Author Michel Hogue’s Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing
a People has received high marks for its exploration of the border between Western Canada
and the United States and its impact on the Metis. Grounded in extensive research in U.S.
and Canadian archives, Hogue’s account illuminates how the Metis and other indigenous
peoples were at the centre of the sometimes violent history of the forty-ninth parallel. Hogue,
who grew up in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, is an assistant professor in the department of
history at Carleton University in Ottawa. Canada’s History senior editor Nelle Oosterom
recently spoke with Hogue.
What story are you telling in this book?
This book has two storylines: The first is
the emergence of the plains Metis communities
in the nineteenth century, and
the second is the creation and enforcement
of the Canada-U.S. border along the
forty-ninth parallel. The book traces how
those Metis communities in places like
the Red River Valley and the northeastern
plains emerged at the contested edges of
the fur trade empires and the edges of the
border with the United States. It’s about
how they used those boundaries to create
a vibrant society and economy that took
advantage initially of the divisions that
the border marked.
The arc of the story suggests in some
way how that was very successful as a
strategy for many decades.
But with the collapse of the buffalo
— the heart of their mobile economy —
and with the growth of the power of the
American and Canadian governments,
much of the basis of those borderland
Metis communities was swept away in
the nineteenth century. The book tries to
look at what happened to these mobile
How did the Metis define the borders of
their own territory?
The borders were defined in part by
kinship. They dedicated themselves to
mobile buffalo hunting, and that meant
going through territories that were inhabited
by others. The Metis were able to do
so in part because they were related to the
Cree, the Assiniboine, the Saulteaux, the
Anishinaabe. They moved through those
territories in concert with members of
How did the Metis help to make the Canada-U.S. border?
The most obvious way was in the mundane
tasks of helping to survey the border.
The work of the boundary commission in
the 1870s was really conducted with the
labour and expertise of Metis men and
women who worked as guides, interpreters,
hunters, and who supplied the intelligence
and shelter that the commission
needed as it worked its way west.
The cart trails they used had long been blazed by Metis traders and hunters. That speaks to the Metis presence and their groundedness in those territories.
Another, less concrete way they helped make the border was that people like the Metis accepted, acknowledged, and sometimes challenged that border — which until then had been an abstract concept devised in the councils of Europe. The actions of Metis and indigenous traders, in their movement across the border, made administrators think about who belonged where. The best example is what happened when Metis traders in Canada began trafficking arms across the border into the United States in the 1870s. They were seen to be aiding peoples like the Dakota against the American army. Those kinds of actions made clear to faraway administrators the stakes of that border. It brought the border to life.
How were the Metis treated differently in Canada versus the United States?
Until recently, the term Metis wasn’t used very commonly in the United States — unlike in Canada, which had a long history of the fur trade, of distinct Metis communities, and had a legal category for Metis since 1870. Typically, the Metis who remained in the United States faced the choice of being absorbed into tribal communities on reservations or living off-reservation, often in precarious situations, which meant a very fragmented existence.
Your book talks about how some Metis families literally straddled the border and dealt with governments on both sides. How did that work?
The same family groups would have encounters with authorities on one side of the border looking for recognition of their rights and a few years later do the same on the other side of the border. There’s a particular family that recurred, by virtue of their life as traders and hunters, that show up at key moments, sometimes as signatures on applications for homesteads, or as applicants for benefits resulting from treaties, on both sides of the border. They could do that because legitimately they had claims in both countries — and in some cases it was a cagey political move and a way to make a living in increasingly difficult circumstances.
How did the collapse of the buffalo affect the Metis?
The collapse in the late 1870s, early 1880s was rapid, and it was a key pivot point in plains history. It took away the basic means of subsistence for the Metis and indigenous people.
The Metis on the borderlands had fully committed to the buffalo hunt. Their communities were large, were well-armed, were relatively well-off, and they were a force to be reckoned with. When the buffalo collapsed, that marked the fragmentation of these communities, as people had to make difficult choices about where they would move to. Some entered treaties, some took homesteads.
Their situation was complicated by the presence of a new and powerful settler society that was ever more determined to remake the prairie West. There was more enforcement of border laws and the boundaries between Indian and non-Indian land. That was a kind of one-two blow for these communities.
Michel Hogue’s book Metis and the Medicine Line won the Canadian Historical Association’s 2016 Clio Prize for the Prairies region. It was also shortlisted for the CHA’s top award, the Sir John A. MacDonald Prize, and was a finalist for the 2016 Canada Prize in the Humanities.