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The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 17 The Oligarchy

The struggle has always been between the masses and the classes. Privilege always strives to confine itself to a few. It could not be but that the echoes of the great British Reform Bill of 1832 should reach even the remote banks of Red River. The struggle for constitutional freedom was also going on in Upper Canada, as well as in Lower Canada where the French-Canadians were fighting bitterly for their rights. Besides all this in the Red River Settlement the existence of a Company store—a monopoly—could never prove satisfactory to a community of British blood. Had the Colony shop been ever so justly and honestly conducted it could not be popular, how much less so must it have been in the hands of Alexander Macdonell, the peculator and deceiver.

It is true the Company store, of which we speak, was not that of the Hudson's Bay Company proper, but rather the possession of Lord Selkirk's heirs.

Gradually the rulership was coming under the direction of Governor Simpson, though there was the local Governor who was nominally independent.

Even when Governor Simpson was invoked, it is to be remembered that he and his company were the embodiment of privilege. But the Governor was a surprisingly shrewd man. He saw the aspiration after freedom, of both Scottish and French Settlers. True, gaunt poverty did not stalk along the banks of Red River as it had done in the first ten years of the Colony, but just because the people were becoming better housed, better clad, and better fed, were they becoming more independent. The unwillingness to be controlled was showing itself very distinctly among the French half-breeds as they grew in numbers and dashed over the prairies on their fiery steeds. They were hunters, accustomed to the use of firearms and were, therefore, difficult to restrain.

The Governor's policy clearly defined in his own mind became, for the next ten years, the policy of the Company. We have seen that the Governor built Lower Fort Garry, and he regarded this as his residence, nearly twenty miles down the river from the Forks, which was the centre of French influence. Even before doing this in 1831 he had, in the year preceding this, as Ross tells us, built a small powder magazine at Upper Fort Garry, and it goes without saying that rulers do not build powder magazines for the purpose of ornament.

In 1834, as we learn from Hon. Donald Gunn, who was then a resident of Red River Settlement, and who has left us his views in the manuscript afterward published coming up to 1835, a most serious revolt took place among the Metis. Gunn's account is vivid and interesting.

The Sisters     The Ferry     The Forks       Fort Garry     Site of Fort Gibraltar
      Pontoon Bridge     French Half-breeds with Ox-carts     
(From Oil painting of Mr. W. Frank Lynn made in 1872, now in possession of the Author.)

The French half-breeds were entirely dependent upon hunting, trapping or voyaging. One hundred or one hundred and fifty men were required to transfer goods, furs, etc., from the boats during the time of open water. Generally they received advances from the Fur Company at the beginning of summer, for they were always in debt to the company. On the close of the open season they were paid the balance due them. After a few days of idleness and gossip the money would be spent and want would begin to press them. A new engagement with an advance would follow. The agreement was signed, and so like an endless chain, the natives were always held to the Company's interest. At Christmas, these workmen received a portion of their advance, and as is well known, the company relaxed somewhat its rules as to liquor selling at this season. At this Christmas time of 1834 payments were being made and indulgence was supreme, when a French half-breed named Larocque entered the office of the accountant, Thomas Simpson, a relative of Sir George, and demanded his pay in a disrespectful way. Simpson replied somewhat roughly, which led Larocque to insult the officer of the company. Simpson seized the fire poker and striking Larocque's head made an ugly wound on his scalp.

Larocque's companions retired without violence, but on returning home, gathered the violent spirits together, came back to Fort Garry and demanded that Thomas Simpson should be given up to them for punishment, with the threat that if this were not granted, they would destroy the Fort, and take Simpson by violence. This being refused them, the Metis returned to their homes to prepare themselves for action, and began the war songs and war dances of their savage ancestors in true Indian style. Governor Christie, the local authority, took with him Chief Factor Cameron, Robert Logan and Alexander Ross, chief men of the Settlement, and visited the gathering of the Metis. One of the deputation writes that "they resembled a troop of furies more than human beings." For some time the mob refused the approaches of the officers of the Company. At length the quarrel was settled by the Company agreeing to pay the voyageur's wages in full, and that he should be allowed to remain at home. Probably, however, the most acceptable part of the concession, was the gift by the Company of a "ten-gallon keg of rum and tobacco."

Next spring another demonstration was made by the Metis for other demands, but these were refused.

Exterior View of Fort Garry 
Exterior View of Fort Garry

Then, from every direction came the imperious suggestion that some more effective form of government should be adopted. This was granted. True, Governor Simpson did not succeed in satisfying all the Settlers, though in this respect he found it easier to supply the volatile French-Canadian hunters, than the hard-headed people of British origin. The method of Governor Simpson, along with the London Board of the Hudson's Bay Company choosing the Council of Assiniboia, certainly did smack of the age of Henry VIII. or Charles I. in English history.

The Council consisted of fifteen members, viz.: the Governor-in-Chief Simpson, the Local Governor Christie, the Roman Catholic Bishop, two Church of England clergymen, three retired Hudson's Bay Company officers, the leading doctor of the Colony, Sheriff Ross, Coroner McCallum, and three leading business men, viz.: Pritchard, Logan and McDermott. It is noticeable that though the French element numbered about one-half of the people, that only one Councillor besides the Bishop was given them, and this was Cuthbert Grant, now settled down from the period of his Bois-brulés impulsiveness to be the Warden of the Plains, with an influence over the Metis, that can only be described as magical.

Judged by the methods of representative government the Council was rather a burlesque.

Sheriff Alexander Ross, though a member of the Council, says: "To guard against foolish and oppressive acts, the sooner the people have a share in their own affairs the better. It is only fair that those that have to obey the laws should have a voice in making them."

Hon. Donald Gunn, who was not on the Council, says: "The majority of the Council thus appointed were, no doubt, the wealthiest men in the Colony and generally well-informed, and yet their appointment was far from being acceptable to the people who knew that they were either sinecurists or salaried servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, and consequently were not the fittest men to legislate for people who retained some faint recollection of the manner in which the popular branch of the legislature in their native land was appointed, and who never ceased to inveigh against the arbitrary manner in which the Governor-in-chief chose the legislators."

Notwithstanding the writer's perfect sympathy with both of these opinions, it is but fair to state that the Council of Assiniboia did in ordinary times do many things which were most beneficial and helpful to the Red River Community.

Its most distressing failures were in those things which are very essential. (1) Being a compromise body it had no power of progressive development, and in the whole generation of its existence it did practically nothing to advance the public, intellectual, or moral interests of the people. (2) Perhaps its most serious breakdown took place, as we shall see, in the failure of its judicial system. Executive power it had none, as seen in the cases where jail-delivery took place again and again by the friends of the prisoners boldly extricating whom they would. (3) But most alarming and miserable was its failure to act in its moribund days, when it allowed, as we shall see, a mob to seize Fort Garry and bring in an era of disorder which made every self-respecting British subject blush with shame.

South and East Faces
South and East Faces, 1840 From sketch by wife of Governor Finlayson.

East Face In 1882, When Fort Was Dismantled
East Face In 1882, When Fort Was Dismantled
(From painting in author's possession.)
x Spot where Scott was Executed.

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