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Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada
Chapter VII. Half-Breed Races


IT is now time to speak of the natives of the country among whom my lot was cast. These are locally known as half-breeds and Indians. Of the Indians some account will be given in a later chapter.

Our half-races are divided into English and French, chiefly because of their languages. Probably the French are the older people, for the French from Quebec found their way in early days up the Saskatchewan. These are Roman Catholics, and they chiefly live around the Catholic mission-stations. To see them turn out on some holiday occasion, one could fancy one's self in a French provincial town. Their manners are very French, and by no means ungraceful. Their French is that of the eighteenth century--country French with a mixture of the modern Parisian accent. All this is accounted for, partly by their French ancestors of Quebec, and partly by their education in connection with St. Albert's Mission. The women especially have often very modest and pretty manners, and can carry themselves with feminine dignity and propriety. From early life they are cared for and trained by the Grey Sisters, and, being naturally imitative, they catch and retain nice modes of behaviour, which are quite a contrast to the surly independent style sometimes observed in America, the continent of liberty.

As a rule, the French half-races are not thought to be thrifty. This arises partly from their circumstances. When they could freely go on to the plains, and at any time get what meat they required, there was little need for them to plan in order to secure the necessaries of life. Now, however, they will have the opportunity of developing the careful qualities of their French ancestors, and we hope to see them a prosperous people among the new communities of this promising North-West. Undoubtedly they need wise and disinterested guidance, and the control of an authoritative religion; for the physical life in the French half-race is very strong, and, like all human qualities, can be rightly used or badly abused. Their friends hope to see them take an honourable place among the many and diverse races who are now pouring into the pleasant Saskatchewan country. The other half-breeds are called English half-breeds, because they speak the English language, or else are, in religion, separate from Roman Catholicism. In fact, they are generally the descendants of Scotchmen or Orkney men who were in the Hudson Bay service, and who consorted with Cree women, sometimes giving them marriage and sometimes not. These matters will not bear close examination; but if facts could stand out clearly to human view, as they are in the sight of God, it might amuse some ethnologists, and shock others, to find the descendants of great names scattered abroad on these vast prairies, and sometimes called Indians, and sometimes half-breeds. I know half-breeds whom I respect very much, whose fathers went to Eastern Canada, or to England, and lived in respectable comfort with their newly-wedded wives, who never communicated with their children or recognised them in any way. Some time ago, on my way to Red Deer, I met a blind man led by his wife, and I was greatly struck with his fine appearance and dignified and graceful manners, of which, being blind, he seemed quite unconscious. On inquiry, I found him to be the son of a man bearing a well-known name in the North-West. He was begging for his living, and soon died in great destitution and misery.

My strong impression is that, for a hundred miles around these forts, the half-breeds are less Indian than they are generally supposed to be. Years ago the first mother would be Indian, then the next generation and the next would intermarry among themselves, and from these the Orkney men would take their wives, until the predominant quality would be Scotch. Somehow the Cree language has a charm for these people, and as the Cree is freely used with the English, the real ancestry of the people may be readily observed. Often when I visited Saddle Lake, more than a hundred miles away, an old man stayed with me who spoke only Cree; if I had met him in an English village, I should not have questioned his nationality, even if he had used the English language as though it were his native tongue. One of the well-known Indian chiefs is undoubtedly of English blood; another prominent man is the son of a Dane. Another of my friends interested me much. When I went into his tent, he was as polite as the patriarch Abraham could have been. He arranged the cushions carefully, and placed himself in an attitude of self-respect, yet of reverence, towards his visitor. With his observations he shrugged his shoulders, and spoke his Cree with a slight nasal intonation. His manner was that of a diplomatist, and I wondered where I had seen his face before, and the characteristic curl on his forehead, and then I thought of Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield). This man's father was a French Jew, who was trading in these parts.

Hence it is not easy to classify the half-races in our North-West. An Indian now is a man who takes the treaty with the Government at Ottawa, and lives on a reservation. If he should neglect to do this he is a half-breed; or if, having taken the treaty, he arranges to retire from it, he is 'half-race,' which in any case is probably his proper designation. Hence the relationship of these people to the Hudson Bay Company officials is a very close one. Many of them are their children; they have been their hunters or their freighters. It was the interest, and even the necessity, of both parties that they should stand well together. It would have been better if this relationship had been more remembered by the Hudson Bay Company when they transferred their real or supposed rights to the Canadian Government, by the permission of the English Parliament. No notice was taken of half-breed rights, French or English; they were all designated as Indian, a designation not true to the facts of the case, although convenient for Hudson Bay purposes.

Sometimes I see statements about the benevolent relationships existing between the Hudson Bay forts and the natives which surprise me; and I ask myself, What natives do they mean? Do they speak of their own kindred around the forts, or the hunters who are in many ways closely related to them? It would be strange if they were not humane to their own; but why should men of any class take credit for that? The fact is, the Hudson Bay Company was a trading corporation which existed for gain, and made it at any cost. They were no better and no worse than such corporations have always been, and are, in every part of the world. Their policy was not benevolence, but wealth; and the moral condition of the forts, and the character of the relationship between them and the natives of every kind, depended greatly on the individual men in charge of the forts, and their influence for good and evil. Visitors from a distance did not see everything--only the things that were not objectionable, and such as they might report at home. To read, for example, in the report of a lecture before the Colonial Institute in London, that intoxicating liquor was not even kept for private use in the interior Hudson Bay forts, for the sake of example to the natives, and that a challenge might be made to the world to show such high principle in a corporation, is simply preposterous nonsense. I have myself seen, in the Mountain Fort, a curious arrangement for serving out rum in trade with the Blackfeet, and near Edmonton Fort is 'Drunken Lake,' keeping up the tradition of Hudson Bay's most unholy rites--a tradition not likely to be soon extinguished.

Many of the most ancient Indian customs are still retained by the half-races, both French and English. Women prepare the food, and spread it before the men; when all is ready they retire, and leave the feast for the lords of creation, and then afterwards eat what may be left. At first the visitor from a distance is not pleased with this custom, and seeks to change it; but he finds it is of no use to interfere, and he soon quietly acquiesces.

The custom twenty years ago, even in the houses, was to spread the food on the floor, and to sit a la Turk---crossed-legged. Tables and chairs seemed unnecessary encumbrances.

Moss bags were in universal use for infants and small children, and the Egyptian mummy dress was exactly reproduced in the Far West. They also love horses, and dislike walking, except in hunting. Half-race people will walk miles to hunt their horses on the prairie, rather than go a small distance on foot to church. To ride to worship on Sundays seems to be a matter of dignity with them, and they attend to appearances. When they are in settlements that are isolated from the outer world, they practise the rites of religion. However, immigration soon changes their customs, and they quickly learn the ways of civilized white people. I know among them some of the most honourable men; and I have found some of them base and unprincipled beyond any power of description. If a half-race man is good, he is very good; if he is bad, he can be utterly depraved. In any case, he claims our pitiful interest, for if he be not enrolled as an Indian to live on a reservation, and so to receive the care of the Government and the benevolence of the Churches, he is left to fight his own way into a higher civilization, without settled habits to guide and support him, or the means of fulfilling the duties of the independent position after which he aspires. Hence he farms a little, and hunts a little, and freights a little, and manages something from day to day, and is so continually on the borders of starvation that, when an evil day comes, he falls into helpless suffering, to be caught by some disease which will soon take him off. Then, when a few years are passed, men ask where are the half-races gone? And how is it they disappear? Alas! it is as true here as everywhere--by cruelty and vice, or even by the well-meant benevolence of 'the higher race,' the natives of new lands are 'improved ' off the face of the earth. It is a sad and mysterious story. All new creations seem to come into being through scenes of loss and pain, as the human race fulfils its destiny.

For twenty years I have laboured for the welfare of the half-races of the Canadian North-West, and it would have given me real joy to predict for them a splendid future. This is, however, quite impossible. In another twenty years their name may be only a memory.

Still, in the racial life of Canada, and all over the continent of America, their qualities will remain, and work to form the nations which will make the history of this 'New World.'


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