Red River: Just Plains Folks
Winnipeg welcomes the world
Completion of the railway in 1885 to Vancouver from the ports of the Atlantic
Ocean made Winnipeg the immigration gateway to the Canadian West.
European immigrants arrived by shipload at ports on the St. Lawrence River. After weeks
spent in quarantine camps to ensure they were not suffering from contagious diseases such
as smallpox, the immigrants were allowed to board trains and head westward.
Cheap land was the lure that the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian government used
to attract immigrants to the West. The railways wanted the West to grow to increase its business
of moving people and freight. The government wanted to populate the vast Prairie with new
Canadians to establish Canadian control in an area many Americans argued should be absorbed
into the United States.
Their eyes sore and red from tiny coal cinders spewed by smoking locomotives, the immigrants
arrived in Winnipeg, tired and dirty but full of hope for a new and better life. Many found
new hope further west, on the wide-open Prairie. Their gift to their children and grandchildren
would be today's prosperous farms that export their wheat, soybeans, mustard, and other grains
around the world.
Some immigrants stayed in Winnipeg to practise the trades they had mastered in Europe. They
divided the city into neighbourhoods based on national origin and economic class.
It would be hard for any one group to claim the status of first permanent occupants of the
junction of the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers. Winnipeg has always been a refuge for new
groups seeking prosperity and who, in the process, sometimes pushed aside previous occupants.
Since the last ice age, the fork of the Red and the Assiniboine has been a stopping point
for nomadic Native communities seeking fish and shelter from the wide-open Prairie.
The first known permanent settlement in Winnipeg was a community of Native peoples, European
adventurers, and Métis brought together by the fur trade.
Cree and Assiniboine
When the European fur traders arrived with their trinkets, guns, and diseases, the most
common visitors to the river fork were Cree and Assiniboine people. Both Native communities
were virtually destroyed by their first contact with European viruses and bacteria against
which they had developed no immunity. By 1790, the area was essentially uninhabited.
The first group migration to what is now Winnipeg was an expedition of Ojibwa from Ontario
in search of more abundant fish and game. Led by Chief Peguis at the end of the 1700s, they
came to be known as the Saulteaux in their new territory. The few remaining Cree and Assiniboine
welcomed the newcomers as potential allies against their enemies, the Lakota from the South,
who fought them for control of the grasslands and bison herd.
Scottish and Irish
Chief Peguis, in turn, welcomed the next immigrant wave — the Scottish and Irish settlers
of Lord Selkirk in 1812. The Saulteaux alliance with the settlers of the new Red River Colony,
and the Hudson's Bay Company, grew stronger over the years as they fought off attacks sponsored
by the rival fur-trader, the North West Company.
In 1818, a French-speaking priest from Quebec opened a tiny Roman Catholic mission at the
new Red River Colony. Encouraged by Lord Selkirk in vain hope of settling the Métis
into lives of farmers, the priest's mission of St. Boniface was the nucleus of what would
become Canada's largest French-speaking, Roman Catholic community outside of Quebec. Attracted
by the presence of St. Boniface, thousands of French-speaking settlers from Quebec, the northeastern
United States, and France would later join the rush to settle the Prairies.
Ever since early settlement in St. Boniface, the survival and health of St. Boniface as
a French-speaking community has been a continuing test of whether Canada can accommodate
French-speaking communities outside Quebec.
The decision in 1890 by the government of Manitoba to reverse the terms of Manitoba's 1870
entry into Canada by abolishing the right to publicly-funded Catholic schools remains a major
grievance of French-speaking Canadians today. Only the Roman Catholic church could afford
to run public schools in French. By cutting government funding to the church-run schools
in 1890, the provincial government effectively killed the hopes of French-speaking Canadians
for equal treatment in the settlement of the Canadian West.
Métis and Country-born
When the Hudson's Bay Company bought out the North West Company in 1821, hundreds of Métis
hunters and laborers lost their jobs and collected around the Red River Colony to seek work.
The Métis were French-speaking, Roman Catholic descendants of Native women and French
fur traders. The word “Métis” comes from the French métissage, which means
mixing of races.
The descendants of the marriages of Native women and English-speaking, Protestant fur traders
were called “Country-born”. Together, the two communities of mixed Native and European parentage
quickly became the majority group in the Red River Colony after 1821.
Chief Peguis and his Saulteaux quickly lost political and economic power to the Métis
and Country-born when the conversion of the grasslands from wilderness to agriculture resulted
in the Saulteaux no longer being able to feed themselves on game. Eventually, the Saulteaux
were forced to give in to the urgings of the Anglican church that they give up their traditional
ways to learn how to farm and send their children to white-run schools.
Today, band societies in the Red River basin are organized and usually located a significant
distance from urban life. Indian institutions, designed to help protect the quality of life
for Natives migrating to towns, still require further development. As a consequence, there
is not a lot of successful urban adaptation on the part of Native band members.
After Manitoba became part of Canada in 1870, and before the railway reached Winnipeg, European
settlers arrived by paddle boats along the Red River. They had travelled by ship to the United
States East Coast and then by train to the Midwest. There, they boarded the sternwheel paddle
boats that plied the waterway from North Dakota to Winnipeg. Immigration sheds were built
at the docks in Winnipeg to process the immigrants and send them on their way into the West.
Once the railway reached Winnipeg and beyond to the prairie grasslands, immigration changed
from a trickle of individual adventurers to a mass rush for cheap land and a new life. As
a result, the Métis and Country-born communities lost their jobs, businesses, and
often their land to the newcomers.
Many of the immigrants, already poor in their homelands, arrived in Winnipeg without money
to continue their journey westward. A large shanty town grew beside the railway station.
Called “The Flats,” it became home to an impoverished population of immigrants from Europe
and Russia. Most of the shanty-town dwellers were from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Russia.
Other waves of immigrants passed through Winnipeg to take up their land purchases. Icelanders
carried on north to settle near Lake Winnipeg. Ukrainians moved inland to farm the plains
similar to those of their homeland.
The last big wave of immigration followed World War II when thousands of people fled their
Eventually, most of the European immigrants succeeded in building the base for healthy,
educated, and prosperous lives for themselves and their children. In the process, they reaffirmed
the role of the junction of the Red and the Assiniboine rivers as a mid-continent place of
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