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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The whig interpretation of the history of Red River Gallagher, Brian Martin


The whig interpretation, which can be most simply defined as the idea that past events led in direct and progressive stages to the present, has long been recognized as a basic historiographic fallacy. The fullest expression of the whig interpretation of western Canadian history is to be found in the works of George F.G. Stanley and W.L. Morton. In presenting a narrative reconstruction of the events surrounding Canada's annexation of Red River, these authors primarily attempt to justify Canadian policy as the extension of British civilization. Their interpretation is deeply flawed by a racist view of the aboriginal peoples of the region who are regarded as savages. That the works of these men fully encompass the whig interpretation is of less significance than the resurgence of that outlook amongst the present generation of historians. Regressive nationalistic and ethnocentric themes have been at the centre of much that has recently been written about Red River. A characteristic feature of these works is the tendency to emphasize racial and religious divisions within the Metis community rather than to pose more fundamental questions about the social structure. Although the farmers and hunters of Red River were drawn together by a common Cree kinship, John Elgin Foster argues that the offspring of Hudson's Bay Company employees and Cree women, whom he calls the "Country-born," were strongly attached to British institutions and traditions. Foster uses this concept of the separate identity of the "Country-born" to introduce a new version of the whig interpretation, arguing that it was the respect of the "Country-born" for British institutions which created social order. While rejecting Foster's image of social harmony in Red River, Frits Pannekoek introduces another form of the whig interpretation with the argument that society was disintegrating because of racial and religious strife and therefore the Canadian incursion was necessary to restore social order to the settlement. Employing the characteristic whig model of social change as a simple progression, Sylvia Van Kirk provides further support for the idea that society in Red River was divided by arguing that the Foss-Pelly scandal added to the growing reluctance on the part of Company officers to marry mixed-blood women. Although these three historians, claim to be concerned with the dynamics of social change in Red River, they fail to consider the lack of social mobility among the lower class and ignore evidence about the polyglot character of the elite. In order to expose the whig bias in the works of Foster, Pannekoek, and Van Kirk it is necessary look at marriage patterns in society as a whole rather than just within the elite. Among the most convincing refutations of whig historiography to date is the quantitative analysis of land tenure in Red River by Douglas Sprague, which confirms that the Metis were not nomadic. Using the data base compiled by Sprague and Ronald Frye, I have analyzed marriage patterns among the population at large and in three representative parishes of Red River. The conclusion derived from this analysis is that the early development of a capitalistic labour market in Red River reduced social mobility for the great majority of the people even as it created a polyglot mercantile oligarchy.

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