Origins of Rooster Town

In 1901, 15 Métis families moved to southwest Winnipeg, joining six others who had moved there a few years earlier. This community became known as Rooster Town. Of these new households, more than four-fifths (81.3 per cent) of them had origins in the parish of St. Norbert, located in southernmost Winnipeg. (See also St. Norbert Provincial Heritage Park.) While there were some kin relationships between households, most were not related. The number of households, their movement in the same year and their origins strongly suggest that this was a coordinated move reflecting a preference to live close to one another and a decision to try to find employment in the city.

The lots on which the Métis settled belonged to the City of Winnipeg, which had acquired that land after speculators failed to realize a profit on their investment and ceased paying taxes. Rooster Town residents squatted on this empty and completely unserviced land. Winnipeg’s chronic shortage of affordable housing meant that urbanizing Métis households had a choice between finding scattered, poor quality accommodation in various locations in the developed part of the city or building their own dwellings the way they had in the rural parishes, organizing their settlement pattern to allow them live near other Métis people. The residents of Rooster Town chose the latter. (See also Urbanization and Urban Migration of Indigenous Peoples.)

The first published appearance of the name “Rooster Town” occurred in a 1909 piece in the Manitoba Free Press. The source of the name has been debated, with some maintaining it referred to the poultry that ran everywhere and others insisting that it derived from the organized fights between roosters that were once held there. It is unlikely that Rooster Town households had enough disposable income to buy expensive fighting birds. Instead, it is most likely that Rooster Town was a derogatory name that gained traction, similar to the colourful names attached to other Métis fringe communities on the Prairies. (See also Indigenous Peoples: Plains.)

Life in Rooster Town

Despite promises in the 1870 Manitoba Act that Métis people would receive title (i.e., ownership) to their land, few Rooster Town household members or their ancestors had received this title. Most had worked seasonally as farm labourers before they moved to Winnipeg. Census data shows their intense poverty in the rural parishes. Once in Winnipeg, most wage earners worked as labourers and owned their own dwellings, but few owned the land they stood on. The small houses the Métis lived in were self-built, with an average of two rooms per house, even though families were large. The City of Winnipeg assessed dwelling values at an amount similar to a garage or shed.

After 1901, Rooster Town grew in number with the arrival of extended families from various parishes. By 1911, Rooster Town had increased to 39 households, containing 42 families. The First World War affected Rooster Town families in the same ways that it affected other low-income populations, with hardships for women and children left behind during the fighting. Injuries, trauma and an inadequate social safety net meant that families and communities bore the brunt of dealing with returning veterans. (See also Indigenous Peoples and the World Wars.)

Population numbers remained steady, with some decrease in 1921, probably related to the postwar depression which led some families back to the rural parishes. Census data shows that Rooster Town residents remained very poor, although the level of poverty was less deep for some by 1921 than it had been in 1901. A variety of City of Winnipeg property tax data sources show that Rooster Town residents’ tenure status was varied, including squatting, renting, paying taxes on land they squatted on and purchasing small plots of land. While purchasing land and self-building could lead to increased wealth and security, the need to pay property taxes (despite the complete lack of city services) also created vulnerability. When hardship struck, and the city foreclosed on their property, residents lost their investments.

After 1921, the number of households in Rooster Town increased every year until in 1946, when the community reached its maximum size of 59 households, with an estimated population of more than 250 people. By then, most of the increase was internal, with descendants marrying other Rooster Town residents. Poverty and unemployment associated with the Great Depression and Winnipeg’s chronic housing shortages meant that squatting or buying inexpensive unserviced land on the city fringe and self-building remained an attractive strategy for accessing the city’s labour market. The inadequate social safety net meant that Rooster Town residents relied on kin and community. The Depression resulted in unprecedented levels of “doubling up” (families sharing residences) in order to reduce expenses.

Removal of Occupants

By 1951, the City of Winnipeg was eager to encourage suburban development and unload the lots that had come into its possession through tax defaults. Social service departments, particularly health-related ones, had publicized Rooster Town poverty, and newspaper reporters from both of Winnipeg’s daily papers visited the community and took pictures of the poorest conditions. These pictures, which were published in sensationalist articles that stereotyped and humiliated residents, characterized Rooster Town residents as filthy and disease-ridden people, all dependent on social assistance. The articles and images ignored the context of Métis poverty in dispossession and the intense discrimination that characterized attitudes toward Métis people on the Prairies.

Around 1946, a number of Rooster Town households had been able to purchase lots near the community and build modest houses connected to city services. City of Winnipeg social services departments pressured others to move out of the community and relocate in Winnipeg’s poverty-stricken North End. In 1959, the city offered the remaining families $75 to move by May and threatened to evict the rest. Houses were bulldozed and burned, and a six-decade old community was destroyed.

Besides the poor housing many Rooster Town families were forced to occupy after their relocation, they suffered other losses. These included: the loss of the ability to live in a largely Métis community; the disruption of social support networks of neighbours and kin; the reduction of independence and the ability to exert some control over their residence and land; the elimination of the relatively low cost of housing; and the loss of any investments they had made in their houses. Some also lost part of their livelihood from renting houses to other Rooster Town residents and the employment they found at nearby businesses. This is not to romanticize the grimness of extreme poverty experienced by many Rooster Town residents. In the context of newspaper depictions, however, it is important to emphasize what it was that the Rooster Town community lost when it was dissolved.

Remembering Rooster Town

While numerous urban Métis fringe communities formed on the Prairies and in British Columbia as settlement and urbanization increased, there has been very little documentation of them in either Canadian urban or Métis history. While there is a growing body of research on the impacts of settler colonialism on Indigenous peoples living in cities, there is virtually no work that focusses on Métis people. Métis cultures, histories and legal status differ in important ways from those of other Indigenous peoples. (See also First Nations and Inuit.) Rooster Town and other Métis fringe communities were formed as a result of colonial dispossession. Knowing about this colonial history contributes to our understanding of both urban and Métis histories.