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Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada
Chapter XIII. The Causes of the Rebellion


THOSE who would understand this so-called 'rebellion' must have a distinct idea of the circumstances that led up to it. It is not sufficient to say that it was 'pure cussedness' on the part of the half-breed and Indian. In former pages I have endeavoured to convey the impression that the confusion was not all their fault, by pointing out the genesis of the outbreak. History will, I believe, assign the following causes: First, and chiefly, the utter inattention of the Hudson Bay officials to the interests of the half-races, when they negotiated for the transfer of the territories to the Government of Canada. In different parts of the North-West, settlements had arisen around their forts, and many half-breeds were scattered in all directions on the plains, who were living an independent life as hunters, trading with the forts, and exchanging their buffalo meat and skins for the things they required. How did this half-race spring into existence? Surely from the presence of Hudson Bay or North-West traders. They were, in fact, the children and wards of that great company, and they comprised a very large part of the population of these territories in later years. If this be correct, and I believe it is, how could the Honourable Hudson Bay Company fairly overlook the interests of this considerable population, and make no provision in the transfer for their legitimate claims? Was it intended to keep their claims in abeyance? Or did it arise from pure contempt of the half-races, who were their own descendants? The half-race could not understand its position; it was in itself helpless; it might send its complaints and its petitions, but they would only be treated with indifference and contempt. The Hudson Bay Company had influence and wealth to support its case both in England and in Ottawa; but what could the half-race do, who were so far off, and neither had advocates to plead their case, nor money to pay them for their labour and ability, if they could have been found? The historian who wishes to trace events to their true causes must hold the official negotiators of this transfer greatly responsible for the unrest, the uncertainty, and the waste of money and lives, which are associated with the scenes of 1885.

Secondly, there was often a great want of tact and prudence on the part of the Canadian gentlemen who had, in different ways, to do business in these parts, and more especially with the tribes on the plains. Before any arrangements were made with the Indian bands, surveyors were sent to survey longitudes, etc., and these surveyors puzzled the Indian. When he inquired the reason of their visit, and asked whether the great Queen-mother had sent them to do their magic in the country, he was informed that the Canadian was master now. But since the transfer has puzzled wise heads on both sides of the Atlantic, there is little reason for wondering that the Indian could not see through the fog. Company power gone, Queen-mother made light of, Canadian rule set up from beyond the Great Lakes. What was about to happen now? Add this to the half-race grievance, and it is not surprising that in time the fire should blaze on the prairies until much was consumed. There was altogether too much contempt for the Indian and the half-breed, and too little attention given to their customs and manners. The Indian is very formal, and precise, and dignified, in his ways and ideas; he is easily pleased, but soon offended; and what may seem to be trifles will give great offence, which will not soon be forgotten.

On several occasions I ventured to mention these matters privately to gentlemen who I thought were overlooking them in their transactions, and unnecessarily producing discontent. But the answer always was, 'What do I care? I am not afraid of an Indian!' Some of these gentlemen were pretty well scared afterwards. But others had to meet the expense, and to sacrifice their lives, and to bear the penalty of their incompetence. On one occasion I was present at an Indian treaty payment before the outbreak. The rumour was that the Indians were much dissatisfied with the way their treaty arrangements were kept, and that they intended to express this dissatisfaction before they took their money. The scene itself was interesting to anyone who sympathized with human life in any form. The Government men, visitors, and traders took their station on an elevated position; far down in the valley the Indians had arrayed themselves in all the glory of their paint and feathers. On their approach they danced their dances and fired their guns, by way of salute and respect to the great man. Then the colloquy began. 'Are you the great chief who is able to attend to our wants and complaints?' The answer was, 'I am.' Then various matters were discussed, and complaints were made. That day the Indians would not receive their money. Perhaps half an hour was taken up with a discussion as to whether twenty pounds of tea should be allowed them while in the summer they were cutting their winter's hay, and this tea was not very graciously refused. Suppose this gentleman had known their temperaments, and had even, as a personal gift, shown his interest in them by giving them this small quantity of tea, their delight would then have been unbounded. Afterwards, through the private persuasion of wiser and more kindly disposed persons who were not in office, the Indians did, with reluctance, take their treaty money.

Thirdly, difficulties of all kinds on account of distances were sure to arise, and these could scarcely be avoided in the transmission of ploughs and other instruments of industry. The Indian had been promised these things, and oftentimes they did not arrive. Patience was needed on both sides, but especially wisdom on the part of the 'white man,' if matters were to run smoothly. Manner here, as in other lands, was often of supreme importance to a good understanding. Contempt of persons and races is never good policy, and it is to be hoped that when the Athabasca, Peace River, and Mackenzie River districts are opened up for settlement, these lessons will be remembered, and all collisions of races avoided in the future.


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