Transcript: The North-West Papers (letter by Charles Mair)

New Nation (22 April 1870), 1-2.

The North-West Papers

A Poetical Letter

From Chas. Mair to the Hon. W. Macdougall, showing what the Ring thought of Us,

and what they intended to do with The “Serfs of Red River!”

North-West Territories,

Point du Chene, 15 July, 1869.

Dear Mr. McDougall,—

Your kind letter of last month reached me on the 6th at the hands of Mr. Snow, whose arrival I was very anxiously expecting. And first, as to the charge brought against me to you, viz.—drinking. For it must be that,—seeing that I am neither a murderer nor carnally-minded. In the first place whatever I have done anywhere has been done openly, and perhaps in shunning hypocrisy I have run into error. Be this as it may, so far as my conduct here is concerned, I can safely assure you that my errors in the matter of drinking have been few and venial. I have been tipsy once or twice, and both excesses were at a season when most men would forgive an excess. For the rest, I have frequently taken liquor, almost invariably at private houses, but certainly not in any quantity to injure me, or to interfere in the smallest degree with the discharge of my duties. I am perfectly well aware that I have tastes which are in a certain sense dangerous, and, in another sense, sustaining, and that it is my duty to order them aright. For all that there is a strong, practical fibre in my nature which enlarges year by year, not to the exclusion, but to the correction of other qualities. It is this fibre which enables me to put my hand upon my appetites, and, whilst now and then yielding to them, to clearly perceive that, after all, they are but the jack-o’-lanterns of life, and not its useful fires. Knowing, then, within myself—to a reasonable extent at least—what I really am, and having certain honorable objects distinctly in view, it pains me to think that you should misunderstand me. It pains me the more when I think how gently you deal with my [illegible: assumed flaw?], and [illegible: how?] kindly you touch upon it. I would infinitely rather receive a harsh reproof from any other than a mild one from you, and, to show you how highly I esteem and honor your counsel, I now pledge you my word that whilst in the Government employ I shall not taste ardent spirits. I would do this to no other man living, for there is something dishonoring in making such a promise; and, after all, my sins in the matter of drinking have not been greater than those of ninety-nine young men of a hundred. What drinking I have done here has generally been consequent upon hard official or literary work, and, at times, after having sat up night after night writing until day-light, I have indulged in a few horns of brandy, but not in any way to unman me. I desire you to believe this, for the circumstances which attended my leaving Ottawa last fall, and which I deliberately recorded with sorrow and shame in a letter to Mrs. McDougall, doubtless prepared you to accept any statement that my enemies, and I am of course surrounded by them here, might make.

Otherwise I have no special sins to answer for. I have formed no criminal liaisons to bring me disrepute, whatever may be said to the contrary; and, from the first discovery of the temyer [sic: temper] of the people have kept myself apart from them.

 As to my accusers, from Gov. Mactavish downwards, the whirlgig of time will yet bring in its revenges. The only agents of the Company at Fort Garry are three or four clerks, Dr. Cowan and the Governor. With the clerks, I am, and have always been, on apparently good terms, at least, and with the Governor also, though he has been endeavoring to injure me in Canada. The first intimation I had of this meanness, was his statement in Brockville regarding my letters, and which I flatly contradicted in the Globe. Subsequently, and more injurious but equally false ones, I shall leave unnoticed for the present, as I am desirous to place no barrier in the way of friendly action between ourselves and the Company, though I think that their “friendly action: as applied to the encouragement of the settlement, will be the old story over again of the Devil and the Deep Sea. It is very difficult to suppose that a company whose existence hitherto has been a huge barrier to civilisation, should turn back upon their traditions. The Company at home might, for they are gentlemen, and no doubt wish to see British power consolidated and extended on this continent. It was made plain enough last winter that they like dividends better, however, and it is more than likely than any scheme of theirs for extensive emigration and settlement in the North-West will be broken by the threats and resistance of the Company here. The former scheme which you refer to in your masterly resumè [sic] of Feb. 8th (I have spotted you throughout the whole correspondence) fell through for this reason, the wintering partners threatening to forsake their “posts” if the scheme were carried out. They are too deeply imbedded in the pursuits of the fur-trade to “settle” anybody in a hurry.

*    *    There is one thing they will do, however, if they can, and that is to get all the officers and govern the country through their nominees. If an election takes place here next year it will be one of the drollest affairs ever beheld. There is not a native of Assiniboia who knows what a vote or representative government means; and, as Bishop Tache and Mactavish have all the French half-breeds on the palms of their hands, they will take precious good care that nobody gets into the Legislature who does not clearly understand his duty to John Company. I don’t suppose the enthusiasts who believe in the Pauline conversion of the H.B.Co. would quite relish this sort of thing. There are many, however, who look forward to such a conversion, and who are moved by ideas of the importance of the Company, and operated upon by a certain imaginary aroma of ancient establishment and prestige. Large and imposing cob-webs, doubtless, do festoon the pillars which support the log shops of the Company, and for my art, had the Comany hitherto done anything towards the opening of this great garden to the poor of the outer world, or enlightened the minds of such people as they actually controlled with ideas of progress and industry I should have been one of the first to praise and honor them, and look upon their old sheep-skin with subsidiary reverence. Ceteris paribus my literary training commends all ols institutions to my tastes and respect. This Company, however, having manifestly violated their compact, and dishonored humanity by forgetting or ignoring it, for the sake of fur, deserve respect from nobody; and, on the other hand, having practically delayed the extension of Canada for twenty-five years—said extension, in the face of our increasing and aggrandizing neighbors being of vital importance to our existence as a separate nation—deserve the wrath and contempt of every true Canadian. Why should we honor them politically? The only little political pulse they have beats in sympathy with the Yankee. It is no secret that Mactavish advocated annexation on his way through the United States, and many of their people have long favored such ideas. They have told me that some years back the cry was all for Canada, and, so long as they thought there was no possibility of Canada stretching herself, I have no doubt would bawl for Canada until they were hoarse. When Canadians did petition, however, and come amongst them, and shed light upon them, and divided their trade, inserting the thin edge of the wedge which has at length split open their monopoly, they didn’t want anything more to do with Canada. It wasn’t the sort of country for them at all. Pro Pelle Cutem was their motto, and “skin for skin” it will be to the end; for, if they do monopolise office, and control government by any means, but worst of all by means of the Canadian Government itself, that end is as sure to come to them as it came to the Family Compact, or will inevitably come to any other moribund organisation which obstructs progress. How much easier, however, for Canada to start on the right track? The Company have influence over probably two-thirds of the Settlement, which equals in population a couple of well-settled Canadian townships. Of this number one hundred are shrewd and cunning and the balance plastic. Is that a great thing?

I agree with you that “where there was antagonism there must now be cooperation,” and the sooner the better. But. before putting the leaders of the poor, ignorant half-breeds into trusts which will affect intelligent, incoming whitemen, let it first be seen whether the Company are in earnest in their protestations. Let us see some of their immigration schemes set afoot, and some hard cash contributed toward the development of the country. Let the Company in England do this, and then the Company and their factotum here will have some show of right—not to control but to aid in the government of the North-West.

So far their loyalty is exhibited in very questionable shape. No flag floated on the Queen’s Birth-day, and not a gun was fired. On Dominion Day the they [sic] gave no sign. But on the Fourth of July (or 5th rather) they lent the Yankee; Irish and German trash of the village—one of their guns, and the Stars and Stripes floated over the only tavern in the place.

In anticipation of the news from Canada, and the acceptance of Lord Granville’s terms by Parliament, I had a British ensign prepared, with “Canada” on the field, and had as fine staff provided and set it up. On the night of the Fourth, these same scoundrels, to whom the Company had lent their gun, ran up the Fenian flag upon our pole, and so twisted the halliards that the posts had to be dug up before the flag could be torn down. If these men could, they would Americanize the North-West rather than see it Canadianized. They are consummate trimmers, however, and to talk with them, one would think they were sound on the “goose” or any other question. It is only by living here in contact with them–by getting wind of the little talk and squabble and scandal of the place—that one gets to the gist of things, and understands the real drift of public opinion. One of the commonest things here is for a man to talk [illegible line] protestations of friendship and good feeling. The next hour he is pulling the object of so much flattery to pieces, and becomes the very incarnation of hatred and ill-will. One’s slightest act is watched with a curiosity that is perfectly painful in its intensity, and even the lightest and most thoughtless word is caught up and pondered over with solemn owlishness or hawk-like penetration.

Dr. Schultz is a good instance of the former condition of things. Whenever his back is turned, the chorus of detraction begins. Whenever he returns they flock round him like one’s grand-children. He himself is the only man here whose lips never open to utter a scandal, and he is the Canadian most feared and hated     *     *     *     Of the latter condition, I dare say I myself am a good example. They know how I eat, and what, where, and when I eat, where I sleep, and the exact moment when I go to sleep—when I read and when I write—what people I talk to, and, inevitably, what I say to them—what houses I go to—what letters I receive and send away. Even the sacred offices of the person and the mysteries of the water-closet are not exempt from scrutiny.     *     *     So much for these matters.

The French Half-breeds are naturally intelligent, but especially averse to settled employments. Few of them cultivate more than a few acres of land. and their education has been purposely and scandalously neglected by their priests     *     *     Bishop Tache, who is, of course, hand and glove with Gov. Mactavish, manages them as he pleases, and their priests are even now exciting them to resist settlement at various points. Their credulity is easily practised upon by their leaders, and any story will go down when they are told it by the men they confide in. Some excitement was created among them by the sale of the Territory, which the Company staved off upon Canada, and they now propose to put in a demand along with the Indians, claiming part proprietorship through intermarriage. They, together with other sections of the community of Red River, are law-abiding in a peculiar sense, that is to say, when the law does not touch them. If the law confines them, however, they immediately break it. The goal has been entered a dozen times here for the rescue of prisoners by each of the various factions, and of course no proceedings for recovery ever take place. I mention this fact in order that you may see the necessity, if you come here as Governor, of bringing troops with you. Government without them will be a farce, and you yourself, in consequence of repeated infractions of the law which (without the aid exertive [sic] force to back you) would have to go unpunished, would be subjected to repeated humiliations and ridicule. There is also to be estimated, the sociaty which such surroundings would furnish in a place which may at present be described as a social Golgotha.

I take the liberty of differing with you when you say that there is nothing left you now but the dull sense of duty. I do appreciate your great loss—no man could suffer a greater—but, being still in the prime of life, how much is before you! You will bring rare qualities to an office which you have fairly earned, and under such conditions too as will exercise those qualities to the utmost, and this is something. If I mistake not there will be more than a mere dull sense of duty to inspire you in the field which will be open to you here. But even this consideration is insignificant by the side of another. You have a large and clever family whose fortunes will doubtless be attached to and bound up with this country, and something more than a dull sense of duty must inflame you when you think upon them. It seems to me, in fine, that you have a mind too active ever to permit you to relapse into mere passiveness, even though you have met with a loss in which no man living more deeply sympathizes with you than I do.

The Indians are excited everywhere. Manzhikeehinass, the old Chief of this section, went to Mactavish lately and asked him whether their lands had actually been sold. The Governor assured him that the Company had only sold [illegible: To be continued on next page?] ([Con]tinued from the First Page) their “improvements” (heaven save the word!) and not the lands, telling him to come along the next day and he would explain matters. Next day, however, McTavish was on his way to Norway House, and old Big Ears is in a quandary. We had him here last week with a lot of his people, and has a great pow-wow which ended as usual in a request for grog. The key to the Indian’s soul is in his stomach. He stated that the Indians at White Mouth mediate resistance, and the party which Mr. Snow is sending off to cut a path through to the Lake of the Woods, will of course test the truth of this statement. At all events they are excited and look for Commissioners from Canada.

If you come this fall, you will probably have a grand gathering of chiefs, and a capital opportunity will then be afforded to treat with them. If well used there will be no trouble, and whatever arrangement they make they will adhere to. Of course they will have to receive reserves of land; and, perhaps, annuities; though the [illegible line: … unless] thoroughly reliable men can be had to distribute them. It is the scoundrels of Indian agents who have given the Americans so much trouble and provoked so much bloodshed. There will probably be more difficulty with the Indians eastward than westward. Westward for a great distance the Indians are too few compared with the extent of the country. Further west there are the Plain Crees and towards the mountains the Blackfeet, and over these the Company have little influence indeed. Their [illegible: forts?] have been frequently attacked within a few years back, and their agents murdered. At Edmonton House trade was frequently to be carried on through little openings cut in the store-houses or stockades, and some parts have had to be abandoned altogether. Far too much importance is placed in Canada upon the Company’s assumed power over the Indians. With the Blackfeet, the really formidable Indians of the west, they have no power whatever, and with the other tribes they can do no more than we could equally well and better ourselves. They studiously [illegible: avoid?] these facts however, and get credit without deserving it.

If you come through by Lake Superior don’t neglect to bring plenty of gifts and especially medals. A chief is not half a chief without his medal. Interpreters you will of course have. The [illegible: ablest?] one in this country is the English half-breed, William Hallet, who represents his race at its very best, and is besides a warm friend of Canada and a thoroughly reliable man. The majority of interpreters here are not to be depended upon.

A war party of Chippeways from Red Lake, Minnesota, lately pushed through to Portage las Prairie to attack the Sioux, but returned without doing so.

The fact of these Sioux (refugees from Minnesota) being here at the Portage, is disagreeable. I bought a lot of land from a half-breed there lately and feel rather “skeery.” They don’t molest settlers, however, saving by running off a beef now and then, which the Indians will do here no matter what arrangement is made with them about their lands. At this very place the Saulteaux last week cleared out a number of cattle—the half-breed owners starting in pursuit and only returning the other day unsuccessful.

The crops here are in splendid condition and a large harvest is certain. The weather has been singularly cool, and considerable rain has fallen. The mosquitos, so far, have not been any worse than in Canada.

I have examined a good deal of country this spring, some of which I have already described. I am now preparing an article on the “Sale River” country, which is one of the richest districts in the North-West, and has been severely neglected. It contains salt springs, abundance of wood, and land of the very best quality, superior, I think, even to that of Portage la Prairie. The river bears more resemblance to a Canadian one than any other stream that I have yet seen, and, instead of being crooked like other streams here, sweeps through the prairie with generally a long reach from axle to axle. I scaled the river for ten miles, and have prepared a map exhibiting its general direction, water-powers and salt-springs for that distance, and which will be published in the Globe with my article. The water-powers though not extensive are valuable, being a great rarity on the plain country. The salt is very pure, and I enclose you some which I boiled down from the brine taken from the springs. Thirty feet was the utmost depth which I could obtain by boring, and the indication all point to a connection of this district with the great Salt Belt which stretches from Onodaga to the MacKenzie.

I received this spring a letter from one of a company of capitalists in Ontario who requested me to look up places for them for factories which they propose starting here; also a letter from my friend Wm. Morris of Perth regarding salt, and as capital applied in these ways here will be of great service I though it advisable to look about for them. Sale river is the country to a [illegible: “S”?], and I take pride in being the Canadian pioneer of that district. I have already settled three Canadians upon it, who, with splendid land, wood and water, and all for nothing, feel like getting married. I have also projected a few lots on this river for my old friends in Ottawa, and a lot of land for myself. These are mere projections, however, and if opposed to any rule of the Department will of course go no further for the present. Please inform me upon this point.

My description of this district will be ample, and will no doubt attract attention to the country described.

What a noble chance Mr. Dawson had of describing this country, which he neglected. Mr. Hind wrote, but not attractively, and both had the fear of John Company before their eyes. These men did not examine this country faithfully according to their fine opportunities, and, though they drank as much per diem as I have done in a month–nay, more might have wallowed in rum and water from morning till night, and nothing would have been said, because, forsooth, they respected the Company. As a consequence of this wonderful delicacy, they awakened no interest in Canada at all, and, without any conceit; I honestly believe that my first published letter did more general good in the way [illegible: … all their operations] and dulcet harmonies put together.!!

I have endeavored to waken interest in other ways. When I came here I found the little Nor’-Wester, then out of the hands of Dr. Schultz, wasting ink and paper on petty village squabbles. I turned them inside out; insulted and abused Bown, and ridiculed the editor—a lazy man with a genius for twaddle. By alternating this with judicious flattery I lifted them out of the ruts of personal invective, gave them a article myself now and then, and fairly started them at writing sensible matter about the country and its resources for Canadians to read. This was better than hebdomodal studies upon the character of Judge Black, and the damning constitution of the Petty Courts, and the consequence is that their circulation is largely extending in Canada; and the pa[er quoted from everywhere.

This is an infernally long letter. I have only one or two things to add to it. The buffalo are approaching at last and there is likely to be a large and successful hunt. It will probably be the last one, as it is almost certain they will be driven southward and perhaps never return. Now my future book will not be perfect in its details without a description of the hunt and I wish to join it. I should also see a great deal of the country on the way, and, in fact, it would be a delightful thing in every respect. Will you give me leave? I greatly desire you to do so, for I am very anxious to see the far-famed prairie sport. What is to prevent Jo from coming out here and accompanying me? There is plenty of time should he leave at once, as the hunters will not start from here until September, and we should not be away more than a month, and that in the most delightful season. We can drive all the way to the plains in a light wagon, and there is no risk particularly, though plenty of adventure and excitement. If you gratify me in this respect it will be necessary to write me at once, in order that I may make my arrangements. Mr. Snow, I have no doubt, will be very glad to take up my duties for a short space, as I should have returns &c. all made up to date of departure, and there would be nothing to do but pay the men.

The last point is my salary, which you do not fix, and without which the monthly accounts cannot be properly closed if I am to draw it from here and not from Ottawa as I supposed. As I said in my former letter, I leave you to adjust my salary in accordance with your sense of my merits; it being just, however, that I should know the amount as soon as possible. (I shall probably be married next spring.)

I have already said enough regarding the friendly remarks with which you conclude your letter.

I know I have been abused in every way behind my back, and that every means has been employed to injure me not only in your esteem but in the esteem of others. Mr. Snow, whom at bottom they hate as heartily as they do me, has been commended (fortunately justly so) in order to condemn me the more pointedly in Canada, and with more apparent candor; and in every sense my character has been abused b the few upon whose miserable corns I have trodden. For all that, my work will speak for itself; and, for the rest, I know you will not see me injured without a reason.

If I mistake not, the real struggle with the Hudson’s Bay Company has not yet begun; and perhaps, some years hence I shall be in a position to share in the Parliamentary fight of Canada vs. Company. Meanwhile I shall let Canadians know what they have here notwithstanding the fact that Bishop Tache’s swarthy proteges [sic] are likely to be lifted from their places by the coming men.  This is the night-mare which troubles him, and to banish which, he would “excommunicate” the soil if it were possible.

With kindest regards, I remain (expecting your promised letter soon).

Ever and sincerely yours,

C. Mair

Postscript.—Mr. Snow and myself both consider that a division of the operative and financial branches of the Public Works here would be a benefit, relieving him from responsibility and myself from a mixture of accounts. If securities are required I should mention my brother James and Alexander Morris, M.P., as persons who would be ready to enter into bonds on my account. The only risk that is run is in the losing of money en passant from Fort Garry to here. We generally leave our money on deposit, however, at the Fort and cheque out in the ordinary way.

In my last letter to the Globe—knowing that Bishop Tache was going to Canada—I purposely quoted him as my authority on the Peace river country. The Bishop is a great believer in the future of the Fertile Belt, and exalts the Peace River–that is to say, here. In Canada he may forget his conversation about the latter districts, for Bishops are men—in which case I am prapared with a letter from Mr. Lonsdale who was present during our conversation upon that river, and shall publish it should any more negations be made in Canada. I am determined that my statements, which are truthful in every particular, shall not be disputed behind my back. Bishop Tache disbelieves in this country but he has taken the precaution to survey 25 square miles of territory for mother Church.



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