

But when newcomers moved into the western interior in the mid-18th century, they quickly learned that the Cree and Assiniboine had their own interests and priorities, and that they were only able to operate inland because Indians accepted their presence.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Major canoe routes between York Factory and central Saskatchewan.
Image courtesy: Articulate Eye Design
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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
Questions or comments?
Email Bill Waiser at
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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.