This Week in History


"Commerce is free! Hurrah for freedom!"

For the week of Monday May 17, 1999

On May 17, 1849, the trial of Métis trader Pierre-Guillaume Sayer took place in the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia, Red River Colony. This trial ended the Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly and brought free trade to the area.

Louis Riel Sr.(right) with a man identified as Guillaume Sayer

Louis Riel Sr.(right) with a man identified
as Guillaume Sayer

© Provincial Archives of Manitoba / N1445-1446

Although in the early 19th century the Métis existed virtually everywhere in Canada, it was on the Prairies that their influence was strongest. In the Red River Colony, then part of Rupert's Land, now part of Manitoba, they made up the vast majority of the population. A large number of the Métis, offspring of the European fur traders and First Nations' women, were descendants of and/or worked for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC)'s biggest rival, the North-West Company (NWC). The NWC had encouraged the Métis' traditional buffalo hunt and other customs. The HBC did not. When the HBC and NWC merged in 1821, the Métis found their freedoms restricted, particularly with regard to doing business with American traders. The HBC, which dominated the Canadian fur trade since its incorporation in 1670, now held a monopoly over 300 000 square kilometres of land.

The Métis felt that the HBC had used unfair tactics and they continued to trade with other companies as they had done before the monopoly. Upset about the challenge to their control, the HBC arrested four Métis traders, including Sayer, in 1849. They were accused of selling furs to American companies. Sayer's trial date fell on Ascension Day, an important religious holiday for the Métis. After mass at St. Boniface Cathedral, Louis Riel Sr., father of the famous Métis leader of the same name, invited the congregation to liberate Sayer. Three hundred Métis, many armed, assembled outside the court.

Métis traders ca.1872-75

Métis traders ca.1872-75
© LAC / PA-4164

Although the jury found him guilty, Judge John Ballenden of the HBC, fearing an uprising by the large Métis population, did not sentence Sayer. Consequently, Sayer walked out a free man and the other Métis were never tried. Riel Sr. expressed the crowd's joy by shouting "Le commerce est libre! Vive la liberté" (Commerce is free! Hooray for freedom!).

Fort Garry, where this trial took place, as well as Forts Rouge and Gibraltar, are commemorated with a plaque in Winnipeg for their importance as trading posts. Furthermore, many commemorated sites tell the story of the Métis. Two of the most prominent are Riel House in Winnipeg and Batoche in Saskatchewan.

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