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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Lord Selkirk


WORRY AND DISASTER

THE year in which Lord Selkirk visited his colony was one of note. Sir John Coape Sherbrooke had been in constant communication with Lord Bathurst in England, but how to act and bring to an end the disgraceful state of things on British territory was the puzzle. All power in Lower Canada seemed centred in the hands of the North-West oligarchy. Lord Selkirk had appealed in vain for assistance. To get a fair-minded commissioner in Canada seemed impossible to Governor Sherbrooke. At length, W. B. Coltman, a merchant of Quebec and a lieutenant-colonel of militia, a man accustomed to government procedure, was appointed. It must be added that he was unwilling to accept the duty. With him was sent Major Fletcher, who possessed legal qualifications.

Through various delays it came about that Commissioner Coltman and his bodyguard of forty men of the 37th Foot did not reach the shores of Lake Winnipeg till July 2nd, 1817. This was only a few days after Lord Selkirk's arrival. Lord Selkirk had been represented during the past winter in Montreal as a buccaneer and a tyrant, and Colonel Coltman expected some trouble with His Lordship. In this the commissioner found himself quite mistaken. He was so impressed with Lord Selkirk's reasonableness and good faith that he recommended that the legal charges made against him should not be proceeded with.

Colonel Coltman, after investigating of 'pairs at Red River, made preparations for a, speedy return to Canada. His sense of justice and fairness in1pressed men of all shades of opinion at Red River. At the mouth of the Wrinnipeg River he writes that he had stopped over for a time to investigate the conspiracy to destroy the Selkirk settlement in which he feared the North-West Company had been implicated. By November of 1817 Colonel Coltman had returned to Quebec, and the governor had the satisfaction of reporting to the British colonial secretary "that the general result of Colonel Coltman's exertions had been so far successful that he had restored a degree of tranquillity in the Indian territories which promises to continue during the winter."

Colonel Coltman's report of about one hundred folio pages is an admirable one. His summary of the causes and events of the great struggle between the companies is well arranged and clearly stated. Lord Selkirk, while treated impartially, appears well in the report, and the noble character of the founder shines forth undimmed.

But the cessation of hostilities, brought about by the proclamation of the king and by Coltman's visit to the interior, did not bring It state of peace. The conflict was transferred to the courts of Upper and Lower Canada, these having been given power some time before by the imperial parliament to deal with cases in the Indian territories.

A notable trial was that of Charles Reinhart, an employe of the North-West Company, who had been a sergeant in the disbanded lie Meuron regiinent. Having gone to the Nortli-Wrest he was, during the troubles, given the charge of a Hudson's Bay Company official named Owen Keveny, the accusation against the latter being that he had maltreated a Nor'-West employe. It was charged against Reinhart that in bringing Keveny down from Lake Winnipeg to Rat Portage he had at the Falls of Winnipeg River brutally killed his prisoner.

While Lord Selkirk was at Fort William, Reinhart, having arrived at that point, made a voluntary confession before His Lordship as a magistrate. When the case came before the court in Quebec the argument of local jurisdiction was raised as to whether the Falls of Winnipeg River were in Upper Canada, Lower Canada or the Indian territories. Reinhart was found guilty, but the sentence was not carried out, probably on account of the uncertainty of the jurisdiction of the court. This case became an important precedent in recent tines.

Lord Selkirk's return, and bravery in facing the charges made against him, did not in the least moderate the opposition of his enemies of the North-West Company, but served rather to stir up their hatred. Sandwich, the extreme western point of Upper Canada, was a legal centre of some importance, and here four charges were laid against Lord Selkirk, which were very irritating to His Lordship. 'These were: (1) Having stolen eighty-three muskets at Fort William; (2) having riotously entered Fort William, August 13th; (3) assault and false imprisonment of Deputy-Sheriff' Smith (4) resistance to legal warrant. The first of these charges failed, though a heavy bail was kept hanging over Lord Selkirk, which was very annoying to him, but served the purposes of his enemies.

In Montreal, in 1818, an action was brought against Colin Robertson and four others for destroying Fort Gibraltar in 1815, but the charge against them was ignominiously dismissed. This was shortly followed by an action against Lord Selkirk and others for having conspired to ruin the trade of the North-Wrest Company. This case was tried before the celebrated Chief-Justice Powell. When the grand jury refused to bring in an answer on the case, the irate chief-justice summarily adjourned the court. In the next session of the legislature of Upper Canada, of which the chief ;justice was a member, legislation was passed enabling the courts to deal with the charges against Lord Selkirk. This high-handed proceeding was but in keeping with many indefensible legislative acts of Upper Canada in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

This legal conspiracy succeeded. In a court held at York (Toronto), Lord Selkirk was mulcted in damages of 1500 in favour of Deputy-Sheriff Smith, and 1,500 for illegal arrest and false imprisonment of McKenzie, a North-West partner at Fort William.

Lord Selkirk, with the pertinacity which characterized him, then brought charges against the murderers of Governor Semple, against a number of partners of the North-Wrest Company as accomplices, and two other charges against some of the settlers, lured away by Duncan Cameron, for stealing His Lordship's property. In all these four cases a verdict of "Not guilty" was rendered. The evidence of these trials was published separately by the rivals, with partizan notes in each case. Upwards of three hundred pages of evidence were printed relating to the Seven Oaks affair.

Enough of this disheartening controversy! It would be idle to say that Lord Selkirk was faultless; but as we dispassionately read the accounts of the trials, and consider that while Lord Selkirk was friendless in Canada, the North-West Company had enormous influence, we cannot resist the conclusion that advantage was taken of His Lordship, and that justice was not done. It is true that in the majority of cases the conclusion was reached that it was impossible to place the blame with precision on either side; but we cannot be surprised that Lord Selkirk, harassed and discouraged by the difficulties of the colony and his treatment in the courts of Upper and Lower Canada, should write as he did in October, 1818, to the Duke of Richmond, the new governor-general of Canada:-

"To contend alone and unsupported, not only against a powerful association of individuals, but also against all those whose official duty it should have been to arrest them in the prosecution of their crimes, was at the best an arduous task; arid, however confident one might be of the intrinsic strength of his cause, it was impossible to feel a very sanguine expectation that this alone would be sufficient to bear him up against the swollen tide of corruption which threatened to overwhelm him. He knew that in persevering under existing circumstances he must necessarily submit to a heavy sacrifice of personal comfort, incur an expense of ruinous amount, and possibly render himself the object of harassing and relentless persecution."

The ferocity of spirit exhibited by the Nor'-Westers in Lover Canada and their allies, the Family Compact of Upper Canada led by the redoubtable Dr. Strachan, can hardly be believed was not the evidence overwhelming. To a man of Lord Selkirk's high ideals, it meant simply the destruction of all his hopes and plunging him into the deepest discouragement.


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