Blanchet, G. (photographer). ca.1923-25.Sousi Beaulieu with caribou on the tundra

The first people of European descent in the Great Slave Lake region appear to have been French-Canadian or possibly French-mixed-ancestry people who into the area in with the advent of established fur trade posts in the latter half of the 18th century. The Métis population emerged as a cohort of youth by the turn of the 19th century. This cohort began to appear in the historical documentation as young adults by 1820. They were noticeable in the operations of the fur trade in the area, especially operating with the North West Company.  

These “North West Company halfbreeds” were quite apparent as a group to outside observers. Newcomers in the male population, mostly of solely European descent but occasionally of mixed ancestry, continued to arrive over the course of the nineteenth century. Marriage and baptism records show that these newcomers were integrated into older Métis families, and their Métis children born in the region in turn married into Métis families old and new. 

Throughout the 19th century, European and Métis marriage to Aboriginal women continued to occur, but was not as common as marriage within the Métis population. Census records from the late nineteenth century show that the Great Slave Lake Métis population was overwhelmingly locally-born, with few Métis people born outside the region. Some of these people were identified by observers as “Indians” or Europeans, but the use of the term “Métis” or “halfbreed” to distinguish mixed-ancestry individuals or populations persisted throughout the 19th and early 20th century. The nature of the Great Slave Lake area, with its emphasis on subsistence wildlife harvesting and the fur trade, discouraged the accumulation of large numbers of people in settlements. 

Groups of Métis people were evident by the end of the 19th century, particularly at Fort Resolution and Smith’s Landing (Fitzgerald), but even these communities were often depleted of population by seasonal harvesting cycles. There is some limited documentary evidence of Métis people moving and hunting together, either in extended family groups such as the Mandevilles or the Beaulieus, or in combined groups such as the “Cayenne” that came to hunt with François Beaulieu II and the second Franklin expedition, and the “Indian Half breed” that accompanied Beaulieu’s group part way to Fort Franklin. The historical evidence tends to emphasize mixed-ancestry people hunting with “Indian” groups, probably at least in part because that was what they were expected to do if they were employed by fur traders. 

Marriage and baptism records indicated that marriage networks between mixed-ancestry families extended to all parts of Great Slave Lake and into some adjacent areas like Fort Simpson, Fort Chipewyan, and Great Bear Lake. Employment and scrip records indicate that many in the mixed-ancestry population moved frequently around this larger region, which helps to explain the far-flung marriage networks. 18th – and 19th -century geographic co-location of Métis families should probably therefore be thought of in those broad terms, rather than focusing on one settlement.

Sousi Beaulieu wearing a traditional Métis sash at Fort Reliance.

Russell, J. (photographer). ca.1922.Sousi Beaulieu at Fort Reliance

The broadness of the geographic connections between Métis people extended to some degree to connections across linguistic and religious lines. The majority of the Métis population was of French and Dene ancestry. A small group, becoming more prominent near the end of the 19th century, was of British (English or Scottish/Orkney) descent. 

In the early part of the 19th century, there is some limited evidence to indicate that fur-trade employers saw French Métis people as being similar to French-Canadians, and British Métis people as being like others of British descent. These two groups were often divided along religious as well as linguistic lines, the French being overwhelmingly Catholic and the British tending to the Anglican Church. However, the overall presence of the Catholic Church was much greater than that of the Anglican Church around Great Slave Lake — the Indian population was also overwhelmingly allied with the Catholic Church — so that some people of British descent supported the Catholic Church’s efforts even if they were not nominally Catholic. Birth and marriage records show that there was intermarriage between the English and French Métis populations, although there was a stronger tendency to marry within the language group. 

The records also show that there was continuing intermarriage between members of families employed by fur-trade companies, and those who did not have full-time employment. Altogether, 19th-century documents suggest that there was some segmentation in the Métis population, but that the subgroups were not impermeable. By the turn of the 20th century, many Métis people were living truly mixed lives like the group at Smith’s Landing, “hunting, fishing and trapping during the winter, and in summer…employed” in transportation or other wage activities. Bishop Breynat referred to these people as living “an Indian life, although they may have houses at the Fort”. Again, the marriage and baptismal records speak to a group who constructed connections across geographic, occupational and ethnic lines, and this may be the most convincing evidence of self-perception of common identity.

The above summary of Métis culture and history is a paraphrased overview from Jones (2005) work. For a more detailed read, please review: Jones, G. (2005). Historical Profile of the Great Slave Lake Area’s Mixed European-Indian Ancestry Community. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Justice Canada and Office of the Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non- Status Indians.

For further information, please read: 

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. (June, 2013). “The People Who Own Themselves”: Recognition of Métis Identity in Canada”.

Northwest Territory Supreme Court. (2013). Enge v. Mandeville et al, 2013 NWTSC 33