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The Life of James Robertson

FOR ten years the fame of the Canadian West had been spreading abroad, not only throughout Eastern Canada, but across the sea to European countries as well. Year by year the volume of immigration had been growing steadily. In 1878, the railroad from the south reached St. Boniface. It was not until 1881, however, that it crossed the Red River and entered the capital city of Manitoba. With the advent of the rail-way to the Province, the growth of immigration was vastly increased. Settlers poured in, with money and without money, filled up the vacant spaces about the city, all demanding homes and building sites, and passed through and out of the city by the trails leading south, west and north, buying land, securing homesteads and squatting on claims. Colonization companies, land syndicates, railroads, were all smitten with the fever of land speculation. In consequence, prices rose enormously, till the climax was reached in the famous "boom" of 1881.

The stories that float down to us from the days of the Winnipeg "boom" read almost like fairy tales. It is difficult to believe that sane men could have become so rabidly mad in so short a period of time. Not only did the value of corner lots in the city of Winnipeg soar out of sight, but far out upon the prairie, in anticipation of projected and wholly imaginary railway lines, town sites were surveyed, then from alluring and beautiful pictures of prosperous towns built upon these sites, with post-office, railway station, court-house, beautifully treed avenues depicted in harmonious colours, lots were sold at fabulous prices. Not only in Winnipeg and the West, but in Eastern Canada and the United States, those building sites were greedily snapped up. The spirit of adventure seizing many who approached this land of promise, led them far off into wilds remote from civilization, from market, from means of transportation, from school and Church privileges. The cry was "Ho! for the far West !" In every direction nuclei of settlements were set down upon the empty prairie.

All this made enormous demands upon the Church. From Port Arthur to British Columbia, two thousand miles and more, stretched this vast mission field. No wonder that the Home Mission Committee of 1880, after passing grants to the amount of nearly $11,000 to twenty-eight groups of mission fields in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, and with a debit balance of $14,500 should sit down and, without argument, pass the following resolution:

"The Committee having regard to the injunction of the General Assembly to keep the expenditure of the fund within the income, agree, as a measure of precaution, to make the grants to mission stations and supplemented congregations, as now revised, for the six months ending 31st March next; these grants for the following six months being subject to revision at the next general meeting of the Committee."

The terror of the West was upon the committee. They knew not whereunto this thing would grow. Reaching the limit of their own resources, they appeal, and not without result, to the Churches of the Homeland. But still they find themselves with means inadequate to the demands made upon them. So they pass resolutions urging retrenchment. But however the Committee may resolve, the West cannot and will not halt. It was the next year, 1881, that answering the far-off cry from Edmonton, A. B. Baird, newly graduated from Knox College, and newly ordained by the Presbytery of Stratford, hitched up his buckboard at Winnipeg, packed in his "grub" and outfit, and took the westward trail for his outpost nine hundred miles away.

With this vast mission field reaching from the Lakes to Edmonton, nearly fifteen hundred miles from east to west, and with the Home Mission Committee in such financial straits, it was that the Superintendent entered upon his work.

The institution or revival of the office of Superintendent was for all concerned a somewhat perilous departure. "What does this office mean?" many were asking. "What are its rights and its limitations? What of Presbytery authority and the authority of the Assembly’s Home Mission Committee, and of the Presbytery’s Home Mission Committee? What of the sacred doctrine of the parity of Presbyters?" Surely this man will need to give heed to his steps that he slip not. To aid him in this the Home Mission Committee prepare a series of regulations for the guidance of the Superintendent for Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. These are afterwards approved by the Presbytery of Manitoba and by the General Assembly, and are as follows:

1. His duties shall include the oversight and visitation of all the mission stations and supplemented congregations within the aforesaid territory; the organization of new stations and the adjusting of the amounts to be paid by the different stations and congregations for the support of ordinances, and the amounts to be asked from the Home Mission Committee, and in general the supervision and furtherance of the entire mission work of our Church in Manitoba and the Northwest.

2. In the prosecution of his work he shall consult and report to the Presbytery of Manitoba or such other Presbyteries as may be hereinafter erected. He shall also submit to the meetings of the Home Mission Committee, in March and October, a detailed statement of the progress of the work, including the adaptability of the missionaries to the fields assigned to them, and the fulfillment on the part of stations and supplemented congregations of the engagements entered into for the support of the missionaries.

3. He shall transmit to the Home Mission Committee an annual report for presentation to the Assembly, containing complete statistics of the membership, families and adherents in each mission station and supplemented congregation; also the additions made during the year, the amount of contributions for the support of ordinances and for the Home Mission fund during the year, and the extent of new territory occupied during the same period, with any other information and recommendations that may be deemed important for the Committee and the General Assembly to know.

4. All Home Mission grants shall be paid by the Superintendent to the stations and supplemented congregations, and he shall be empowered, should he see cause, to withhold payment of said grants in cases where the stations and supplemented congregations have not fulfilled their monetary engagements, or where statistics have not been regularly furnished.

5. Payments shall be made to the stations and supplemented congregations quarterly.

6. No draft shall in any case be drawn by the Superintendent of Missions until he has sent to the Convener of the Home Mission Committee a detailed quarterly statement of the amounts due to each station and congregation, and until he has received his sanction to draw for said amounts upon the treasurer of the Church.

7. In the meantime, the missionary of Prince Albert shall receive his payments directly through the Convener of the Home Mission Committee.

8. The Superintendent of Missions shall spend a portion of each year as directed by the Home Mission Committee in the other Provinces, with a view to enlist the sympathies and evoke the liberality of the Church in the mission work of Manitoba and the Northwest.

9. The Superintendent shall report his travelling expenses every six months to the Presbytery, to be passed by it before being paid by the Home Mission Committee.

There is a significant hint of the sense of peril attaching to this departure in Church government in the objection lodged by the Rev. Hugh McKellar, a member of the Presbytery of Manitoba, against the word "oversight" appearing in the rules. Mr. McKellar is anxious lest the Superintendent should assume anything like episcopal control. But before the rules could reach him, the Superintendent was at his work.

There is no railway as yet leading west through his field, so he buys a horse and buggy and starts out early in August, taking the Portage trail, upon his first missionary tour, as Superintendent. On that first missionary tour he drove two thousand miles, at first through heat and dust and rain, and later through frosts and blizzards, for it was after the middle of December before he returned to Winnipeg, delivering some ninety-six sermons and forty missionary addresses.

That trail and others he will press for twenty years without halt or break or reprieve, till he lays him down to his long rest. That trail, pursued by buggy and buck. board, by cutter and "jumper," by passenger train and freight train, would girdle the earth ten times and more. Pressing that trail, he will break the way for many a pioneer missionary, who, passing beyond the sky-line of the prairie, may pass out of sight, and often out of memory of his Church, but will never be forgotten by him who first showed him this pathway to service and to glory.

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