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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Transfer Act passed—A moribund government—The Canadian surveying party—Causes of the rebellion—Turbulent Metis—American interference—Disloyal ecclesiastics—Governor McDougall— Riel and his rebel band—A blameworthy Governor—The "blawsted fence"—Seizure of Fort Garry—Kiel's ambitions—Loyal rising—Three wise men from the East—The New Nation— A winter meeting—Bill of Rights—Canadian shot—The Wolseley expedition—Three renegades slink away—The end of Company rule—The new Province of Manitoba.

The old Company had agreed to the bargain, and the Imperial Act was passed authorizing the transfer of the vast territory east of the Rocky Mountains to Canada. Canada, with the strengthening national spirit rising from the young confederation, with pleasure saw the Dominion Government place in the estimates the three hundred thousand pounds for the payment of the Hudson's Bay Company, and an Act was passed by the Dominion Parliament providing for a government of the north-west territories, which would secure the administration of justice, and the peace, order, and good government of Her Majesty's subjects and others. It was enacted, however, that all laws of the territory at the time of the passing of the Act should remain in force until amended or repealed, and all officers except the chief to continue in office until others were appointed.

And now began the most miserable and disreputable exhibition of decrepitude, imbecility, jesuitry, foreign interference, blundering, and rash patriotism ever witnessed in the fur traders' country. This was known as the Red River rebellion. The writer arrived in Fort Garry the year following this wretched affair, made the acquaintance of many of the actors in the rebellion, and heard their stories. The real, deep significance of this rebellion has never been fully made known. Whether the writer will succeed in telling the whole tale remains to be seen.

The Hudson's Bay Company officials at Red River were still the government. This fact must be distinctly borne in mind. It has been stated, however, that this government had become hopelessly weak and inefficient. Governor Dallas, in the words quoted, admitted this and lamented over it. Were there any doubt in regard to this statement, it was shown by the utter defiance of the law in the breaking of jail in the three cases of Corbett, Stewart, and Dr. Schultz. No government could retain respect when the solemn behests of its courts were laughed at and despised. This is the real reason lying at the root of the apathy of the English-speaking people of the Red River in dealing with the rebellion. They were not cowards; they sprang from ancestors who had fought Britain's battles; they were intelligent and moral; they loved their homes and were prepared to defend them; but they had no guarantee of leadership; they had no assurance that their efforts would be given even the colour of legality; the broken-down Jail outside Fort Garry, its uprooted stockades and helpless old Jailor, were the symbol of governmental decrepitude and were the sport of any determined law-breaker.

It has been the habit of their opponents to refer to the annoyance of the Hudson's Bay Company Committee in London with Canada for in 1869 sending surveyors to examine the country before the transfer was made. Reference has also been made to the dissatisfaction of the local officers at the action taken by the Company in dealing with the deed poll in 1863 ; some have said that the Hudson's Bay Company officials at Fort Garry did not admire the Canadian leaders as they saw them; and others have maintained that these officers cared nothing for the country, provided they received large enough dividends as wintering partners.

Views of Fort

Now, there may be something in these contentions, but they do not touch the core of the matter. The Hudson's Bay Company, both in London and Fort Garry, wore thoroughly loyal to British institutions; the officers were educated, responsible, and high-minded men ; they had acted up to their light in a thoroughly honourable manner, and no mere prejudice, or fancied grievance, or personal dislike would have made them untrue to their trusts. But the government had become decrepit; vacillation and uncertainty characterized every act; had the people been behind them, had they not felt that the people distrusted them, they would have taken action, as it was their duty to do.

The chronic condition of helplessness and governmental decay was emphasized and increased by a sad circumstance. Governor William McTavish, an honourable and well-meaning man, was sick. In the midst of the troubles of 1863 he would willingly have resigned, as Governor Dallas assures us ; now he was physically incapable of the energy and decision requisite under the circumstances. Moreover, as we shall see, there was a most insidious and dangerous influence dogging his every step. His subordinates would not act without him, he could not act without them, and thus an absolute deadlock . ensued. Moreover, the Council of Assiniboia, an appointed body, had felt itself for years out of touch with the sentiment of the colony, and its efforts at legislation resulted in no improvement of the condition of things. Woe to a country ruled by an oligarchy, however well-meaning or reputable such a body may be!

Turn now from this picture of pitiful weakness to the unaccountable and culpable blundering of the Canadian Government. Cartier and McDougall found out in England that sending in a party of surveyors before the country was transferred was offensive to the Hudson's Bay Company. More offensive still was the method of conducting the expedition. It was a mark of sublime stupidity to profess, as the Canadian Government did, to look upon the money spent on this survey as a benevolent device for relieving the people suffering from the grasshopper visitation. The genius who originated the plan of combining charity with gain should have been canonized. Moreover, the plan of contractor Snow of paying poor wages, delaying payment, and giving harsh treatment to such a people as the half-breeds are known to be was most ill advised. The evidently selfish and grasping spirit shown in this expedition sent to survey and build the Dawson Road, yet turning aside to claim unoccupied lands, to sow the seeds of doubt and suspicion in the minds of a people hitherto secluded from the world, was most unpatriotic and dangerous. It cannot be denied, in addition, that while many of the small band of Canadians were reputable and hard-working men, the course of a few prominent leaders, who had made an illegitimate use of the Nor'-Wester newspaper, had tended to keep the community in a state of alienation and turmoil.

What, then, were the conditions? A helpless, moribund government, without decision, without actual authority on the one hand, and on the other an irritating, selfish, and aggressive expedition, taking possession of the land before it was transferred to Canada, and assuming the air of conquerors.

Look now at the combustible elements awaiting this combination. The French half-breeds, descendants of the turbulent Bois Brules of Lord Selkirk's times; the old men, companions of Sayer and the elder Riel, who defied the authority of the court, and left it shouting, "Vive la liberté!" now irritated by the Dawson Road being built in the way Just described; the road running through the seigniory given by Lord Selkirk to the Roman Catholic bishop, the road in rear of their largest settlements, and passing through another French settlement at Pointe des Chenes! Further, the lands adjacent to these settlements, and naturally connected with them, being seized by the intruders! Furthermore, the natives, antagonized by the action of certain Canadians who had for years maintained the country in a state of turmoil! Were there not all the elements of an explosion of a serious and dangerous kind? Two other most important forces in this complicated state of things cannot be left out. The first of these is a matter which requires careful statement, but yet it is a most potential factor in the rebellion. This is the attitude of certain persons in the United States. For twenty years and more the trade of the Red River settlement had been largely carried on by way of St. Paul, in the State of Minnestota. The Hudson Bay route and York boat brigade were unable to compote with the facilities offered by the approach of the railway to the Mississippi River.

Accordingly long lines of Red River carts took loads of furs to St. Paul and brought back freight for the Company. The Red River trade was a recognized source of profit in St. Paul. Familiarity in trade led to an interest on the part of the Americans in the public affairs of Red River. Hot-headed and sordid people in Red River settlement had actually spoken of the settlement being connected with the United States.
Now that irritation was manifested at Red River, steps were taken by private parties from the United States to fan the flame. At Pembina, on the border between Rupert's Land and the United States, lived a nest of desperadoes willing to take any steps to accomplish their purposes. They had access to all the mails which came from England to Canada marked "Via Pembina." Pembina was an outpost refuge for lawbreakers and outcasts from the United States. Its people used all their power to disturb the peace of Red River settlement. In addition, a considerable number of Americans had come to the little village of Winnipeg, now being begun near the walls of Fort Garry. These men held their private meetings, all looking to the creation of trouble and the provocation of feeling that might lead to change of allegiance. Furthermore, the writer is able to state, on the information of a man high in the service of Canada, and a man not unknown in Manitoba, that there was a large sum of money, of which an amount was named as high as one million dollars, which was available in St. Paul for the purpose of securing a hold by the Americans on the fertile plains of Rupert's Land.

Here, then, was an agency of most dangerous proportions, an element in the village of Winnipeg able to control the election of the first delegate to the convention, a desperate body of men on the border, who with Machiavelian persistence fanned the flame of discontent, and a reserve of power in St. Paul ready to take advantage of any emergency.'

A still more insidious and threatening influence was at work.. Here again the writer is aware of the gravity of the statement he is making, but he has evidence of the clearest kind for his position. A dangerous religious element in the country— ecclesiastics from old France—who had no love for Britain, no love for Canada, no love for any country, no love for society, no love for peace! These plotters were in close association with the half-breeds, dictated their policy, and freely mingled with the rebels- One of them was an intimate friend of the loader of the rebellion, consulted with him in his plans, and exercised a marked influence on his movements. This same foreign priest, with Jesuitical cunning, gave close attendance on the sick Governor, and through his family exercised a constant and detrimental power upon the only source of authority then in the land. Furthermore, an Irish student and teacher, with a Fenian hatred of all things British, was a "familiar" of the leader of the rebellion, and with true Milesian zeal advanced the cause of the revolt.

Can a more terrible combination be imagined than this? A decrepit government with the executive officer sick; a rebellious and chronically dissatisfied Metis element; a government at Ottawa far removed by distance, committing with unvarying regularity blunder after blunder; a greedy and foreign cabal planning to seize the country, and a secret Jesuitical plot to keep the Governor from action and to incite the fiery Metis to revolt!

The drama opens with the appointment, in September, 1869, by the Dominion Government, of the Hon. William McDougall as Lieutenant-Governor of the north-west territories, his departure from Toronto, and his arrival at Pembina, in the Dakota territory, in the end of October. He was accompanied by his family, a small staff, and three hundred stand of arms with ammunition. He had been preceded by the Hon. Joseph Howe, of the Dominion Government, who visited the Red River settlement ostensibly to feel the pulse of public opinion, but as Commissioner gaining little information. Mr. McDougall's commission as Governor was to take effect after the formal transfer of the territory. He reached Pembina, where he was served with a notice not to enter the territory, yet he crossed the boundary line at Pembina, and took possession of the Hudson's Bay Fort of West Lynn, two miles north of the boundary.

Meanwhile a storm was brewing along Red River. A young French half-breed, Louis Riel, son of the excitable miller of the Seine of whom mention was made—a young man, educated by the Roman Catholic Bishop Taché, of St. Boniface, for a time, and afterwards in Montreal, was regarded as the hope of the Metis. He was a young man of fair ability, but proud, vain, and assertive, and had the ambition to be a Caesar or Napoleon. He with his followers had stopped the surveyors in their work, and threatened to throw off the approaching tyranny. Professing to be loyal to Britain but hostile to Canada, he succeeded, in October, in getting a small body of French half-breeds to seize the main highway at St. Norbert, some nine miles south of Fort Garry.

The message to Mr. McDougall not to enter the territory was forwarded by this body, that already considered itself the de facto government. A Canadian settler at once swore an affidavit before the officer in charge of Fort Garry that an armed party of French half-breeds had assembled to oppose the entrance of the Governor.

Here, then, was the hour of destiny. An outbreak had taken place, it was illegal to oppose any man entering the country, not to say a Governor, the fact of revolt was immediately brought to Fort Garry, and no amount of casuistry or apology can ever justify Governor McTavish, sick though he was, from immediately not taking action, and compelling his council to take action by summoning the law-abiding people to surround him and repress the revolt. But the government that would allow the defiance of the law by permitting men to live at liberty who had broken jail could not be expected to take action. To have done so would have been to work a miracle.

The rebellion went on apace; two of the so-called Governor's staff pushed on to the barricade erected at St. Norbert. Captain Cameron, one of them, with eyeglass in poise, and with affected authority, gave command, "Remove that blawsted fence," but the half-breeds were unyielding. The two messengers returned to Pembina, where they found Mr. McDougall likewise driven back and across the boundary. Did ever British prestige suffer a more humiliating blow?

The act of rebellion, usually dangerous, proved in this case a trivial one, and Kiel's little band of forty or fifty badly-armed Metis began to grow. The mails were seized, freight coming into the country became booty, and the experiment of a rising was successful. In the meantime the authorities of Fort Garry were inactive. The rumour came that Riel thought of seizing the fort. An affidavit of the chief of police under the Government shows that he urged the master of Fort Garry to meet the danger, and asked authority to call upon a portion of the special police force sworn in, shortly before, to preserve the peace. No Governor spoke; no one even closed the fort as a precaution; its gates stood wide open to friend or foe.

This exhibition of helplessness encouraged the conspirators, and Riel and one hundred of his followers (November 2nd) unopposed took possession of the fort and quartered themselves upon the Company. In the front part of the fort lived the Governor ; he was now flanked by a bodyguard of rebels ; the master of the fort, a burly son of Britain, though very gruff and out of sorts, could do nothing, and the young Napoleon of the Metis fattened on the best of the land.

Riel now issued a proclamation, calling on the English-speaking parishes of the settlement to elect twelve representatives to meet the President and representatives of the French-speaking population, appointing a meeting for twelve days afterwards.

Mr. McDougall, on hearing of the seizure of the fort, wrote to Governor McTavish stating that as the Hudson Bay Company was still the government, action should be taken to disperse the rebels. A number of loyal inhabitants also petitioned Governor McTavish to issue his proclamation calling on the rebels to disperse. The sick and helpless Governor, fourteen days after the seizure of the fort and twenty-three days after the affidavit of the rising, issued a tardy proclamation condemning the rebels and calling upon them to disperse. The Convention met November 16th, the English parishes having been cajoled into electing delegates, thinking thus to soothe the troubled land. After meeting and discussing in hot and useless words the state of affairs, the Convention adjourned till December 1st, it being evident, however, that Riel desired to form a provisional government of which he should be the joy and pride.

The day for the reassembling of the Convention arrived. Riel and his party insisted on ruling the meeting, and passed a "Bill of Rights" consisting of fifteen provisions. The English people refused to accept these propositions, and, after vainly endeavouring to take steps to meet Mr. McDougall, withdrew to their homes, ashamed and confounded.

Meanwhile Mr. McDougall was chafing at the strange and humiliating situation in which he found himself. With his family and staff poorly housed at Pembina and the severe winter coming on, he could scarcely be blamed for irritation and discontent. December 1st was the day on which he expected his commission as Governor to come into effect, and wonder of wonders, he, a lawyer, a privy councillor, and an experienced statesman, went so far on this mere supposition as to issue a proclamation announcing his appointment as Governor. As a matter of fact, far away from communication with Ottawa, he was mistaken as to the transfer. On account of the rise of the rebellion this had not been made, and Mr. McDougall, in issuing a spurious proclamation, became a thing of contempt to the insurgents, an object of pity to the loyalists, and the laughing-stock of the whole world. His proclamation at the same time authorizing Colonel Dennis, the Canadian surveyor in Red River settlement, to raise a force to put down the rebellion, was simply a brutum fulmen, and was the cause to innocent, well-meaning men of trouble and loss. Colonel Dennis succeeded in raising a force of some four hundred men, and would not probably have failed had it not transpired that the two proclamations were illegal and that the levies were consequently unauthorized. Such a thing to be carried out by William McDougall and Colonel Dennis, men of experience and ability! Surely there could be no greater fiasco!

The Canadian people were now in a state of the greatest excitement, and the Canadian Government, aware of its blundering and stupidity, hastened to rectify its mistakes. Commissioners were sent to negotiate with the various parties in Red River settlement. These were Vicar-General Thibault, who had spent long years in the Roman Catholic Missions of the North-West, Colonel de Salaberry, a French Canadian, and Mr. Donald A. Smith, the chief officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, then at Montreal. On the last of these Commissioners, who had been clothed with very wide powers, lay the chief responsibility, as will be readily seen.

A number of Canadians—nearly fifty—had been assembled in the store of Dr. Schultz, at the village of Winnipeg, and, on the failure of Mr. McDougall's proclamation, were left in a very awkward condition. With arms in their hands, they were looked upon by Riel as dangerous, and with promises of freedom and of the intention of Riel to meet McDougall and settle the whole matter, they (December 7th) surrendered. Safely in the fort and in the prison outside the wall, the prisoners were kept by the truce-breaker, and the Metis contingent celebrated the victory by numerous potations of rum taken from the Hudson's Bay Company stores.

Riel now took a step forward in issuing a proclamation, which has generally been attributed to the crippled postmaster at Pembina, one of the dangerous foreign clique longing to seize the settlement. He also hoisted a new flag, with the fleur-de-lis worked upon it, thus giving evidence of his disloyalty and impudence. Other acts of injustice, such as seizing Company funds and interfering with personal liberty, were committed by him.

On December 27th—a memorable day—Mr. Donald A. Smith arrived. His commission and papers were left at Pembina, and he went directly to Fort Garry, where Riel received him. The interview, given in Mr. Smith's own words, was a remarkable one. Riel vainly sought to induce the Commissioner to recognize his government, and yet was afraid to show disrespect to so high and honoured an officer. For about two months Commissioner Smith lived at Fort Garry, in a part of the same building as Governor McTavish.

Mr. Smith says of this period, "The state of matters at this time was most unsatisfactory and truly humiliating. Upwards of fifty British subjects were held in close confinement as political prisoners; security for persons or property there was none. . . . The leaders of the French half-breeds had declared their determination to use every effort for the purpose of annexing the territory to the United States."

Mr. Smith acted with great wisdom and decision. His plan evidently was to have no formal breach with Riel but gradually to undermine him, and secure a combination by which he could be overthrown. Many of the influential men of the settlement called upon Mr, Smith, and the affairs of the country were discussed. Riel was restless and at times impertinent, but the Commissioner exercised his Scottish caution, and bided his time.

At this time a newspaper, called The New Nation, appeared as the organ of the provisional government. This paper openly advocated annexation to the United States, thus show the really dangerous nature of the movement embodied in the rebellion.

During all these months of the rebellion, Bishop Taché, the influential head of the Roman Catholic Church, had been absent in Rome at the great Council of that year. One of his most active priests left behind was Father Lestanc, the prince of plotters, who has generally been credited with belonging to the Jesuit Order. Lestanc had sedulously haunted the presence of the Governor; he was a daring and extreme man, and to him and his fellow-Frenchman, the cure of St. Norbert, much of Kiel's obstinacy has been attributed. Commissioner Smith now used his opportunity to weaken Riel. He offered to send for his commission to Pembina, if he were allowed to meet the people. Riel consented to this. The commission was sent for, and Riel tried to intercept the messenger, but failed to do so. The meeting took place on January 19th. It was a date of note for Red River settlement. One thousand people assembled, and as there was no building capable of holding the people, the meeting took place in the open air, the temperature being twenty below zero.

The outcome of this meeting was the election and subsequent assembling of forty representatives—one half French, the other half English—to consider the matter of Commissioner Smith's message. Six days after the open-air meeting the Convention met. A second "Bill of Rights" was adopted, and it was agreed to send delegates to Ottawa to meet the Dominion Government. A provisional government was formed, at the request, it is said, of Governor McTavish, and Riel gained the height of his ambition in being made President, while the fledgling Fenian priest, O'Donoghue, became "Secretary of the Treasury."

The retention of the prisoners in captivity aroused a deep feeling in the country, and a movement originated in Portage La Prairie to rescue the unfortunates. This force was joined by recruits at Kildonan, making up six hundred in all. Awed by this gathering, Riel released the prisoners, though he was guilty of an act of deepest treachery in arresting nearly fifty of the Assiniboine levy as they were returning to their homes. Among them was Major Boulton, who afterwards narrowly escaped execution, and who has written an interesting account of the rebellion.

The failure of the two parties of loyalists, and their easy capture by Riel, raises the question of the wisdom of these efforts. No doubt the inspiring motive of these levies was in many cases true patriotism, and it reflects credit on them as men of British blood and British pluck, but the management of both was so unfortunate and so lacking in skill, that one is disposed, though lamenting their failures, to put these expeditions down as dictated by the greatest rashness,

The elevation of Riel served to awaken high ambitions. The late Archbishop Taché, in a later rebellion, characterized Riel as a remarkable example of inflated ambition, and called his state of mind that of "megalomania." Riel now became more irritable and domineering. He seemed also bitter against the English for the signs of insubordination appearing in all the parishes. The influence of the violent and dastardly Lestanc was strong upon him. The anxious President now determined to awe the English, and condemned for execution a young Irish Canadian prisoner named Thomas Scott. Commissioner Smith and a number of influential inhabitants did everything possible to dissuade Riel, but he persisted, and Scott was publicly executed near Fort Garry on March 4th, 1870.

"Whom the gods destroy, they first make mod." The execution of Scott was the death-knell of Riel's hopes. Canada was roused to its centre. Determined to have no further communication with Riel, Commissioner Smith as soon as possible left Fort Garry and returned to Canada.

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