In 1901, the community of Rooster Town had a population of 115 people. Many of the early residents relocated from their rural parishes in the Red River Settlement to the southwestern outskirts of Winnipeg as they were dispossessed of their lands.
They built their own houses, and did not have access to any city amenities at the time, such as plumbing, electricity, or public transportation. Most houses averaged two rooms in size, but some families built additions on later.
Their houses were often built on city-owned land, but Métis families purchased the land their houses were built on when they could afford to do so.
Due to the lack of urban development in the area, some Métis households in Rooster Town were able to supplement their incomes with subsistence farming.
Despite being physically separate from the city, Rooster Town residents were not cut off completely from urban life. They often attended the same churches, used city services, sent their children to the same schools, and contributed to the city’s economy through their work and spending money in the city.
“They did the best they could, people fixed up their houses, they sent their kids to school, they found jobs, they tried to make a good life for their kids,” said Peters. “Their success is demonstrated by the fact that these were very large families, and so if they had all stayed in Rooster Town, really the town would be very large.”
At least half of the families living in Rooster Town at the time of its formation would go on to live in the community for the rest of their lives. Many children born in Rooster Town would grow up, marry, and start families of their own in the community over the decades.
“The biggest thing my dad wanted to share that all of the negative stories in the press were wrong,” said Sais. “Where they all said they lived on welfare, they were dirty people and that’s one of the reasons my dad kept sharing his story. They may not have had running water and electricity and that, but he said that they were very good people. What the stories shared was not the truth and the city helped by sharing these stories to make it look negative, so it gave them a reason why they wanted to get rid of them.”
Though poverty was an issue for many Métis families, the images propagated by the media did not acknowledge the context of Métis dispossession from their original lands or the discrimination they faced that pushed them to live separate from the city. In addition, the stereotypes shown in the newspapers were not the lived reality of the families.
By the 1950s, when Winnipeg was rapidly expanding, it was not uncommon to see reporters prying into the lives of Rooster Town residents, knocking on doors with cameras in hand to document some of the poorest dwellings in the community.
According to the Peters, these newspaper articles depicted narratives that the Métis were not able to cope with modern society in a fashion that helped to justify the community’s eventual forced dispersal. In addition, the articles embarrassed some Rooster Town residents to the point that they became reluctant to speak about their experiences to people outside of the community.
After six decades, the community of Rooster Town was forcefully disbanded. Rooster Town residents lost more than just their homes. They lost the support network of their neighbours, the cultural aspect of living in a Métis community, the investments made into their homes, and the way of life they had lived – some for 60 years.
“My family went from someone who owned land and owned a home to where a whole generation went through renting and it was only in the second generation they had been able to purchase homes again,” said Sais. “They didn’t better our lives.”
In an ironic twist, by the 1960s there were newspaper articles looking back nostalgically on the community that had once existed.
Today, the land where residents of Rooster Town used to live is now largely occupied by Grant Park Mall, Grant Park High School, the Pan Am Pool, and the Bill and Helen Norrie Library.
The story of Rooster Town is one of many.
The dispossession of Métis lands across the west and institutionalized neglect from the Canadian government led to these communities forming, and the continued colonial treatment of Indigenous Peoples also led to their eventual dissolution.
But similar to many of the darker chapters of Indigenous history in Canada, the story of Rooster Town is not ancient history – it exists in the living memory of Métis people today.
“I think it’s important for families to know where they’re from and not to be ashamed from this because they were very hardworking families that lived in Rooster Town,” said Sais.