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A Métis Leader and Friend to Early Settlers

For the week of Monday October 11, 2010

On October 16, 1883, amid mounting tensions between settlers and the Canadian government, the Settler’s Union was established in Prince Albert, Rupert’s Land (in modern-day Manitoba). The goal was to gain redress from the Canadian government for land grievances. James Isbister, an English-speaking Métis, soon joined the leadership of the Settler’s Union to unite the English- and French-speaking Métis with the White settlers during this conflict. 

James Isbister
© Glenbow Archives / NA-4043-4

Born on November 29, 1833, in the Nelson River District of modern-day Saskatchewan, Isbister was well educated and fluent in several languages when he joined the leadership of the Settler’s Union. As a fortunate landowner and farmer, Isbister was sympathetic to the cause of settlers.

The 1870s and 1880s were fraught with land issues for settlers of Rupert’s Land. The Manitoba Act (1870) reserved land titles for the Métis. However, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway led to the arrival of settlers from eastern Canada and Europe, who often harassed the Métis over land ownership. Later amendments to the Act decreased its ability to protect Métis land from new settlers. Without acknowledgement of their land ownership, Métis farmers worried that their homesteads were at risk of being sold off or broken up. Meanwhile, White settlers were angered by the government’s decision to reroute the railway through the southern region. By the mid-1880s, the government had not responded to either group’s grievances.

Métis ca. 1874
© Library and Archives Canada / C-81787

The English- and French-speaking Métis were previously divided by their language and religion. Isbister united the two groups with the White settlers in a political and peaceful resistance to pressure the Canadian government to acknowledge their grievances. However, mounting frustration over the government’s inaction caused a split in the Union and an end to peaceful negotiations. Some members began to advocate violent measures. White settlers began to side with the government. Determined that only a peaceful resistance would be effective, Isbister withdrew his support. Tension erupted in March 1885 when a group of Métis and of Cree encountered the North-West Mounted Police in the Battle of Duck Lake. It was the first in a string of battles known as the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance of 1885.

After his involvement with the Settler’s Union, Isbister eventually sold his farm. He died on October 16, 1915. As a leader capable of uniting the English and French Métis at one of the most critical periods of Métis history, James Isbister was designated a National Historic Person in 1997. The Battle of Duck Lake was designated in 1924.

For more stories on the Battle of Duck Lake and the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance, see: The Battle of Duck Lake: A Struggle for Land and a Way of Life and The North-West Mounted Police Retreat from Fort Pitt.

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