PIERRE-GUILLAUME SAYER TRIAL
The trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer on May 17, 1849, marked the effective end of the Hudson's Bay Company's trade monopoly in western Canada. Sayer was a Metis who, together with three companions, had traded liquor for furs in defiance of the company's trade monopoly. Most of the Metis were descendants of traders of the North West Company, which had been amalgamated with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. The North West Company and its traders had never recognized the legality of the Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly, but after the amalgamation the company was able, for a time, to enforce its monopoly by military means. Most of the Metis chafed under the company's restrictive policies, and their leaders, including Louis Riel Sr. (father of the Metis leader in the 1869-70 and 1885 troubles), appealed to a growing sense of Metis identity and nationalism. They argued that by right of exploration and trade conducted by their fathers and through Native rights derived from their mothers, the Metis should not be subject to the Hudson's Bay Company's restrictive trade policies.
The company's position was weakened in 1848 when the small contingent of British regular troops was withdrawn from Red River. Company officials, who were also the law officers of the colony, nevertheless decided to bring Sayer and his companions to trial. The case was brought before the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia, but on the day of the trial several hundred well-armed Metis buffalo hunters threatened violence if Sayer and his companions were sent to prison. A jury acceptable to both sides was impaneled and in due course found Sayer guilty but recommended mercy. That recommendation was almost certainly a result of intimidation, since neither the court nor the company had the means to control and subdue the well-armed and angry Metis. Officially, mercy was recommended on the grounds that Sayer believed what he had done was legal.
The Hudson's Bay Company's chief factor at Red River accepted the jury's recommendation. Sayer was allowed to go free, and the charges against his companions were dropped. The Metis, regarding the outcome a a great victory, discharged their guns in delight, shouting "La commerce est libre!" Thereafter, the company undertook no further legal action at Red River to enforce its trade monopoly, relying instead on competitive practices to protect its trade. In practice, the Sayer trial ended the Hudson's Bay Company's trade monopoly. Legally, it only expired twenty years later with the transfer of the territory to the Canadian government.
Ted D. Regehr University of Saskatchewan and University of Calgary
Morton, W. L. Manitoba: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1955.
Ross, Alexander. The Red River Settlement. London: Smith, Elder, 1956.