Early Legal Recognition Of Metis Rights: The Sayer Trial:


In the edited collection of essays contained in "Contours of a People" (see "resources" below), historian Gerhard J. Ens writes a chapter in which he articulates the events of the Sayer trial:

"In 1846–47, A. K. Isbister and four other memorialists presented a petition to the secretary of state for the colonies from 'the Natives of Rupert’s Land,' who they described as “the Indians, and HalfBreeds residing in and near the Colony of Red River,” praying for relief from the strictures of the HBC monopoly and its tyrannical rule. The petitioners, who described themselves as “les humbles et loyaux sujets de sa Majesté Victoire,” objected to the harsh administration of the HBC that kept them in a state of dependency, inhibited trade, and ignored the claims of the Indians and Metis as the original owners of the soil.

As natives they wanted the right to trade freely, and as British subjects they wanted representative government and the right to import goods. If they were deprived of these rights, they warned, discontent and violence would follow. J. H. Pelly, responding for the HBC, noted that the fact that the Metis were born in the country entitled them to call themselves native, but it neither conveyed to them any privileges belonging or supposed to belong to the aboriginal inhabitants, nor did it divest them of the character of British subjects. As such, Metis (unlike Indians) were precluded by the HBC’s charter from trafficking in furs. From the HBC’s perspective, the petition and memorial to the colonial office had been inspired by the illegal traders of the Red River Colony who employed the Metis of the settlement, and who were trying to attack the monopoly of the HBC through the instrumentality of Metis rights. In responding to Pelly, Isbister acknowledged that there was a distinction between Metis and Indians, but that this distinction did not divest the Metis of their aboriginal rights.

After some investigation, Earl Grey ruled that the petition and memorial were without foundation and no further action would be taken on the matter. Emboldened by this ruling, the HBC continued to harass the Metis to prevent them from trading in furs. The company regularly searched for and seized furs from Metis, culminating in the 1849 trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer and two other Metis for contravening the HBC monopoly in trading furs from Indians and smuggling them to American merchants. It was only after this trial, which found the three guilty, that the HBC realized they had no way of enforcing the court decision given that hundreds of armed Metis had surrounded the courtroom and would accept no punishment for the three. It was only after that point that the company stopped their policy of seizing illegally traded furs and initiating legal actions against Metis traders in the Red River Settlement. Thus, by the 1850s the Metis in the Red River District had developed a view of themselves as holding both the rights of British subjects and aboriginal claims to the soil. They seldom if ever used the term 'Metis Nation' in this period to articulate their rights, but it was a position that might easily be construed as 'national.' This was not a position or a sentiment, however, that was present in 1816 when Cuthbert Grant and the Metis destroyed the Red River Settlement. This sense of nationalism was spurred by the events of 1815–16, but it only emerged in any conscious way in the thirty years afterward" (pp.112-113).


This event demonstrates the development of nation-consciousness and rights of economic self-determination amongst Metis people.  Some historians consider it a formative event in Metis ethnogenesis.  


Ens, Gerhard J., In Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History. Eds. St. Onge, Nicole, Macdougall, Brenda, and Podruchny, Carolyn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 112-113.