Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 19 A Half-Breed Patriot

Canada looks with patriotic delight not only on her sons who remain at home to work out the problems of her developing life, but follows with keenest interest those Canadians who have gone abroad and made a name for themselves, and their country in other parts of the Empire or the world. Some of these are Judge Haliburton, Satirist; Roberts and Bliss Carman, Poets; Gilbert Parker, Grant Allen and Barr, Novelists; Romanes and Newcombe, Scientists; Girouard, Kennedy and Scott in the Army, and many others who have won laurels in the several walks of life. But Manitoba, or rather Red River Settlement has also its sons who have gone abroad to do distinguished service and bring honor to their place of birth. One of them was Alexander K. Isbister, most commonly known as the donor of upwards of $80,000, given as a Scholarship Fund to the University of Manitoba, but really more celebrated still, for the service he rendered his native land. A little less than thirty years ago the writer met Mr. Isbister in London and enjoyed his hospitality. Isbister was a tall and handsome man, showing distinctly by his color and high cheekbones that he had Indian blood in his veins. Receiving his early education in St. John's School, he had gone home to England, taken his degrees, become a lawyer, and afterward had gone into educational work. He was, at the time of the visit spoken of, Dean of the College of Preceptors in London, and had much reputation as an educationalist. But the service he rendered to his native land out-topped all his other achievements. We have already shown the tendency toward restriction being developed under Recorder Thom's leadership, in Red River Settlement. James Sinclair, a member of a most respectable Scotch half-breed family, had obtained the privilege from the Company to export tallow, the product of the buffalo, by way of York Factory to England. The venture succeeded, but a second shipment was held at York Factory for nearly two years, and thus Sinclair was virtually compelled to sell it to the Company.

Twenty leading half-breeds then appealed to the Hudson's Bay Company to be allowed to export tallow at a reasonable rate. In 1844 two proclamations were issued, that before the Company would carry goods for any settler, a declaration from such settler, and the examination of his correspondence in regard to his dealing in furs would first be necessary. The native people determined to oppose them. They claimed as having Indian blood, that they were entitled to aboriginal rights. Twenty leading English-speaking half-breeds, among them such respectable names as Sinclair, Dease, Vincent, Bird and Garrioch, demanded from Governor Christie a definite answer as to their position and rights. The Governor answered with sweet words, but the policy of "thorough" was steadily pushed forward, and a new land deed was devised by which the land would be forfeited should the settlers interfere in the fur trade. Next, heavy freights were put on goods going to England by way of Hudson Bay, and Sinclair, as an agitator, was refused the privilege of having his freight carried at any price. The spirits of the English-speaking half-breeds were raised to a pitch of discontent, quite equal to that of the French half-breeds, although the latter were more noisy and demonstrative. James Sinclair became the "village Hampden" who stood for his rights and those of his compeers.

It was at this juncture that the valuable aid of Isbister came to his countrymen. In 1847 Isbister, with his educated mind, social standing, and valiant spirit led the way for his people, and with five other half-breeds of Red River forwarded a long and able memorial to Earl Grey, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, bringing the serious charges against the Company, of neglecting the native people, oppressing all the settlers, and taking from them their natural rights. A perusal of this document leads us to the opinion that the charges were exaggerated, but nevertheless they showed how impossible it was, for a Trading Company, to be at the same time the Government of a country and to be equitable and high-minded. The Hudson's Bay Company answered this document sent them by the Imperial Government, and so far relieved themselves of some of the charges. But the storm raised could not be quieted. Isbister obtained new evidence and attacked the validity of the Company's Charter. Lord Elgin, the fair-minded Governor of Canada, claimed that he, in Canada, was too far away from the scene of dispute to give an authoritative answer, but on the whole he favored the Company. Lord Elgin, however, based his reply too much upon the statement of Colonel Crofton, a military officer, who had been sent to Red River. Alexander Ross said of Crofton, on the other hand, that he was a man "who never studied the art of governing a people."

But the agitation still gained head.

The mercurial French half-breeds now joined in the struggle. They forwarded a petition to Her Majesty the Queen, couched in excellent terms, in the French language, in the main asking that their right to enjoy the liberty of commerce be given them. This petition was signed by nine hundred and seventy-seven persons, and virtually represented the whole French half-breed adult population.

An important episode soon took place among the French, usually known as the "Sayer Affair." Of this we shall speak in another chapter. The movement, headed by Isbister, still continued, and led to the serious consideration by the British Government of the whole situation in Red River Settlement. The impatience of the people of all classes in Red River led to a new plan of attack. Not being able to influence sufficiently the British authorities, they forwarded a petition, signed by five hundred and seventy English-speaking people of Red River Settlement, to the Legislative Assembly of Canada. The grievances of the people were given in detail. The reason suggested for the deaf ear which had been given them by the British Parliament were stated to be "the chicanery of the Hudson's Bay Company, and its false representations."

Isbister, in all his efforts, gained the unfailing respect and gratitude, not only of his own race, but very generally of the people of theRed River Settlement. Ten years after the petition of Isbister and his friends had been presented to Earl Grey, a committee of the House of Commons was sitting to investigate the affairs of the Hudson's Bay Company. It was a sifting inquiry, in which Gladstone, Roebuck and other friends of liberty, took part. It, however, took a quarter of a century to bring about the union of Rupert's Land with Canada, although, as we shall see, in less than five years, a measure of amelioration came to the oppressed and indignant settlers of Red River. For this the people of Red River Settlement were largely indebted to the self-denying and persistent efforts of Alexander Isbister. The old settlers of Kildonan, the French and English half-breeds of the several parishes, and their descendants as well as the University of Manitoba and all friends of education ought to keep his memory green for what he did for them, for as a writer of his own time says, "He gained for himself a name that will live in days yet to come."

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus