1876: Donald A. Smith defends his version of events, again

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

In 1876, as an honourable member of the Canadian House of Commons for the riding of Selkirk MB, he weighed-in on a debate on whether William B. O’Donoghue was being unfairly punished by Canada. In the course of his argument Smith stated:

Now, with reference to the accusation of complicity with the insurgents, brought against Governor [William] MacTavish [sic] and other officers of the Hudson [sic] Bay Company. Men actuated by proper feelings would pause and well consider before venturing an opinion in such a case. But, perhaps, it was becoming and congenial to men like O’Donoghue and the hon. member for Lisgar [John C. Schultz] after all the prime mover in this affair, maliciously and unblushingly to prefer those charges against the lamented gentleman, Mr. MacTavish, now that his lips are sealed in death. Mr. MacTavish, was well known to be a gentleman of the strictest integrity, a man ever actuated by the highest principles of honour, a man whose memory was enshrined in the hearts of the whole people of the Red River of his day. He would be long remembered for the good he had conferred on the country. Mr. MacTavish saw that he was unable to withstand the strong force in opposition to him, and in order to prevent bloodshed he adopted the course which he thought most advisable under the circumstances, and in this he (Mr. Smith) cordially co-operated with him. How could Mr. MacTavish have found means of doing anything against such an insurrection as that to which he was opposed? The people, rightly or wrongly — he did not then think rightly — believed their rights were in jeopardy. They believed they ought to have been consulted before they were dragged into Confederation, and he frankly admitted he held the same opinion. Seeing they were not consulted they determined to protect their rights as they understood them, and with such a force against him Mr. MacTavish was powerless. The honourable member for Lisgar [Schultz] had spoken of cowardice and incapacity in connection with this matter; but such an imputation would come home with more truth and justice against the hon. gentleman himself. When intrenched within his stronghold [‘Fort Schultz’ a brick drugstore/ warehouse/ lodging house] at the outset of the insurrection, why did he not keep his post with the body of men with whom he was then associated? Were the odds too great against him? and if so, why so unmanly as to turn round and upbraid those who were in a weaker and far more difficult position than himself, when he surrendered his arms and was marched off to prison? How different another party of some forty men,[1] when having in their keeping important documents and information from the Canadian Government to be communicated to the people of Red River, they found themselves opposed by more than ten times their own number of armed men! They, at the imminent hazard of their lives, fulfilled their commission, and so prepared the way by maintaining comparative peace and quiet in the settlement for its union with Canada.

He was sure, had Governor MacTavish lived, he would have been foremost in desiring an investigation into his conduct; and it was well known to the hon. gentleman from North Hastings and all the other members of the North-West Committee, that he (Mr. Smith) was most anxious and pressing to have a full and searching enquiry into everything concerning the insurrection, and into the alleged connection of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s officers with it it.

With regard to himself (Mr. Smith) he desired to refer to a statement made by the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] last Session, to the effect that he (Mr. Smith) had attended a public meeting in the parish of St. Andrews in the winter of 1870, at which he (the hon. member for Lisgar) was also present. This allegation is contained on page 1,077 of the Debates for 1875. This charge being brought against him, he believed it to be his duty as a man of honour to disprove it, and he was in possession of the means of doing so most effectually. Briefly, then, on 27th December, 1869, he arrived at Fort Garry — on the 19th and 20th of January the meetings of the people of Red River, known as the “mass meetings,” took place. At these the friendly intentions of the Canadian Government were made known to the settlers, and they then determined to meet in convention to arrange the terms of union with the Dominion. The convention held its first sitting on the 25th of January, and before rising on the 10th February, desired to have delegates elected in the several parishes to insure the peace and quiet of the settlement until the union with Canada could be consummated. On the 17th of February Riel and his friends captured several men — some of the persons he believed with whom the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] had been associated in opposition to the former — and who, after the liberation by Riel of a number of prisoners, had disbanded and were on their way to their homes. One of these men, Major Bolton [sic: Charles Arkoll Boulton], was taken prisoner on the 17th, tried by those then in power, and condemned to be shot at midnight on Saturday the 19th of the same month. He (Mr. Smith) conceived it to be his duty — his bounden duty — to see Louis Reil [sic Louis Riel] on the matter, and endeavour to save the life of this officer. After much earnest discussion Riel consented to spare Bolton’s life, and at the same time said: “Now, Mr. Commissioner, I have a favour to ask of you.” Riel then asked him to go throughout the settlement and advise people that with a view of coming into Canada, and maintaining the peace in the meantime, they should assemble peaceably and quietly in convention. The result of this he was assured would be the release of every prisoner. Who would not have responded to such a call, seeing that there were no other means within command of accomplishing an object desired by every man in Canada? Besides, was it not his duty to do all in his power to prevent bloodshed so long as their [sic] was no sacrifice of honour? They knew that nothing but evil could come of strife. Up to the 20th of February he had never once left Fort Garry from the time he entered it, on the 27th of the previous December, with the sole exception of going to the Court House under guard, and two or three times just outside of the wall.[2] It was asserted that he appeared at meetings at which the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] was also present in the Parish of St. Andrews — that was before the 20th of February, 1870.

He would now read affidavits of gentlemen of the highest respectability, residing in the Parish of St. Andrews, the Hon. Mr. [E.H.G.G.] Hay, Captain [William] Kennedy and Mr. Andrew Mowat, as follows, showing that the hon. gentleman was not present at the meeting in question:–


Province of Manitoba,

Lisgar to wit:

I, Andrew Mowat at the parish of St. Andrews, in said county and Province, farmer, do solemnly declare as follows

1. I was a resident of the said parish of St. Andrews during all the year one thousand one hundred and seventy.

2. I know Donald A. Smith, Esquire, and John Schultz, Esquire, the present members of the Dominion House of Commons for Selkirk and Lisgar respectively.

3. During the said year, one thousand eight hundred and seventy, the said Mr. Smith never attended a public meeting of any kind, either in the school-house or any other place in the said parish of St. Andrews, nor did he and the said John Schultz ever meet each other upon any occasion in the said parish. My grounds of belief for this last statement are that during Mr. Smith’s visit to Red River in that year, Dr. Schultz was either a prisoner in Fort Garry, or in hiding in the neighbourhood of St. Andrews, until the departure of the latter for Canada via Lake Winnipeg. During the period of his concealment he was five days in my house, and only appeared in public upon the occasion of the expedition to Kildonan in February, and the meeting held upon the return of that expedition. And I make this solemn declaration, conscientiously believing the same to be true, and by virtue of the Act passed in the thirty-seventh year of Her Majesty’s reign, intituled [sic]: ‘An Act for the suppression of voluntary and extra judicial oaths.’


Andrew Mowat

Taken, acknowledged and subscribed by the said Andrew Mowat before me this twelfth day of February, A.D., 1876.


Sedley Blanchard,

Notary Public



Province of Manitoba,

Lisgar, to wit:

I, Edward H.G.G. Hay, of the Parish of St. Andrews South, in the County of Lisgar and Province of Manitoba, Esquire, do solemnly declare as follows:

1. I have lived in the said Parish of St. Andrews since the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and recollect distinctly the circumstances which occurred in the said parish in connection with the Red River troubles, ‘so-called.’

2. I was present at every public meeting held in the said parish in connection with the said troubles from the first day of January of the year one thousand eight hundred and seventy, until I went up to Winnipeg or [Upper] Fort Garry to attend the Convention of Delegates held at Winnipeg in the month of March of that year [the Legislative Assembly of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia], which Convention is now known as the Provisional Government.

3. In the month of February, in the year last named, a body of armed men marched from St. Andrews, aforesaid, to the parish of Kildonan, in the County of Selkirk, and about four miles distant from Winnipeg, with the ostensible object of obtaining the release of the prisoners then confined by Mr. Riel in Fort Garry. Messengers were sent to Mr. Riel and the prisoners were released. The force then, after deliberation, retreated to St. Andrews.

4. On the day after the return of the said party from Kildonan a public meeting was held in the school-house at the Rapids church in said parish of St. Andrews South. The object of that meeting was to discuss the propriety of taking possession of the Lower Fort Garry and setting up a Government in opposition to Riel. Dr. Schultz, [now] member of the House of Common [sic] of the Dominion of Canada for the County of Lisgar, was present at the meeting. I was also present. Donald A. Smith, Esquire, the present representative of the County of Selkirk, in the Dominion House of Commons, was not present either on the same day or the Monday following. Another public meeting was held in the school-house at which I was present, and of which I was chairman. The said Donald A. Smith was not present at that meeting. At that meeting Thomas Sinclair [Jr.] of St. Andrews, the present Registrar of Deeds, and myself, were elected Delegates to the Convention at Fort Garry, which, as I have said, has since been known as the Provisional Government. A day or two after that meeting Mr. Smith came down from [Upper] Fort Garry, accompanied by Archdeacon [John] McLean and Henry McDermot.[3] This was the first occasion of his visit to St. Andrews since his arrival in Manitoba, then Red River. He met the said Thomas Sinclair and myself at the Reverend Mr. [J.P.] Gardiner’s house, and after a short consultation he continued on to Lower Fort Garry, and thence to St. Peters.

5. He attended no public meeting in St. Andrews North or South during that visit. At this time Dr. Schultz had left St. Andrews on his way to Canada via Lake Winnipeg.

6. The said Donald A. Smith never attended any public meeting of any kind in either the parishes of St. Andrews North or South during all the period of time he was in Red River as Commissioner or Agent of the Dominion Government, in the year one thousand eight hundred and seventy, and to the best of my knowledge and belief Dr. Schultz and Mr. Smith never met during that visit, and I make this solemn declaration conscientiously, believing the same to be true, and by virtue of the Act passed in the thirty-ninth year of Her Majesty’s reign intituled [sic] ‘An Act for the Suppression of Voluntary and extra judicial Oaths.’


Edward H.G.G. Hay.

Taken and subscribed by the said Edward H.G.G. Hay before me this twelfth day of February A.D., 1876.


Sedley Blanchard,

Notary Public for the Province of Manitoba.

Another affidavit from Capt. William Kennedy, St. Andrews, County of Lisgar, and sworn before Sedley Blanchard, Notary Public, was also submitted, giving evidence to the same effect as the foregoing.

[Smith] would state that Mr. Hay, the Hon. Mr. Hay, at one time a member of the Provincial Government [MB], had never been a candidate of the Hudson Bay Company in any respect. But the hon. gentleman had certainly opposed the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] in that country.

These affidavits were signed by some of the most respectable men not only of the Parish of St. Andrews, but of the Province of Manitoba, who were acquainted with the exact circumstances, and who could not but have known had he [Smith] visited that parish as was asserted by the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz]. With these vouchers for the accuracy of what he [Smith] had said last year, he could pronounce the misstatement then made by the hon. member for Lisgar [Schultz] in this relation utterly false, and such as would brand him as one not to be tolerated, as a member of such an honourable body as this House. The hon. member wished to seem to set lightly by this, but here was the proof, and it was impossible for the honourable member to gainsay it. Up to the 20th of February, he (Mr. Smith) had never left Fort Garry to go even for half a mile away, for best of all reasons — that this was utterly beyond his power. These assertions of the hon. member [Schultz] last year had been false from beginning to end. This he must say, in presence of the vouchers he held, and if an investigation was made into the matter, he [Smith] could adduce the most abundant proof to show that the hon. member [Schultz] had come to the House with the deliberate intention — and with malice aforethought — to make a statement that he knew to be absolutely false, and that he did make such statement. Before the real circumstances were known regarding the hon. member’s [Schultz’s] conduct at Red River, the hon. member had been lionized in Canada, and presented with watches, services of plate, guns with which to shoot the members of the Provisional Government, and all sorts of nice things. This was very pleasant no doubt at the moment, but he fancied that the hon. gentleman seeing it is now known how little he deserved them, looked back upon these occurences [sic] — these trophies with very little satisfaction.

The Imperial Government had had every opportunity of investigating into and knowing the truth, and they had exonerated the late Mr. MacTavish of all blame in connection with the troubles. With regard to himself (Mr. Smith) perhaps he might say a word more. He regretted that the right hon. member for Kingston was not in his place; but other members of the late Government were present, and they would not object to his reading the letter he had received from them, not in 1870, when any doubt might have existed as to the course he had pursued, not even in 1871, but as late as 1872. But, aside for a moment, touching on the affairs of 1871, he might ask when the Fenian raid took place, and almost every man turned out, and when he himself had the honour of standing at the head of a hundred as good men as ever bore arms to repel these Fenians — not the Provisional Government — where was the honourable member for Lisgar [Schultz] then? Was he in the ranks? No, he was not. On another occasion, in 1870, the hon. gentleman had made as quick steps as possible out of the country, and so did he act in this case.

To resume, however, in 1872, certainly without any solicitation on his part, he (Mr. Smith) had received from the then Government, a letter dated the 22nd of February, entirely approving of and thanking him for all he had done while acting as Commissioner in 1869-1870; and so anxious was the Ministry that he should obtain it, that having sent one copy to Fort Garry, he was informed by telegraph — for he was then on the point of leaving for England, that another duplicate had been sent to his address by the same steamer by which he took passage.

Having read an extract from this letter conveying the thanks of the Governor General for the manner in which he had executed the commission entrusted to him, Mr. Smith being asked by an hon. member what about the $60,000 paid to Dr. Schultz as indemnity for losses during the insurrection, replied: Not $60,000 — only $32,000, or the money for Brick’s [sic: bricks?] $35,000, adding the hon. member for Lisgar told the House on a former occasion that he had been whitewashed in respect of this payment by a Committee of Public Accounts, but every hon. member of this House then on that Committee knew that through that layer of whitewash there appeared many very dark streaks.

Mr. Smith then expressed his regret that he had been forced into these explanations, adding that he trusted this was the last occasion on which this affair of the North-West troubles would be brought before the house.


[1] Smith appears to be referring to the party that rode to Pembina to fetch his papers. Donald A. Smith, “Report,” in Canada, Sessional Papers vol. 5, 3d session, no. 12 (1870), described the event as perilous adventure — though he did not himself witness any part of it and only repeated a story he was told by an unknown raconteur.

[2] Smith, “Report,” indicates he was allowed outside the wall, with a body guard (or ‘prison’ guards), but chose not to go. It was a very cold winter and deep snow lay over the prairie (when it was not blowing). It is likely most people fortunate enough to be inside and warm were content to stay put (and keep their horses out of the elements too) during the same period.

[3] Henry McDermot/ McDermott was the son of Andrew McDermott – an Irish Catholic and a successful independent merchant at the settlement — and Sarah McNab (a Métis woman); brother to Mary Sarah ‘Sally’ McDermott Mactavish, wife of HBC Governor William Mactavish; and brother to Anne ‘Annie’ McDermot Bannatyne, wife of A.G.B. Bannatyne, and credited with whipping Charles Mair for his unflattering portrayal of Red River people in the Ontario press.


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