Pioneering a kind of Democracy at Red River

by George Siamandas


On February 12, 1835 the first meeting of the new Council of Assiniboia was held at Upper Fort Garry, under the presidency of George Simpson as Governor in Chief of Rupertsland. This marked the first effort to provide a kind of government of the land owned by the Hudson Bay Co but granted to Lord Selkirk's settlers.

We tend to take for granted that there has always been some body that runs things, sets and enforces laws and provides some kind of services. How do you govern a place on transition from a fiefdom to some kind of democracy? That is from the Hudson Bay Co to a new settlement begun in 1812 by Selkirk's colony in Rupertsland.

For this emerging settlement a kind of first government was established through the Council of Assiniboia. The Council governed an area of a radius of 50 miles from Fort Garry. It became the first governing body empowered to make laws, appoint justices of the peace, and to organize a police and militia. Its first job was to build a jail next to Fort Garry. It was the HBC's idea of local government.

The Council sat as a supreme court for Assiniboia that met quarterly. The actual judicial work was done by an Adam Thom who was the Recorder of Rupertsland. Thom was an intolerant man who soon came to be regarded as anti-Metis, anti-half breed and anti-Indian. But since his salary was paid by the HBC he could not escape the accusation of favouring its policies. The Council introduced the jury system.

One of the earliest justices of the peace was Cuthbert Grant who was already a Warden of the Plains at a fee of &200 per year. Cuthbert Grant was awarded this office because his men could protect the settlement from the Sioux attacks that could come from the west, and also to make him and the Metis more favourable to the HBC. The Council of Assiniboia had wide powers even wider than those in Upper or Lower Canada and the parliament that came after.

The Council was funded through a 7 1/2 % duty on all goods imported into or exported from the area. It was mostly the HBC that bore the burden of the tax. They had problems enforcing curbs on trading which flared up through the 1840s. Traders started to send goods south to US instead of north through the HBC in the 1830s. The main goods were fur buffalo robes, pemmican and other buffalo products.

The Council tried to control illicit commerce which began to get heavy in 1860s. Smuggling was rampant. It was almost respectable. The company still had a charter and a parliamentary license to trade as a monopoly. Import duties were cut to 4% but people continued to ignore them and few were collected.

People were appointed to the council. But it was representative of the stable elements of the area. It included the heads of the local churches like Bishop Provencher who also sat on the Finance Committee, merchants like Andrew McDermot, the English, the Scots, and the HBC. Council members like Alexander Ross who himself was a retired HBC employee and still Sheriff of Red River saw no problem in opposing the HBC when Red River's interest were concerned.

The Council introduced the system of land holding. HBC started to sell river lots. The Metis did not bother with legalities preferring to squat on land. This lack of record keeping and wanting to keep things informal became a serious problem in the late 1860s as Manitoba was set to join the rest of Canada.

The Metis and half breeds wanted to have seats on the Council and by the 1840s wanted some definition of their special status as natives of Red River. Their demands were ignored. Louis Riel Sr known as the "Miller of the Seine." fought for the right of Guillaume Sayer to trade freely and to be heard in French. French interpreters were introduced into the quarterly Court of Assiniboia after this.

The Council ruled till 1870 with appointed but representative people. The Riel Resistance of 1869 was directed against the authority of the Council of Assiniboia.

On Dec 1, 1869 Manitoba was to be transferred from the HBC to Canada. On that day, Riel seized the settlement and established his provisional government. It ruled Red River for the next nine months giving birth to the new province of Manitoba. Initially it was to be called Assiniboia, but Riel wanted something new. Manitoba became a province July 15, 1870. Assiniboia was one of two names considered for the province of Saskatchewan when it joined Canada in 1905.


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