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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter IV
The Council of Rupert's Land—Settlement of Retired Employes


The history of Alberta from 1821 to 1870 is the history of the fur trade. There was no settlement except a few retired Hudson's Bay Company servants in the vicinity of Edmonton, who assisted the Company in the limited agriculture pursued at this post. The only centres of settlement in the whole North-West were within the old district of Assiniboia. Settlement advanced in the Red River and the buffalo became scarce in that region. The Cree and Assiniboine Indians followed them westward to the Plains of Saskatchewan and Alberta. War between the Blackfeet nations and the invaders became frequent and made settlement impossible. Apart from the Minutes of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the meagre references in the books and diaries of travellers, such as Gabriel Franchére, Ross Cox, Alexander Ross, Paul Kane, Milton and Cheadle, Southesk and Butler, there are few records available. Of course there was very little to record. It was not until the Canadian Government sent S. J. Dawson and Henry Yuill Hind to the North-West in 1857 that the people of the eastern portion of the Dominion began to learn of the resources of the North-West and its suitability for colonization and agriculture. The reports of these eminent men made a profound impression in Canada and as soon as Confederation was consummated the eyes of the Dominion were turned to the west and active steps were inaugurated to annex the Empire ruled over by the Hudson's Bay Company. The facts of this chapter will, therefore, deal with the activities of the great fur trading corporation; only indirect reference will be made to the relations of the Company to the growing colony at Red River. Although this was the storm centre of the period and the events that took place there led to the surrender of the Hudson's Bay Charter, it properly belongs to the history of Manitoba and has been well told in other works on the North-West.

After the coalition the territories of the new company were organized into four departments—The Montreal, Southern, Western and Northern. The Montreal had control of the fur trade in the Canadas and Labrador. The Southern Department embraced the territory between the Hudson's Bay and the Montreal Department. The Western Department included all the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. The Northern Department, the one in which we are now concerned, included the vast district lying between the Hudson's Bay and the Rocky Mountains and between the United States and the Arctic Ocean. It was the largest and the most important of the four. The government of these territories was entrusted to the Council of Rupert's Land which was composed of all the Chief Factors. These officers attended ex-officio while the chief traders were generally invited to attend the meetings of the Council and when so attending they had the same right to discuss and vote as the Chief Factors in all matters except the promotion of officers. The Chief Executive officer was called the Governor of Rupert's Land. This Council must be carefully distinguished from the Council of the Assiniboia which was the body that ruled over that part of the Hudson's Bay Territory granted in 1811 to Lord Selkirk. It was subordinate to the Grand Council of Rupert's Land and many of its decisions and enactments were over-ruled by the superior council. In fact the governmental organization of the west at this time suggests to us the analogy that exists between the Federal and Provincial governing bodies in Canada at the present time.

We get a good idea of the work of the Council of Rupert's Land from the testimony of Edward Ellice in his evidence before the Parliamentary Committee of 1857 in the following statement:

"A Council is composed, in the interior, of the Chief Factors, the higher class, which meets every year. It has met at different places but it meets generally at the Red River. The trade is directed, first of all, by the Board of Directors at home, but, like the East India Company, they have their Council in the interior, which regulates the local concerns of the Company. That Council, which meets every year, takes into consideration the accounts of the preceding year, audits the ensuing year's trade, stations the various servants of the Company at such posts as the Council may think they are best qualified to occupy, and if vacancies occur in the service, recommends to the directors at home the fit persons then being in the service to succeed to those vacancies. So that, in fact, the whole affairs of the Company, so far as the fur trade is concerned, are conducted by that Council, subject to the control and superintendence of the Board of Directors at home. . . . The Council consists of as many as can conveniently assemble, who act for the whole body. . . . All appointments are made by the Government at home; the Council only recommend. . . . They have no power, except with the consent and concurrence of the Board at home." Q. 5793.

The Minutes of the Meetings of this Council is the official history of the North-West for 50 years. These with the standing rules and regulations comprised the legal and commercial system of the land. A great many of these minutes have never been published, but we are fortunate in having the minutes from 1830 to 1843 printed by the Canadian Archives, Publication No. 9, edited by Professor E. H. Oliver of the University of Saskatchewan. An introduction to the Minutes written by Mr. Isaac Cowie, formerly a Commissioned officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, is reproduced here because it presents a splendid bird's eye view of the work of the Council for the period under review.

"The data contained in these minutes furnish a skeleton history, during that important period, of those parts of the old 'Hudson's Bay Territories,' held under both Royal Charter and License, in the countries now comprising New Ontario, the three Prairie Provinces, the North West and Yukon Territories, and the Province of British Columbia, besides throwing light upon the operations of the Company in Russian America and in the States of Washington, Oregon and California, also in the Sandwich Isles.

"The main purpose of these annual meetings was to receive reports upon the operations of the previous year and to make arrangements for carrying on trade during the next, and, often, for many future years. Following the waterways, the chief means of communication in a country so favoured by nature in that respect, and, when these were interrupted, the lines of least resistance overland, pointed out by the tracks of wild animals and the trails and portages of the Indians, they solved the greatest problem set before them and their chief difficulty, in a land of magnificent distances, by means of the birch bark canoe, the 'inland' boat, and the main strength and skill of the voyageurs who manned them. The feats performed by these men in the battle with the wilderness and in the fight against immense distances have never been surpassed, if ever equalled. And the wise men who sat in Council and planned these campaigns in transportation so admirably a year or years in advance, so that 'brigades' starting from places as far apart as the lower Mackenzie River and from Red River District: and others from Fort Vancouver, at the mouth of the Columbia, and from York Factory on Hudson's Bay, were so nicely timed to meet at fixed points and exchange freight and passengers that they rarely failed to connect on schedule time. And this in a time when swift mail and telegraphic communication did not exist.

"The same wise foresight which regulated their system of transportation was displayed in every other detail of their business as traders. The interests of the fur trade were paramount; indeed fur was the only exportable product of the country before the railway age, and affected the life of every one in the Territories, including the settlers upon the Red River. There Thomas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, had made an attempt to found a colony, in opposition alike to the opinions of his enemies of the North West Company and of his friends of the Hudson's Bay Company. But, upon the cessation of hostilities between these rivals, when they became a united company, the old plan of the North Westers to form a settlement on the Rainy River for their retired servants (from which possibly may have originated Selkirk's subsequent colonizing idea) was carried out on the Red River, where their supernumeraries and those of the Hudson's Bay Company came to the number of 1,500, far exceeding all the settlers ever brought 'under the auspices of the Earl of Selkirk.' Hence Sii' George Simpson, in his journey round the world, states that the real settlement on the Red River began in 1821, when the union of the Companies led to the disbandment of their forces, many of these retiring to become settlers on the Red River, provided with means to start and experience in the country, including, in many cases, that gained by raising crops at the trading posts, where these were necessary to eke out the uncertain produce of the chase and fishery.

"It was only natural that a settlement composed chiefly of men who had served with them as companions in the wilds should be viewed with favour by the Councillors of Rupert's Land, many of whom contemplated spending the evening of their days, with their native children, surrounded by the comforts and conveniences afforded at Red River; where, moreover, the company's employees were each entitled 'for past services' to receive free grants of land out of the one-tenth reserved for that purpose in the original grant to Selkirk. Consequently the Minutes record from time to time the grant of money and allowances of imported 'luxuries' (as they were called in that time of expensive and difficult transportation) consisting of tea, sugar, rice, raisins, wines and liquors, to the Missionaries in the Colony; funds in aid of public works; and the establishment of experimental farms, for which fine live stock was imported.

"Besides being a convention on the business of the fur trade, the Governor and Council of the Northern Department of Rupert's Land (which exercised control over the minor Councils of the Southern and Montreal departments—in what are now the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec— as well as those of Columbia and New Caledonia beyond the Rocky Mountains) had, under the Royal Charter, power to make laws and act in a judicial capacity for and in the chartered territories. In these the only other legislative and executive Council was that of the Municipality of Assiniboia, which was composed of that portion of the great District of Assiniboia, granted to Lord Selkirk, extending fifty miles from the Forks down by the Red and up along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and two miles back on each side of these rivers.

"In its legislative capacity the Northern Department Council was supreme over that of Assiniboia, whose enactments were on occasion disallowed by it, in fact the two councils stood in nearly similar relations as do the Dominion Parliament and Provincial Legislatures today. When the Governor of Rupert's Land was present the Governor of Assiniboia left the chair and became one of the Council. When a Chief Factor from another part of the territories visited Red River he, as a Councillor of Rupert's Land, took a seat by right as such in the Council of Assiniboia; but a Councillor of Assiniboia had no seat or right in the Council of Rupert's Land.

"During the early period when the Governors of Assiniboia were the nominees and agents of Selkirk, but appointed as Governors by the Company under their charter, much friction arose between such Governors and the Chief Factors and Councillors of Rupert's Land who were in command of the fur trading 'Red River District.' But, afterwards, when the officer in charge of the 'Red River District' became ex-officio the Governor of Assiniboia also, this source of trouble ceased, and no Council of Assiniboia so presided over was likely to enact any regulation which the Governor knew would be objected to by the Council of the Northern Department of Rupert's Land, or the Governor and Committee in London. On this limitation reference may be made to the 'Report of the Law Amendment Committee' submitted to the Council of Assiniboia by Recorder Thom in May, 1851, which says:

'Our local legislature owes allegiance to the Governor and Council of Rupert's Land . . . and has no right to control any one of the Company's chartered powers.'

"To review or even briefly summarize all the acts of the Council of the Northern Department would require space not available in this publication. But from a rough general index the following headings to subjects of probable interest to the reader and student are taken: From Standing Rules and Regulations—Sale Tariff of Merchandise, Buffalo Robes and Leather to Settlers. Freight rates to and from York Factory. Freight and Passenger Rates on Ocean—to and from Hudson's Bay and Fort Vancouver (at end of series of Minutes). In the Minutes of each year would be found money grants for Red River gaol and police; to surgeons, surveyors, schools and clergymen; orders for colonial produce required by the Fur Trade and prices to be paid therefor; regulation re imports by settlers from England; engagement and wages of boatmen; freight rates by Company's boats; employment of boats owned by settlers to freight to and from York Factory; the employment of indians from outside the settlement to man such contractors' boats prohibited; and the establishment of Lower Fort Garry, the post at Portage la Prairie, and the Experimental Farms presided over by Chief Factor McMillan and Captain Cary.

"Outside of the colony, grants were given to Wesleyan Missions at York Factory, Norway House and Edmonton, and to the Roman Catholic mission on the Columbia. The making of a winter road, between the head of the tracking ground on Hayes' River and Norway House, was persisted in for several years, but was finally abandoned as more expensive than boating. Besides the regular mails by annual ship, summer brigades and winter expresses, one to Canada by Fort William and Saulte Ste. Marie, and another to St. Peters (near St. Paul, Minn.) were established. The sale of spirituous liquors to Indians was prohibited throughout the country, except at points where the fur trade was exposed to competition with American spirit dealers. Resolutions were yearly passed confirming the Standing Rule for the preservation of the beaver, and limiting the output of their skins from depleted districts. The Indians were to be compensated for abstaining from hunting these animals. By Standing Rule No. 38 the Company's employees were enjoined always to treat the Indians with kindness and humanity, and to invite them to attend the Sunday services, which the commandant of each post was directed to read by Rule No. 1. Annual lists of the Indians attached to each post were to be sent to headquarters, and a General Census was taken in 1837.

"One of the most interesting features of the Minutes to their descendants and other friends living in the North-West is the names, ranks, movements and emoluments of the Company's Chief Factors, Chief Traders, Clerks and Postmasters given from year to year. These are all of historical, and occasionally of legal value.

"The Company's activities covered a wide range of subjects, from meteorological observations and zoological collections for the British Museum, to general banking and receiving employees' savings on deposit at interest. But it is impossible within the allotted space to do justice to all the subjects mentioned in the Minutes; neither is it possible for one who has not derived his knowledge from other sources to read between the lines of the resolutions for the causes of which the resolutions were the result.

"Each Council was opened with the reading of the General Letter of the Governor, Deputy Governor and Committee (who subscribed themselves as 'Your Affectionate Friends to their trusty and well beloved partners in the Fur Trade')—the Chief Factors and Chief Traders In the absence of copies of these letters and of the reports made annually to the Council by each officer in charge of a district, it is impossible to fully understand the resultant resolutions of this Council. All such documents are still kept private by the Company, although the time is long past when their publication could do any harm to their trade by divulging its secrets. Indeed, judging from the highly creditable exposure made by these Minutes of their mode of doing business and the laudable interest taken in the general well-being of their territories, the publication of these well preserved records would only redound to the credit of the Company's rule and to the confusion of their detractors. For it must be noted that the Minutes here for the first time published, were never intended when they were recorded for the eyes of the outside public, although each district and commissioned officer was entitled to a copy for their use and guidance. Few of the Chief Factors and Chief Traders, however, took precautions for the preservation of their copies, and we are indebted for these important revelations to the care of an exception to this rule, who handed them down to his children, who unlike too many others into whose hands such documents have fallen, have carefully preserved them.

"But they cover only a limited, though glorious, period in the history of that great company, whose officers and men in North America, serving With conspicuous 'courage and fidelity' succeeded by their effective occupation of the territories in preserving them for the British Crown until their union with Canada."


 


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