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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter IV. New Problems of the North-West


It is something of a coincidence that when young Smith landed in Canada in 1838, he found the country the scene of unrest and trouble, and when he came out of the wilderness, after thirty years' retirement, he found that signs of trouble were not wanting. During those thirty years events moved quickly. The scattered and politically separated Provinces had at last, after long negotiations, been bound together in a Confederation, and in 1867 the "Dominion of Canada" became an accomplished fact, with its Capital at Ottawa. The statesmen of that time, chief of whom was Sir John A. Macdonald, had no easy task. The older Provinces had to be conciliated and managed. The West, beyond Lake Superior, was a terra incognita, controlled and ruled by the Hudson Bay Company. One of its most important posts was Fort Garry, at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Beyond that were the prairies, the home of immense herds of Buffalo—the chief food of the Indians. This became a source of trouble. The incoming settlers and the servants of the Company, French and Scotch, inter-married with the natives, and produced the Metis, or half-breeds. These also hunted the buffalo, and often feuds arose between these two sections. The government was carried on by a "Governor and Council of Assinaboia," composed of Hudson Bay Company officers. At this time there were probably 12,000 people in the settlement—a mixed population of English, Scotch, French half- breeds, and a few Europeans, Canadians and Americans. Canada, at that time, was regarded as a foreign country, almost as much so as America. Indeed, the latter country, by reason of its proximity, seemed less foreign than the new Dominion. There was a strong spirit of disaffection against the rule of the Company. This was fostered by agitators, chief of whom was Dr. Schultz, and later Louis Rid.

In 1867, immediately after Confederation, the movement was started for bringing under the control of the Dominion Government the vast territories of the North-Wst. This meant negotiations with the Hudson Bay Company for the release of their claims. These negotiations were carried on in London, in 1868, the Canadian Government being represented by Messrs. Cartier and McDougall. After some time, it was finally agreed that the Company should receive £300,000, should have one-twentieth of the land of the fertile belt, and 45,000 acres adjacent to their trading posts.

So far, so good, but the agreement made by the shareholders in London had ignored the officers and employees of the Company, and also the population of the North-West. The arrangement was met with hostility. The half-breeds resented and feared the transfer, as it seemed as if they were being unceremoniously sold to Canada. The officers of the Company were annoyed that their privileges and authority were handed over to outsiders without any consultation with them, or any hint of recompense. At the same time, there were some who thought the time was opportune to establish an independent republic, while there were still others who advocated annexation to the States. In fact, it is said that Riel was offered $50,000 cash and $100,000 more and a position if he would work for annexation.

Here, then, were the materials for trouble, and one must keep them in mind, in order to understand the situation which confronted the Dominion Government in 1869. They had bought the territory, but to gain possession was quite another thing. Donald Smith had hardly been settled in Montreal, when he was called upon to use his powers in an altogether new direction. He quite concurred in the wisdom of transferring to the Government the Company's claims, lie recognized that, in the march of events, the time had come when their charter would have to be given up, and he was ready and willing to assist the government in every possible way to enter into the North-West.

Oil 19th, 1869, the deed of surrender was signed in London. So far as the Governor of the-North-West (Mr. MacTavish) and the Council were concerned, there was no opposition to the new order of things. It is true they might have had some feeling of soreness at not being consulted regarding the transfer, but this was not allowed to influence their conduct. They accepted the situation and were prepared to become loyal subjects of the Dominion Government. But they hesitated to embroil themselves in a quarrel with the French party, with whom they had hitherto lived in friendship. They declined to enter into a conflict with that party, reinforced as it would be by Indians, and so they declared their opinion that the Dominion Government should establish its own jurisdiction. Mr. Wm. McDougall, who had taken all part in the negotiations, was appointed Governor by the Dominion Government, and he proceeded to the Red River Settlement to take up his new duties.

Ile does not seem to have been the right man for a position which required the greatest of tact and prudence. The first move was indiscreet and overbearing and aroused a flame of prejudice and animosity. The malcontents found a leader in the clever and unscrupulous personality of Louis Rid, the half-breed, who headed the forces of opposition, lie was a man of power and influence. He had been a poor lad, who, through the interest of Bishop Tachè, had been educated in Montreal, with the belief that lie would become a priest. Nothing was farther from his intention. He went to the States, and in 1863 returned to his mother at Red River. There he found his opportunity, and became a figure in Canadian history—a man, who, for a time, imperilled the prospects of the West, and caused anxiety—not only to the Dominion Government, but also to the Imperial authorities. lie opposed the coming of the Governor, Mr. Macdougall, and his followers erected a barrier across the road, and 300 or 400 men gathered at this barrier to prevent his entry into Canadian territory. Macdougall never reached his destination. his Governorship was a fizzle. It required a man of sound judgment, ripe experience, knowledge of human nature, and a disposition, though firm, yet conciliatory. Such a man there was and his name was Donald A. Smith.

It seems to have been the general opinion that he was the man. The Governor of Assinaboia travelled 2,000 miles to consult him, and afterwards wrote him a full account of how matters were progressing. The letter read as follows: "Dear Mr. Smith,—I regret very much to have to inform you that the honorable William MacDougall, who has been warned by the Canadian half-breeds not to come into the country, has been, on his arrival at Pembina within the last week, driven out of the Company's establishment and forced to withdraw within the American lines by an armed party of that same portion of our population. At the same time that they drove back Mr. Macdougall, a party was sent here (Fort Garry) to occupy this establishment under the pretext of supporting it; and though their protection was declined, they still remain, and, it would appear, are determined to go to greater lengths than they have yet done; and the nominal leaders of the movement have invited delegates from the other portions of the population to meet them on the 16th inst., to consider their views as to the form of government to be adopted."

The situation became acute. The half-breeds, led by Rid, began to assert themselves and decided to capture Fort Garry. As McTavish writes, on the pretence of guarding the Fort, they took possession of it, and held it for a number of months. Riel had in mind to proclaim himself Dictator of the new Province of Rupert's Land. He seized the Nor' Western newspaper, arrested the editor, and issued a proclamation in which he invited the French-speaking population to send twelve representatives to form a council to consider the political state of the country and adopt measures for its future welfare. About the same time, the friends of the Dominion began to suspect that the Hudson Bay Company was making common cause with the insurgents, though in fat that Company was urging its Governor (McTavish) to make it clear to the malcontents that they in no way sympathized with the revolt. After much hesitation, McTavish issued a proclamation charging those engaged in unlawful acts to disperse under pains and penalties of the law.

Meanwhile, Riel issued a proclamation refusing to acknowledge the authority of Canada and announcing a provisional Government with John Bruce as President and Riel as Secretary. He also proceeded to place under arrest, to the number of 60, those who opposed him in his policy. He further hoisted over the fort a new flag— a white ground with a fleur-de-lis and a shamrock. By the end of the year 1869 he had become President and was carrying things with a high hand.


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