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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter XXXII The New List of Rights

The Hudson's Bay Company was organized as a trading corporation, not as a governing body; and while its charter gave it the power to govern its great territory, this function was somewhat incidental and secondary to its primary purpose, which was strictly commercial. The primitive form of government which it established, although sufficient for the Red River Settlement in the early stages of its history, was quite sure to be outgrown as the colony developed. For twenty-three years Assiniboia was under the autocratic rule of its governor; and while his rule was wise and just for the most part, the speech of Sir George Simpson at the tirst meeting of the new Council of Assiniboia in 1835 shows us that the needs of the community could no longer be met by a form of government in which all the functions of legislation and administration were vested in one man. The changes made in that year were intended to give the settlers some part in the management of public affairs; but the measure of self-government introduced was more apparent than real, inasmuch as the members of the council, who were supposed to represent the people, were not selected by them, but were appointed by the governor. Men who had known the very full measure of self-government which Great Britain afforded to her citizens could hardly be content with a government in which they had little or no voice. All classes of the community seem to have been dissatisfied with some features of the company's rule; and certain classes had special grievances.

Either because the people had lived in the country so long almost without laws and courts, or because the new laws were too drastic and the decisions of the courts established by the new council were too severe, these courts did not always meet with popular approval. The first criminal case to be tried in them came up on April 28, 1836. A man named Louis St. Denis was convicted of theft and sentenced to be flogged; but the punishment roused so much indignation among the people that they would have rescued the prisoner, had he not been guarded by a strong force of constables; and the German ex-soldier who administered the flogging narrowly escaped very rough treatment at the hands of the angry crowd.

In 1838 the British government renewed the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company for twenty-one years, and it seems more than probable that the improved methods of maintaining law and order in its colony which the company had adopted made the government more ready to grant this extension. In the same year the company took what it considered another step in advance. Up to that date the men entrusted with the administration of laws in the Red River Settlement had had no special knowledge of law; hut in 1838 the Hudson's Bay (Company sent Mr. Adam Thom, a lawyer who had been practicing in Montreal, to act as recorder for the colony at Red River Although Mr. Thom had been living in .Montreal for some time, he was a native oi Scotland and had received his education and training in that country. He was dogmatic and prone to make long dissertations on the law as he understood it-facts which did not commend him to the practical British-born colonists and he did not speak French - a serious disability in the eyes of more than half the people in the settlement. He had been appointed by the company at a large salary, and so public confidence in his impartiality was not perfect, especially in cases in which the company was one of the parties to the suit. To the colonists Mr. Thom sometimes appeared to act both as lawyer and judge, and this did not meet with their approval.

The charter of the Hudson's Bay Company appeared to give it the exclusive right to trade in Rupert's Land; but it does not seem to have, attempted to enforce its monopoly except in the matter of the fur trade. Indeed it seems to have tacitly encouraged independent traders, who were doing business in a small way, by bringing out consignments of their goods from England and by sometimes carrying their few exports in its ships. A number of the Metis had established a small but increasing trade between the Red River Settlement and towns of Minnesota. It was almost inevitable that the independent traders would occasionally barter goods for furs; and to check the growth of this illicit trade, as it was termed, the company sometimes took measures which seemed harsh and unreasonable. In 1844 the governor of Assiniboia issued a proclamation which required all letters sent by importers to their agents in England, and forwarded by the Hudson's Bay Company's packets, to be sent to Fort Garry unsealed that they might be inspected by the company's officials before being dispatched. If importers would sign a declaration that they were not trading in furs, they were not obliged to comply with this regulation. The merchants objected strongly when the company's officers tried to enforce this rule; and although Judge Thom held that the company was justified in making it, the committee in London thought best to rescind it. Another rule, made about the same time, required all settlers, who had goods sent out from England by the company's ships, to make a declaration that they had not engaged in the fur trade. These rules must have caused much vexation, for in 1847 no less than 102 people in the colony had imported goods from Great Britain or t'h# United States, the aggregate value being £11,000.

The duties levied by the company were regarded as burdensome by the settlers. On June 10, 1845, the council met at Fort Garry and passed the following regulation dealing with the matter of imports and duties:

"Resolved—That, once in every year, any British subject, if an actual resident and not a fur trafficker, may import, whether from London or from St. Peters (in the United States) stores free of any duty now about to be imposed, on declaring truly that he has imported them at his own risk.

"That, once in every year, any British subject, if qualified as before, may exempt from duty as before, imports of the local value of ten pounds, on declaring truly that they are intended exclusively to be used by himself within Red River Settlement, and have been purchased with certain specified productions or manufactures of the aforesaid settlement, exported in the same season, or by the latest vessel at his own risk.

"That, once in every year, any British subject, if qualified as before, who may have personally accompanied both his exports and his imports, as defined in the preceding resolution, may exempt from duty, as before, imports of the local value of £50, on declaring truly that they are either to be consumed by himself, or to be sold by himself to actual consumers within the aforesaid settlement, and have been purchased with certain specified productions or manufactures of the settlement, carried away by himself in the same season, or by the latest vessel, at his own risk.

"That all other imports from the United Kingdom for the aforesaid settlement, shall, before delivery, pay at York Factory a duty of 20 per cent, on their prime cost; provided, however, that the Governor of the settlement be hereby authorized to exempt from the same, all such importers as may, from year to year, be reasonably believed by him to have neither trafficked in furs themselves since the 8th day of December, 1844, nor enabled others to do so, by illegally or improperly supplying them with trading articles of any description.

"That all other imports, from any part of the United States, shall pay all duties payable under the provisions of 5 and 6 Vict., cap. 49, the Imperial Statute for regulating the foreign trade of the British possessions in North America; provided, however, that the Governor-in-Chief, or, in his absence;\ the President of the Council, may so modify the machinery of the said Act of Parliament, as to adapt the same to the circumstances of the country.

"That, henceforward, no goods snail be delivered at York Factory to any but persons duly licensed to freight the same; such licenses being given only in those cases in which no fur trafficker may have any interest, direct or indirect.

"That any intoxicating drink, if found in a fur trafficker's possession, beyond the limits of the aforesaid settlement, may be seized and destroyed by any person on the spot.

"Whereas, the intervention of middlemen is alike injurious to the Honorable Company and to the people ; be it resolved—

"That, henceforward, furs shall be purchased from none but the actual hunters of the same."

The license referred to in the above resolution read as follows: "On behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, I hereby license A. B. to trade, and also ratify his having traded in English goods, within the limit of the Red River Settlement. This ratification and this license to be null and void, from the beginning, in the event of his hereafter trafficking in furs, or generally of his usurping any whatever of all the privileges of the Hudson's Bay Company/' These regulations respecting the trade in furs affected the Metis more than they did the other people of the colony, and the former protested against them at once. The Metis had always claimed the right to buy and sell furs, and as early as 1835 we find them demanding the recognition of this right and a reduction of the duties on articles in which they traded. But the company had never conceded these rights and privileges, and from time to time its officials had charged traders with buying furs or having them in their possession unlawfully. If convicted, the offenders would be fined and their furs would be confiscated.

Such men were generally poor, and sometimes the sentences imposed on them seemed very harsh. In 1840 it was alleged that a Canadian named Regis Lau rent had infringed the company's rights, and his house was broken open and the furs it contained were seized by the company's officers. Another Canadian was treated in the same way for a similar offence, and a third seizure was made or the shores of Lake Manitoba, the owner of the furs being sent to York Factory as a prisoner and threatened with deportation to England. A few of the Metis, having been sufferers in the same way, made common cause with the Canadians, and after a short time the English-speaking half-breeds joined them in their opposition to the trade regulations of the Hudson's Bay Company. Oddly enough, it was a love affair, in which a half-breed suitor named Hallet was rejected because of his mixed lineage, that turned the sympathy of the English-speaking half-breeds to the Metis in their struggle for free trade in furs.

The publication of the regulations adopted by the council in July, 1845, led to concerted action on the part of English and French half-breeds; and on August 29 an address, signed by James Sinclair, Baptiste la Roque, Thomas Logan, John Dease, Alexis Goulet, and fifteen more of their leading men, was presented to Mr. Alexander Christie, who had lately come back to serve a second term in the governor's chair. The address consisted of fourteen clauses, twelve of which were questions in regard to the rights of half-breeds to hunt for furs or engage others to hunt for them: their rights to buy furs, receive them as presents, or sell them; the right of the Hudson's Bay Company to fix the prices of fur; and the. extent of the territory over which the restrictions, if any, prevailed. The last clause asked what peculiar privileges the Hudson's Bay Company bad over British subjects, natives, and half-breeds resident in the settlement. The governor's reply was written a week later, and could not have given the petitioners much satisfaction. He told them that their first nine queries were based on the assumption that half-breeds possessed certain rights and privileges over their fellow citizens who had not been born in the country, assured them that all British subjects had equal rights in Rupert's Land, showed them that the restrictions of the fur trade grew out of the laws of the country rather than out of any restrictive clauses in the titles to the lands which they had purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company, and referred them to the company's charter and the enactments of the Council of Rupert's Land for information regarding the peculiar rights of the company. In conclusion the governor courteously added, "If, however, any individual among you, or among your fellow citizens, should at any time feel himself embarrassed in any honest pursuit, by legal doubts, I shall have much pleasure in affording him a personal interview."

The governor's suave reply did little to allay the discontent of the half-breeds, and it was soon aggravated by the frequent attempts of the company to enforce its monopoly. At last they decided to appeal to the imperial author ities. A petition, embodying their complaints against the government of the Hudson's Bay Company and its restrictions on trade, was drawn up and signed by five of the leading half-breeds of the colony and forwarded to Mr. A. K. Isbister, who was in England at the time, ne presented it to the colonial secretary on February 17, 1847. In reply Earl Grey, the secretary of state for the colonies, proposed that a commission should be sent to Rupert's Land to



investigate the grievances of the people, but Mr. Ishister objected that such a commission would be unduly influenced by the company's officials at Fort Garry. Afterwards the earl asked him for a more detailed statement of the settler's grievances and Anally suggested that they might test the matter in the courts. He intimated very plainly, however, that the validity of the company's charter was not to be. attacked, and that the petitioners must pay the costs of the judicial inquiry. This prohibited Mr. Isbister and his friends from taking any action in the courts, but he continued to agitate for the cancellation of the company's monopoly and succeeded in interesting a number of members of parliament in the matter.

The Hudson's Bay Company seemed inclined to treat the leaders of the movement against its rule in a vindictive spirit; and James Sinclair, who had taken an active part in preparing the address to Governor Christie in 1845 and the petition to the colonial secretary m 1847, was notified by the governor that the company ships would bring no more consignments of goods for him to York Factory. This of course was a great injury to his business. But the harsh measures of the company only served to rouse the people to more earnest efforts to overthrow its monopoly, and in 1848 a petition, signed by nine hundred and seventy-seven half-breeds was sent to the queen, asking for a form of government more in harmony with the principles of the British constitution, for freedom of trade, and for the application of some of the money received by the company from the sale of land to the improvement of transportation facilities.

The agitation which Mr. Isbister had started in England and the petitions sent to the government by the people of the Red River Settlement were not wholly ineffectual; for when Major Caldwell was sent out as governor of the colony in June, 1848, he received the following letter of instructions from Downing Street, dated June 10, 1848:

"Sir— I am directed by Earl Grey to acquaint you that so soon as circumstances will admit, after your arrival at Assiniboine, Her Majesty's Government will expect to receive from you a full and complete account of the condition of affairs at the Red River Settlement, and particularly of the mixed and Indian population living there; charges of maladministration and harsh conduct towards the natives having been preferred against the Hudson's Bay-Company, which it is of the utmost importance, should be either established or disproved. Her Majesty's Government expect from you, as an officer holding the Queen's commission, a candid and detailed report of the state in which you find the settlement you have been selected to preside over.

"I would particularly- direct your attention to the allegations which have been made of an insufficient and partial administration of justice; of the embarrassments occasioned by want of a circulating medium, except promissory notes payable in London; the insufficient supply of goods for ordinary consumption, by the company; and the hardships said to follow from an interference, which is reported to be exercised in preventing half-breed inhabitants from dealing in furs with each other, on the ground that the privileges of the native Indians of the country do not extend to them. These are only mentioned as instances, and your own judgment is relied on for enquiry into other points.

I have, etc.,

(Signed) B. Hawes."

Major Caldwell's training and temperament did not qualify him for the task of making a thorough investigation into the troubles of the Red river colony and his position prevented him from making an impartial inquiry. His investigations were most perfunctory and superficial, little evidence being recorded which was adverse to the company; and the general tenor of his lightly-considered report was that the people had little cause for their complaints against the company.

Events soon contradicted Major Caldwell's report. Early in 1849 the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company arrested a man named William Sayer for trading in furs near Lake Manitoba. He was put in prison, but was soon released on bail. Three other half-breed traders, McGillis, Laronde, and Goulet, were arrested about the same time and for a similar offence; but they were released on giving bail to appear when the case against them was called in court. The Metis determined to make the trial of these four men a test case and organized for that purpose. The leading spirit in this movement against the company's monopoly was Louis Riel, the miller of St. Boniface whose son Louis was prominent in Red River troubles twenty years later. The elder Riel was assisted by a committee composed of Benjamin Lajimoniere, d'lTrbain Delorme, Pascal Breland, and Francois Bruneau.

The trial was fixed for May 17th, which happened to be Ascension Day, a holy day for Roman Catholics. However morning mass was celebrated in the cathedral of St, Boniface at eight o'clock, an hour earlier than usual, and many people attended, most of them partaking of the holy communion. After the service was over the men gathered in the churchyard, and Riel. mounting the steps of the church, made an impassioned address to them, pointing out the injustice of the restrictions surrounding the trade in furs, urging united action against the company, and advising implicit obedience to the orders of their leaders. Then about three hundred of them, mostly armed, took boats and canoes and crossed the Red River to Point Douglas. They marched in good order up to Fort Garry, which was reached shortly before the court opened at. eleven o 'clock. Some, of their leaders went to the sheriff and told him quite frankly what they meant to do, but he seems to have contented himself with warning them against committing any acts of violence.

At eleven o'clock Major Caldwell, Judge Thom, the other magistrates, and the officials entered the court-house, the court was opened, and the case of the Hudson's Bay Company vs. Sayer was called. But the defendant was detained outside by his friends and could not appear to answer the charge against him, and so the court went on with other business for two hours. At one o'clock the case against Sayer was called again, and again he was not permitted to appear. Then the magistrates sent word to the half-breeds that they might send a deputation to watch the case on behalf of Sayer, and the offer was promptly accepted, a committee of twelve being chosen. This committee under the leadership of Riel then accompanied Sayer into the court-room, while twenty more of his friends took up a position just outside the door, and fifty others acted as a guard at the court-yard gate. A man named Sinclair had been chosen to conduct the defence of Sayer, but Riel seems to have made one or more addresses to the court, saying that the arrest of Sayer was unjust and that the whole population demanded his acquittal. Finally the fiery miller told the judges that he would give them an hour in which to make a decision and that his friends outside would see that justice was done, if the court failed to do so.

When quiet had been restored, a jury was chosen; but when the charge against Sayer was read, he promptly pleaded guilty, and even urged his son to tell all the facts which proved the purchase of furs from an Indian. The jury could do nothing but bring in a verdict of guilty, but before sentence was pronounced Sayer's advocate proved that his client had obtained permission to deal in fur from an official of the Hudson's Bay Company, and the magistrates discharged Sayer without pronouncing any sentence. The cases against Goulet, Laronde, and McGillis were dropped; and the four men left the court-room, believing that they had been honorably acquitted and that the trade in fur would be unrestricted thereafter. At the door some one shouted, "Le commerce est libre" The crowd took up the cry, and amid cheers and the firing of guns the Metis returned to St. Boniface.

The result of this trial showed the officials of the Hudson's Bay Company that the people would no longer submit to its monopoly of the fur trade. The courts, even if they gave decisions in favor of the claims of the company, had no means of enforcing them against adverse popular opinion. From that time forward, although the company did not formally renounce any of its special privileges, trade was practically free.

The trial had another result. Judge Thom realized that his usefulness as judge had ceased, and resigned his position as recorder soon after the trial. He acted as clerk of the court until he left the country to return to Scotland in 1851; and Major Caldwell seems to have acted as recorder until Judge F. G. Johnson came from Montreal in 1854 to fill the position.

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