Forced to live on roadsides: the dark history of Métis road allowances

After the Métis were dispossessed of their land through the scrip process, many ended up squatting on small sections of land along the sides of roads and railway lines.

Métis scholar Jesse Thistle calls communities 'sites of resilience and cultural resistance'

Jesse Thistle's great-grandmother Marianne Ledoux on the road allowance, taken in the 1950s. (Submitted by Jesse Thistle)

Originally published on April 28, 2019.

Jesse Thistle sees the history of Métis "road allowance people" as a story of resilience and resistance.

In 1872, the Dominion Land Survey divided the prairie into settlements called homesteads. In between those lots and sites, spaces were left for roads, future railway lines and other infrastructure. Ten feet on either side of these spaces were allotted for workers to do maintenance. These thin strips of land were often left unused by the Crown. 

READ: Jesse Thistle's memoir, From the Ashes

"The Métis came to stay on these road allowances after they were dispossessed of their land through scrip," said the Michif scholar.

The scrip process, where Métis people were issued a coupon to satisfy land claims, dispossessed Métis people from where their ancestors lived for generations, said Thistle.

Thistle, who is working on his PhD at York University on road allowances, said the Métis people who moved onto these sections of Crown land established tight-knit communities.

"[These were] very community-oriented types of spaces," Thistle said. "That's why I say that there were sites of resilience and cultural resistance."
Jesse Thistle's maternal grandfather Jeremie Morrissette on the Erin Ferry road allowance in the mid-1970s. (Submitted by Jesse Thistle)

Family history

    Thistle's research is through his own community in Park Valley, Sask., where many of his family members once lived on the sides of the road until as recently as 2002.

    Each community would consist of a few smaller shacks with what Thistle calls a typical Métis-style architecture: a log cabin made of poplar trees, roofed with tar paper to keep the moisture out.

    Métis people lived on the sides of the road illegally — although Thistle would argue it wasn't illegal — and hunted using illegal traplines too. The circumstances they were forced to live in were also policed by the government, making it difficult for communities to survive. 
    Geordie Morrissette and family on the Morrissette road allowance in the 1920s. (Submitted by Jesse Thistle)

    The Métis gradually saved up enough money to move to the cities, buy property or move onto larger plots of land to farm. Thistle doesn't think there are any Métis people who still live on a road allowance today.

    Métis today

    Jesse Thistle is pursuing his PhD on road allowances at York University. (Submitted by Jesse Thistle)

    It's why few specifically Métis settlements remain today, save for a few areas in Alberta.

    It's a history, Thistle said, that is hardly taught because there isn't much visible history remaining.

    "It has to do with the way that we were dispossessed and our land was extinguished," he said. "There was no Department of Indigenous Affairs set up to create documents, to track history."

    The history is vital in understanding contemporary Métis people, he said.

    "It was and remains a vibrant history," Thistle said. "We should be very proud of our ancestors for enduring what they did and passing on a legacy of rich stories, connection to land and an identity.

    "[The history's] there if we go and search for it — we just have to look."

    Jesse Thistle's great-grandfather St. Pierre Arcand and family members on the road allowance in the 1940s. (Submitted by Jesse Thistle)