What's Métis scrip? North America's 'largest land swindle,' says Indigenous lawyer

The scrip system was a government-run process that separated Métis people from their land, says Jason Madden, an Indigenous rights lawyer. He calls it Canada's "best kept secret."
An image of a scrip coupon that could be exchanged for land or money. (Saskatchewan Archives Board General, E11/public domain)

Originally published on April 28, 2019.

Métis people have very little land to call their own — and that's because the scrip system stripped them of most of their land, says an Indigenous rights lawyer.

"It's essentially the largest land swindle in North America," said Jason Madden, a descendant of the Halfbreeds of Rainy Lake and Rainy River in Ontario.

Jason Madden says all Canadians need to know about Métis scrip. (David Thurton/CBC)

Métis scrip was a coupon or an entitlement to land. In the late 1800s, the Canadian government began to implement the scrip system, setting up tents for Métis people to make their land claim.

Métis applied for scrip in these tents. To redeem them, they had to go to a Dominion Lands Act office, and then they had to travel to the lands that were given to them.

"The intention of scrip was to actually provide equitable settlements of Métis — but what was devised was a system that never got lands in the hands of Métis," said Madden.

The system left the Métis doomed from the start, according to Madden.

The land that was surveyed for Métis people was located in the southern parts of what is known as the prairies today — hundreds of kilometres away from where the Métis lived.

They had to uproot their lives — leaving behind much of their tight-knit family and community — to begin a new life in an area they didn't know on land they'd never seen, often travelling days to do so.

It was a system that was designed for the speculator, not for the Métis.- Jason Madden

Meanwhile, speculators would be standing right outside the tents, asking to buy their scrip coupons for way less than they were worth, according to Madden.

Many Métis people, often impoverished, weighed their need for basic necessities and the risk of moving away from their families with scrip and decided to sell.

"It was a system that was designed for the speculator, not for the Métis," Madden said.

After buying the coupons, speculators would go down to the Dominion Lands Act offices, have someone impersonate the Métis person they bought the scrip from, and claim the land as theirs.

Most Métis were English-illiterate, couldn't write and would often sign papers with an "X." The people acting as a Métis person would sign documents as if they were literate.

Many Métis people decided this was grounds to sue — and were in the process of doing so.

'Sorry chapter'

However, in 1921, Senator James Lougheed amended the Canadian Criminal Code to create a three-year statute of limitations on Métis land claims, which meant Métis people couldn't sue after three years of a land claim being finalized.

The Supreme Court of Canada, in 2003, referred to scrip as "a sorry chapter in our nation's history," and in 2013, Canada's highest court found the federal government failed to follow through on a promise it made to the Métis people over 140 years ago.

Madden dubs Métis scrip as this country's "best-kept secret" and shouldn't be a secret any longer.

For the Métis today, scrip remains an incredibly important and lesser-known part of their history. Madden said it's time it's taught in schools, referenced in media and brought to the forefront.

"The same way that I think many Canadians are finally understanding the impacts of residential schools and those assimilationist policies on First Nations, they need to also understand those stories, the same strategies were applied to Métis," Madden said.

"It can't be Canada's best-kept secret anymore."