1875: Donald A. Smith defends his role in the Resistance

In 1869-1870, Donald Alexander Smith was an officer in the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was appointed as Commissioner from Canada to travel to Red River.

In 1875, as an honourable member of the Canadian House of Commons for the riding of Selkirk MB, Smith objected to a newspaper story that questioned his actions during the Resistance. He sought to set the record straight, stating his defence in the House of Commons[1]:

Before the House adjourns I desire to call their attention to certain allegations made in the Ottawa Citizen by a person named W.B. O’Donoghue to the effect that while employed on a confidential mission for the Government of Canada I betrayed the trust imposed in me, that I in that capacity while at [Upper] Fort Garry conspired with others against the Government of this country and against the Government of Her Majesty the Queen. At that time I reported to the Canadian Government with regard to the measures I had taken while employed in their services.[2] It is known to the hon. members of this House that then, as to some extent now, I was connected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, but it was not in that capacity that I then visited Fort Garry but as representing, as I have said, the Government of Canada in a confidential capacity. It is said by Mr. O’Donoghue that on that occasion I recognized the “Provisional Government” then in the country as the lawful Government of the country. Such, Mr. Speaker, is not the case. I will refer to a report I then made to the Government at Ottawa on 12th April, 1870. In that report I stated:–

The Gate of the Fort we found open, but guarded by several armed men, who, on my desiring to be shown to [HBC] Governor [William] MacTavish‘s house, requested me to wait till they could communicate with their chief. In a short time, Mr. Louis Riel appeared. I announced my name; he said he had heard of my arrival at Pembina, and was about to send off a party to bring me in. I then accompanied him to a room occupied by ten or a dozen men, whom he introduced to me as members of the ‘Provisional Government.’ He requested to know the purpose of my visit, to which I replied in substance that I was connected with the Hudson’s Bay Company, but also held a commission from the Canadian Government to the people of Red River, and would be prepared to produce my credentials as soon as they, the people, were willing to receive me. I was then asked to take an oath not to attempt to leave the fort that night, not to upset their Government, legally established. This request I peremptorily refused to comply with, but said that, being very tired, I had no desire to go outside the gate that night, and promised to take no immediate steps to upset the so-called ‘Provisional Government’ ‘legal or illegal as it may be,’ without first announcing my intention to do so; Mr. Riel, taking exception to the word illegal, while I insisted on using it. Mr. O’Donoghue, to get over the difficulty, remarked ‘That is as he’ (meaning myself) ‘understands it,’ to which I rejoined, ‘Precisely so.’ The above explanation, I am the most particular in giving, as it has been reported that I at once acknowledged the Provisional Government to be legal. Neither then nor afterwards did I do so.

It [is] charged by Mr. O’Donoghue against me, that while at Fort Garry I aided and abetted Riel, for in his letter he says:–

 The insurrection was advised by Governor Wm. MacTavish, who, with other officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, also aided and abetted in it from its inception up to the very hour it ceased to exist;[3] that Riel was in constant communication with Governor MacTavish,[4] and acted on many occasions under his instruction; but he (Governor MacTavish) fully recognized the Provisional Government; that Donald A. Smith on arriving at Fort Garry recognized the Government also in my own hearing, and during his stay in the Fort; and that after the departure of both of these from the country, Riel continued to hold council with John [Henry ‘Jack’] MacTavish, who then represented the Hudson’s Bay Company.

It is true, Mr. Speaker, that on several, indeed on many occasions while there I met Riel and other members of the so-called Provisional Government; but those meetings were in pursuance of the duty I had undertaken as Commissioner for Canada. They were held solely and entirely with the view of inducing those people, the people of Red River, to come into the Confederation, and certainly not with the intention of advising them to remain, as they had been for some time, at enmity with the Dominion. I think I can best show to this House the position which I occupied by referring to documents and letters. The first occasion on which I had any communication with the Government at Ottawa with respect to the North-West, was with Sir John Rose, on 20th August, when it was intended that the Hon. Mr. [Joseph] Howe should go there. I wish to show that instead of any difficulty being thrown in the way of Officers of the Government entering the North-West, every facility was afforded them, and I can do this by referring to letters in my possession. I[n] a letter dated 20th August, Sir John Rose thanked me for the assistance and facilities given to Mr. Howe. A letter sent by the Hon. Mr. Wm. MacDougall [sic: William McDougall], not to myself personally, but to Mr. Hopkins, who was supposed by him at that time to be acting for the Hudson’s Bay Company, shows that the Company had done everything they could to expedite Mr. MacDougall’s entry into the country. To show that after I arrived at Fort Garry I acted in good faith throughout, and endeavored to give what in my judgment was the best advice possible to the Government which sent me there, I will quote the following extract from my letter to Sir John [Alexander] Macdonald of 4th January, 1870:–

You are aware that upwards of sixty individuals principally from Canada have been imprisoned here for three weeks back, of these, seven have been liberated.[5]

It is said that others will be allowed to go free shortly, and this I think is not improbable, but it cannot be taken as an indication of an intention to relax in the course already determined on by the moving spirits of the ‘Provisional Government.’ Bishop McCrae [sic: Robert Machray] called on me to-day, and he evidently has not the slightest hope that anything short of the introduction of a considerable body of troops can result in restoring order; and this appears to be the prevailing opinion of the well-disposed portion of the community. Some of the most intelligent and trustworthy men I have seen, and they are now more than ever impressed with the necessity of unanimity and perfect accord among the English speaking party, who with very few exceptions are well affected to the British Crown and a large majority to the connection with Canada. But in the present condition of matters, there cannot, and must not be any hostile collision between the different parties. Nothing is more to be deprecated than this, and any influence I can exert shall certainly be given to prevent it. I am, however, not altogether without hope that more moderate and rational counsels may prevail, and you may rest satisfied that if apparently paying little heed to the course of events, I am very far from being idle or indifferent. But while saying so, it is impossible with the outside influences at work, to say what complications may arise, and I feel it to be my duty to urge on you, and through you on Her Majesty’s Imperial Government, the necessity of being prepared at the earliest possible moment to throw in sufficient force to crush an insurrection, even at the present moment, formidable, and which before many months hence may become so strong, as, looking to the position and circumstances of the country to offer little hope of the possibility of putting it down. Should life and property be in imminent peril, and no recourse to British protection possible, I am inclined to think that with hardly a dissentient [sic] voice the law-abiding and substantial portion of the inhabitants would call on the United States Government to come to their aid, and the effect of such a requisition it is needless for me to point out.

It is hardly possible that I was writing in those terms to the Government of Canada [and] I should at the same time have been working, as is alleged, with those who unfortunately at that time, were in insurrection against the Crown, or at all events were opposed to entering into the Canadian Confederation. Some time afterwards, for the purpose of saving the life of an officer, Major Bolton [sic: Charles Arkoll Boulton], who had been condemned to death and to cause the return of the other persons held as prisoners, I undertook to go around into the settlements. At that time Mr. James Ross, called the Chief Justice, offered to accompany me. But on considering the matter he decided that it would be better for the object of the mission that he should not do so. He wrote me the following letter:–

Monday Morning, 20th Feb., 1870.

D.A. Smith, Esq., Commissioner &c.

Dear Sir, On further consideration I am satisfied that the mission projected for to-day will be much more successful if you alone undertake it. My course at the convention, which the people below highly disapproved of, as being too friendly to the French, would not only render valueless anything I might urge, but perhaps even help to intensify the feeling against Union. So satisfied am I of this, that in the public interest I must refrain from taking part in this mission.

I am sir,

Yours faithfully,

(Signed)                James Ross.

Now, if Mr. Ross considered that I was also favorable to them (the insurgents) at that time, it was hardly likely that he would have addressed me in those terms.

I did not advise the people to submit to the Provisional Government. … In connection with this point I may say that the rev. gentleman who accompanied me, Archdeacon [John] McLean, now Bishop of Saskatchewan, at the trial of Lepine [sic: Ambroise-Dydime Lépine], which took place last Autumn at Fort Garry, took occasion specially to point this out, and to say that on every occasion when speaking to the people throughout the settlement I impressed upon them that they were not under any circumstances to address Riel, but to address in the shortest possible manner their notice of their choice of a delegate to Mr. [Thomas] Bunn who really had been chosen by the Convention as the Secretary. Mr. Bunn himself before the North-West Committee gave evidence to the same effect. More than that, on one occasion when at Heddingly [sic: Headingly], a petition was shown to me which it was proposed to present to the so-called President of the Government of Rupert’s Land. I told the person in whose possession it was it should not be presented, and thereupon it was torn up. I advised them simply to send their formal notices to Mr. Bunn. What I did in going round the settlements is stated in my report. I may mention that at several of the parishes visited, I found that by the advice of the Bishop of Rupert’s Land and other clergymen who had been there, the people had already chosen their delegates. At the same time it must be remembered that while in Fort Garry I was virtually a prisoner, and was under strict guard, and during a certain length of time, I was not allowed to speak to any individual other than the guards. It is hardly likely that I, as a prisoner, could be taking part with those persons who kept me a prisoner, and who were in insurrection.[6] To show further I was acting in opposition to those who were in insurrection, I will read a letter, which is not of a private nature, received from His Grace the [Alexandre-Antonin Taché] Archbishop of St. Boniface. It is dated 27th August, 1870, and is as follows:–

I am told that special constables had been sworn in the name of peace, for the serenity and welfare of the country.[7] I humbly beg that these constables (as well as the magistrates and Justices of the Peace) will not be used except to maintain the tranquility against actual movements or disturbances, and that all and every one will refuse to act in reference to anything previous to the arrival of Her Majesty’s troops in Fort Garry. I see a real danger in the gathering by you of a number of the same men you employed last winter; with the best will in the world you cannot have a fair idea of the disposition of the different sections of the population.

The men referred to were those called the “loyal French,” and he was apprehensive that as those men had assisted me in getting up meetings throughout the country, and in enabling me to make the explanations which I was desired by the Canadian Government to make, that there would be danger of a collision, and the letter from the Archbishop, written early in September, was very much to the same effect. I desire now to read portions of one or two letters from Governor MacTavish of the Hudson’s Bay Company. On the 9th November [1869] he wrote to Secretary Smith of the Hudson’s Bay House, London, as follows:–

The position is undoubtedly serious and the case will require very careful handling as any collision between parties will lead to the plain Indians being brought down on the settlement next spring, as well as disturbances over all the plain districts, which will not be put down for years, long before which the whole business of the country will have been destroyed.

On the same day Governor MacTavish further wrote to myself:

I regret very much to have to inform you that the Honorable William MacDougall who had been warned by the Canadian half-breeds of this settlement, not to come into the Colony, on his arrival at Pembina, has been, within the last week, driven out of the Company’s establishment and forced to withdraw within the American lines, by an armed party of the same portion of our population. At the same time that they sent to drive back Mr. MacDougall, a party was sent here to occupy this establishment under the pretext of protecting 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, as nominal leaders of the movement have invited delegates from the other portions of the population to meet them on the 16th instant to consider the condition of the country as well as to express their views as to the form of Government to be adopted.

Again, on the 12th February, Governor MacTavish writes to Mr. Sunbury Smith:

The outrages to which the Company’s people here are have been exposed at the hands of Riel and his people are greater than what you probably believe. His imprisonment of Dr. [William] Cowan and myself was doubtless meant to intimidate opposition by holding us hostages.[8]

And again, on the 6th April 1870, to the same gentleman:

It is now fully three weeks since rumors first reached me that the time had been fixed at which the event of non-compliance with the terms to be proposed by Riel, the Company’s people in Red River district were to be turned out of their Forts, and all property, whether personal to themselves or belonging to the Company, confiscated. I feel that my compliance with their demands on behalf of the Company affords our only chance of avoiding immediate inevitable destruction.[9]

I have no desire to bring up these matters; I would much rather not have to do so, but these accusations have been brought forward, and I am obliged to clear myself and those who acted with me at the time. Besides this evidence there is a great deal more to the same effect I might give, but I will refrain from doing so. I might also refer to the discussions which took place in the convention held at Fort Garry, showing in an equally clear manner that there was anything but a friendly feeling towards the Hudson [sic] Bay Company on the part of those who were engaged in the insurrection. It will be seen that some of those men who acted with me at that time were in prison.[10] Those were the same loyal French, as they were called, and I think this fact goes to show further than anything, that I did not conspire with those who were in arms against the Government of Canada. I have several letters here from officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, among them one from John [Henry ‘Jack’] MacTavish and another from Mr. Wm. Lett, written before Her Majesty’s troops reached Red River.

This letter goes to show that the Company’s officers did not take part in the insurrection. There was one matter brought up by the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] here the other day. He referred to documents belonging to the Provisional Government having been thrown down a well on the hasty exit of Riel and his party from Fort Garry, and that these were fished up and burned by order of the Company’s officers — that is by myself. I gave denial to this at the moment, but at the time I did not recollect all the circumstances which had transpired. I recollect that the hon. gentleman called on me at that time, as he was in the habit of doing, in a friendly way, and as this charge was made in the [Manitoba] Liberal, which was conducted or owned in part by him, I explained the circumstances, and showed that instead of any letters belonging to the Provisional Government having been found, it was simply a chest belonging to an officer of the Company, Mr. Wm. [Henry] Watt, who was removing from one district of the country to the other, and who came in with the troops to Fort Garry, and this box was taken hold of in the confusion which then prevailed, his clothes and other things were made away with, and the box was thrown down the well. It was necessary to have the well cleared out to get water for the troops. A fire engine was used for the purpose, and while this was being done that box was fished, and Mr. Watt’s papers being wet and perfectly useless he determined to have them destroyed. At the time I explained this to the hon. gentleman, he said he would publish my denial in his paper.

… [At this point Schultz denies any connection with the newspaper.]

I did not say the hon. gentleman called upon me for that purpose, but that he called upon me then, as he had often done in a friendly way, and this matter came up. He promised me, as I have said, to publish my denial, but the letter which I sent to him never appeared in the Liberal, and I subsequently learned that it was suppressed by his orders. In proof of this I may state that I telegraphed yesterday to the gentleman who edited the Liberal at the time, asking whether my letter about this matter was suppressed by Mr. Schultz’s order. To this I received the following reply:–

Your letter of September 1870 to the editor of the Liberal denying the company’s officers finding or destroying Provisional Government’s documents, was suppressed by Mr. Schultz, the proprietor, after being set up by me as editor. Your letter, which I retained, is mailed to you today.

That telegram is dated to-day, April 2nd, and signed H.J. Laurie [sic: Patrick Gammie Laurie]. Now, I take this occasion to reiterate my most emphatic denial of the assertions made by the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz], that papers belonging to the Provisional Government were found by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s people or destroyed. I further state that I have repeated correctly the substance of what was said by the hon. member for Lisgar when he called on me.

Since that statement appeared in the Liberal in 1870, I never heard or repeated until I heard it made the other evening by the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz], and here I adhere to what I have said with regard to the suppression of my letter, and my statement is fully substantiated by the telegram from Mr. Laurie, which I have just read. The letter itself is now being forwarded to Ottawa. I regret that I have to detain the House so long on a matter which I would much rather not have referred to at all. It will be seen that the mission on which I went at that time was a most delicate one. It was of no ordinary difficulty, and I felt the great responsibility at the time. I felt that the part I had to act was that of a mediator, and I believe that was the desire of the Government at Ottawa. It was not to raise up more strife and bad feeling, but to assure them that they would be received into the Dominion on equitable, liberal terms, and to endeavor to keep the settlement quiet and peaceable until such time as the Canadian Government would be in a position to send a force into the country. This I endeavored to carry out. Not only would one rash or unguarded word have increased the difficulty, but even the pointing of a finger might on more than one occasion have been sufficient to put the whole country into a flame. The hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] can well imagine what would have been in such a country had the people come in collision with each other. No one more than myself regrets what passed at that time in Manitoba. No one can deplore more than I do that one life should have been lost there, but I have often since returned thanks most fervently that it was not a thousand fold worse under the circumstances. I believe had a different course been pursued instead of us having to deplore the loss of three lives, we would have seen the destruction of hundreds, perhaps of a quarter or half of the whole population. So that while what did happen was greatly to be deplored we have cause to be thankful that something very much worse did not happen. I wish to state further the opinion held by the then Government of the manner in which I discharged the duties that devolved upon me. (The hon. gentleman here reads extracts from a letter dated 1872, addressed to him by the Secretary of State for the Provinces, signifying the entire approval of the Government of the action he took as Commissioner to the North-West.) That letter was written, as I have observed, after the Government had had full opportunity of judging all the circumstances and finding out whether I really had acted loyally or not. I will go further on and show that I continued in the same spirit to give every assistance in my power to the troops, and I will read a letter to show what the commander of the forces, Col. [Garnet Joseph Wolseley [said]. (The hon. gentleman read an extract from a letter from a letter [sic: repeated phrase] from Col. Wolseley in acknowledgement of the services rendered by himself and the officers of the Hudson [sic] Bay Company generally to the expedition under his — Col. Wolseley’s — command in 1870.) These papers I should certainly be very backward in reading to the House had not the occasion, as I believed, required that I should show that the Hudson [sic] Bay Company and their officers throughout acted most loyally, from the very commencement of the insurrection till the authority of Canada was established in that country. It has been said that a person of the name [James] Mulligan, calling himself Sergeant Mulligan, a pensioner, had intimated to the officers of the company in advance that the Fort was to be seized. On that point I will read you the affidavit of Dr. Cowan, the officer then in immediate charge there for the Hudson Bay Company.

William Cowan, Chief Trader in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, at present resident in Scotland, on leave, maketh oath and sayeth:– That he the said William Cowan was the officer in charge of the Red River District in the said company’s service during the years 1867, 1868 and 1869. That said deponent was one of the Justices of the Peace for the District of Assiniboia, the district including the Red River Settlement. That during the summer of 1869, the news having reached the said settlement of the intended transfer of the Hudson [sic] Bay Company’s Territory to Canada, meetings were reported to have been held by the French settlers for the purpose of discussing the said transfer, but so far as known to deponent, no serious trouble was apprehended in any quarter from these meetings. That about the end of August in the same year a party of surveyors arrived in the said settlement from Canada, authorized by the Canadian Government to proceed with a survey of the country. That on the 11th October, some time after the said survey had commenced, Colonel [John Stoughton] Dennis, the gentleman in command of the said party, made before deponent a complaint that a section of the said survey proceeding behind a part of the French portion of the said settlement, had been stopped by a party of French settlers, headed by a man named Louis Riel. That deponent, together with Mr. Roger Goulet,[11] one of the Justices of the Peace, resident in the French portion of the said settlement, had an interview with the said Riel on the above complaint, at which interview deponent and the said Mr. Goulet, explained at length that the said survey could in no way affect the land, but to its advantage, and as consented to by the Hudson’s Bay Company was perfectly legal; but to no purpose, the said Riel insisting substantially that the Canadian Government had no right to survey the land without the consent of the settlers, and maintaining that their opposition should be continued. That deponent had another interview on the above complaint, with the said Riel, in the presence of the late Governor MacTavish. That at this interview the said Governor MacTavish, although in a very weak state of body, took a most active part in endeavoring to convince Riel of the mischievous and illegal course entered upon by the said Riel and his party, That this interview appeared to have no more effect than the former. That it was then thought advisable by the said Governor MacTavish, and the other magistrates to let the matter rest for a time in the belief that these people would soon withdraw their opposition, the survey being accepted and approved of throughout the rest of the said settlement, and so far as deponent can remember, this was agreed to by the said Col. Dennis. That about this time it was known in the said settlements from statements in the Canadian news papers, that the hon. William McDougall [sic] had been appointed Lieut. Governor of the Territory, to take office subsequent to the transfer of the territory to Canada. That soon after it was known, through the same sources, that the said William McDougall, with some other gentlemen appointed to offices under him, had left Canada on their way to the said settlement, and should arrive about the end of October. That, in consequence of this information, the said Governor MacTavish called a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia, which was held on the 19th October. That deponent being a member of the Council, was present at the said meeting, that the said Governor MacTavish being very unwell, and for the most part confined to bed, Judge [John] Black[12] presided at the meeting. That an address from the Council to be presented to the said Wm. McDougall on his arrival, was cordially agreed to, and although a full meeting of Council, no member, so far as deponent can remember, expressed any fear about the said Wm. McDougall’s entry into the settlement. That on the 22nd October an information was sworn before deponent by a man named Walter Hymon [sic: Walter F. Hyman][13], to the effect that a large party of armed French settlers were assembling at Rivière Salé [sic: Sale] on the road to Pembina, headed by Louis Riel, with the avowed purpose of turning back the said Wm. McDougall and party at all hazards. That deponent laid this information before Governor MacTavish, who ordered the immediate calling of a Council. That this Council was held on the 25th October — that deponent was present at this Council — that the said Judge Black presided as at the previous Council, and for the same reason — that Riel, the leader of the insurgents, was present at this meeting, introduced by one of the members of the Council to explain the position of the insurgents and to hear the opinion of the Council. That after a lengthened discussion the said Riel left for the purpose of communicating with the insurgents promising that their answer to the Council would be given in on the 28th. That on the discussion of the question as to what action should be taken, it was the opinion of the Council that the well-affected settlers would not respond to any call on the part of the executive to assist in bringing in the said Mr. McDougall and party, members of the Council stating that they had made inquiries in their respective districts, and that the people refused to act either armed or unarmed, alleging, generally, that the Canadian Government had been preparing for a long time to assume the Government of the country, and should be able to do so without calling on one portion of the settlers to take up arms against another. That the Council having been informed that a good number of the more influential French settlers were against the movement of the insurgents, it was decided that two members of the Council. Messers. W. Dease [William Dease] and Roger Gaulet [sic: Goulet] should visit the camp at Rivière Salé taking with them as many of the well affected French settlers, unarmed, as they could collect, and there use every reasonable effort to get the insurgents to disperse. That the said Mr. W. Dease proceeded to act upon this, but two or three days after, the said Governor MacTavish, having been informed that the said Mr. W. Dease’s party had gone up to the Rivière Salé armed, and that from the excited state of both parties the peace and safety of the whole settlement was endangered, recalled the authority of Council given to the said Mr. W. Dease. That a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia was held on the 30th October, at which deponent was present. That at this meeting a letter from the said Governor MacTavish to the said Mr. McDougall was read and approved of, conveying the opinion of the said Governor MacTavish, and the Council, that the said Mr. McDougall should remain at Pembina, and await the issue of conciliatory negotiations in the hope of procuring a peaceable dispersion of the malcontents. That on the following day the views reached the settlement that the said Mr. McDougall and party had arrived at Pembina. That on the 1st November the report was circulated that the assembly at Rivière Salé was dispersing having appointed a party of forty men to proceed to Pembina to confer with the said McDougall. That on the following day, the 2nd November, the said Riel entered [Upper] Fort Garry with a party of 120 armed men, taking forcible possession of the establishment. That at the time these insurgents entered Fort Garry the said Governor MacTavish was confined to bed by serious illness. That deponent was then with the said Governor MacTavish in his bed room, and that the said insurgents were in possession of the Fort before their presence was known either to the said Governor MacTavish or to deponent. That deponent had in all about fifteen men, officers and servants in Fort Garry, engaged at the time in their usual avocations. That deponent received no information from any quarter of the intention of the said insurgents to enter Fort Garry. That deponent, although meeting daily with the best informed settlers, and the movements of the said insurgents being the constant subject of discussion, does not remember any statement, even by surmise, that the said insurgents would enter Fort Garry. That deponent has good authority for believing that the movement on Fort Garry was decided upon only a short time before the said insurgents started from Rivière Salé. That the said Governor MacTavish, both officially and personally, had great influence amongst the French settlers. That it is within the deponent’s knowledge that the said Governor MacTavish made use of this influence to the assembly at Rivière Salé, and to remove the opposition to the said Mr. McDougall’s entrance into the country, and after the occupation of Fort Garry by the said insurgents, to procure the return of the said insurgents to their homes, and the restoration of order in the said settlement. That for some time after the entrance of the said insurgents into Fort Garry, provisions were issued to the said insurgents under protest, in the then reasonable expectation that the endeavors of the said Governor MacTavish to procure the dispersion of the said insurgents would prove successful. That as soon as it was ascertained that these endeavors were frustrated, all provisions were refused to the said insurgents. That therefore the provision stores were broken open and all the provisions and other goods stored therein seized by the said insurgents. That deponent has seen an affidavit said to have been made by a man named John Flett, of the parish of Kildonan.[14] That in the said affidavit it is stated by the said John Flett

“that during the fall of 1869 he was working in the vicinity of Fort Garry and slept occasionally at the house of his sister in the same Fort, that on one occasion, just before the gathering of rebels at Stinking River to resist the entrance of the Hon. William McDougall into the territory, in going out in the dusk of the evening he saw Louis Riel and Chief Factor [sic: Trader] Cowan enter Fort Garry by the south gate, and, not wishing to be seen, he, the said John Flett, did enter the porch leading to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store. That while in said porch the said Riel and the said Cowan advanced and stopped about five yards from where he was. That he did distinctly hear this conversation which took place between the said Cowan and Riel. That it appeared from the remarks he heard as the said Cowan and Riel approached that said Cowan urged the said Riel to go on with the proposed stopping of the Hon. William McDougall at Stinking River. That the said Riel replied, ‘What good will it do me? What will I get for it?’ Said Cowan answered that Governor MacTavish would do as he had promised, and said Cowan also assured him, the said Riel, that he would get what he had been promised. That said Cowan and Riel then walked in the direction of said Cowan’s residence. That said John Flett verily believes from the whole conversation that said Cowan, who was then in charge of Fort Garry, was inciting and encouraging the said Riel by promises of payment to take active steps for the keeping out of the said Governor McDougall, which said Riel seemed to hesitate about doing. That said John Flett did on several occasions see the said Cowan and Riel in close conversation but could not hear what was said.”

Deponent [Cowan] declares that the above statement made in the said affidavit by the said John Flett is untrue and without any foundation, in fact that before the interview on the above mentioned complaint of Colonel Dennis, deponent met the said Riel only once. That this meeting was in the summer or fall of 1868, that the said Riel was then making enquiries in reference to a debt due by his deceased father to the Hudson’s Bay Company. That from the first meeting with the said Riel, on the above mentioned complaint of Colonel Dennis in the presence of Mr. R. Goulet, deponent had no communication with the said Riel, but in the strongest terms of opposition to the course upon which the said Riel and his followers had entered. That deponent has seen another affidavit said to have been made by Sergeant James Mulligan, a pensioner of Her Majesty’s 17th Foot, and lately and for some time Chief of the Police Force in the Town of Winnipeg, understood by deponent to mean James Mulligan, pensioner, and for some time one of the three constables stationed in the Town of Winnipeg. That the said affidavit contains the following statements: That hearing that the buildings of Dr. Schultz were threatened with a consequent danger of fire extending to the town, said James Mulligan, then Chief of Police, proceeded at once to Fort Garry, and spoke to Chief Factor [sic] Dr. Cowan, who was a Justice of the Peace, and in charge of Fort Garry, told him what he, the said Mulligan, had heard, said Mulligan urged said Cowan to take steps to prevent such an outrage, and asked for instructions how to proceed. Cowan answered, what can we do? Said Mulligan replied that it would be advisable to call out the 300 special constables who had been engaged[15]; said Cowan refused to do so, and said Mulligan returned to take what precautions he could with the two policemen under his charge; said Mulligan says that before the rebels assembled at Stinking River he gave due notice to said Justice Cowan, of their intention to do so, and that the said Justice Cowan seemed to take no notice of it. That repeatedly afterwards, up to the time of the Fort being occupied by Riel and his men, the said Mulligan did urge the said Cowan the danger in which the Fort stood, and at a short time before did inform the said Cowan that the rebels meditated doing so immediately, and again urged the said Cowan to call upon the said 300 special constables, but was in all cases distinctly refused. That he repeatedly warned Dr. Cowan of the rising and of the intention of the rebels to overthrow the Government and take Fort Garry, but that on all occasions he was rebuffed, and all his offers of services on behalf of himself and in the name of the loyal people who were willing to support the police authority, and anxious to keep down the rebellion and were distinctly refused. Deponent declares that the above statements made in the affidavit of the said James Mulligan are false. That deponent never received any information from the said James Mulligan in reference to the movements of the said insurgents. That deponent never was urged by the said James Mulligan to call out the 300 special constables. That deponent never heard of any offer of service made to the executive from any quarter, excepting offer made by Sergeant-Major Power some time after Fort Garry was in possession of the said insurgents.

(Signed,)                              William Cowan.

Sworn before me this first day of September, 1871.

(Signed,)          Hunter Finlay, J.P.,

Glasgow, Scotland.

This is the same Dr. Cowan that was in charge of the Fort, and he made an affidavit to the effect that that statement [by John Flett] is utterly untrue, and he also, I believe, gave the same testimony before the North-West Committee. I have also here a deposition of Governor MacTavish and Judge Black to the same effect, in which they declare that there is no truth in the allegation made by Mulligan, and I have again to express my great regret at having been under the necessity of bringing up these matters before the House; but I felt that these accusations against the Hudson [sic] Bay Company were made not because those who got them up believed them, but for the purpose of making this country believe what they themselves did not credit.

… [The Speaker calls Schultz to order “for making an attack upon the hon. member for Selkirk [Smith].” Schultz gives his version of some events.] …

The hon. member for Lisgar has been pleased to speak of me as having acted in a cowardly manner, and he has given his version of a meeting that took place at Upper Fort Garry. In doing so I am sorry to say he has entirely mis-stated what occurred at that time. He has said that at that meeting there were some five hundred men who were willing and prepared to raise the British flag. The facts of the case are really these:– When about to commence the proceedings of that meeting I urged the Chairman and those on the platform to raise the British flag. They said “no, it is impossible for us to do so now but we shall do so afterwards.”[16] They did not raise the British flag then and the opportunity did not not occur again. At that first meeting two loyal men were sent into the adjoining building for some papers and when they returned they said that building was full of armed man and that they were prepared for any emergency of for any attack that might be made. There was not one man at that meeting at Upper Fort Garry that proposed to raise the British flag at that time except as I have already stated, and I feel confident that had it been attempted it would have resulted not only in bloodshed but in the loss of life and would have involved the whole settlement in civil war. The hon. gentleman [Schultz] says that on another occasion I went down to the lower part of the settlement with Archdeacon McLean and advised those who were assembled there to disperse. Such is not the case. At that second meeting composed principally of English people with some English half-breeds from the lower settlement, the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz], I believe, was one of the principal leaders, and we could never find out why the hon. gentleman really did not come to Fort Garry on that occasion, except the supposition that he thought it more prudent and safer to go back. Being at the time strictly guarded within Fort Garry, I was not then in a position to give any advice.

… [there are complaints the discussion has become irregular]

I wish to say that I did not interfere with that meeting, was not present at it, but, as already stated, at the time a prisoner within Fort Garry.

Sir John A. Macdonald is called upon to “elucidate this whole matter. He declines, having come in too late to be clear on the discussion. He is informed:

The hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] charged the right hon. gentleman’s envoy [Smith] with treason, or something approaching to it, to the British flag while representing the Government of my friend the member for Kingston [Macdonald] in the North-West. I think, therefore, it is the duty of my right hon. friend to say whether in his judgment, he being master of all the facts, the hon. member for Lisgar [sic: Selkirk] is, as the representative of his Government fairly open to the imputation cast upon him by my right hon. friend’s present support, the member from Lisgar.

The subject then dropped.


[1] Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, vol. 1, ed. A.M. Burgess (Ottawa: C.W. Mitchell, 1875), 1060-1072.

[2]  See Donald A. Smith, “Report,” in Canada, Sessional Papers vol. 5, 3d session, no. 12 (1870), which was written 12 April 1870. See also “Mr. Smith’s Report,” New Nation (27 May 1870), 2, which refers to White Horse Plains resident (and former representative) Pierre Levielle’s critique of Smith’s description of events (see citation immediately following); avers Smith is dismissive of “Reil” [sic] and “his Council” despite having “assisted in the reconstruction of the Provisional Government, with Mr. Riel as President”; reports that Smith gives credit to the New Nation for accurate reporting of proceedings; criticizes Smith for ignoring the importance of the “loss of three lives” caused “solely” by the Canada Party movements; notes that despite Smith apparently seeking to avoid giving offence in Upper Canada, he is also being criticised there. See also Pierre Leveille, letter to the editor (translation), “Letter from Pierre Leveille” (dated White Horse Plains, 25 May 1870), New Nation (27 May 1870), 3 columns 1-2, which objects to Smith’s Report on the grounds that: Leveille was not opposed to Riel, but simply misinformed and was easily reunited “stronger than ever” with the other leaders “to support the cause in securing our rights”; his group was not supportive of the “cause of Canada” as Smith put it, but to bringing “success in securing the liberties and rights of our people. There never existed any division among the French as to their loyalty to the Crown of England. Therefore there could not be a loyal party and a disloyal party, as Mr. Smith reports; and we repudiate the slur cast upon ‘Pere Lestanc and his associates’”; “With regard to any interruption being offered by Pere Lestanc, or threats being used by him and Mr. Riel to intimidate Mr. Smith, I was present during the whole of proceedings of the mass meeting, standing immediately close to him, and heard no interruption … The only words I heard him use during the whole of the meeting were at its conclusion, when he addressed the multitude in French and English, desiring them to maintain peace and friendship towards each other and pressing upon them the great necessity of allowing no political differences to divide the close friendship heretofore existing between the French and the English”; and he praises the clergy for encouraging people of the settlement to “avoid any collision whatever” with people of opposing viewpoints.

[3] In fact, Mactavish had left Red River Settlement well before the Provisional Government ceased to exist. He departed the settlement for Scotland with his wife and family aboard river steamer International on 15 May 1870. They travelled to New York, where Mactavish was interviewed by a newspaper reporter. With his family and travelling party, Mactavish boarded a ship at the Port of New York bound for Liverpool. He survived the ocean passage, but died, at age 55, on 23 July 1870, two days after their arrival at the port in England  See “Governor Mactavish’s Departure,” New Nation (20 May 1870), 2; “Governor MactavishNew Nation (16 July 1870); “Death of Governor Mactavish,New Nation (13 August 1870).

[4] Riel’s ‘aunt-in-law,’ by way of extended family ties, was Mary Sarah ‘Sally’ McDermott Mactavish, the governor’s wife. The relationship traced through Sarah’s brother, Miles/ Myles McDermott, who married Guillemine Goulet (daughter of Alexis Goulet and Josephte Savard). Guillemine’s sister, Sarah Goulet, married Elzear Lagimonière/ Lagimodière, the son of Jean Baptiste ‘La Prairies’ Lagimodière and Marie Harrison. Jean Baptiste ‘La Prairies’ Lagimodière’s sister, Julie Lagimonière, was Louis Riel Jr.’s mother. See “Lagèmoniere/Lagemodiere Family Ties,” President Louis Riel, Provisional Government of Assiniboia.

[5] This would appear to be a high estimate of the number of prisoners. See “Prisoners,” this site.

[6] Nevertheless, see “Stockholm Syndrome.” Smith was not in a ‘prison’ per se. He was lodged in the Governor’s house, inside Upper Fort Garry.

[7] This was on arrival of the Red River Expeditionary Force, well after the Resistance had ended (the Provisional Government of Assiniboia having ratified the Manitoba Act a month earlier).

[8] In the case of Mactavish and Cowan, there was no actual incarceration in a prison involved. At most they might have been under ‘house arrest’ in the Governor’s home, but may have only been confined to staying within the walls of Upper Fort Garry. Mactavish was already confined to his bed by tuberculosis. Cowan, as Mactavish’s physician, was unlikely to leave his patient unless replaced by another doctor. In any case, it is unlikely that either individual would have chosen to leave the Fort and live elsewhere in the settlement — unless compelled by force to do so — as  they were the leading HBC officers charged with the responsibility of maintaining it and its business, along with the reputation of the Company.

[9] Mactavish is referring to a demand made by the Provisional Government of Assiniboia that he accept their terms, and his subsequent acceptance of the terms (all of which was published in the press). See “Important Communication from the President,” and “Very Latest,” New Nation (18 March [listed as 16 March at the Manitobia site; not published, however until 2 April]), 3; and “Important News. The H.B.Co. and the Provisional Government Terms Accepted: Resumption of Business,” New Nation (8 April 1870), 2.

[10] Presumably by ‘at that time’ Smith means during the the Resistance generally — not specifically while people were in gaol, nor necessarily still in gaol after he arrived, nor even arrested until some time later. Who these ‘Loyal French’ individuals might be, is unknown.

[11] Roger Norbert Alexis Goulét/ Goulait (Métis, born 1834 to Alexis Goulét and Josephte Siveright), served as surveyor of Red River Settlement; was appointed to the HBC Council of Assiniboia in 1866. His name was put forward as Justice of the Peace for Fort Garry by the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia [LAA] (see Session 2, Day 11: 7 May, this site). Some histories allege he refused the commission as collector of customs in 1870 — though I have not found the corroborating source.

[12] See Margaret Caldwell, “Black, John (1817-1879),” Australian Dictionary of Biography online; and Lionel Dorge, “Black, John,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.

[13]  See, “Prisoners,” this site, which identifies Hyman as a Canadian of London ON, who “had been spying on Métis activities around St. Norbert for some time … [and] told the Métis family he was boarding with that ‘a number of Canadians had brought military uniforms with them and that he had one himself.’” He was arrested 7 December 1869, escaped 9 January 1870, but froze his feet and was recaptured. The sources for the information being Neil Edgar Allen Ronaghan, “The Archibald Administration in Manitoba — 1870 – 1872,” Ph.D. diss. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1986), 1: 55; and G[eorge] Dugas, Histoire véridique des faits qui ont préparé le mouvement des métis à la Rivière-Rouge en 1869 (Montreal: Librairie Beauchemin, 1905), 54.

[14] This would appear to be John Flett (Non-Aboriginal, born 1827 to John Flett and Isabella Murray), who married Isabella Fraser (Non-Aboriginal, born 1827 to James Fraser and an unidentified woman) of St. John’s Parish (adjacent to Kildonan). His sister, Jane Flett, widow of Magnus Linklater, was recorded as living in the Town of Winnipeg by Archibald census, begun in the autumn of 1870 — although according to a wedding announcement printed in 1869 for her daughter Isabella, Jane’s address at that time was “Upper Fort Garry.” Her husband had been a Chief Trader at the fort and had died intestate in 1868 — possibly Jane was allowed to continue living in the fort for a time afterward.

[15] Presumably this is a reference to the Canadian Militia raised at Red River, made up principally of men from the newly arrived survey parties. The number is likely inflated — even if people William Dease is said to have enlisted are included. The figure of three hundred falls fifty men short of the number of rifles William McDougall was transporting in his baggage, but which he failed to bring as far as Pembina.

[16] Leveille, “Letter from Pierre Leveille,” column 2, objects to Smith’s description of the flag issue raised “at the commencement of the meeting.” Leveille states, “Mr. Smith deceived himself very much if he thought it was the intention of myself and the leaders with whom I was associated, to lay down our arms, or haul down the flag which we had hoisted to obtain our rights as British subjects,– we considering that it was time to do so when the object was attained for which the people had taken up arms.” See also “Flags and the Red River Resistance,” this site. Apparently there was no Union Jack proper at the Fort, or perhaps anywhere in the Settlement at the time — when one was finally procured, it was raised by the Provisional Government of Assiniboia.



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