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Commemorating Settlement and Dispossession at Red River

Red River 200 copy

Written by Jacob Forrest (B.A. Student).
Nominated by Professor M. Hogue.

The founding of the Selkirk Settlement at Red River in 1812 is often praised as a Canadian nation-building project. But the role of indigenous peoples during the early years of the Settlement, as well as the dispossession of indigenous land that accompanied the Settlement’s founding, is generally obscured by this praise. Commemorations of settler societies at Red River, a tract of land stretching from southern Manitoba to northern parts of the U.S., tend to focus on the achievements of European immigrants in making the landscape suitable for further national development.

For example, a webpage affiliated with the Manitoba Historical Society (MHS) devoted to the Settlement bicentenary called Red River 200 describes the Settlement as a place of historical significance for Scottish people and Canadians as a whole (  Addressing the question of why celebrating the Selkirk Settlement bicentenary is important, the website claims that the colony allowed European immigrants to establish sovereignty in the face of possible American annexation and to create the farming system that would make Canada an agricultural nation. But the main section barely explores the complexity of indigenous involvement during the Settlement’s founding. For instance, it mentions a “hunter-gathering economy” that was replaced by the “wealth and opportunities” cultivated by Scottish and other European settlers after the Settlement’s founding ( Theresa M. Schenck, an historian and member of the Blackfoot First Nation of Montana, acknowledges that the role of indigenous peoples during the Settlement’s founding was more complex than the existence of a hunter-gathering economy. Moreover, she suggests that the indigenous involvement during the founding of the Settlement “is largely forgotten, often disputed, even denied.” (Schenck, 1998, 50)

Should commemorative activities surrounding the Settlement simply be dismissed for their lack of attention to indigenous peoples? It seems that dismissing them entirely would ignore the politics of commemoration within which the MHS and other individuals and organizations remember the Settlement as a place of national significance. While the MHS indeed marginalizes indigenous histories, it should be recognized that the Red River 200 account serves a political purpose that many historians and indigenous scholars do not share: to celebrate Scottish heritage through a commemoration of Scots as the central founders of the Settlement. The celebratory narrative presented by the webpage is central to its limited account of indigenous peoples during the Settlement’s founding. Yet if Schenck’s perspective is any indicator, the displacement of indigenous peoples from Red River was part of a process of settler colonialism that should not be forgotten.  The commemoration of the Selkirk Settlement raises the question of how places of settlement can be commemorated while recognizing the displacement that indigenous peoples faced as a consequence. Perhaps an alternative politics of commemoration, one that acknowledges the complexity of how indigenous peoples have experienced settler colonialism, could continue to locate various peoples’ national heritages within settlement landscapes without minimizing, ignoring, and obscuring the displacement of indigenous peoples from these same landscapes.

“Scots in Manitoba,” Red River 200, Accessed 12 February 2012,

“Red River 200 – Celebrating 200 Years of Farming Experience,” Red River 200, Accessed 12 February 2012,

Schenck, Theresa M. (1998) “Against All Odds… and with the Help of Our Friends: The Native Role in Establishing the Red River Colony, 1812-1817.” North Dakota Quarterly 54, no. 4, 35-51.

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