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The Scrip Policy

Throughout the late 19th century, settling the West was paramount for the newly Confederated Canada. Western settlement was part of MacDonald's larger plan for building the country through his national policy scheme, and clearing the title of the region's indigenous people was integral to this process. As a means of extinguishing the aboriginal title of the Métis, the scrip policy was implemented in the Northwest, part of which is now Saskatchewan. [Note it also included Manitoba and Alberta].

Scrip was intended to extinguish Métis aboriginal title, however unlike treaties which did it en masse, scrip did it individually. Acceptance of scrip was intended to extinguish that individual’s claim to lands and aboriginal title; 1.4 million acres was originally promised to the Métis, of which a fraction remained in Métis hands, due to a combination of factors, including out and out swindling, land speculation, the difficulty of actually applying and obtaining the scrip, and the awarding of lands far from Métis communities, traplines and other factors.

The agreement of the 1870 Manitoba Act, which was intended to settle the Red River Valley Métis land claims and permit the government surveyors to step in without resistance, actually did not begin to roll out until 1876; times were hard and many families moved on to Alberta or South to Montana. The implementation of the scrip policy was one of the reasons leading to the 1885 rebellion, because the Métis became increasingly concerned that their traditional occupation and title of desirable, narrow riverfront lots in the French style, would be de facto replaced with surveys which created new,‘square block’ lots in the English style, which could be sold by the government to anyone they wished.

In the meantime, the buffalo were virtually gone by the 1880s and the Métis communities were experiencing a growing settler population from the east. Numerous warnings from the clergy and from officials went unheeded in Ottawa until an Order in Council January, 1885, based on complaints and petitions dating from at least 1879. By March 1885, fighting broke out at Duck Lake, and the Northwest Rebellion had begun.

The actual wording on the scrip does not clearly address the extinguishment of Métis land and title; this is found in reference to statute, being the 1879 Dominion Lands Act, s. 125( e): the Act authorized the Gov. in Council

 …to satisfy any claims existing in connection with the extinguishments of the Indian title, preferred by half-breeds resident in the North-West Territories outside of the limits of Manitoba, on the fifteenth day of July, one thousand eight hundred and seventy, by granting land to such persons, to such extent and on such terms and conditions, as may be deemed expedient.

Canada, Statutes, Vic. 42, Cap. 31, Sec. 125(e). Dominion Lands Act (1979)

Through the 1880s and into the 1890s, at least 12 Orders attempted to clarify the process of issuing scrip, which was complicated and confusing. The Dominion Lands Act was amended in 1899 to permit claims from Métis residents who were born after 1870.

It is estimated that 24,326 scrip claims were approved by 1929, a process which ran almost 5 decades. The end result was that the Métis, who had previously held valuable pockets of land in communities, found themselves without a land base at the close of the 19th century.

As the authors of the website ‘Our Legacy’ state, the express purpose of the statutes was to extinguish Métis title; however, at least one historical geographer, Frank Tough, suggests that extinguishment of Métis title “remainsunresolved”. This is evident, he says, by the fact that “there is nothing in the process… Which indicates that individual Métis consented to extinguish aboriginal title.” Assuming that the courts consider the terms of the Manitoba Act and Dominion Lands Act as a recognition of Métis aboriginal title, it would indeed be the case that there was no explicit consent to extinguish those rights.”

The authors of Our Legacy website conclude that the protection of Métis lands was not secured by the scrip policy, which in fact turned a blind eye to the abuses which robbed the Métis of their welfare, land, long-term interests and recognition of their aboriginal title. However, as a vehicle to accomplish what Sir John A. MacDonald wished to accomplish, which was the opening of the Northwest to settler emigration and a railway ‘from sea to shining sea’, it was an effective and cost efficient vehicle, in fact much less costly than treaty and reserve negotiations.

Scrip often permitted the bearer to choose land or cash; You will note than in my grandmother's case, she was awarded 240 acres, but the form permitted the Commissioner to write in $240. It is my belief that my grandmother ‘cashed in’ this scrip for actual property up in Athabasca, Alberta where she and my grandfather settled; my suspicion is that unlike the lands adjacent to the proposed path of the Canadian National Railway in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Athabasca was seen as relatively undeveloped and so far away, that the speculators were not as directly interested.

The Saskatchewan website entitled ‘Our Legacy’ has a good summary of the scrip process from which I quote and attribute, as does Jean Teillet in her book, ‘The Northwest is My Mother.’

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