BEFORE THE IMPERIAL
THE important fact is
to be borne in mind that the Hudson's Bay Company's charter covered
only Rupert's Land, i.e., the territory whose waters flow into
Hudson Bay. That left the Arctic slope and the Pacific slope, with
Vancouver Island, outside their control. For this vast excluded
portion of north-west British America the company held permission to
trade secured from the imperial parliament. The license was given
for twenty-one years. Twice during Governor Simpson's rule this
license came up for renewal. The disturbed state of Canada in 1838
led to this being secured by the company with little opposition or
But in the interval
between 1838 and 1859 there had been a complete change. In Red River
Settlement itself great unrest had prevailed from 1847 onward. The
attention of Canada, now pacified and prosperous, had also been
drawn to the fertile plains of the North-West. Accordingly a
determined opposition to the granting of the license arose, and
embodied itself in the appointment of a powerful committee of the
imperial House of Commons which met in 1857.
This committee became
famous. The whole economy of the Hudson's Bay Company was discussed.
The committee held eighteen meetings, examined at length twenty-nine
witnesses, and thoroughly sifted the evidence. The personnel of the
committee was brilliant. The Hon. Henry Labouchere, secretary of
state, was chairman. fir. Roebuck and Mr. Gladstone were inquiring
and aggressive; Lord Stanley and Earl Russell gave due attention to
the proceedings; and Edward Ellice, the old peacemaker of the
companies, was combined witness and advocate for the company. Old
explorers and pioneers such as John Ross, Dr. Rae, Colonel Lefroy,
Sir John Richardson, Colonel Crofton. Bishop Anderson, Colonel
Caldwell, and Dr. King gave information.
From time to time,
beginning in February and ending in July, the committee met and
gathered a vast mass of evidence, making four hundred folio pages of
printed matter. It is a storehouse of valuable material about the
Hudson's Bay Company. As was proper and necessary, Sir George
Simpson was summoned and gave important evidence. He was asked
fourteen hundred and twenty-three questions, and his testimony
covers forty-four pages of the voluminous report. Sir George was
certainly subjected to a severe attack by Mr. Gladstone, Mr.
Roebuck, and Mr. Grogan. To say that he came through the ordeal
without a scratch would not be true. He was followed with a
determined persistence, and his defence of the great monopoly was
only partially successful. He found out the full meaning of Job's
desire that his adversary had written a book, for the "Journey Round
the World " was his hardest task to defend. With today's knowledge
of the golden wheat fields of Manitoba, it seems hard to understand
his evidence, though it must be said that the large sums of money
sunk by the Hudson's Bay Company in its fruitless endeavours to
advance agriculture in the Red River Settlement may have influenced
his pessimistic testimony as to the capabilities of the country.
While obtaining this
enormous mass of evidence, every phase of Rupert's Land was brought
out, and incidentally the main features of the thirty-seven years in
which Governor Simpson had held sway. The theory of the aggressive
element of the committee was that many parts of Rupert's Land,
especially the Red River Settlement, were suitable for settlement,
and their contention implied that it was simply greed and
selfishness that led to the Hudson's Bay Company holding so firmly
to its monopoly.
One line of
investigation followed was to show that the company had a monopoly
and exercised it. It was maintained that the people of Red River
Settlement were desirous of exporting their surplus products, and
the changes were rung and the case was cited of William Sinclair and
.Andrew McDermot, leading merchants, who had been refused transport
in their export of tallow. Sir George strenuously maintained that
this was simply because the ship accommodation was not sufficient,
and that part of the company's goods as well had to be left behind.
It came out, however, that Sinclair was suspected of fur-trading, a
point on which the company always held a strong position. Much was
made of the fact that there was no market for more than a paltry
eight thousand bushels of wheat, which were taken by the company. To
this Sir George's repeated answer was that the company could not
obtain all the wheat supply required, and had at times even to
import bread-stuffs for its own use.
Efforts were also
made to prove that the Hudson's Bay Company did not wish settlers to
take tip the land, that they would only give a lease, and that
obstacles were thrown in the way of settlement. In answering this
charge Sir George was probably successful. He reiterated that they
had no power to prevent squatters taking their lands, and that the
majority of the settlers were squatters, not one of whom had been
dislodged from his holding.
It was pointed out
that in 1844 a form of deed with tyrannical provisions was
introduced, but it was replied that it had been little used. The
form of deed required four things of the settler: (1) That he would
not deal in furs; (2) That he would neither distribute nor import
spirituous liquors; (3) That he would resist a foreign invasion; (4)
That he would promote the religious institutions of the settlement.
Pressed for a satisfactory explanation Sir George maintained that
the council of Assiniboia had exceeded its powers in this matter.
As to the charge that
a regulation had been adopted by which letters would not be sent out
from the Fort Garry post-office for those who had been suspected of
participation in the fur trade, Sir George denied any knowledge of
the matter, although from the noise made about the affair it is hard
to believe the governor could have failed to hear of it.
The battle royal was
fought, however, on the capacities of the country to support a large
population. Sir George on this point took a surprisingly firm, and
even defiant attitude. Categorically asked whether a province could
not be laid out which would give a livelihood to a large body of
settlers, Sir George with decision replied: "I do not think settlers
would go to the Red River from the United States or anywhere else
for the purpose of settlement."
It was with delicious
irony that his tormentor then read to Sir George the description
from his own "Journey Round the World" of the country lying between
Red River and the Rocky Mountains: "Beautiful country, lofty hills,
long valley, sylvan lakes, bright green, uninterrupted profusion of
roses and bluebells, softest vales, panorama of hanging copses," and
asked him if he had changed his mind. The only reply made by the
governor was, "Yes, there were a great many flowering shrubs."
At another time Sir
George was maintaining that the country could not support a
population on account of the "poverty of the soil," that in the
district spoken of the earth was frozen the year round, that any
time in summer "frozen earth" could be reached by digging a foot and
a half into the soil; then he maintained that the want of fuel would
make settlement impossible, that the locusts would devour every
green thing, and that floods were so prevalent that settlers would
be driven out. "I have myself," said the governor, "paddled over the
roofs of some of the houses in my canoe."
With a scathing tone
his tormentor again read from the fatal book, speaking of Rainy
River: "Nor are the banks less favourable to agriculture than the
waters themselves to navigation, resembling in some measure those of
the Thames clear Richmond. From the very brink of the river there
rises a gentle slope of green sward, crowned in many places with a
plentiful growth of birch, poplar, beech, elan, and oak. Is it too
much for the eye of philanthropy to discern, through the vista of
futurity, this noble stream, connecting as it does the fertile
shores of two spacious lakes, with crowded steamboats on its bosom
and populous towns on its borders?"
Sir George could not
extricate himself, but it is only fair that we should remember that
his versatile editor, Recorder Thom, had made up his book, and it
was no doubt the eloquence and imagination of the editor which was
responsible for these highly-coloured and poetic flights. The
intensity of the situation was all the greater, because Sir George
could not disown the book or make known its history.
Sir George's testimony as regards the difficulties attending the
practice of agriculture might be summed up in the expression which
he used in regard to the approach to the country through British
soil, namely: "That the difficulties were insuperable unless the
Bank of England were expended on it." But his answer as to the
treatment of the Indians by the company, the degree of law and order
maintained by the company, and the general encouragement given to
the missionaries in their religious and educational work, was on the
whole very satisfactory.
may have been made as to the Indians he was able to show that a
benevolent and just policy had always been employed towards them.
The charges as to starvation of the natives on the shores of
Labrador were not fastened on the company; and it was made clear
that there was no title a North-Nest Indian was prouder to carry
than that of an employe or customer of the Hudson's Bay Company.
Sir George was able
to show that in many cases missionaries had been given free passage
to the country in the company's ships and boats, that a considerable
sum of money was spent annually in chaplaincies, and in supporting
schools, while nothing more was taken from the pockets of the people
than a four per cent. tariff ' on imports, which tax bore also upon
the company, while life and property were surprisingly safe. Much to
the astonishment of his questioners, Sir George was able to point to
the fact that only nineteen capital crimes had been committed over
the whole vast territory during the thirty-seven years of his
governorship. This was all the more remarkable as the small
population of only eight thousand souls in Red River Settlement made
it difficult to carry on government, and to this was added a certain
restlessness which the governor described as "arising from the love
of mischief-making on the part of some of our second rate half
Thanks to this
inquiry many things were made plain: the whole financial system, the
plan of management, the appointment of officers, the simple state of
society in Red River Settlement, and the provision for the support
of religious institutions arising from the Leith bequest and the
gift of the company.
The committee did its
work well, and was compelled to decide in opposition to the
governor's contentions. Those who have lived to see Rupert's Land at
the beginning of the twentieth century, and have passed by its vast
wheat fields and comfortable homes, will realize how far astray he
was, and at the same time reflect on how utterly untrustworthy may
be our honest judgments.
The committee, whose
valuable report was cordially adopted by the House of Commons,
recommended that it is "important to meet the just and reasonable
wishes of Canada to assume such territory as may be useful for
settlement; that the districts of the Red River and the Saskatchewan
seem the most available; and that for the order and good government
of the country arrangements should be made for their cession to
Canada." It was also agreed that those regions where settlement was
impossible should be left to the exclusive control of the Hudson's
Bay Company for the fur trade.
recommended that Vancouver Island should be made independent of the
company, and also that the mainland territory of British Columbia
should be united with the island.
Some three or four
years after the eventful sittings of this committee, and while the
old regime still held sway, the veteran emperor of the traders died.
He had been much excited over the visit of the Prince of Wales to
Canada. This over, he had proceeded on his trip to Red River as
usual. It is said that he reached Sault Ste. Marie, but was too ill
to proceed farther. He returned to Lachine, and there, after a short
illness at his home, passed away in 1860.
Though such writers
as McLean, who had been in the company's service and had a
grievance, do not hesitate to say that his "was an authority
combining the despotism of military rule with the strict
surveillance and mean parsimony of the avaricious trader," in
summing up his life the writer may say: Governor Simpson lifted the
fur trade out of the depth into which it had fallen, harmonized the
hostile elements of the two companies and made them one brotherhood,
reduced order out of chaos in the interior, helped various
expeditions for the exploration of Rupert's Land, and on the whole
was a. beneficent ruler. His management of the financial concerns
of. the Hudson's Bay Company was such as to gain him the approbation
of his own country and of the whole financial world.