Read Introduction of Through the Mackenzie Basin, free online book, by Charles Mair, on

The important events of A.D. 1857, and the negotiations which led to the Transfer of the Hudson’s Bay Territories--Former Treaties and the Treaty Commission of 1899.

The terms upon which Canada obtained her great possessions in the West are generally known, and much has been written regarding the tentative steps by which, after long years of waiting, she acquired them. The distinctively prairie, or southern, portion of the country and its outliers, constituting “Prince Rupert’s Land,” had been claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company since May, 1670, as an absolute freehold. This and the North-West Territories, in which, under terminable lease from the Crown, the Company exercised, as in British Columbia, exclusive rights to trade only, were, as the reader knows, transferred to Canada by Imperial sanction at the same time. It is not the author’s intention, therefore, to cumber his pages with trite or irrelevant matter; yet certain transactions which preceded this primordial and greatest treaty of all not unfittingly may be set forth, though in the briefest way, as a pardonable introduction to the following record.

The year 1857 was an eventful one in the annals of “The North-West,” the name by which the Territories were generally known in Canada. [An important event in Red River was begot of the stirring incidents of this year, namely, the starting at Fort Garry, in December, 1859, by two gentlemen from Canada, Messrs. Buckingham and Caldwell, of the first newspaper printed in British territory east of British Columbia and west of Lake Superior. It was called the Nor’-Wester, but, having few advertisements, and only a limited circulation, the originators sold out to Dr. (afterwards Sir John) Schultz, who, at his own expense, published the paper, almost down to the Transfer, as an advocate of Canadian annexation, immigration and development.] In that year two expeditions were set afoot to explore the country; one in charge of Captain Palliser, [Strange to say, Captain Palliser reported that he considered a line of communication entirely through British territory, connecting the Eastern Provinces and British Columbia, out of the question, as the Astronomical Boundary adopted isolated the prairie country from Canada. Professor Hind, on the other hand, in the same year, standing on an eminence on the Qu’Appelle, beheld in imagination the smoke of the locomotive ascending from the train speeding over the prairies on its way through Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific.] equipped by the Imperial Government, and the other, under Professor Hind, at the expense of the Government of Canada. An influential body of Red River settlers, too, at this time petitioned the Canadian Parliament to extend to the North-West its government and protection; and in the same year the late Chief Justice Draper was sent to England to challenge the validity of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter; and to urge the opening up of the country for settlement. But, above all, a committee of the British House of Commons took evidence that year upon all sorts of questions concerning the North-West, and particularly its suitability for settlement, much of which was valueless owing to its untruth. Nevertheless, the Imperial Committee, after weighing all the evidence, reported that the Territories were fit for settlement, and that it was desirable that Canada should annex them, and hoped that the Government would be enabled to bring in a bill to that end at the next session of Parliament. Five years later, the Duke of Newcastle, who became Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1859, and accompanied the Prince of Wales to Canada as official adviser in 1860, having in his possession the petition of the Red River settlers, as printed by order of the Canadian Legislature, brought the matter up in a vigorous speech in the House of Lords, in which he expressed his belief that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter was invalid, though, he added, “it would be a serious blow to the rights of property to meddle with a charter two hundred years old. But it might happen,” he continued, “in the inevitable course of events, that Parliament would be asked to annul even such a charter as this, in order, as set forth in the Queen’s Speech, that all obstacles to an unbroken chain of loyal settlements, stretching from ocean to ocean, should be removed.” British Columbia, which had become a Province in 1858, has now urging the Imperial Government with might and main to furnish a waggon-road and telegraph line to connect her, not only with the Territories and Canada, but with the United Empire. She was met by the stiffest of opposition, the opposition of a very old corporation strongly entrenched in the governing circles of both parties. But the clamour of British Columbia was in the air, and her suggestions, hotly opposed by the Company, had been brought before the House of Lords by another peer. In the discussion which followed, the Duke of Newcastle declared that “it seemed monstrous that any body of gentlemen should exercise fee-simple rights which precluded the future colonization of that territory, as well as the opening of lines of communication through it.” The Minister’s idea at the time seemed to be to cancel the charter, and to concede proprietary rights around fur posts only, together with a certain money payment, considerably less, it appears, than what was ultimately agreed upon.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, alarmed at the outlook and the attitude of the Colonial Secretary, offered their entire interests and belongings, trade and territorial, to the Imperial Government for a million and a half pounds sterling, an offer which the Duke was disposed to accept, but which was unfortunately declined by Mr. Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Duke, who had resigned his office in 1864, died in October following, and in the meantime a change of a startling character had come over the time-honoured company, which sold out to a new company in 1863, being merged into, or rather merging into itself, an organization known as “The Anglo-International Financial Association,” which included several prominent American capitalists. The old name was retained, but everything else was to be changed. The policy of exclusion was to cease, immigration was to be encouraged, and a telegraph line built through the Territories to the Pacific coast. The wire for this was actually shipped, and lay in Rupert’s Land for years, until made use of by the Mackenzie Administration in the building of the Government telegraph line, which followed the railway route defined by Sir Sandford Fleming. The old Hudson’s Bay Company’s shares, of a par value of half a million pounds sterling, were increased to a million and a half under the new adjustment, and were thrown upon the market in shares of twenty pounds sterling each. Sir Edmund Head, an old ex-Governor of Canada, was made Governor of the new company. The Stock Exchange was not altogether favourable, and the remaining shares were only sold in the Winnipeg land boom of 1881.

The alien element in the new company seemed to inspire the politicians of the United States with surpassing hopes and ideas. An offer to purchase its territorial interests was made in January, 1866, by American capitalists, which was not unfavourably glanced at by the directorate. It was capped later on. The corollary of the proposal was a bill, actually introduced into the United States Congress in July following, and read twice, “providing for the admission of the States of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada East and Canada West, and for the organization of the Territories of Selkirk, Saskatchewan and Columbia.” The bill provided that “The United States would pay ten millions of dollars to the Hudson’s Bay Company in full of all claims to territory or jurisdiction in North America, whether founded on the Charter of the Company, or any treaty, law, or usage.” The grandiosity, to use a mild phrase, of such a measure needs no comment. But though it seems amusing to the Canadian of to-day, it was by no means a joke forty years ago. As a matter of fact, the then most uninhabited Territories, cut off from the centres of Canadian activity by a wilderness of over a thousand miles, would have been invaded by Fenians and filibusters but for the fact that they were a part of the British Empire. An attempt at this was indeed made at a later date. This possibility was afterwards formulated, evidently as a threat, by Senator Charles Sumner during the “Alabama Claims” discussion, in his astonishing memorandum to Secretary Fish. “The greatest trouble, if not peril,” he said, “is from Fenianism, which is excited by the British flag in Canada. Therefore, the withdrawal of the British flag cannot be abandoned as a preliminary of such a settlement as is now proposed. To make the settlement complete the withdrawal should be from this hemisphere, including provinces and islands.” A refreshing proposition, truly!

It was the Imperial Government, of course, which figured most prominently throughout the “North-West” question. But, it may be reasonably asked, what was Canada doing, with her deeper interests still, to further them in those long years of discussion and delay. With the exception of the Hind Expedition, the Draper mission, the printing and discussion of the Red River settlers’ petition and consequent Commission of Inquiry, certainly not much was done by Parliament. More was done outside than in the House to arouse public interest; for example, the two admirable lectures delivered in Montreal in 1858 by the late Lieutenant-Governor Morris, followed by the powerful advocacy of the Hon. William Macdougall and others, aided by the Toronto Globe, a small portion of the Canadian press, and the circulation, limited as it was, of the Red River newspaper, the Nor’-Wester, in Ontario.

An unseen, but adverse, parliamentary influence had all along hampered the Cabinet; an influence adverse not only to the acquisition of the Territories, but even to closer connection by railway with the Maritime Provinces. [Vide a series of articles contributed to the Toronto Week, in July, 1896, by Mr. Malcolm McLeod, Q.C., of Ottawa, Ont.] This sinister influence was only overcome by the great Conferences which resulted in the passage of the British North America Act in 1867, which contained a clause (Article 11, Se, inserted at the instance of Mr. Macdougall, providing for the inclusion of Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories upon terms to be defined in an address to the Queen, and subject to her approval. In pursuance of this clause, Mr. Macdougall in 1867 introduced into the first Parliament of the Dominion a series of eight resolutions, which, after much opposition, were at length passed, and were followed by the embodying address, drafted by a Special Committee of the House, and which was duly transmitted to the Imperial Government. This was followed by the mission of Messrs. Cartier and Macdougall to London, to treat for the transfer of the Territories, which, through the mediation of Lord Granville, was finally effected. The date fixed upon for the transfer was the first of December, 1869. Unfortunately for Lieutenant-Governor Macdougall, owing to the outbreak of armed rebellion at Red River, it was postponed without his knowledge, and it was not until the 15th of July, 1870, that the whole country finally became a part of the Dominion of Canada. With the latter date the annals of Prince Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory end, and the history of Western Canada begins.

But whilst the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territorial rights and those of Great Britain had been at last transferred to the Dominion, there remained inextinguished the most intrinsic of all, viz., the rights of the Indians and their collaterals to their native and traditional soil. The adjustment of these rights was assumed by the Canadian Parliament in the last but one of the resolutions introduced by Mr. Macdougall, and no time was lost after the transfer in carrying out its terms, “in conformity with the equitable principles which have uniformly governed the Crown in its dealings with the aborigines.”

[In the foregoing brief sketch, the author, for lack of space, omits all reference to the Red River troubles, which preceded the actual transfer, as also to the military expedition under Col. Wolseley, the threatened recall of which from Prince Arthur’s Landing, in July, 1870, was blocked by the bold and vigorous action of the Canada First Party in Toronto.]

Former Treaties.

Before passing on to my theme, a glance at the treaties made in Manitoba and the organized Territories may be of interest to the unfamiliar reader.

The first treaty, in what is now a part of Manitoba, was made in pursuance of a purchase of the old District of Assiniboia from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1811 by Lord Selkirk, who in that year sent out the first batch of colonists from the north of Scotland to Red River. The Indian title to the land, however, was not conveyed by the Crees and Saulteaux until 1817, when Peguis and others of their chiefs ceded a portion of their territory for a yearly payment of a quantity of tobacco. The ceded tract extended from the mouth of the Red River southward to Grand Forks, and, westward, along the Assiniboine River to Rat Creek, the depth of the reserve being the distance at which a white horse could be seen on the plains, though this matter is not very clear. The British boundary at that time ran south of Red Lake, and would still so run but for the indifference of bygone Commissioners. This purchase became the theatre of Lord Selkirk’s far-seeing scheme of British settlement in the North-West, with whose varying fortunes and romantic history the average reader is familiar.

The first Canadian treaties were those effected by Mr. Weemys Simpson in 1871, first at Stone Fort, Man., covering the old purchase from Peguis and others, and a large extent of territory in addition, the stipulated terms of payment being afterwards greatly enlarged. These treaties are known as Nos. 1 and 2, and were followed by the North-West Angle Treaty, effected by Lieutenant-Governor Morris, in 1873, with the Ojibway Saulteaux. In 1874 the Qu’Appelle Treaty, after prolonged discussion and inter-tribal jealousy and disturbance, was concluded by Lieutenant-Governor Morris, the Hon. David Laird, then Minister of the Interior, and Mr. W. J. Christie, of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Treaty N followed, with the cession of 100,000 square miles of territory, covering the Lake Winnipeg region, etc., after which the Great Treaty (N, at Forts Carlton and Pitt, in 1876, covering almost all the country drained by the two Saskatchewans, was partly effected by Mr. Morris and his associates, the recalcitrants being afterwards induced by Mr. Laird to adhere to the treaty, with the exception of the notorious Big Bear, the insurgent chief who figured so prominently in the Rebellion of 1885. The final treaty, or N, made with the Assiniboines and Blackfeet, the most powerful and predatory of all our Plain Indians, was concluded by Mr. Laird and the late Lieut.-Colonel McLeod in 1877. By this last treaty had now been ceded the whole country from Lake Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains, and from the international boundary to the District of Athabasca. But there remained in native hands still that vast northern anticlinal, which differs almost entirely in its superficial features from the prairies and plains to the south; and it was this region, enormous in extent and rich in economic resources, which, it was decided by Government, should now be placed by treaty at the disposal of the Canadian people. To this end it was determined that at Lesser Slave Lake the first conference should be held, and the initial steps taken towards the cession of the whole western portion of the unceded territory up to the 60th parallel of north latitude.

The more immediate motive for treating with the Indians of Athabasca has been already referred to, viz., the discovery of gold in the Klondike, and the astonishing rush of miners and prospectors, in consequence, to the Yukon, not only from the Pacific side, but, east of the mountains, by way of the Peace and Mackenzie rivers. Up to that date, excepting to the fur-traders and a few missionaries, settlers, explorers, geologists and sportsmen, the Peace River region was practically unknown; certainly as little known to the people of Ontario, for example, as was the Red River country thirty years before. It was thought to be a most difficult country to reach a terra incognita rude and dangerous, having no allurements for the average Canadian, whose notions about it, if he had any, were limited, as usual, to the awe-inspiring legend of “barbarous Indians and perpetual frost.”

There is a lust, however, the unquenchable lust for gold, which seems to arouse the dullest from their apathy. This is the primum mobile; from earliest days the sensational mover of civilized man, and not unlikely to remain so until our old planet capsizes again, and the poles become the equator with troglodites for inhabitants. No barriers seem insurmountable to this rampant spirit; and, urged by it, the gold-seekers, chiefly aliens from the United States, plunged into the wilderness of Athabasca without hesitation, and without as much as “by your leave” to the native. Some of these marauders, as was to be expected, exhibited on the way a congenital contempt for the Indian’s rights. At various places his horses were killed, his dogs shot, his bear-traps broken up. An outcry arose in consequence, which inevitably would have led to reprisals and bloodshed had not the Government stepped in and forestalled further trouble by a prompt recognition of the native’s title. Hitherto he had been content with his lot in these remote wildernesses, and well might he be! One of the vast river systems of the Continent, perhaps the greatest of them all, considering the area drained, teeming with fish, and alive with fur and antler, was his home a region which furnished him in abundance with the means of life, not to speak of such surplus of luxuries as was brought to his doors by his old and paternal friend, “John Company.” His wants were simple, his life healthy, though full of toil, his appetite great an appetite which throve upon what it fed, and gave rise to fabulous feats of eating, recalling the exploits of the beloved and big-bellied Ben of nursery lore.

But the spirit of change was brooding even here. The moose, the beaver and the bear had for years been decreasing, and other fur-bearing animals were slowly but surely lessening with them. The natives, aware of this, were now alive, as well, to concurrent changes foreign to their experience. Recent events had awakened them to a sense of the value the white man was beginning to place upon their country as a great storehouse of mineral and other wealth, enlivened otherwise by the sensible decrease of their once unfailing resources. These events were, of course, the Government borings for petroleum, the formation of parties to prospect, with a view to developing, the minerals of Great Slave Lake, but, above all, the inroad of gold-seekers by way of Edmonton. The latter was viewed with great mistrust by the Indians, the outrages referred to showing, like straws in the wind, the inevitable drift of things had the treaties been delayed. For, as a matter of fact, those now peaceable tribes, soured by lawless aggression, and sheltered by their vast forests, might easily have taken an Indian revenge, and hampered, if not hindered, the safe settlement of the country for years to come. The Government, therefore, decided to treat with them at once on equitable terms, and to satisfy their congeners, the half-breeds, as well, by an issue of scrip certificates such as their fellows had already received in Manitoba and the organized Territories. To this end adjustments were made by the Hon. Clifford Sifton, then Minister of the Interior and Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, during the winter of 1898-9, and a plan of procedure and basis of treatment adopted, the carrying out of which was placed in the hands of a double Commission, one to frame and effect the Treaty, and secure the adhesion of the various tribes, and the other to investigate and extinguish the half-breed title. At the head of the former was placed the Hon. David Laird, a gentleman of wide experience in the early days in the North-West Territories, whose successful treaty with the refractory Blackfeet and their allies is but one of many evidences of his tact and sagacity. [The Hon. David Laird is a native of Prince Edward Island. His father emigrated from Scotland to that Province early in the last century, and ultimately became a member of its Executive Council. After leaving college his son David began life as a journalist, but later on took to politics, and being called, like his father, to the Executive Council, was selected as one of the delegates to Ottawa to arrange for the entrance of the Island into the Canadian Confederation. He was subsequently elected to the Dominion House of Commons, and became Minister of the Interior in the Mackenzie Administration. After three years’ occupancy of this department he was made Lieut.-Governor of the North-West Territories, an office which he filled without bias and to the satisfaction of both the foes and friends of his own party. He returned to the Island at the close of his official term, but was called thence by the Laurier Administration to take charge of Indian affairs in the West, with residence in Winnipeg, which is now his permanent home.] A nature in which fairness and firmness met was, of all dispositions, the most suited to handle such important negotiations with the Indians as parting with their blood-right. Fortunately these qualities were pre-eminent in Mr. Laird, who had administered the government of the organized Territories, at a primitive stage in their history, in the wisest manner, and, at the close of his official career, returned to his home in Prince Edward Island leaving not an enemy behind him.

The other Treaty Commissioners were the Hon. James Ross, Minister of Public Works in the Territorial Government, and Mr. J. A. McKenna, then private secretary to the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, and who had been for some years a valued officer of the Indian Department. With them was associated, in an advisory capacity, the Rev. Father Lacombe, O.M.I., Vicar-General of St. Albert, Alta., whose history had been identified for fifty years with the Canadian North-West, and whose career had touched the currents of primitive life at all points.

[Father Lacombe is by birth a French Canadian, his native parish being St. Sulpice, in the Island of Montreal, where he was born in the year 1827. On the mother’s side he is said to draw his descent from the daughter of a habitant on the St. Lawrence River called Duhamel, who was stolen in girlhood by the Ojibway Indians, and subsequently taken to wife by their chief, to whom she bore two sons. By mere accident, her uncle, who was one of a North-West Company trading party on Lake Huron, met her at an Indian camp on one of the Manitoulin islands, and having identified her as his niece, restored her and her children to her family. Father Lacombe was ordained a priest by Bishop Bourget, of Montreal, and in 1849 set out for Red River, where he became intimately associated with the French half-breeds, accompanying them on their great buffalo hunts, and ministering not only to the spiritual but to the temporal welfare of them and their descendants down to the present day. In 1851 he took charge of the Lake Ste. Anne Mission, and subsequently of St. Albert, the first house in which he helped to build; and from these Missions he visited numbers of outlying regions, including Lesser Slave Lake. His principal missionary work, however, for twenty years was pursued amongst the Blackfeet Indians on the Great Plains, during which he witnessed many a perilous onslaught in the constant warfare between them and their traditional enemies, the Crees. Being now over eighty years of age, he has retired from active duty, and is spending the remainder of his days at Pincher Creek, Alta., where, it is understood, he is preparing his memoirs for publication at an early date.]

Not associated with the Commission, but travelling with it as a guest, was the Right Rev. E. Grouard, O.M.I., the Roman Catholic Bishop of Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers, who was returning, after a visit to the East, to his headquarters at Fort Chipewyan, where his influence and knowledge of the language, it was believed, would be of great service when the treaty came under consideration there. The secretaries of the Commission were Mr. Harrison Young, a son-in-law of the Rev. George McDougall, the distinguished missionary who perished so unaccountably on the plains in the winter of 1876, and Mr. I. W. Martin, an agreeable young gentleman from Goderich, Ont. Connected with the party in an advisory capacity, like Father Lacombe, and as interpreter, was Mr. Pierre d’Eschambault, who had been for over thirty years an officer in the Hudson’s Pay Company’s service. The camp-manager was Mr. Henry McKay, of an old and highly esteemed North-West family. Such was the personnel, official and informal, of the Treaty Commission, to which was also attached Mr. H. A. Conroy, as accountant, robust and genial, and well fitted for the work.

The Half-breed Scrip Commission, whose duties began where the treaty work ended, was composed of Major Walker, a retired officer of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, who had seen much service in the Territories and was in command of the force present at the making of the Fort Carlton Treaty in 1876; and Mr. J. A. Cote, an experienced officer of the Land Department at Ottawa. The secretaries were Mr. J. F. Prudhomme, of St. Boniface, Man., and the writer.

Our transport arrangements, from start to finish, had been placed entirely in the hands of a competent officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mr. H. B. Round, an old resident of Athabasca; and to the Commission was also annexed a young medical man, Dr. West, a native of Devonshire, England, whose services were appreciated in a region where doctors were almost unknown. But not the least important and effective constituent of the party was the detachment of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, which joined us at Edmonton, minus their horses, of course; picked men from a picked force; sterling fellows, whose tenacity and hard work in the tracking-harness did yeoman service in many a serious emergency. This detachment consisted of Inspector Snyder, Sergeant Anderson, Corporals Fitzgerald and McClelland, and Constables McLaren, Lett, Burman, Lelonde, Burke, Vernon and Kerr. The conduct of these men, it is needless to say, was the admiration of all, and assisted materially, as will be seen hereafter, in the successful progress of the expedition.

Whilst it had been decided that the proposed adjustments should be effected, if possible, upon the same terms as the previous treaties, it was known that certain changes will be necessary owing to the peculiar topographic features of the country itself. For example, in much of it arable reserves, such as many of the tribes retained in the south, were unavailable, and special stipulations were necessary, in such case, so that there should be no inequality of treatment. But where good land could be had, a novel choice was offered, by which individual Indians, if they wished, could take their inalienable shares in severalty, rather than be subject to the “band,” whereby many industrious Indians elsewhere had been greatly hampered in their efforts to improve their condition. But, barring such departures as these, the proposed treaties were to be effected, as I have said, according to precedent. The Commission, then, resting its arguments on the good faith and honour of the Government and people of Canada in the past, looked forward with confidence to a successful treaty in Athabasca, the record of travel and intercourse, to that end, beginning with the following narrative.