Definition: Proprietary Government

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rupert's land map 1857

John Arrowsmith, map, “Map of North America. Drawn by J. Arrowsmith,” (1857), showing, as coloured green, the ‘plantation’ of Rupert’s Land, claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] by virtue of the charter granted by King Charles II. Other British territories are shaded pink, some of which also fell under the governance of the HBC — at one point, the Company oversaw almost three million square miles of land (one-twelfth of the earth’s surface). Russian territory is shaded yellow. Source: Library and Archives Canada, CARTO24287, Copyright: Expired = Domaine public. For a close-up image, see facsimile map,—Map-of-North-America–.

Proprietary Government: in the case of Red River Settlement, meant that the directors of the HBC, as the “‘true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors” of Rupert’s Land, held rights to govern that plantation (with minimal stipulations), Britain’s monarch having conferred that power by way of a royal charter. There was no governing connection to Parliament in Britain, or anywhere else in the Empire. Nor was there such a connection to the ruling monarch — until such time as the charter came up for renewal (which it did periodically), neither monarch nor parliament paid much attention to who was being governed by whom in Rupert’s Land.

By the time of the founding of Red River Settlement in the nineteenth century, the HBC operated as a political anachronism — being the last proprietary government in existence in the British Empire. At the settlement, an HBC Governor and council — the Council of Assiniboia — made laws, oversaw legal judgements, and levied taxes.

[See Colonial Charter; Proprietary Colony; see also “Colonial Charters, Grants and Related Documents.” and

By 1860, complaints voiced in the local newspaper, the Nor’-Wester, indicated some settlers at Red River were entirely dissatisfied with their relative powerlessness as British subjects under this closed, unrepresentative and un-responsible system of governance.

[See “The Council of Assiniboia,” Nor’-Wester (14 March 1860), 2, (continued). See also “Definitions: Representative and Responsible Government,” this site. Red River settlers were well aware that in 1856, after petitions protesting HBC proprietary rule on the Pacific Slope were sent to the Colonial Office in London, the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island (a.k.a the “House of Assembly of Vancouver Island”) had been created as an elected body. Its composition was not entirely satisfactory as only handful of colonists met the voting requirement, most of whom were tied to the HBC. In addition, the colony had not attained responsible government as it was headed by an appointed governor — an HBC chief factor.]

A brief outline of the history of HBC governance:

detail charter 1670

Graphic, partial detail, 1670 royal charter of the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay.

In 1670 Charles II of England granted a royal charter to the Company of Associates trading into Hudson’s Bay. Instead of the British Monarch governing the territory conferred, the charter gave the Company the rights of governance. There were some restrictions: any laws the Company might devise had to accord with the laws of England (as laid out at the time of the charter); after 1763, capital cases were to be tried in courts in the Canadas (afterwards United Canada/ the Province of Canada).

Although there was a governor installed at the Red River Colony beginning 1812, who appointed an advisory council of a few men, and a sheriff (including John Spencer, who married into a Métis family), the wider region of Assiniboia operated virtually devoid of organized, formal government until the 1830s. Decisions were made and problems settled on an ad hoc basis, by whomever seemed to be in charge — often settlers resolved disputes among themselves (this state of affairs was characterized by settler Alexander Ross as a “smoothing system”).

From 1830 to 1834, HBC Governor of the HBC in North America, George Simpson, who was resident at Lower Fort Garry, was superior officer at Red River and ‘highest court’ of appeal. On departing the settlement to relocate his office to Lachine, Lower Canada, Simpson left a more organized Governor and Council of Assiniboia in place — at least to the extent that records were kept and duties were more clearly defined. “Safety” was given as the principal justification for restructuring the Council. The HBC Council of Assiniboia’s area of authority was set at a radius of 50 miles from Upper Fort Garry. It was to make laws, to appoint magistrates and justices of the peace in a local court system (in which the Council figured as the ‘supreme court’), and to organize constables for the maintenance of order. It could set taxes/ duties and fund public projects (principally roads and bridges). There would be no elections, all positions were appointed — not by the Crown, but by the HBC’s London Committee, on the recommendation of Simpson.

The first meeting of this newly structured Council of Assiniboia took place on 12 February 1835. It resolved to levy an import tax of 7.5% and build a court house and a jail next to Upper Fort Garry. It would meet quarterly as the high court with a Recorder (also appointed by Simpson) on hand to advise on interpreting the law. By 1839, provisions were in place for a jury (selected from among landowners) to hear evidence and recommend sentencing. Community functioning still relied principally on the good will and good sense of the people.

[See E.H. Oliver, The Canadian North-west, its early development and legislative records; minutes of the Councils of the Red river colony and the Northern department of Rupert’s land vol. 1 (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1914), 33 – 39; and Nelly Laudicina, “The Rules of Red River: The Council of Assiniboia and its Impact on the Colony, 1820-1869,” Past Imperfect 15 (2009). See also Darren O’Toole, ]

The fact that the Council of Assiniboia, operating as a civil government, was responsible to the Council of Rupert’s Land (created by Simpson with himself at the head), which was a corporate government, did not sit well with the inhabitants of Red River.

By 1849, as the Sayer Trial demonstrated, the Council of Assiniboia had  lost much of its relevance. In an attempt to uphold some authority, the HBC began appointing members ‘more representative’ of the settler population — meaning settlers respected as leaders within their community who were not immediately employed by the Company itself. People of Red River, however, still had no elected representation.

[See also Joseph James Hargrave, Red River (Montreal: John Lovell, 1871), 86 – 87; Alfred Thomas Philips, “Development of municipal institutions in Manitoba to 1886,” M.A. thesis (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1948).]

Appointments by, and Members of, the Council of Assiniboia:

1820s: with the merger of the North West Company [NWC] and the HBC, “the Council of Assiniboia consisted of 5 members, 3 of whom participated regularly — Governor of Assiniboia Andrew Bulger, Thomas Thomas and John Pritchard — the others being “a number of members whose attendance was irregular.”

Thomas Thomas (father of Métis family), appointed a Justice of the Peace for the Indian Territories 1811 – 1816; appointed Councillor 1815, but not resident at Red River until 1819.

John Pritchard (father of Métis son), appointed Councillor c. 1820; resigned 1848), served on  committees of economy and finance.

James Bird (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor 1822; served as Justice of the Peace for the Indian Territories 1815 — not resident at Red River until 1824.

William Hemmings Cook (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor 1822.

Robert Logan (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor 1823; resigned 1839.

Cuthbert Grant Jr. (Métis), was appointed Sheriff/ “Warden of the Plains” in 1828, which position he held to 1849.

1830s: the Council was enlarged to include 15 members.

Rev. David Thomas Jones, appointed by 1835.

Robert Logan (father of Métis family), his offices expanded 1835, when he became Justice of the Peace, Third District. Appointed Magistrate, Middle District, 1837. Resigned 1839.

Cuthbert Grant Jr. (Métis), his offices expanded 1835, when he became Magistrate/ Justice of the Peace, and Councillor.

Dr. John Bunn (Métis), appointed Councillor 1835. Appointed Magistrate, Lower District, 1837–1849.

John McCallum, (married into Métis family), appointed Councillor 1836.

James Sutherland (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor by 1837. [See]

Captain George Marcus Cary, appointed 1837. [See]

Catholic Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher appointed Councillor 1837.

Adam Thom appointed Recorder of the Court 1838, arrived from Lower Canada 1839, appointment revoked 1851 — though he continued to serve as Clerk of the Court of Assiniboia to 1854. As “recorder, functioning as legal organizer, adviser, magistrate, and councillor,” Thom “sat as a member of the Council and as Councillor wrote up the very legislation that he was himself to interpret as judge.” [O’Toole citing E.H. Oliver (1914), 295-310; and DCB.]

Alexander Ross (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor and Sheriff, 1835.

William Robert Smith (father of Métis family), appointed Clerk of Court and Council 1848 – 1867. Compiled the Red River census 1849. Served as President of one of the petty courts from 1867; and collector of customs “for a number of years.”

James Bird (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor 1839 – 1856. Also served from 1835 to 1845 as receiver of import and export duties and Justice of the Peace.

Andrew McDermot (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor and Sheriff, 1839; resigned over trade dispute with HBC c. 1845. In 1835 he had been appointed to the public works committee “responsible for the construction of roads and bridges, surveying, the operation of ferries, and public improvements.” [DCB]

Allan McDonell (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor, 1839.

John Peter Pruden (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor 1839; member of the Board of Public Works from 1844.

Roderick McKenzie (father of Métis family), appointed 1839.

John Edward Harriott (father of Métis family). Appointed Sheriff of Rupert’s Land 1839.


John Charles, “retired in 1843 to Red River Colony where he became a long term member of the Council of Assiniboia.” [Denis Fuchs, “Native sons of Rupert’s Land 1760 to the 1860s,” Ph.D. diss (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2000).]

Robert Logan (father of Métis family), appointed as Chairman of the Board of Public Works, 1844.

Andrew McDermot (father of Métis family), reinstated as Councillor, 1847. Served as ex officio President of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia 1849; resigned 1851.

Dr. John Bunn (Métis), duties expanded when appointed Coroner of Assiniboia, 1849–1861.


Robert Logan, (father of Métis family), reappointed Magistrate, 1850. (Died 1866.)

Urbain Delorme (Métis, buffalo hunter), appointed Magistrate 1850.

Alban Fidler (Métis) appointed magistrate 1850 [See mention in “Upper District Court,” Nor’-Wester (28 January 1860), 4.]

Thomas Sinclair Sr. (Métis), appointed Councillor c. 1850[?] Appointed to Board of Works 1853. Appointed postmaster, St. Andrews, 1862. Appointed President, petty court, Lower District, 1862.

Abbé Louis-François Lafleche (Métis) appointed Councillor 1850. “This increased the Canadien, but more specifically the clerical representation in the council.” [Diane Payment, “Native Society and Economy in Transition at the Forks, 1850-1900,” Microfiche Report Series 383, 29.]

Rev. David Anderson, appointed c. 1851.

William Ross (Métis son of Councillor Alexander Ross), appointed Sheriff, 1851; in 1855 became the first Postmaster for the Red River Settlement. (Died 1856.)

Dr. William Cowan (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor 1853. Served Chief Magistrate from 1852.

François-Jacques Bruneau (Métis), appointed Councillor 1853. Served also as Magistrate from 1850, and as President/ Justice of the Peace from 1851. (Died 1865 in typhoid epidemic.) [See also]

Robert McBeath/ McBeth, appointed Councillor 1853 – 1869 — “the first Selkirk colonist to receive that honour.” Appointed Justice of the Peace, 1852. Served 1859 on committee to draft regulations on the importation of liquor into the Red River Settlement, which forbade the sale of liquor to the Indians. Served 1863 and 1864 on committees 1863 and 1864 “to mark the main public roads in the settlement and to study the question of a public ferry.” Served 1865 on committee “to distribute seed wheat purchased from the HBC. “

Dr. John Bunn (Métis), duties expanded when appointed Chairman of the Board of Public Works, and Sheriff and Governor of the Gaol 1856 – 1861. Appointed Recorder of Rupert’s Land, 1858–1861, “in which capacity he directed the proceedings of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia. In conducting the business of the recordership Bunn reached the height of his authority as a judicial administrator, and was faced with the most serious cases in Assiniboia. Individuals were brought before him in court for manslaughter, robbery, debt, and the illegal sale of liquor.”

John Inkster (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor, 1857 – 1868). Served also as Magistrate, Lower District 1850 – 1858 and as petty judge/ Justice of the Peace. [See also]

Henry Fisher (Métis), appointed 1857.

Maximilien Emile Genthon/ Genton dit Dauphine/ Dauphinais (Métis), appointed 1857. Served also as Magistrate from 1850. [See]

William McMillan/ McMalen (Métis, “buffalo hunter and trader” as well as farmer and importer of fast horses), appointed 1857. [See also Heather Devine, “The Indian – Metis Connection: James McMillan and his Descendents.”]

Salomon Hamelin/ Emlyn (Métis, buffalo hunter and trader), appointed Councillor 1857. Appointed Magistrate 1861. [“Council of Assiniboia,” Nor’-Wester (1 April 1861).]

Pascal Breland (Métis, buffalo hunter, trader, and farmer), appointed Councillor 1857 – 1868. Served as Magistrate (1850, 1861), petty judge/ Justice of the Peace (1851), and census-taker (1856),White Horse Plain; member of the board of public works (1856). Magistrate. [See also]

Catholic Bishop, Alexandre-Antonin Taché appointed Councillor 1858.

John E. Harriott appointed Councillor 7 December 1859.  [“Council of Assiniboia,” Nor’-Wester (28 December 1859).]


John Dease Jr. (Métis) appointed Councillor 1861. [“Council of Assiniboia,” Nor’-Wester (1 April 1861).]

‘Judge’ John Black (married into Métis family), appointed President, Quarterly Court, 1862 – 1870. In 1869 was ‘Acting Governor,’ Council of Assiniboia.

John Inkster (father of Métis family), “In 1863 he became auditor of public accounts and worked on committees dealing with the regulation of liquor imports and the marking out of public roads.”

John Fraser/ Frazer (Selkirk Settler descent; brother of William Fraser), appointed Road Superintendent, Middle District of Assiniboia, 1863.

Roger Norbert Alexis Goulet (Métis), appointed Councillor 1866. Served as surveyor for the Settlement 1856; Collector of Customs from 1861.

Bishop Robert Machray, appointed Councillor 1865.

John Sutherland (Selkirk Settler descent), appointed Councillor 1866.

William Dease (Métis brother of Councillor John Dease; buffalo hunter and trader), appointed Councillor 1867.

Dr. Curtis James Bird (member of Métis family; son of Councillor James Bird), appointed Councillor 1868. Served as Coroner from 1862.

Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne (father of Métis family), appointed Councillor, 1868. Previously held successive appointments as Justice of the Peace/ petty judge, Postmaster, and President of the petty court.

James McKay (Métis), appointed Councillor, 1868; and President, Whitehorse Plains District Court.

William Fraser (Métis), appointed Councillor 1868 – 1869. Road Superintendent for the Middle District in 1863.

Thomas Bunn (Métis; son of Councillor Dr. John Bunn), appointed Councillor 1868.

Magnus Bernard Birston/ Burston [or Magnus Alexander ‘Sandy’ Birston?] (Métis), appointed Councillor 1868. [See]

[See also Lionel Dorge, “The Metis and Canadien Councillors of Assiniboia,” The Beaver (Summer, Autumn, and Winter 1974), part 1:12-19, part 2:39-45, part 3:51-58; and]


Published: 9 December 2012


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