Friday, July 31, 2009

The Trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer

To the cry of "La commerce est libre" from the armed Metis stationed outside the courtroom, the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company in Rupert's Land was effectively broken... - from The Road to the Rapids
Who was Pierre Guillaume Sayer, and what did he have to do with our area? And not only that, why did he have an important role in the history of our area?
Sayer’s significance derives from his trial in the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia on 17 May 1849. The free trade in furs, practiced in the Red River valley since 1821, had greatly increased with the opportunity from 1843 to sell at Pembina (N.Dak.) to Norman Wolfred Kittson, who was in direct competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Sayer was arrested for illegally trading in furs, and was brought before the court by Chief Factor John Ballenden in a case designed to test the legality of the monopoly claimed by the HBC. Sayer’s counsel was James Sinclair, a representative of the free traders of Red River; the two were backed by Louis Riel Sr, who, with the Reverend George-Antoine Bellecourt, had organized the Métis to protest against both the monopoly and the inadequate representation of the Métis on the Council of Assiniboia. Presided over by the judicial recorder, Adam Thom, the trial was by jury and was conducted fairly. Sayer admitted to trafficking in furs, but claimed that he had been exchanging presents with relatives, an Indian manner of trading.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty but recommended mercy on the ground that Sayer had genuinely believed that the Métis were permitted to trade freely. Ballenden accepted the recommendation and Sayer was freed. Riel promptly asserted that the verdict was tantamount to a surrender of the HBC monopoly. This view was at once taken up by the Métis assembled outside the court-house, who cried “Le commerce est libre!” So it was to be: the HBC abandoned its efforts to maintain a monopoly and began aggressive competition with the free traders. Sayer’s trial was thus a landmark in the history of the Canadian west.
From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography