Transcript: Mair (late of Red River) invents the Settlement, the Métis, and the Resistance for the Globe

A piece copied from G.T.D. ed, Reminiscences of the Red River Rebellion of 1869 ([Henry Morgan, 1874?]), [18] paginated 1 – 8, in which can be seen essentialist and racist depictions of the Métis that were carried forward in Canadian historiography—-Mair (if he was the author) demonstrating that in his case at least, where the ‘Canada First’ sword failed, his slant with a pen proved an exacting weapon for revenge. Read it with caution. Much of the description is fictive (I am not entirely positive it was printed in the Globe, as I have not yet located it in the pages of that paper). If written today, the piece would qualify as hate literature. Those of Mair’s contemporaries who were slandered and misrepresented likewise regarded such writing as hateful—-though no recourse to anti-hate laws existed at the time.

The following letter from Mr. Mair appeared in the columns of the Toronto Globe and give the writer’s views on the subject:–

Insurrection in Red River.

By Charles Mair,

(Late of Red River.)

The confiscation of the author’s property by order of Riel and his associates involved the loss and probable destruction of numerous important manuscripts and memoranda, having special bearing upon occurrences in Red River during the author’s residence in the settlement. Many of these papers, including journals of transactions to a comparatively recent date, were committed to the author’s safe keeping by others; and, though a hurried effort was effort was made to secrete them, amidst the confusion of the surrender at Dr. Schultz’s in December last, yet their recovery is extremely doubtful. Included in this general theft and destruction of private property are the originals of various petitions addressed by the English-speaking portion of the natives of Red River to the Imperial and Canadian Governments, with the signatures attached. The author has been reliably informed that these petitions are now in the hands of the ci devant Christian Brother, Donohue, the twin-villian [sic] in Riel’s oligarchy. He regrets this more, inasmuch as these petitions were the property of his aged and respected friend, Donald Gunn, Esq., of Red River, who placed them, with special admonitions, in his hands, who contemplates the publication of a reliable history of the Settlement, and who, in consequence of this loss, may be hindered in the completion of his work [Mair needn’t have worried, Gunn published the work]. Other losses will probably be made good from various sources hereafter, and then a more ample and succinct account may be presented to the reader. But for the present, the very limited time at the author’s disposal, compels him to be brief and to jot down partly from memory and partly from evidence some details of a movement which has for its undisguised object the destruction of principles most dear to every true Canadian.

The Red River Settlement proper dates its origin from the year 1819. It was founded by the Earl of Selkirk, who joined the Hudson Bay Company in 1811 and received from them a grant of land comprising the so-called District of Assiniboia A great antagonism existed at this time between the North-West Company of Canada, founded in 1803, and the Hudson Bay Company; and the establishment of a farming community on the banks of the Red River; it was hoped, would have the joint effect of supplying the latter Company with desirable articles of food, and of acting as a check upon the encroachments and hostility of the Metis, or French half-breeds, who formed by far the larger proportion of servants in the employ of the Canadian Company. Averse to agriculture and to the slow tough steady gains of regular industry, the Metis looked with exceeding suspicion and distrust upon this attempt to establish a settlement in the interior, and every effort was made by them through the instigations of their employers, whose interests were threatened by this movement of their opponents, to disturb and destroy it. As early as 1771 the French had established an extensive trade on the Saskatchewan, and by intermarriage with the native women and the entire devotion to the fur-trade, with its attendant adventure and excitement, had not only lost all taste for settled modes of life, but viewed them with hatred and contempt. Their offspring inherited in a marked degree the peculiarities and inclinations of their fathers, and being in a manner anotochthonous [sic], differed from them only in the greater jealousy and resentment of intrusion, and a more expansive lawlessness of nature. At the date of Lord Selkirk’s arrival in Red River, these descendants of the original French traders were called, indifferently, Bois-brules, from their dark complexions, and Metis, a corruption of the Spanish word Mestice [sic], and were sufficiently numerous to form a powerful element of danger to the infant settlement. The poor yet sturdy and intelligent Scotchmen, who, at Lord Selkirk;s behest, had crossed the ocean and the wilderness with their families, were persecuted with savage virulence. Their wives and children were hunted from their homes, their houses burned, their crops destroyed, and many of their people slain. The brutal ferocity of the half-breeds did not end with the death of their victims, but, according to the evidence of Mr. Pritchard, extended itself to their lifeless bodies, some of which were inhumanly mutilated, with “horrid imprecations.” In June, 1815, they compelled the Hudson’s Bay Company to enter into an agreement signed by the “Four Chiefs of the Half Breeds;” the first article of which stipulated that all settlers should retire immediately from Red River, and no appearance of a colony remain; and on the 19th June, in the following year, this provision was enforced by the murder of Governor Semple and nineteen colonists, on the Frog Plains, a few miles below the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. These proceedings at length attracted the attention of the Imperial and Canadian Governments, and efforts were made to bring the murderers to justice, but without effect. Several persons charged with the murder of Semple and his companions, were tried at the Assizes held at York, in Upper Canada, in October, 1818, but for lack of evidence as to jurisdiction, &c., were acquitted; and it was only when the two rival companies merged their interests in 1821, and the managers of the Canadian company exerted their influence to curb and restrain the vindictive passions of the half-breeds, that the terrified colonists began to enjoy in peace the fruits of their industry. By a wise policy so far as the new company was concerned, but a disastrous one for Canada, the old North-West route, via. Lake Superior, was abandoned, and supplies for the trade of the northern department, as the vast district drained into Hudson’s Bay, was called, were brought annually by sailing vessels to York Factory. The settlement was thus hermetically sealed to the outer world, and its growth, denied the stimulus of immigration, was proportionately slow. The policy of the new company regarding settlement, was one of stern exclusion and repression, and so tight a hold was maintained upon the expansive energies and development of the people, that a population which numbered some 6,000 souls in 1848, has scarcely doubled in the lapse of twenty years. Throughout this long period, the distinctive character of race has remained unchanged. The instinct of the English speaking native, led him to the farm, the instinct of the French speaking native urged him to the chase. The reciprocal effect of character upon the savages with whom they intermingled, exhibits a difference in mental constitution, not owing to external circumstances or altered modes of life, but radical and inate [sic]. In general the Frenchman married the Indian and sank to the level of her tastes and inclinations. In general the Englishman married the Indian and raised her to the level of his own. Nor are these remarks made in a spirit of detraction or dispraise. An existence uncurbed by custom and untrammeled by the bonds of civilization is not incompatible with the noble and simple use of life; but it is just this divergence of character and impulse which plants the British colonist all over the earth, and which, with all his refinement, all his science, all his philosophy; confines the Frenchman to the Continent of Europe. Nowhere have these differences in character been more marked or more conveniently contrasted than in Red River. Over both sections of the people’s close corporation, whose interests in progress lay far beneath their interests in fur, lorded it with exclusive authority. The strenuous toil of a lifetime was received with cold and thankless indifference; meagre [sic] portions of the soil, which lay like an ocean around them, were grudgingly conveyed at exhorbitant [sic] prices; the right to search extended to every house in the settlement, and the possession of a muskrat was a penal offence. Even the purity of British law was invoked to its own pollution, the extension of settlement was violently opposed, and an iron finger rested upon the head of every member of the community. Subject to some of these galling influences, the French half-breed, though in their case the grievances were more theoretical than practical, grew wildly turbulent and disorderly, and the presence of troops became necessary to repress them. The English, on the other hand, with instinctive addiction to constitutional methods, petitioned England and Canada for relief, and by calmness, yet firmness, did most to reduce a Government by force to a series of expedients.

From the fact that the French half-breeds of Red River are, with few exceptions, the only people actively engaged in the insurrection, one is apt to overlook the gratifying fact that a considerable proportion of that people have, from the first, withheld its countenance and encouragement. As might be expected, these men are the property holders of the Settlement, men of intelligence, who think for themselves, and who from the first have cherished a single desire for peace. Many of these loyal and respectable men offered their services in the cause of order, and others abandoned their homes for the rude life of the Plains, rather than be seduced or forced into a course which they well knew would only end in disaster. As a consequence, their names have been covered with reproach by their countrymen, and in some instances their property has been confiscated in common with that of other loyalists in the Colony. It is no special honour to a man that he should stand up and espouse the cause of British law on British soil; but it is a special honour to these enlightened and gallant men, that despite of every inducement to do otherwise, and regardless of spiritual injunction they maintained their integrity, and were ready at all times to welcome the Governor from Canada with open arms.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company in Red River discovered that they could no longer carry out their object by force, they very discreetly resorted to expedients.

When any one had independence enough to speak out and advocate progress and material improvements he was either consoled for the absence of both by a seat in the Council of Assiniboia, or by a sum of money in proportion to the sum of his influence.

The happy discovery that in the long run it costs less to buy men than to crush them, has tided the wintering partners over many a difficulty in Red River. It has enabled them, moreover, to build up a clique [sic] of adherents whose opinions are their opinions. A clique which believes in mosquitoes, grasshoppers, frosts and Crown Colonies; which envelopes the stranger, especially the English stranger in Red River, keeps him carefully from the people, and send him away with an idea that the country is a swamp, with only a mere riband of dry land along the River. There are possibly twenty-five or thirty such men amongst the English natives of the Settlement who believe that the only cure for immigration is a Crown Colony, for under such a system things would remain probably just as they are at present, and instead of pouring into the country as they are so absurdly doing into the North-Western States, immigrants would not come in at all, or, at all events, would drop in one by one, and be amenable to reason. The clique is headed by Mr. A.G.B. Bannatyne, a fur trader in Winnipeg, and a brother-in-law of Governor McTavish. He is a native of Scotland, and came to the North-West in the service of the Company. Some years after his arrival he left their service, and taking an outfit to Norway House, began to trade with the Indians on his own account. This of course brought down upon him the wrath of the Company, who sent him up to Fort Garry in irons, but so involved themselves in the process of punishment as to give him a legal hold upon them, which he did not fail to make use of. He declaimed fiercely against their tyranny and oppression, signed petitions to the English Administration praying for relief and a change of government, and upon the whole behaved so badly in the sight of the wintering partners, that they found it in their interest to buy him up. He was accordingly nominated to a seat in the Council, and received a handsome sum to cement his brken interests. Since then Mr. Bannatyne has been their most useful tool and instrument, and a consistent advocate of their authority. His character for treachery, however, somewhat mars his usefulness, and the half-breeds who have been used and then deserted by him upon former occasions, now watch him keenly. They declare that since he warmly encouraged them to rebel, they take care he does not play them false at last. As an evidence of this determination when, in February last, when he discovered that a little loyalty was likely to be of use to them, they gaoled him until he recanted. Many in the Settlement, on the other hand, believed this imprisonment to be a mere matter of arrangement between him and Riel. The delegates were appointed, things were likely to go well in Canada, and it was desirable that Mr. Bannatyne should be looked upon in Canada as a martyr to her interests. His partner, Mr. Alexander Beggs [sic], is a Canadian who came to Red River a few years ago, and, after hanging about the Settlement for a time, contrived to establish himself in Winnipeg as the agent of several Hamilton firms. He became an ardent admirer of Mr. Bannatyne, and a devoted adherent of the Company. He vehemently ran down his own country, actively advocated annexation to the United States in preference to union with Canada, and in consequence attracted Mr. Bannatyne’s favorable consideration. The commission business was anything but self-sustaining, and having crept into Bannatyne’s esteem by the methods specified, he ultimately became his partner. One of the first business transactions of this precious firm was the furnishing of Riel and his associates with supplies; having these and other doubtful interests to carry through. The Canadians were all in gaol, Riel held possession of Fort Garry, and ruled over the Settlement with a rod of iron, the mail bags were carefully searched and all loyal and truthful communications extracted, and consequently Mr. Begg had it pretty much his own way. The associates of these gentlemen were the Yankees in Winnipeg, and many weighty anti-Canadian affairs of State were nigh settled over a  game of draw poker with that delectable crew. The only thorn in their sides, whilst meetings and elections were the order of the day, was the fact that, according to their own principle of manhood suffrage, the Canadians in Winnipeg largely outvoted them, and it was consequently an irrepressible relief to Sheriff McKenney and to Mr. Bannatyne when the entire body was removed and quietly placed under lock and key at Fort Garry. So careful were they to keep them there, that upon one occasion on the eve of the election, when Riel ran short of guards, and it was imperatively necessary that Annexationists should be returned, the Yankees, with superlative insolence, offered to guard the Canadian prisoners. The visionary and nonsensical [sic] ideas which Canadians entertained about the Dominion and the duties of the loyal men were thus kept carefully in the background. McKenney, Bannatyne, Begg, the Yankee, the Company and the Priests had a fair field; whilst the loyal English natives, comprising two-thirds of the population, without arms and without ammunition, cursed, their own helplessness, and shrunk from the guns of Fort Garry.

To understand properly the encouragement and countenance which the Hudson’s Bay Company gave to the insurgents at an early stage of their proceedings, it is perhaps necessary to explain here the position of the Company here in Red River and their relation to the Company in England. When the two Companies–viz., the North-west Company of Canada, which had its headquarters in Montreal, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had its headquarters in London–were united in 1821, it was agreed that the Stockholders of each Company should have equal shares. On the other hand, the wintering partners–viz., the Chief Factors and Chief Traders, who conducted the business of the Company in the interior, contributed no capital, and were not stockholders; and to renumerate [sic] them for their services, it was provided that forty of the one hundred shares into which the profits arising from their trade were divided, should be distributed amongst them in the proportion of one share to each chief factor, and a half share to each chief trader. Up to 1857 the business of the Company returned an average of 13 per cent. per annum, which gave the factor as his share of the allotment about £600, and to the trader about £300. the reader will now understand that the wintering partners have no vested interest in the Company, that they simply share a portion of the annual profit, and that that share depends upon their success in the interior. So long as thy had the entire field to themselves, and while fur-bearing animals were abundant and cheap, their interests did not suffer. But when the free-traders at length overcame their opposition and competed with them in their best districts, the shoe began to pinch them. The stockholders in England, in the event of a total drying up of dividends, could realize their territorial and other interest at any time, and avoid a loss whereas, the factors and traders in such event, had nothing to fall back upon and were simply destitute. This fact, moreover accounts for a long string of petty tyrants in Red River, and for the strenuous opposition of the wintering partners to the opening up of the Territory on any terms. The new adjustment of the Company’s affairs in London in 1863, contemplated a variety of progressive and civilizing schemes, one of which involved the establishment of telegraphic communication from Canada to British Columbia. These measures, however, evoked such a storm of opposition in the interior that the stockholders were fain to fall back upon the traditional methods, and to content themselves with “realizing” from mink-skins instead of from immigrants.

At length came the news of the final arrangement for the transfer of the Territories to Canada, coupled with the information that the winterers were to receive no share either of the purchase money or of the territorial reserve. Othello’s occupation was gone at last, and instantly the position of the Company in Red River became antagonistic to the change. The younger men in the service never disguised their indignation and disgust, and the currency of a report in the Settlement that a proposal to secrete £30,00 [80,00?] worth of furs to be sold for the benefit of the winterers was only lost by the casting vote, serves to show the feeling which existed and still exists in the minds of these people.

The first direct evidence of this estrangement and antagonism came under the writer’s notice in July last. He had occasion, in company with another gentleman, to call upon Doctor Cowan, the chief trader in charge of Fort Garry, and after the discussion of some matters of business, the conversation turned upon the negotiations with the Company in England, which had then terminated. He complained bitterly of the fact that during the entire negotiations the Company in London had never once referred to the partners in Red River. Their opinions and interests, he alleged, had been entirely ignored, not only by their own superiors, but by the Canadian Government. And after placing these facts before us at some length, he concluded with these memorable words:–“The Hudson Bay Company in Red River has never yet been political, but, perhaps, it will be compelled to be.” This concluding period was a chink which let in a deal of light, and the writer deemed it his duty to communicate immediately with one of the members of the Administration, advising that a force, either of volunteers or troops, should be sent to Red River in advance of Government and pointing out the element, always inflammable and already excited, which would be made use of to our confusion and dishonour. It is a pity this advice was disregarded, for there can be no doubt that the presence of two hundred volunteers in the Settlement last fall would have effectually prevented the insurrection. Example might, indeed, have been taken from the action of the American Government in Minnesota, who found it necessary to send troops to subdue the unruly spirit of the French half-breeds before the establishment of a territorial legislature.

There was an additional reason, which was also made known at that time in Canada, why troops should have been sent last summer. The Fenians in the Settlement were by no means despicable in point of numbers, and were eager and willing to create trouble. By running up the Fenian flag on Dominion eve they created a feeling which might have ended in bloodshed but for their timely silence. The Stars and Stripes, moreover, were flung boldly out in broad day light, and all visible signs foreshadowed a period of misrule.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: