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What is “Rupert’s Land”?

“Rupert’s Land” was the name given to the Hudson Bay watershed by King Charles II of Great Britain and Ireland in 1670.  At the time, he had no idea that this encompassed about 3,861,400 square kilometers (1,490,900 square miles).  English merchants and explorers only had a sketchy knowledge of the Hudson Bay coastline and almost no concrete data on the areas draining into that body of water.  In terms of modern geo-political boundaries, Rupert’s Land covered northern Quebec, northern Ontario, much of the three prairie provinces, and most of southern Nunavut.  It also included parts of Montana, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota.

Why was King Charles interested in this territory?  He was granting a royal charter to a new company of socially well-connected merchants:  the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay, or the Hudson’s Bay Company for short.  He named them “true and absolute Lords and Proprietors” of the land, and granted them “the sole Trade and Commerce” within Rupert’s Land.  The Company’s territories were named after their first Governor, the King’s cousin, Prince Rupert.

The royal charter did not apply to any parts of Rupert’s Land “actually possessed” by “any other Christian Prince or State,” but made no mention of the many First Nations who actually held sovereignty within the territory.  At the time, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s actual claim to the land was limited to small sites for trading posts and safe passage between those posts.  Nearly two centuries later, however, in the 1860s, the issue became more contentious as the HBC negotiated the sale of this territory to the emerging Dominion of Canada without consulting the First Nations or Métis communities.

The Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies recognizes that the term “Rupert’s Land” is a colonial term, imposed by outsiders who at the time had little knowledge of the area or its people.  However, Rupert’s Land was a more complex political and social entity than may at first appear, and the term highlights the potential flexibility of seemingly straightforward geographical and political labels.  The power that individuals and communities have for adapting old uses and meanings, and for creating new ones, strongly suggest that the Hudson Bay watershed – however labeled – can be viewed from multiple perspectives.