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Education (6-12)

Manitoba’s first outlaw

June 17, 2024

Métis brawler Gilbert Godon lived a life of crime in an era of defiance and change

June is National Indigenous History Month. To celebrate our accomplishments, CBC Indigenous is highlighting First Nations, Inuit and Métis trailblazers in law, medicine, science, sports — and beyond. 

CBC Indigenous: Gilbert Godon was armed and ready. 

When a posse of gun-toting lawmen arrived to arrest him in the summer of 1877, the outlaw emerged guns blazing. It wasn’t the Red River Métis man’s first brush with the law. Nor would it be his last. 

Godon was lying low south of the border at his brother’s house in Pembina, N.D., following a Winnipeg prison break. Now the burly brawler stood in broad daylight, six-foot-two and stoutly built, brandishing a revolver in each hand.

Surprised, the lead constable hesitated and was suddenly seized by Godon’s mom and sister-in-law. Godon darted for the side door but found a bailiff blocking it. Undeterred, Godon raised his gun to the bailiff’s head and gave the lawman a choice: Move or die.

The bailiff chose to step aside. As Godon fled, another officer fired off four shots that all missed the mark, and the outlaw disappeared into the thickets along the Red River’s winding banks.

The Fort Dufferin site was purchased from a Métis family for the boundary commission in 1872, for use as its main camp. It was also used by the newly created North West Mounted Police as the assembly point in the summer of 1874 for the ‘March West.’ (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Fast forward about 150 years and Will Goodon, a descendant, spins this yarn like an old western movie.

“He was a little bit of a slippery guy,” says Goodon, a cabinet minister in the Manitoba Métis Federation, of his distant great-uncle Gilbert.

That may be putting it mildly: Born in 1846 in Minnesota, Gilbert Godon made history for all the wrong reasons when he killed a man in a bar fight and lived out his life on the run. He became Manitoba’s first official outlaw.

His story offers an everyman’s look at the tense atmosphere gripping the West following Manitoba’s entrance into Confederation.

The Red River Resistance had just ended and another political uprising was in the near future. The mood was defiant, and Canada’s first prime minister was determined to show a new sheriff was in town.

Will Goodon, a descendant of Gilbert Godon, looks through the window of a former storage shed at Fort Dufferin in Emerson, Man. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Goodon ponders the scene at the entrance to Fort Dufferin in the border town of Emerson, Man., 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

The former colonial outpost, now a national historic site, played a small but key role in John A. Macdonald’s efforts to assert sovereignty after Louis Riel’s resistance ended in 1870.

Fort Dufferin is where the North American Boundary Commission landed to survey the U.S.-Canada border in 1872, and it’s where Canada’s new mounted police force launched its expeditionary march west in 1874.

It’s also where Gilbert arrived in October 1873, looking for a drink. As Goodon explains, “There was a brawl.”

North America Boundary Commission’s Métis scouts at Fort Dufferrin, 1873. The scouts often ventured ahead to negotiate access to land. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-074674

Métis traders with members of the North America Boundary Commission, circa 1873. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / e000009381

Unidentified Métis posed in front of a building at Dufferin between 1873 and 1874. Credit. George M. Dawson. Library and Archives Canada: C-079636

Commissariat ox train leaving the Boundary Commission depot at Long River in Manitoba, 81 miles west of Red River and 9 miles north of the boundary line, 1873. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA – 074679

In 1873, Fort Dufferin was the main camp for the surveyors establishing the border between Canada and the U.S. along the 49th parallel.

It began late one evening when Gilbert and his drinking buddies rolled up to what the newly-launched Manitoba Free Press called an “unlicensed groggery.”

When the bartender refused to serve the crew, another member of the posse, Benjamin Marchand Sr., who was also Métis, grew angry, pushed the bartender and threatened him.

Gilbert broke ranks to defend the barman. He grabbed Marchand and threw him out, sparking the rumble. Some in the crowd snatched up pieces of lumber and chased Gilbert, who ran outside to avoid his wood-wielding attackers. When he slipped back in, Marchand’s son was waiting with a shovel and hit Gilbert in the head. 

Gilbert’s family then jumped in and booted the Marchands a second time. (Goodon says the Marchands are also in his family tree, signalling how small the community was back then.) 

Less than an hour later, Gilbert was out relieving himself when he spotted young Marchand lurking in the yard. He seized Marchand and began beating him. 

“During the scuffle Gilbert apparently grabbed an axe and hit one of the Marchands over the head, killed the guy,” Goodon says. 

“Don’t know which end of the axe he used — but it was murder.”

A 19th-century axe and broadaxe excavated from Fort Dufferin. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Today, the Fort Dufferin site bears no trace of this raucous row. A clapboard-siding shed, now a tiny museum, and dilapidated latrines are all that remain of the era.

Inside the museum, an almost mythic history of Canada’s paramilitary police is on display. A sign at the entrance, erected in 2000, bears a sketch of a Mountie in his signature scarlet serge.

“It was time for Canada to send a message that Manitoba and the Northwest belonged to Canada,” it says.

Goodon and other Métis leaders call this era the “Reign of Terror,” when Canadian militiamen meted out violence and vengeance with impunity on Métis following the resistance.

“That is about as colonial-speak as you can possibly get,” he says while reading from the sign.

Such was the political climate as Gilbert fled to North Dakota after the killing.

He was captured following another brawl six months later and sent to Winnipeg, where he was tried and sentenced to death, though this sentence was commuted to time behind bars.

He was imprisoned near Winnipeg at the Lower Fort Garry penitentiary where life on the chain gang awaited him. Two years into his sentence, Gilbert got loose. He made a break for the Red River and either swam or boated across, as prison guards blasted a volley of shots that all missed.

The penitentiary at Lower Fort Garry from which Godon bolted in 1876. (H.L. Hime/Library and Archives Canada / C-020246)

Gilbert escaped into the woods and fled south with his wife, hiding there until the band of officers failed to capture him at his brother’s Pembina home in 1877.

Three years later, after yet another brawl, Gilbert was arrested again. He was jailed in a building made of oak logs, alongside an allegedly corrupt lightning rod salesman and a man accused of poisoning his wife. 

Inmates were forced to cut wood all day for work at this particular jail.

“One day, he was able to smuggle a saw blade into the jail cell,” Goodon says. 

“They cut a hole in the roof of the jail and snuck out.”

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After his third escape, Gilbert’s last reported whereabouts was a Métis camp on the Missouri River, but he was never seen nor heard again in Canada, and so the outlaw’s ultimate fate remains a mystery.

For Goodon, his ancestor was a man who struggled with addiction and substance abuse, but also a man who never abandoned his friends and family (or favourite barkeep).

Many can relate to the outlaw’s mystique, says Goodon, but he adds that the Métis Nation in particular understands what it is to be on the margins: outside someone else’s law yet determined to survive.

There is a bit of the outlaw in the descendant, too. Goodon in 2004 shot a duck without a licence, eventually winning a landmark Métis hunting rights case.

“Killing a man and shooting a duck are two different things but this idea of being ‘outside’ is something that I think all Metis have an understanding of,” he says. 

“That’s where we’ve always been.”

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