Canadians might be surprised to learn of the use of contracted security forces to protect our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan and at forward operating bases in Regional Command South.

The use of mercenaries, however, has been a practice throughout history and Canada’s past is no exception.

Pointe de Meuron (near Thunder Bay) and Rue des Meurons (in Winnipeg) commemorate the role played by mercenaries to ensure the stable environment needed for survival of the agricultural settlement where Winnipeg now sprawls.

The label “DeMeuron” was applied to the 100 or so former soldiers engaged by Lord Thomas Douglas Selkirk in early June 1816. Their deployment follows the historical patterns outlined in P.W. Singer’s review of mercenaries, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

In 1815, the junction of the Red River and the Assiniboine was the setting for an area of “weak governance” in the face of increasing violence. Two major competitors, the venerable Hudson’s Bay Company and the relatively recent Northwest Company, were engaged in a struggle for a declining pool of beaver pelts even as demand for these furs declined in European markets.

The Hudson’s Bay Company home office in London had nominal authority over Western Canada including the Red River area, through a tenuous access from Hudson’s Bay. The Northwest Company, on the other hand, utilized the traditional French Canadian voyageur canoe route to what is now Manitoba and the resource area beyond. Governance, even by 18th century standards, was almost non-existent. Agricultural economic refugees from Scotland, dropped into the key nodal point for prairie access in between 1811 and 1812, escalated the growing confrontation between the two resource-based private enterprises.

The presence of these colonists was the outcome of Lord Selkirk’s third colonizing attempt to establish settlements of Scots thrown off their tenant farms in Scotland. His previous failures to establish such colonies were in Upper Canada and Prince Edward Island. Selkirk used his position as a considerable shareholder in the Hudson’s Bay Company to secure this grant of territory.

The Northwest Company is alleged to have raised fears among their Métis employees that this colony posed a threat to their way of life. Increased violence perpetuated by all the interested stakeholders or their agents culminated with a massacre on 19 June 1816.

After unsuccessful pleas to both governments of Upper and Lower Canada for a military presence to protect his settlers, Selkirk recruited a “stability” force of mercenaries to assist in providing rule of law in that “far away” territory, drawing on a pool of demobilized soldiers. Peace with the Americans coupled with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo had resulted a pool of veterans who opted to stay in North America.

Thus, even before news of the Seven Oaks massacre reached Montreal, Lord Selkirk was en route to his Red River colony with four former DeMeuron officers, eighty of their men, twenty veterans from de Watteville’s Swiss Regiment and a few Glengarry Fencibles.

The Swiss DeMeuron Regiment’s short 35-year history in the Dutch East India Company, British East India Company and then British Army service included fights not only with the King of Kandy’s Sri Lankans, and Tippo, the Sultan of Mysore’s troops, but also against the British themselves, not to mention Napoleon’s levies of various nationalities and, of course, the Americans at Plattsburg in 1814.

Selkirk learned of the deaths of his colonists at Sault Ste. Marie on 29 July. A Justice of the Peace, he immediately deviated from his planned route and proceeded to the NorthWest Company’s Fort William. There he freed some of his settlers being held in the Nor Wester’s fort and arrested senior Northwest Company leaders and sent them back under escort to Montreal. (He then wintered at Pointe de Meuron.)

Subsequently, a DeMeuron officer led a party of Selkirk’s soldiers from their Kaminsitiquia River base to seize NorWesters at their Rainy Lake post in early October 1816. On 10 December, about 30 mercenaries led by a DeMeuron officer set out via Pembina for the site of the Red River colony. Fort Douglas, the colony’s stronghold, was retaken on 10 January 1817 by a night assault that encountered no resistance after an epic overland march in winter. Selkirk himself arrived at the Red River colony in late June. Further mercenary reinforcements, raised by his wife, arrived in August directly from Montreal via the trader’s canoe route.

Canadian historian George F. Stanley concludes that peace was brought to the Red River/Assinoiboine junction by the DeMeuron mercenaries. He believes that the continued presence by some “DeMeuron” as settlers contributed to the stability necessary to establish an agricultural foundation on the site of what is now Winnipeg.


by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD