GOOD THINGS FROM OTHER MAGAZINES

Lord Strathcona and Louis Reil

Some Sidelights on the Interesting Chapter in Canadian History, Showing the Way in Which Canada's Grand Old Man Handled the Turbulent Riel.

NORMAN MURRAY February 1 1910
GOOD THINGS FROM OTHER MAGAZINES

Lord Strathcona and Louis Reil

Some Sidelights on the Interesting Chapter in Canadian History, Showing the Way in Which Canada's Grand Old Man Handled the Turbulent Riel.

NORMAN MURRAY February 1 1910

Lord Strathcona and Louis Reil

Some Sidelights on the Interesting Chapter in Canadian History, Showing the Way in Which Canada's Grand Old Man Handled the Turbulent Riel.

By NORMAN MURRAY

From Chambers’s Journal

The year 1837 was a year to be remembered by all loyal Britons both in Canada and Great Britain, for that was the year in which the late lamented and beloved Queen Victoria ascended the throne and the so-called Canadian Rebellion took place. It is a very rare thing in Canada now to come across any one who remembers that little turmoil or has seen any one who took part in it. I introduce this incident here merely to illustrate the long years that our Grand Old Man, Lord Strathcona, has been in the public service ; for he came to Canada in 1838, the year after the ascension of Queen Victoria and the Canadian Rebellion already referred to, being then eighteen years of age. My prime object in connecting these two well-known names, Strathcona and Louis Riel, is to illustrate two types of character. A very good definition of a civilized man and a barbarian is that the one has his passions under the control of reason, while the latter has strong passions and a weak reason, and even a good education will not civilize the savage mind. I very much doubt if Donald A. Smith could have gained as many marks in an examination in the classics when he left school at Elgin, in the Highlands of Scotland, as Louis Riel could have got when he left the Montreal Grand Seminary of St. Sulpice. To Louis Riel, however, a classical education meant the pride

that comes before a fall, while the education of Donald A. Smith helped to develop a keen intellect.

The nearest parallel I can find to the manner in which Donald A. Smith handled the turbulent Riel on his first effort at rebellion in the winter of 1869 is the manner in which another Scotsman, of immortal fame, David Livingstone, often succeeded in handling the savages of South Africa without shedding a drop of blood. When the Hudson’s Bay Territory was transferred from the company to the Dominion of Canada in 1869, there was more or less disappointment among the subordinate officials of the company, and this helped to lead the misguided Louis Riel to the rash conclusion that there was now an opportunity for him to become a second Napoleon. Donald A. Smith had been thirty-one years in the service of the company in Canada, and had risen from the position of clerk on a wild Labrador station to be head officer of the company in Canada. Being always a man of broad ideas, he surveyed the situation from all points of view—the interests of the company, its servants, the misguided half-breeds, the Dominion of Canada, and the Mother Country. The misguided Riel could only look upon the situation from one point of view —his own dream of becoming president of a republic composed mostly of half-breeds in the Northwest.

The whole population of this vast region, nearly as large as European Russia, was only about twelve thousand souls at the time we are writing about, a little more than half of which were French half-breeds, or Metis, as they were called, who were the only class at all likely to accept Louis Riel as their leader. Mr. Macdougall who had been Minister of Public Works of the Canadian Government when the transfer of the North-West from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Canadian Government was made, was sent out as its first governor. The half-breeds, with Riel at their head, blocked the road and made a hostile demonstration ; and under the circumstances the unfortunate Macdougall had no alternative but to turn back. Riel’s policy had been to prevent any communications between the Canadian Government and the people. He did not wish them to hear anything but what he chose to tell them, and this is where our Grand Old Man’s skill in tactics, determination, and diplomacy came into play. In the meantime Riel with about one hundred men took possession of the old Hudson’s Bay post Fort Garry, in spite of the protests of Mr. Cowan, the officer in charge. Riel was bent on proclaiming himself dictator of the newly formed province of Rupert’s Land, and accordingly issued a proclamation to the people. Sixty of those who were not favourable to Riel’s ambitions were arrested by his orders. A new flag was made with a representation of the Shamrock and Fleur-de-lis (the old French Royalist flag). The Unionjack was conspicuous by its absence from this new flag. And we know now what happened to that flag.

In the meantime Donald A. Smith surveyed the whole situation from Montreal, two thousand miles away. It was now the middle of a Canadian winter, with no means of communication for the longest part of the

distance but dog-sleds. Another clear-headed Highlander, John A. Macdonald, was now Premier of Canada, and between them it was arranged that Mr. Smith should undertake the difficult mission of explaining the intentions of the Canadian Government to the people. He was appointed a special commissioner to inquire into and report upon the causes and extent of the disaffection of Red River, to act as mediator amongst the inhabitants, and also to report on the best mode of dealing with the Indian tribes in the country—surely a large contract. This was, indeed, a wide-sweeping commission, and the responsibilities under it were truly immense. Mr. Donald A. Smith, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Mr. Hardistry, proceeded on his difficult mission from Ottawa on the 13th of December, and reached Pembina, a few miles outside of the settlement, on Christmas Day. There he left his most important documents in safe keeping until he could investigate matters at closer range. To the astonishment of the settlers who met him, as well as of the sentinels appointed by Riel, he drove in his dogsleigh right up to the old fort, the gates of which were open, and requested to be shown into Governor Mactavish’s house. Governor Mac tavish, who was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s representative, was now a prisoner of Louis Riel. ‘Comment appelletu?’ inquired a surly sentinel in French, garnishing his inquiry with an oath. ‘Je me nomme Donald A. Smith, et je viens de Montreal.’ This was possibly not the first time that the grim Metis heard the name. The sentinel responded that he would inform ‘President Riel.’ The title president surprised the new-comer. After a few moments Louis Riel appeared. He said he had heard of Mr. Smith’s arrival at Pembina, and was about to send off

a party to effect his capture. T then,’

relates Mr. Smith, ‘accompanied him to a room occupied by about a dozen men whom he introduced to me as members of the “Provisional Government.’’ I was then asked to take an oath not to attempt to leave the fort that night nor to upset their Government legally established. This request I peremptorily refused to comply with.’ As a consequence Mr. Smith found himself a prisoner for the next two months. On the î3th January, as Mr. Smith relates, he was awakened at three o’clock in the morning. Springing up in bed, he saw Riel, surrounded by a guard, at his bedside. The dictator demanded of his prisoner a written order for the delivery of his commission and official papers, which had been sent for. But Mr. Smith was not to be terrified by vague threats, and emphatically refused to give any such order. The well-affected French party, becoming aware of what had happened, and beginning to have doubts concerning Riel’s good faith, resolved to prevent the papers from falling into his hands. Bloodshed at one time seemed certain ; but things calmed down, and finally, after a good deal of recrimination, it was arranged that a meeting of the inhabitants from all parts of the settlement should be called for the 19th, at which the papers bearing on the subject should be read, a guard of forty men remaining in the house to ensure the safe keeping of the documents.

Probably never before in history has a regularly ordained meeting been held in British territory under such conditions. This was the meeting that Donald Alexander Smith had come two thousand miles to hold with the people of Rupert’s Land. ‘The part I had to act was that of a mediator. Not only would one rash or unguarded word have increased the difficuLv, bu* ever the pointing of a finger might have on more than one occasion been .nffici-

ent to put the whole country into a flame.’ Thus he wrote afterwards in referring to this extraordinary affair. In the open air, with the thermometer twenty degrees below zero, in the teeth of a biting blast, this meeting was conducted with a respect for decorum and ancient parliamentary methods worthy of Westminster itself. Louis Riel, the so-called president of the Provisional Government, took a prominent part; and in due time Mr. Smith rose, holding a packet of papers in his right hand. He began by reading the Secretary of State’s official letter to him. We can only give short extracts from the address delivered by Mr. Smith on this rmarkable occasion. ‘Although,’ he said, T am personally a stranger to you, I am as much interested in the development of this country as others I could name. On both sides I have a number of relations in this land—(cheers)-—not merely Scotch cousins but blood-relations. Besides that, my wife is a native of Rupert’s Land. (Cheers.) Hence, though I myself am a Scotsman, you will not be surprised that I should feel a deep interest in this great country and its people. (Cheers.) I am here to-day in the interests of Canada, but only as far as they are in accordance with the interests of this country. As to the Hudson’s Bay Company, my connection with that body is, I suppose, generally known ; but I will say that if it could do any possible good to this country I would at this moment resign my position in that company. I sincerely hope that my humble efforts may in some measure contribute to bring about peaceably union and entire concord among all classes of the people of this land.’ Mr. Smith then read the documents, the contents of which Riel had so strenuously tried to keep from the people. In one of the documents reference was made to the fact that all complaints that any one had to

make should be made to Her Majesty’s representatives, and that the Imperial Government had no intention of acting otherwise or permiting others to act otherwise than in perfect good faith towards the inhabitants of the Red River District of the North-West. A great sensation was made when Mr. Smith asked that additional letters sent by the Canadian Government through other parties be produced and read to the meeting. These documents had previously been seized by Riel and destroyed, but fortunately Mr. Smith had copies of them, the reading of which made a profound sensation. The dictator was being undermined most effectively.

Next summer a military expedition under Sir Garnet Wolseley was organized ; but when the red-coats reached Fort Garry the bird had flown in the night. Mr. Smith had countered the would-be dictator, and he could not rally sympathisers enough to make even a show of resistance.

How this same Riel started another rebellion fifteen years after-

wards, and how other methods were adopted, resulting in considerable bloodshed ; how he was finally hanged, and how the hanging was mad« afterwards, a political issue, are now matters of history; but, as Kipling would say, ‘that is another story.’ Sir Donald Alexander Smith is now Lord Strathcona. He belongs to no particular party, but to the whole State. His first appointment as Canadian High Commissioner in London was made by a Conservative Government, and he was urged by the Liberal Government which succeeded, with the greatest French Canadian, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at its head, to continue in office, and there was no dissenting voice. Among his monuments here in Canada we may mention the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Royal Victoria College (in connection with which the name of Lord Mountstephen must not be omitted). A great deal more might be said ; but as the space at my disposal is limited, I can only refer the reader for further particulars to Wilson’s Life of Strathcona.

What need hath nature of silver dishes, multitudes of waiters, delicate pages, perfumed napkins ? She requires meat only, and hunger is not ambitious.—Ben fohnson.