Red River Peculiarities
“No two faces are alike” is a proverb of wide application. Individuals differ in traits of character as universally as their physiognomy and their physical developments. Their likes and dislikes, their tastes and habits, their leanings, aims, and aspirations, all vary in a greater or less degree; and the variation distinguishes each from the other in almost as marked a way as does the novidem corpus. And as with individuals so with communities. The characteristics of nations are aptly enough miniatured in the individuals composing such nations. Every community has its peculiarities; that distinguish it from every other; so that if nation can be conceived as a genus, these mark the species. Philosophers there are who maintain that we cannot think of nation in the abstract — cannot conceive of it without inseparably coupling therewith some particular nation; no more than we can think of man without associating that with some particular man. But no matter about that, at present. We speak of genus and species merely for the sake of illustration. Let us briefly address ourselves to the subject which suggested these common-place remarks.
The people of Red River have many distinguishing features. It is but natural that they should differ widely from other communities, for they are so entirely isolated that the influence of example produces but little effect among them. It does not require a REID or a STEWART to tell us that man is an imitative being, or a LOCKE to inform us that the love of imitation is an innate principle. Everyday experience shows it. We know and feel it almost intuitively. Well, this strong constitutional tendency has had little room for operating upon this community. Our peculiarities have therefore had full scope for development. They have grown naturally, without check or hindrance, and are consequently all the more apparent when we are brought into contrast with those communities who live on the world’s highway.
A stranger is always struck with the delightful shyness or mauvaise haute of the Red River people. There are exceptions, to be sure; but as a rule they are sweetly modest and unassuming. Take a man of genuine native growth — one whom adventitious circumstances have not warped, and who knows nothing of the artificialities of social life, and what an unobtrusive, retiring creature! He is speechless in the presence of a stranger — while spoken to he scans his hands and feet with annoying concentration — and feels an astonishing relief when you are gone. Speak to him, and he is most courteous — evidently respects himself, yet, in his anxiety to show you respect, he almost become sheepish himself — from regard to your judgement, or from modest distrust of his own, he will not venture an opinion, but will readily endorse yours, and earnestly hope you may not put him to the necessity of differing from you. All this is the result of isolation,– our not mingling with the great, noisy, jostling world. It is no reproach to the people here; but it certainly prevents them from making the appearance they might, and one unacquainted with them might easily mistake it for want of manly spirit.
If you meet a Red River Settler — no matter who — you are bound to shake hands with him, remark that it is a fine or bad day, as the case may be, and go into endless details regarding the health of his family, the state of his farm; and the market prospects. These stereotyped subjects, must be gone through with all patience and fidelity. You can’t “dodge” them — to use a “Yankeeism” — you are rigidly kept “up to the mark,” and you must “face the music” with the best grace possible. And if you suddenly find yourself among fifteen or twenty, you must faithfully go the round with “How do you do” “Comment vous portez vous,” or Caimmer hah shinndiuth, as the case may be,– shaking hands all the while with the utmost enthusiasm, real or pretended. This constant shaking of hands is by no means limited to equals or acquaintances. Jack Jones meets Governor Mactavish on the King’s highway, and forthwith stretches out his hand and asks after Mrs. Mactavish’s health, with all the sang-froid imaginable; and the poor Governor, well knowing this odd usage of the place, yields to the promptings of his disposition and responds to Jack’s catechising with all the readiness possible under the circumstances. In his progress, Jones meets one who is an utter stranger to him — whom he has never seen before. This matters little. He offers his hand with alacrity and after due reference to the state of the weather and the other etceteras, he passes on, to the amazement no less than the amusement of the stranger. We find no fault with this innocent ceremony but simply point it out as one of the peculiarities of the Red River people.
Another general characteristic is their great regard for things sacred. It is much to their credit, and has formed the theme of praise with many travellers who have passed through this country. This feeling exhibits itself in various ways. They cherish profound regard for their ministers; they are seldom or never guilty of profanity; they scrupulously avoid secular engagements on the Sabbath; and so forth. In this, as in everything else there are exception; but these are so very few that they only serve to show the rule more forcibly. Very very seldom is disrespectful language regarding a Minister of the Gospel heard from the lips of a genuine Red River man; and as seldom do you hear anything sacred lightly spoken of. And even those who feel inclined to indulge in this bad habit feel themselves checked by the moral atmosphere which surrounds them. What a difference when you pass from this Settlement into Minnesota, for example. The outrageous profanity and daring imprecations which one hears on all hands are perfectly shocking. There, and generally in the States and Canada, there is among the lower classes a recklessness of expression and coarseness of allusion that is never heard here. The earnest and faithful evangelical teachings of the Red River clergy have, no doubt, much to do, instrumentally, with this good moral feature.
In general, our settlers are well-to-do. Few can properly be styled rich, and still fewer can be said to be really poor. The middle class includes almost the whole Settlement. And this is the result of another characteristic — namely, that they are an easy-going, easily-satisfied, unambitious people. That desperate grasping after money which distinguishes our Yankee neighbors is not seen here. Over the border they scheme and plan and speculate in a way quite unattempted here. They become millionaires or beggars in a few years according as they succeed or fail in their grand projects. They must be everything or nothing, must rise with giant strides or fall gloriously in the attempt. It is not so with us. We are a cautious, plodding, easy-going, set — rather too much so, perhaps. If a man has a hundred dollars wherewith to go into business, he will lay out but fifty, and rigidly scan his chances with the other fifty before he lays them out. “Slow and sure,” is his motto; and after a gradual rise, he retires before he becomes wealthy, as much perhaps from indifference to wealth itself as from the difficulty of becoming wealthy on account of the tardiness in his rise. The Red River people don’t fancy large undertakings — they dread speculators, and cannot appreciate that pushing enterprising, restless spirit which marks citizens of the great Republic. We deal in a small way, and on a small scale — want little, get little, and are satisfied with little.
Yet another — and one, alas! which reflects little credit on us — remains to be noticed. Like all small communities, we are too much given to worthless gossiping and talebearing. There are everlasting rumours, sayings, and reports, with counter-rumours as plentiful, about this and that person or thing. At every corner — on every highway — be it morning, noon, or night — somebody or other will have his on dit. Pandora’s box is opened to you, and there’s a fine little budget. Who in Red River does not realise the picture? It may be distasteful; but is it untrue? Our experience as Journalists has amply confirmed this. We have put into the fire dozens and dozens of communications relating to personal and family matters, local troubles, gossip, and scandal; some amusing, others shocking — but all unfit for publication. And where there is a slight foundation in fact for any report current, the power of magnifying adds to its dimension with amazing rapidity. Castles are built in the air to the admiring gaze of the builder, if not of the spectator. And on goes the report, increasing like a snow-ball at each turn, until it expires of sheer absurdity and extravagance. If there were but a few stray busybodies who indulged in this, nothing could be said; but it is so general as to rank us a peculiarity of the population. There are many sterling exception, and there are some districts less prone to this than others; still, anybody possessed of a generous manly spirit must feel that there is an awful amount of small-talk, tale-beaing, and tale-making, in the Settlement. It is not our business to moralise; but we must say that this practice or habit is anything but creditable, and seems strangely inconsistent with the high moral tone already referred to.
Transcript, excerpt of “History of the Red River Settlement. Eleventh Paper,” Nor’-Wester (15 July 1861), 3 column 2, apparently heavily reliant on Alexander Ross’ account.
… Red River Settlement
From Fort Garry accompany me to the upper part of the Settlement, to know what kind of life the Canadians and French half-breeds lead in this part of the world. I have already noticed their extreme bashfulness or false modesty. It is exhibited in almost every circumstance. Although many of them understand and speak both French and English, yet they are averse to speak any other language than their mother tongue. And if the traveller chanced to meet a female on the road, she will instantly shroud her head in her shawl, and try to pass without speaking. Speak to her, and she looks to the ground. Stop, and she turns to one side, and very likely without answering you. For one of her own countrymen however, smile, a “bon jour,” and a shake of the hand is always ready.
Canadians and half-breeds are promiscuously settled together, and live much in the same way. … They are not, properly speaking, farmers, hunters, or fishermen; but rather confound the three occupations together, and follow them in turn, as whim or circumstances may dictate. they farm to-day, hunt to-morrow, and fish the next, without anything like system; always at a non-plus, but never disconcerted. They are great in adventuring, but small in performing; and exceedingly plausible in their dealings. Still, they are more useful to themselves than to others, and get through the world the best way they can, without much forethought or reflection. Taking them in all they are a happy people.
The men are great tobacco-smokers, the women as great tea-drinkers; but they seldom indulge in the luxury of sugar with this beverage. Debts may accumulate, creditors may press, the labourere may go without his hire, the children run naked, but the tea-kettle and tobacco pipe are indispensable. It must also be observed that they are passionately fond of roving about, visiting, card-playing, and making up gossiping parties. To render this possible, they must of course be equally hospitable in return; and, in fact, all comers and goers are welcome quests at their board. The apostle recommends hospitality; but I cannot give the name of hospitality to the foolish and ruinous practice I am speaking of: strictly following the Indian principle, “Divide while anything remains,” and beg when all is done. This habit is carried on to excess among them, as most things are, the false indulgence of which reduces them to misery and want; and when there is nothing left at home, they live abroad at their neighbours’ till they are generally all reduced to the same level. Far be it from me to blame a people for attachment to their own ancient usages.
For maps of the Red River Settlement see:
- Plan of land bought by the Earl of Selkirk from Pegius and other Indians. 18th July 1817
- Parishes of Assiniboia, 1870
On the geographical disconnect between Canada and Red River see:
- Travel between Canada and Red River, 1857
- Route and Settlement described, 1857
- Travel between Canada and Red River, 1870
On the Press at Red River see:
For demographic information about the Settlement see:
On lifestyles and activity at the settlement see:
- Red River Métis Farms and the Myth of Non-Development
- The Hay Privilege: Red River’s Distinctive Farm-hold
- Women at Red River and the Resistance, 1869-1870
- Métis Children of Red River
- Perceptions and First Nations
- Flags and the Red River Resistance
- Songs of the Resistance
- Horses of Red River