Métis Laws

Métis Legal Systems and the Laws which emerged from democratic principles of justice are foundational to Canada's constitutional formation.

Laws of the Hunt

Dr. John Borrows, an Anishinabe/Ojibway Legal academic and jurist, has dedicated much of his time into researching Indigenous Legal Codes/Laws, structures, and governing systems. He writes on  the origins of Métis Law:  

“The Métis peoples in Canada have unique origins. Their cultures grew out of the interaction between First Nation and European contact in northern North America. Métis people formed communities throughout Canada, including present-day Labrador, Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the North. Children of First Nations and European parents developed a distinctive language, artistic expressions, political identities and legal traditions.

For example, in 1840, the Métis of the prairies developed buffalo hunting laws to organize their economic and social activities. The buffalo hunt involved hundreds of men, women, and children, together with their Red River carts, horses and tools for processing and preserving the meat and hides. The complex activity was ordered through laws that identified appropriate behavior during a potentially difficult and dangerous pursuit. The Captain of the Hunt could impose penalties if these laws were broken.[1]

The Buffalo Hunt Laws


"Metis Legal Traditions," in Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada, 53-54.  


Buffalo Hunt Laws[2]

A codified portion of these laws contained the following provisions:

a. No buffalo to be run on the Sabbath-Day.

b. No party to fork off, lag behind, or go before, without permission.

c. No person or party to run buffalo before the general order.

d. Every captain with his men, in turn, to patrol the camp, and keep guard.

e. For the first trespass against these laws, the offender to have his saddle and bridle cut up.

f. For the second offence, the coat to be taken off the offender's back, and be cut up.

g. For the third offence, the offender to be flogged.

h. Any person convicted of theft, even to the value of a sinew, to be brought to the middle of the camp, and the crier to call out his or her name three times, adding the word 'Thief', at each time.

The Law of the Hunt as expressed in these principles was important in asserting Métis control over one of their main socio-economic activities. But it is also important to note that this set of laws was not a complete Code for the hunt. There were in addition significant customary law principles involving the respectful killing and use of an animal. Métis law also extended to trade, family obligations, political organization and land use. (pp. 53-54). 


Communal Justice Origins: St. Kilda


Barkwell, Carrière Acco, and Rozyk propose that, "Most writers have traced the institutional structures of Metis democratic law to the traditions of the buffalo hunt and have concentrated on the French Metis to the exclusion of the Orkney Metis. However, the Scots Metis are another source of the popular justice of the Metis.”[3]

St. Kildan Communal Justice


The Origins of Métis Customary Law With a Discussion of Métis Legal Traditions, 13-14.[4]

Many of the initial Hudson Bay traders had been recruited from the Outer Hebridean island of St. Kilda. St. Kildan society practiced forms of communal justice described by one commentator:

Their government is strictly a republic…’ with an emphasis upon the sharing of goods, services, and responsibilities. A daily communal meeting aimed to resolve infractions of the informal rules. All St. Kildans, male and female, had equal rights to speak and to vote. At Red River it is possible that this particular Scots tradition converged with the Native traditions of the buffalo hunt.

The continuity of the latter was apparent. In the 1840s ‘committees of the people’ had been instituted including both Indian and Metis members. Their ideal would have been a purely elective government, where the magistrates as well as the councilors would have been designated by popular suffrage. These developments had given rise in the late 1860s to democratic legal and political processes. Following from prairie tradition, groups of families formed local communities, each electing a captain. The captains chose a principal leader and he presided over the council of captains, the body that set the regulations and met each day to handle offenders against the community’s laws.' 

Similar political and legal traditions survived after the dispersal of so many of the Metis across the western plains. In several prairie townships like Willow Bunch, Wood Mountain, Cypress Hills—originally wintering quarters for the buffalo hunting families—legal constitutions were fashioned according to the traditional rules of the hunt. In Qu’Appelle, the Metis constructed their own community constitution and criminal laws. Similar developments were apparent over the border on the Milk River, Judith Basin and Spring Creek (Lewistown). (pp. 13-14).




[1] Borrows, John. Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada. Victoria: Law Commission of Canada, 2006. 53. [references omitted]

[2] Borrows, John. Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada. Victoria: Law Commission of Canada, 2006. 53-54. [references omitted]

[3] Barkwell, Lawrence J., Carrière Acco, Anne, and Rozyk, Amanda. The Origins of Métis Customary Law With a Discussion of Métis Legal Traditions. Winnipeg: Louis Riel Institute, 2007. 13-14. [references omitted]

[4] Brogdan, Mike. “The Metis as Economic Criminals: The Struggle with the Hudson’s Bay Company.” In, Struggle for Recognition. Eds., S. Corrigan and L. Barkwell. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1991: 44. [references omitted]