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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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