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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir George Simpson


IN less than twenty years Governor Simpson had gained complete leadership of the Hudson's Bay Company, and his word had become law. This arose not from a mere autocratic disposition on his part, but from the recognition of his wisdom and ability in London and in the vast western territory. The governor, while visiting his wide domain every year, made his headquarters in Lachine, near Montreal, and thus became acquainted with Canadian life. In this way Governor Simpson became the exponent of the best traditions and opinions of the old Nor'-Westers as well as the embodiment of the interests of the directors in London, whom he visited as often as possible. His influence in Canadian affairs became very considerable. Many of the retired traders lived in Montreal and along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, forming a sort of guild of their own, and the governor naturally became the leader of this wealthy and influential set. The old days of the Beaver Club were kept alive to some extent at Lachine.

Troublous days fell upon both Upper and Lower Canada in the third decade of the century. The French in Lower Canada were dissatisfied with the oligarchy which governed them, for up to this time Britain had not trusted the French-Canadians to govern themselves. In Upper Canada the Family Compact, a combination of placemen, governed the province without regard for the interests or will of the masses of the people. These conditions led to the unfortunate rebellion of 1837-8. Papineau in Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada headed the revolt. No doubt the state of things in the two provinces justified great discontent, and the two sets of placemen were responsible for the evils which an oppressed people rose to overthrow. It is questionable, however, whether the evils could not have been remedied without the dreadful alternative of an appeal to arms. Of course the Hudson's Bay Company, its officers, and retired partners and men were a part of the system of oligarchy, and threw in their lot with the government as determined loyalists.

This was not surprising. The Hudson's Bay Company was a chartered company, and of old standing. All such organizations have their very life in the favour of the state, and are disposed to support the interests of capital as against the rights claimed by the people. It is probably a good feature of the British constitution that there are bodies which stand for law, order, and stability when popular tumult threatens to overturn and destroy established institutions. Nevertheless, popular government demands, and rightly, that equity and fair play be meted out to all classes of the people.

The interests represented by Governor Simpson in Montreal were strongly united against the Papineau rebellion. That rebellion was soon suppressed by the force of the regular soldiery, aided by the lack of coherence in the rebel party and the natural differences arising among its chiefs. Furthermore, there was a settled conviction in the minds of the French people that the British government, which had been their friend after the conquest in 1759, would in the present crisis accord them justice. It was the wheel of government nearest them which they wished to destroy, not the force which supplied guidance to the larger mechanism.

The rebellion over, the usual British process of examining into the grievances which had caused the outbreak took place. Lord Durham came to Canada, and with his liberal instincts, recommended a course of legislation which gave the people the rights they so strongly demanded. Lord Durham's visit to Canada was one of the most fortunate things in the history of British North America. The policy of rewarding those who had stood true to British interests, and also of redressing the grievances which unquestionably existed, healed the serious breach which was threatened both in Upper and Lower Canada.

The part taken during the rebellion by Governor Simpson, as well as the successful exploration of the Arctic coast at this time by Dease and Simpson at the governor's suggestion, was duly rewarded, in 1839, by the order of knighthood.

It is questionable whether the events through which Governor Simpson passed during the rebellion were favourable to the best interests of civil government in Rupert's Land. As we have seen, in 1835 a council was established for the government of Assiniboia— as the Red River Settlement was officially called—and Governor Simpson was the head of this council. The fact that its members were all appointed by the Hudson's Bay Company in London, though many of them were natural leaders of the people, was likely to rouse a feeling of antagonism, and, on however small a scale, to array the masses against the classes. The officers and retired officers of the Hudson's Bay Company with the privileged clergy certainly dominated. It was probably an unfortunate thing that Governor Simpson, while this new body was becoming fixed in its attitude towards the hitherto ungoverned people of Red River, should have been placed in antagonism to the aggressive movement of Papineau and the French-Canadian malcontents. The suppression of the rebels, the banishment of a number of them, the feeling of victory, the increasing sentiment of loyalty, and the personal reward of knighthood no doubt influenced Sir George and increased in him the feeling of the autocrat, however much this may have been held in check by his natural good feeling and sense of diplomacy.

That our estimate is not a wrong one may be seen in his action in more fully organizing the judicial staff of the colony, and in his choice of an occupant for the high office of recorder. A young Scottish lawyer in Montreal, named Adam Thom, had taken a noted part in journalism in Montreal during the Papineau rising. Papineau in a moment of passion had declared: "The time has gone by when Europe could give monarchs to America. The epoch is approaching when America will give republics to Europe." Young Thom, with true British fervour, resented such disloyal sentiments, and entered the lists with a series of newspaper letters, signed "Camillus," which were remembered for many a day for their anti-French tone and for their forcefulness.

When the rebellion was over, Lord Durham came, as we have seen, to Canada, bringing with him an exceptionally brilliant staff of assistants. To these he added the powerful young controversialist, Adam Thom, who was versed in Lower Canadian affairs. In 1838 Thom returned with Lord Durham to Britain, and in 1839, the year in which Governor Simpson was knighted, Thom was appointed by the Hudson's Bay Company, at a salary of £700 a year, the first recorder of Red River, or as he was also styled, president of the Red River court. The new recorder came from Britain by way of New York, and proceeded at once to Fort Garry.

The fourth decade of the century saw Sir George with his aristocratic notions presiding over the council of Assiniboia. His policy of government was, to a certain extent, affected by the influence of the new recorder, who was also a member of the council.

At present the details of the irritation in Red River Settlement are not of importance to our description of Governor Simpson's work as a civil ruler. Suffice it to say that Recorder Thom's influence was felt in restrictions made upon the settlers in their dealing in furs, of which trade the company claimed the exclusive right, and certain regulations of an onerous kind as to letters sent by post from the settlement. Governor Simpson, with great wisdom, allowed all these annoying ordinances to come by way of proclamation from the local governor, Christie, but was no doubt to a certain extent responsible for them. Towards the end of the decade the ferment reached its height in an emcute on the part of the Metis, or French half-breeds on the Red River, in which they released from prison one of their compatriots and defied the authorities.

At Governor Simpson's suggestion, Recorder Thom did not take his place upon the bench for a year. Then the recorder, at the instance of Sir George, again presided at a case which gave rise to popular discontent, and again the governor was compelled to consent to the cessation of his judicial functions. He allowed Judge Thom, however, to serve as clerk of the court, which he did until 1854 when he retired to Britain. During this decade in which Recorder Thom seems to have been the "stormy petrel " of the Red River Settlement, Governor Simpson acted with diplomatic discretion. The troubles culminating in 1849 led to the appointment of a local governor in Red River Settlement, who was not necessarily to be an officer of the fur trade. Sir George Simpson retired from the active :administration of affairs in the colony. He `vas, however, when present, the superior officer, having precedence of the governor at Fort Garry.

Notwithstanding all this, Sir George's visits to Fort Garry or Lower Fort Garry were always notable events. He seems still to have been regarded as the source of ultimate authority in time of difficulty. To all lie was accessible. Visits of respect were paid to him by the leading residents on his arrival in the colony, and lie no doubt oiled the wheels of government by his skill and good sense.

Sir George during his long career largely kept in his own hand the dealings with the clergy, who received from the Hudson's Bay Company certain grants and support for education and also for church service, and as a rule he satisfied this important class, although he often rallied them in a jocular way for not being as self-denying and devoted to their tasks as he professed to think they ought to be. On the whole, during his administration of civil affairs in Rupert's Land, especially in the Red River Settlement, a period of nearly forty years, he was regarded as a fair and reasonable man, though credited with being rather astute or even adroit in his management.

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