CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

Giraud, Marcel.

Translated by George Woodcock. Edmonton, Univ. of Alberta Press, c1986. 2v., cloth, $70,00, ISBN 0-88864-098-6, CIP

Reviewed by J.D. Ingram

Volume 15 Number 5
1987 September

Since its publication more than four decades ago, Marcel Giraud's magnum opus on the Métis in the Canadian West has come to be regarded as a seminal work in the field, This is indeed a "broad tapestry," with fascinating details in its warp and weft.

Vol. 1 covers the primitive environment and follows the penetration of the white race to the birth of the Métis group and the awakening of a national consciousness.

Here one finds the story of the arrival and settlement of the French along the St. Lawrence and the development and expansion of the two great fur-trading companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. David Thompson, Samuel Heame, Alexander Mackenzie, and George Simpson, among others, all make their appearances.

In the St. Lawrence region, "familiarity with the primitive existence prepared (the French) for the intimate relations between them and the Indians."

To give some idea of the breadth and scope of the author's research, in the sixth chapter there are 550 footnotes.

Relations between native people and the Hudson's Bay Company differed from relations with the North West Company. In the former, little material help was provided by the posts, and those young men of mixed marriages were "less equipped than natives to exploit the resources of fishing and hunting . . .and became men 'without standing'." The author claims that this was "one of the causes of the difficulties which the Métis suffer today."

Most of the occupations that fell to the Métis in the west were as guide, voyageur, interpreter, hunter, mail carrier, or cook. There was no solidly rooted culture, only the "husk of a culture."

It was during the years of the Selkirk effort at Red River that North West Company men like Duncan Cameron and Cuthbert Grant laid a foundation for what might be called "Métis nationalism." This was not a homogeneous group, and the national idea was affirmed with any vigour "only when a strong personality was able to awaken and embody it." Despite the efforts of a few notables the Métis lacked "any element really likely to provide a solid foundation for the national ideal."

Volume II covers the Métis of Red River 1818-1869; the Métis of the West; and in a final Part Six: The Disintegration of the Métis as a Group. Chapter 13 details what Giraud calls "The Regressive Factors."

Yet in their "regeneration" (Chapter 14), the author describes the establishment of Grantown (St. Francois Xavier) and the employment opportunities (albeit limited) in the cartage and water transport in the west. Despite efforts to generate a productive and stable form of sedentary existence, nomadism, so ingrained for generations, persisted. Reliance on the buffalo proved disastrous for Native and Métis alike. For the latter, "too much inclined to the nomadic to appreciate the value of the soil and to relish the life of a farmer, he was soon destined to be a pawn of the speculators attended by the fertile soils of the Red River." The Hudson's Bay Company (with which the Métis had a love-hate relationship) was to be replaced by "a regime that would refuse to come to terms with the anachronistic way of life in which it was set."

Westward, beyond Red River, nomadism and a more primitive lifestyle persisted. For the author, the M6tis personality reflected an uncertain up-bringing; no sharply defined culture; an emotional nature; and a lack of consistency. The efforts of Roman Catholic missionaries to provide a kind of "moral brake" were hampered by their limited numbers and the dispersion of the Métis.

The Riel episode in 1869-1870 is not covered in any great detail, and in fact the years that followed marked a time of persecution for many Métis. What Riel had gained, proved tenuous. Those who held their land were unable to cope with the new order. Métis nomadism "condemned them also to an economic backwardness that tied them to their past and, in the near future, would hinder them from adapting successfully to the attitudes that were already dominant in the province of Manitoba."

the insurrection of 1885 contains more detail than in the previous events at Red River. Substantive progress and improvements for the Métis again proved elusive.

The federal government had at first ignored the warnings from the North West, and then after 1885, in the eyes of Monseigneur Grandin, "failed in its duty as guardian."

In his last chapter entitled, "The Present Situation," Giraud says Métis families, deprived of all they once had, "and made helpless by the advent of an economy and a society contact with which has exaggerated their natural timidity, their sense of inferiority, dissipated their last vestiges of willpower."

Even though Giraud visited these Métis communities in 1935-36, in many instances little seems to have changed. Today there is a more organized and vocal group who are pursuing land claims with some historical justification. Some of the author's comments may be construed as "racist." I think he has faithfully reported on the variety of sources he consulted. Historical records need not be labelled as such in the context of a different time. There is some repetition, but to edit some of these pieces might reduce an intended emphasis.

This first English edition will make it more readily available to a wider (English) audience. In total there are nearly one thousand pages of text. The writing is generally easy to read despite the plethora of quotes and numbered footnotes. The story is an engaging and pertinent one, and at the same time its length is a challenge!

The list of sources covers 18 pages. There are 25 pages in the bibliography. The footnotes for Vol. II alone cover 138 pages.

These volumes are interesting and informative — whether or not one agrees with all that the author says. To a bibliophile it is a pleasure just to hold it . . .especially after reading it!!

J.D. Ingram, Gordon Bell H.S., Winnipeg, Man.
line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission Copyright information for reviewers

Young Canada Works