March 31, 2020

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Family matters

While Rooster Town lacked basic amenities, Métis residents' shared experiences brought them together

Where do you establish your home when you have no property, little income, and are part of a marginalized racial minority?

This was the situation for many Métis living in Winnipeg in the early 1900s: a population dislocated due to economic change, land speculation and the influx of non-Indigenous settlers.

Compounding the problem was the social stigma of being Indigenous and, by being Métis, having no recognized treaty rights to fall back on. In this situation, many families resorted to living on the city’s fringe, with no paved roads, sewers or running water. The benefit, however, was having access to cheap land, shared experiences and cultural values, and having access to jobs in nearby farms and neighbourhoods.

The three authors of Rooster Town: The History of an Urban Métis Community, 1901-1961 are Evelyn Peters, Matthew Stock and Adrian Werner. They bring together their research skills in urban and social policy analysis to provide an interesting account of just one of the many fringe communities that existed in different parts of Canada during this time.

Donald Laramee photo / supplied</p><p>In this photo taken in the 1940s, the Laramee family is seen in front of their house on Ash Street. Joseph Noel and wife Mary are in the back, Mary, Joseph Jr., and Adrianne are in the middle, and Yvonne and Hubert are in the front.</p>

Donald Laramee photo / supplied

In this photo taken in the 1940s, the Laramee family is seen in front of their house on Ash Street. Joseph Noel and wife Mary are in the back, Mary, Joseph Jr., and Adrianne are in the middle, and Yvonne and Hubert are in the front.

"Rooster Town" was located on the edge of the Fort Rouge area of Winnipeg. The origins of the community’s name, according to the authors, remain unknown. Others have their theories about how it came to be. In a full-length article published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Jan. 30, 2016, Randy Turner wrote: "According to legend, the name Rooster Town was derived from the fact many residents owned chickens. Other unsubstantiated reports claimed the name originated from illegal cockfights that were said to be held in the community."

What Rooster Town provides is a highly readable account about the community’s history, the nature of the dwellings and the families that lived there. It also follows its changing location from 1901 to 1959 as residential development — with its paved roads, sewers, and water lines — expanded further south and west into Fort Rouge. Over time, Rooster Town gradually shifted its location towards what is now the area around Grant Park Shopping Centre, Grant Park High School and the Pan Am Pool.

Throughout Rooster Town, the authors provide many interesting photographs including houses, family portraits, weddings and class photos. While the families were poor, they maintained their properties, often improving on the initial buildings. Children attended nearby schools including St. Ignatius School, operated by the Roman Catholic parish of the same name.

The community was not isolated from broader historical forces. When the 1930s Depression hit the Prairies, so too did it hit Rooster Town, causing job losses and unemployment. During the Second World War, many of its residents went to war, leaving young families behind.

In the 1940s, the number of households peaked at 50. During the 1950s, with widespread developments occurring throughout North America, Rooster Town fell victim to urban sprawl. What helped further its demise were negative portrayals in the local press, which described residents as irresponsible land squatters and a threat to public health.

The authors rely on an exhaustive number of sources, including newspapers, Métis land scrip records, genealogies, censuses, Henderson directories, voter registration lists, building permit records, aerial photos and Winnipeg fire insurance maps.

The stories of the Rooster Town families, their genealogies, and detailed maps together provides an important and interesting study for those seeking to better understand Winnipeg’s history, in particular that of Fort Rouge. It also provides insights into the ongoing impact of colonialism in terms of the settling of the Prairies, the priority placed on suburban land development by local governments and the displacement of the urban Métis population.

Christopher Adams is the co-editor of Metis in Canada: History, Identity, Law and Politics published by the University of Alberta Press, and rector of St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba.

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