Metis History Review- St. Paul des Metis: The First Metis Colony by Sawchuk et al., 1981

The Presbytery at St. Paul des Metis

The presbytery at St. Paul des Metis

In Sawchuk, Sawchuk, and Ferguson’s 1981 book, Metis Land Rights in Alberta, they described the St. Paul des Metis colony as an expedient and paternalistic interaction by the church, on the behalf of the Metis, to the state. Father Lacombe felt paternally responsible for destitute Metis peoples and sought a grant to expediently deal with Metis problem. The Metis were seen as dependent upon the church and state for survival and assimilation. This marginalization allowed the status of the colony lands and the Metis position upon it to be ambiguous, where the Metis were part citizens and part wards of the state. At the federal government level, the colony land was designated for homesteads but reserved as a special grant to lease to the Church Corporations. The Metis were at times considered subletters with practically no entitlement to the bundle of property rights. In other circumstances, the Metis were considered to have some homestead status and granted such entitlements as timber rights but often exempted from all the homesteader requirements.

The authors saw Lacombe’s proposal for the colony as problematic from the start. The government wanted to outsource the financial and social burden of the most destitute Metis families upon the church. However, the church focused far too little on long-term economic development and sustainability of the colony so that these disadvantaged Metis could become more self-sufficient. Furthermore, the church intentionally kept the Metis dependent by (1) never consulting them about their desires for opening, developing, or closing the colony; (2) by leveraging Metis presence, labor, and political power to acquire money, land, and prestige for the Oblate order; and (3) by keeping the 1909 homestead plan a secret so that the Metis could not have an equal opportunity to remain on their lands as homesteaders.


1566-1867- The Jesuits in Paraguay coercively lured the Guarani tribe into their mission to function as labourers and guards. The Jesuits owned and controlled all the land, equipment, produce, and property. Consequently, the Jesuits became very wealthy until they were banished from the Spanish Dominion. Unfortunately, this extensive paternalism resulted in the Guarani becoming dispossessed from title to their traditional lands and the capacity for self-determination. This model became the primary inspiration for Father Lacombe’s St. Paul des Metis Half Breed Reserve. Father Lacombe may have been enticed by raising the prestige of the Oblate Fathers while being blind to the potential impact of his infantilizing views on the Metis people.

1870- Canada acquires Rupert’s Land and North-West Territories. Canada recognizes the potential of the West as a source of wealth. Metis land was acquired in part by forcing them off of it through scrip programs.

1874- Father Lacombe was influenced by a proposal to establish a Metis colony in Cypress Hills.

1879- Again, Father Lacombe was influenced to establish the St. Paul Halfbreed Reserve from a similar proposal made by Archbishop Tache.

The 1880s- mark the Canadian perception that the Metis were economically destitute resulting from the destruction during the Rebellion and their struggle to transition to marginal farming from subsistence nomadism. Routinely, the Metis were discriminated against, defrauded, and refused help by white neighbours who labelled the Metis community as untrustworthy.

1885- the extinguishment of the Aboriginal title held by the Metis was sought through another round of issuing Metis land scrip. This process was often marked by fraud or relocating Metis families far from their long-held territories.

1890- An intensive immigration of settlers headed west for homesteads under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. The migration of protestant settlers threatened the loss of dominance in the area by the Oblate Fathers. French Catholics were hesitant to migrate west of Quebec for the privation and sacrifice of western homesteads. Bishop Grandin and other Catholic leaders worked extensively to encourage Catholic, especially French Catholic migration to the West.

1890- Due to loss of Metis territory, the prohibition of subsistence hunting, restriction of nomadic living, poor climate conditions, and marginalization of Metis economic production (hunting, farming, fur trade, and freighting), the Metis were desperately impoverished. Both the church and state viewed the Metis as destined for extinction and blamed their poverty on improvidence and nomadism. Any policy to confront the Metis problem was aimed at hiding the image that Canada had destitute populations or preventing Metis discontent from erupting into another rebellion.

1890- Member of Parliament D. H. MacDowall made a proposal for Metis settlement land in Saskatchewan, which informed Father Lacombe’s ideas for St. Paul des Metis.

1895- Lacombe wrote his proposal, A Philanthropic Plan to Redeem the Half-breeds of Manitoba and the North West Territories, to the federal government. He suggested that the Metis had wasted provisions given to them through scrip and squandered opportunities to assimilate. Consequently, the government should reallocate resources towards land reserved for the Metis that would be administered by the Church and state. The original idea was to lease 4 townships near Buffalo Lake (Alberta) to the Episcopal Corporations of St. Boniface, St. Albert, and Prince Albert for a nominal fee. This land would be allotted to Metis families in forty-acre plots and the government would issue seed and farm implements under the strict supervision of the Oblate Fathers. The Church would manage the colony and raise funds to construct a school and church. A proponent of the proposal, Deputy Minister of the Department of the Interior A. M. Burgess supported the plan to the Minister but redirected the site of the reserve due to the rapid settlement happening at Buffalo Lake.

December 28, 1895- Pursuant to the Dominion Lands Act, an Order-in-Council established a 21-year lease at $1/year on townships 57 and 58 between ranges 9 and 10, west of the fourth meridian for the special purpose of the St. Paul des Metis Half Breed Reserve. One section was designated for the construction of a school. The remaining sections were designated for Metis farm holdings, and a $2000 grant was issued to purchase seed and farm implements. The Board of Management over the colony consisted of the Archbishop Langevin of St. Boniface, Bishop Grandin of St. Albert, Father Lacombe, Member of Parliament J. A. Ouimet, and Senator R. Dandurand. Father Therien was appointed as manager and representative of the Board at the colony. Neither Bishop Grandin nor Father Therien had any optimism that a Metis farming colony would be successful. Before the colony opened, Father Therien wrote that if the project failed he would bring in French Canadians to form Catholic parishes. The authors inferred that the reserve likely would not have been approved if not for Father Lacombe’s prestige and positive relationship with DM Burgess.

July 1896- The St. Paul des Metis Half Breed Reserve opens. No one made clear to the Metis that the term on the colony lease was 21 years with the possibility of one renewal. During the first year, no crops were planted and families supported themselves mainly through fishing.

1897- A small crop was produced by the Metis settlers. A sawmill and gristmill were moved from Lac La Biche to the colony. Since money was tight, Therien forced the Metis to build the mills without pay and to work for seed rations, even though it was already purchased by government grants. When the mill started producing Therien also took one-third of the logs as a tax.

1898- Dominion Lands Agent A. A. Ruttan inspected the colony and recommended additional funds for more farming implements and a boarding school. The Department rejected the recommendation.

1901- The Oblates used the little money available to start construction on a three-storey boarding school with supplementary money being raised through charitable donations in Quebec and the Eastern United States. Much of this money was diverted to the near-bankrupt diocese of St. Albert. Little more than $5000, donated by donor M. Forget, made its way to the St. Paul des Metis school.

1902- Father Therien noted that the stability of the colony, as a sign of its success, was based on the Metis people’s capacity to settle the land and rely on their own resources.

1903- The crops failed and the Department of the Interior relieved the settlers with provisions of oats and barley because the Church was unable or unwilling to divert its charitable donations to relief. The Oblate Fathers were unskilled in farming ventures and were unable to bring in such experts to encourage the advance of such agrarian ventures.

1904- Lacombe and Therien started patronizing Conservative MP Frank Oliver, soon to be Minister of the Interior, to acquire benefits and financial relief for the colony, particularly debt relief from the lost crops. The financial support from the government was short-lasting.

January 1905- a fire was deliberately started by some of the Metis children and destroyed the new boarding school, killing one of the boarders. Father Therien saw that this tragedy was just one more sign that providence was encouraging him to dissolve the colony, in favour of establishing French Canadian parishes. After the fire, Therien started reporting that the lack of growth in the colony was due to Metis laziness, discontent, and lack of industriousness.

1905- Over the next four years, Therien started lobbying Minister Oliver to survey the surrounding lands for homestead plots. He convinced younger Metis families to take up these homestead plots outside the colony and used this as evidence that the Metis were losing interest. Therien appointed Father A. Ouellette as an immigration agent to immediately bring in a flow of French Canadian settlers around the colony.

1906- A Metis settler lodged a complaint with Minister Oliver that French Canadian homesteader U. Fouquet had fenced off two sections of colony land with Lacombe’s permission. Fouquet was given permission to stay on 160 acres of land because he had improved it before the Board had learned that it was on colony land. The Board believed that he would be a role model of industriousness to the Metis settlers. The Minister did not approve, but would not force Fouquet to vacate the land.

1908- By this time, Therien had admitted French Canadian squatters to the area on approximately 13 quarter sections of land. To the wealthier Metis families, he began to privately convince them to sell their holdings for a profit to French Canadians while publicly denying that he would open up the land for homesteading.


Settlement Lands at St. Paul des Metis, circa 1905-1909

June 1908- the Board submitted a memo to the Ministry of the Interior seeking to terminate their lease and to retain ownership of four sections of land in compensation for their expenses since 1896. The memo expressed the intention to offer the colony to 143 prospective homesteaders from Quebec and the United States, and 63 prospective Metis settlers.

August 1908- Minister Oliver submitted a memo to the Privy Council recommending the termination of the lease to St. Paul des Metis, including some recommendations: 1) investigating Metis land claims within the colony, 2) granting four sections of land to the Oblate Fathers as compensation for the $68, 000 in expenses, and 3) opening the colony land up for settlement. Both memos were submitted without notifying the Metis colonists, even though Oliver knew that the Metis were opposed to the closure. Therien’s records also showed that Oliver and he had an agreement to allow settlers to squat on the colony lands prior to its opening, and to mitigate Metis protests by misleading them about when the colony would close.

January 22, 1909- Department of the Interior Official Samuel Maber submitted his report regarding the investigation of Metis land claims in and around the colony. The report indicated that 19 Metis were non-residents and had no right to entry. Twenty Metis held patents to homesteads outside the reserve. Fifteen had submitted entries for off-reserve homesteads, and 28 had not exhausted their homestead rights. Oliver instructed that any Metis household that had settled 80 acres with Board consent and still had homesteading rights would acquire title as a free grant. Any other Metis settlers that had not exhausted their homestead rights on other claims could make a claim for the standard 160 acres, as long as that claim included the 80 acres they had already settled. Metis settlers upon school lands would be relocated to another quarter section elsewhere.

March 2, 1909- The Church Corporations surrendered their leases of the St. Paul des Metis townships.

March 26, 1909- Therien notified Maber of the sections of land that the Church would claim as compensation. Subsequently, Maber resolved land claims with the Metis that would acquire title through homestead entries. He also issued evictions to French Canadians that were squatting on colony lands. Therien and Oliver’s secrecy about the colony closure had a significant impact on Metis families not being able to prepare for the transition so that more families would have been eligible for homestead claims. Forty-four quarter sections were taken up to settle 65 Metis allowable land claims. 20 claims were disallowed and 5 Metis were relocated from school lands to other quarter sections. The disallowed Metis claims were rejected because the claimant was usually the unmarried son to an allowed claimant that had broken ground on their own lands. In one case, a claimant was disallowed because the head of the household had gone away to work and his wife had moved in with her mother.

April 10, 1909- was the date that Therien and Oliver decided to open the colony to homesteading. Therien pushed for keeping the Metis unaware of the colony closure date. He convinced Oliver to only publish a notice of homestead lands in the Edmonton Bulletin and at the St. Paul Post Office, mere days before the opening. Therien notified French Canadian settlers in advance that they had to line up at the Edmonton Lands offices. Each French Canadian Settler was given a plot number that corresponded to a list held by a Land Office employee. In this way, French Canadian settlers got the land they wanted and Therien blocked both Metis and English protestants from getting claims in the area. 250 claims in the former St. Paul des Metis colony were granted to French Canadian settlers. The mature sons of Metis households who received land claim settlements were able to make homestead claims but were often forced to move off the land they had broken adjacent to their extended families.

After the homestead rush, many more Metis families moved away in the face of discrimination from French Canadian settlers. Metis people were forced to stand at the back of the church while the French used the pews. Metis children were harassed in school. French settlers had economic advantages through credit and equity, meaning they were quickly able to develop the area using bank loans. |Meanwhile, the Metis land claim recipients that only received 80-acre settlements found that there was too little land for their animals to graze.

1912- most of the Metis had left the lands of the former colony with many migrating to either Lesser Slave Lake or Fishing Lake.


Sawchuck, J., Sawchuk, P. &, Ferguson, T. (1981). Metis land rights in Alberta: A political history. Edmonton, AB: Metis Association of Alberta.

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