Settling For Scrip

May 1, 1999 by Jeffrey S. Murray

“The mission of the…Half-breed Commission has been entirely successful,” boasted commissioners James Walker and Arthur Côté in their final report to the federal government’s minister of the interior. Writing from Calgary in the fall of 1899, Walker and Côté had every reason to be pleased with themselves. Their four-month expedition to the Athabasca country north of Edmonton had just “quieted” the land claims of some 1,200 Métis by handing out land grants or scrip worth an incredible $300,000. At the time, this was easily the single largest expenditure in the region by any government.

The Walker and Côté scrip commission was part of the much larger Treaty 8 negotiations that the federal government had initiated over the same four-month period with Athabasca’s First Nations. Together, the treaty and scrip awards secured for Canada what was widely hailed as its biggest land settlement with First Nations. Some 841,000 square kilometres–an area more than 31/2 times the size of Great Britain–was formally ceded to the Crown and was now ready to be brought into Confederation. Much to the credit of the commissioners, the whole process was not only conducted in record time, but as Walker and Côté were eager to point out, to the “perfect satisfaction” of all parties involved. “…In consequence,” they would write, “no trouble or friction whatever need be apprehended in bringing the country under government control.”

The scrip awarded by commissioners Walker and Côté in Athabasca was by no means an unusual method of dealing with the land claims of the Métis. Scrip had been used, in the place of treaties, all across the more southern areas of Western Canada since the mid-1870s. Its inception was shortly after the first Riel rebellion in 1869 with the passing of the Manitoba Act. This federal statute acknowledged the native ancestry of the Métis by guaranteeing that their children would be awarded land in exchange for their Indian title to the new province. In order to meet this commitment, a reserve of 1.4 million acres of Manitoba’s best farmland was set aside for their exclusive use. Four years later, additional lands were also to be awarded to Métis adults as a means of extinguishing their Indian title as well.

Recognizing the Indian title of the Métis went to the very heart of King George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 which decreed that aboriginal title had to be addressed before native lands could be settled. His decree even stipulated that Indian surrenders were to be made to a representative of the Crown at a tribal gathering, and compensation paid.

The 1.4-million-acre reserve had always been a contentious issue among the white residents of Manitoba because it concentrated the Métis population in certain areas of the province. More importantly as far as the white residents were concerned, it withdrew large blocks of land from settlement by immigrant homesteaders. For this reason, the Métis reserve was seen as an impediment to the federal government’s push to acquire, settle and develop the prairies “for the purposes of the Dominion.”

In order to appease the white residents, but still fulfil its obligations under King George III’s decree, officials at the Department of the Interior came up with a novel solution in the mid-1870s. After land in the 1.4 million-acre reserve was used up, they would allow the Métis to take their land grants anywhere in Western Canada–thereby effectively breaking up the Métis monopoly on large blocks–and they would use special notes or scrip as the means by which to convey these land grants. Theoretically, Métis scrip recipients only had to present their scrip notes to the proper federal authorities and any unoccupied Crown land would be theirs for the taking. In other words, the decision to issue scrip seems to have developed more in response to issues of political expediency than from a well thought out attempt to deal with native rights in a systematic manner.

As settlement moved across Western Canada, the scrip program was expanded by the Department of the Interior–the main federal agency responsible for administering the settlement and development of Western Canada. The program quickly grew to include not just the Métis in Manitoba, but all Métis, young and old, living in the old North—West Territories, which included all of the area that makes up present day Saskatchewan, Alberta, Yukon Territory, Nunavut Territory and, of course, the Northwest Territories.

“The reason the government does this,” explained David Laird to the 2,000 Indians and Métis gathered a century ago at Lesser Slave Lake in what is now northern Alberta, “is because the half- breeds have Indian blood in their veins, and have (land) claims on that account.” Laird was speaking as the chairman of the Treaty 8 Commission. “The government does not make treaty with (the Métis),” continued Laird as assistants Walker and Côté looked on, “as they live like white men do, so it gives them scrip to settle their claims at once and forever.”

The scrip issued notes by the Department of the Interior resembled government bonds and were even produced by the same printer, the Canadian Bank Note Company. The notes were printed in denominations of $20, $80, $160 and $240; and in 80, 160 and 240 acres. When lands in Western Canada were first made available to homesteaders under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, the federal government arbitrarily valued farmland at $1 per acre. Therefore, money scrip in the amount $160 entitled the bearer to the same number of acres of land. At first, scrip was awarded at the rate of $240 or 240 acres to Métis children, and $160 or 160 acres to Métis adults. However, by the time scrip commissioners Walker and Côté visited the Athabasca region, all Métis regardless of their age received scrip at the rate of $240 or 240 acres.

In theory, money and land scrip could only be redeemed at face value in the purchase of homestead lands through a federal land office. Despite this restriction, a considerable black market for scrip existed in Western Canada. The scrip was sold and traded by its Métis recipients at far less than its face value to pay debts and to purchase goods other than land. Although its official policy was to the contrary, the federal government to some extent encouraged such practices. This was particularly true of money scrip, which was not registered in the name of the Métis claimant, but was simply made out to “the bearer.” Without some form of registration, money scrip could be used by anyone, both Métis and non-Métis alike, when purchasing a homestead. Because there were few restrictions on it, money scrip moved around the black market freely, changing hands easily, like cash, but always at less than its face value. Land scrip, on the other hand, was registered and since it had more restrictions on how it could be handled, it was treated more like a credit note. The Métis recipient had to present the scrip personally to a Dominion Lands office where it would be applied against a homestead. The recipient was then free to take title to the homestead, or sell it in whole or part, but generally was not free to sell the land scrip itself.

As with many government programs that hand out considerable sums of money to the private sector, instances of fraud seem to creep into the system no matter how carefully everyone tries to prevent it. Unfortunately, the Department of the Interior’s distribution of scrip seems to have been no exception, because the wider non-Métis community appears to have benefited more than those for whom the scrip program was initially designed.

Since the early 1970s, the three prairie Métis associations have maintained, for example, that most of their ancestors’ scrip ended up in the hands of land speculators, many of whom worked for the western banks. Certainly, there are many cases on file where individual Métis recipients approached officials of the department to take delivery of their scrip only to find that someone had already signed for it. There are also cases where an individual’s application was refused because the department already had an application on file, together with receipts and letters assigning power of attorney to people who were unknown to the claimant. Since most Métis were illiterate, it was not difficult for someone who understood the award system to forge a claimant’s signature by simply drawing an X on the signature line. The Manitoba Métis Federation estimates that as many as 75 per cent of their ancestors lost their scrip through such fraudulent practices or through outright coercion by land speculators and others.

The claims of the Métis associations were recently given added credibility through studies conducted by Frank Tough and published by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1997. Combing the extensive files created by the Department of the Interior–and now stored at the National Archives of Canada–Tough traced the complete paper trail of hundreds of scrip applications filed by the Métis of northern Manitoba under treaties 5 and 10. He demonstrated that almost all the scrip issued was used by non-Métis farmers to purchase land well outside the treaty area. Some of the scrip was used to buy farms as far west as the Peace River region in northern British Columbia.

Given the prevalence of buyers and traders at the Treaty 8 proceedings, it is highly likely that the same fate awaited the scrip issue to the Métis in Athabasca. No doubt all the $240 scrip issued in 1899 was sold and was sold at a fraction of its real value. “There were buyers from Winnipeg and Edmonton,” wrote the secretary to the Treaty 8 Scrip Commission, Charles Mair, “who were well supplied with cash, to purchase all the scrip offered, at a great reduction of course, from face value.”

Johnny Beaulieu, who was a boy when the commission arrived at Fort Resolution to take adhesion to Treaty 8, remembers how persistent the traders could be. “After the treaty was signed, they passed out all the money and my father got a scrip,” he recounts in an interview with Father René Fumoleau. “We did not know what it was or how much it was worth. There was a trader here, and he kept after my father to sell the scrip to him, so my father did, for $75….”

Despite the best advice of the missionaries who accompanied the Treaty 8 Commission, an incredible 96 per cent of the Métis in Athabasca opted for money scrip simply because it could be easily turned into cash on the spot. The end result of such a huge infusion of new capital on the isolated district was predictable, even if the rate was only at 20 to 30 per cent of face value. “The traders’ booths were thronged with purchasers,” writes Mair. “Also the refreshments tents where cigars and ginger ale were sold; and, in tepees improvised from aspen saplings, the sporting elements passed the night at some interesting but easy way of losing money….”

The treaty commissioners were aware of what was going on and made some attempt to limit the buyers’ activities by preventing their access to the scrip tent, but even this small gesture was difficult because the proceedings were meant to be a public affair. In the end, the commissioners could only encourage families to sign treaty and not take scrip because the treaty terms provided more security in the long run. Often these efforts were to no avail because scrip buyers went into communities ahead of the commission and stirred up sentiment against the treaty hoping to reap a rich harvest in scrip once the commissioners arrived.

Over the years the federal government has kept extensive records of everyone who accepted scrip and everyone who signed treaty. For federal officials, the distinction is critical because the government is legally bound to provide Treaty 8 First Nations with a small annual allowance or annuity and other benefits, notably in the areas of education, health and welfare. Scrip recipients and their descendants, on the other hand, are not entitled to any further privileges. Their one-time scrip grant was meant to “extinguish” their Indian title once and forever.

Supporters of the government using scrip to distribute one-time land grants to the Métis will point to the more than 25,000 applications from across Western Canada processed by Ottawa. They ask how the Department of the Interior could have policed such an extensive system so that the 5.5 million acres associated with these applications would have ended up in the hands of those they were intended to benefit. It is not a difficult question to answer. One only has to look at the registration systems put in place by the federal government in the late 19th century to transfer land grants to land settlement companies and to more than a dozen railway companies. Each grant was registered individually and not a single grant remains in dispute today.

Could it be possible that federal authorities did not really care what happened to Métis scrip once it was issued? As long as the scrip was being used to buy farms in Western Canada, then it was helping the government meet its more important objective: The settlement and development of the prairies so the region could be fully integrated into Confederation.

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