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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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Superior without which no Oblate or other commu-
nity-member makes an important step. Father La-
combe, the advisor of Bishops for fifteen years, took
on himself now the authority of a Superior and left
for Ottawa.


SIR DAVID MACPHERSON was Minister of the In-
terior then. One morning as he sat in his office shut
off from the commonplace world by noiseless baize
doors and the imposing quiet of long Gothic corridors,
a priest in a dusty black cassock was ushered in to

The priest's hat and stout umbrella were equally
shabby, but the strong frame, the statuesque face and
long straight silvering hair would have been remark-
able anywhere.

The doughty Scotch-Canadian was impressed, and
curious. The eagle eye and commanding profile
of the visitor were at variance with his modest bearing
and studiously respectful speech. But MacPherson
understood when he heard his visitor's name. . . .
Pere Lacombe.

This then was Pere Lacombe; the very name car-
ried weight. MacPherson had not met him before,
but the fame of the pioneer was already spread over
the official world of Ottawa.

The plainsman laid his case before the Minister.
It sounded reasonable : Sir David felt inclined to com-
ply with his request. But the dignity of Govern-
ments must be upheld delays and red-tape being the
traditional safeguards. Father Lacombe was in-



formed that his request would receive most favour-
able consideration, and if he returned in a few days he
would receive definite confirmation of this.

That did not meet Father Lacombe's wishes at all.
Each day that passed meant more likelihood of new-
comers building on his land, and the piling up of
abuse or inconvenience for poor timid Father Doucet
"God's lamb."

His next statement, blandly made, took away Sir
David's breath.

"Non, monsieur, I cannot go until I receive that
settlement of our land. I came hundreds of miles to
you just for this. I will wait here with your permis-
sion. ... I am used to camping on the prairie,
on the floor anywhere. . 4; ,i I will just camp
here until I get my papers!"

He looked about him. After the mud-chinked
shack at Macleod or the shedlike house in Calgary
this office was regal. He seated himself with the air
of one who settles himself comfortably for a length
of time. . . .

Sir David felt the force of a personality quite irre-
sistible, and let the red-tape bandages of dignity
relax. He immediately wrote out a guarantee of the
homestead locations on the sections indicated by
Father Lacombe. The patents for the land were to
follow when the conditions were fulfilled.

The westerner in bowing himself out from the
courtly MacPherson was as shabby a figure as when
he came; but he carried himself like a chief return-


ing from a victory. . . . One wonders what ex-
ploits might have been his, east in another mould of
the frontiersman the adventurer instead of the
priest !

He hurried to telegraph his good news to Father
Doucet; then went to Montreal. Here he did a
quaint stroke of business: upon his own initiation he
had hundreds of statuettes of Archbishop Tache cast
from a mould by young Louis Herbert, and sold to
that statesman-prelate's numerous admirers. The
proceeds he turned over to the missions of his friend
at St. Boniface, who was greatly amused and touched
by this new enterprise of ff ni matchi Albert"

Whilst in Montreal he issued a letter to the priests
of Quebec begging them for books from their library :

"I will say from experience that one can endure well
enough a poor dwelling, coarse food and coarser manners ;
but to have few or no books you will agree with me that
this is something to which a priest can resign himself with
difficulty. You will say to me perhaps 'Why not buy
some?' Ah, yes, voila, a just question. . . . But we
have no means to buy them. That is why I take the liberty
of knocking at your door."

Books literally streamed upon him, the Cures joy-
fully finding a place for their antiquated numbers,
and Father Lacombe returned happy. He wired
ahead for his brethren to meet him at Calgary to share
his good fortune, and Father Legal records in his
Mission Journals that their Superior returned


"successful to his heart's content" in all his affairs
homesteads, schools and books.

The homesteads were divided into portions for a
future church, hospital, academy and cemetery; while
the proceeds of town lots later sold from them fur-
nished the diocese with money to erect buildings.

Calgary meanwhile was taking shape as a town
with marvellous rapidity. Its population numbered
five hundred, and new citizens arrived weekly. Men
foregathered and elected a town Council, which
promptly crossed swords with the railway company
to which the little town owed its existence: there was
no lack of spirit in the new frontier.

With the white population monthly taking a
stronger hold upon the land the establishment of In-
dian Industrial Schools became the dominant idea of
Father Lacombe.

Bishop Grandin had originated a campaign for
schools in the mission he laid upon Father Lacombe
in 1872. It appealed to him as the final phase of his
own work for the west, and though enfeebled now he
determined to carry it through at any cost to himself.

The bishop insisted that the few schools in exist-
ence should be developed and extended, teaching the
Indian boy to till the soil and his sister to keep a
house: in this way to reach the adult through the chil-
dren. To do this schools must be conducted on a
large scale. But how? For ten years he had ex-
hausted every effort to secure money for this in Can-
ada and France. He was still without means.


It was then that Father Lacombe, growing in
worldly wisdom and knowledge of public life, im-
parted to the bishop the idea of petitioning the Gov-
ernment for funds. These might appropriately be
had from the Indian funds held in trust by the Gov-

Father Lacombe, though corporally in Winnipeg
during the seventies had been much in spirit back on
the plains, and at every feasible opportunity was
helping Bishop Grandin to forward their school
project. The plan was communicated to Archbishop
Tache and the latter met the bishop early in 1883 at
Ottawa to press the educational needs of the Indians
upon the Government.

That spring the ministers' offices and the corridors
of the Parliament Buildings were for some days
haunted by first one and then another of the western
prelates. Representations were also made to the
Prime Minister by Father Lacombe and by Sir Al-
exander Gait at the request of his missionary friend.

The result of these combined efforts was that the
Government authorized the establishment of three In-
dustrial Schools at Dunbow, south of Calgary, at
Battleford and at Qu'Appelle. The Government
agreed to erect the buildings, pay the principal a fair
salary and make a per capita grant toward the main-
tenance of the pupils.

Sir John Macdonald writing from Riviere du Loup
on August 1, 1883, to a friend of Father Lacombe
who forwarded the letter to him says:


"... I am down here getting a little rest and fresh
air, but amuse myself occasionally by looking over my cor-
respondence in arrear. . . .

"With respect to the most important of these, the estab-
lishment of Industrial Schools among the Indians, I may say
that all difficulties have been overcome and three Industrial
Schools are to be established one Protestant at Battleford
where the government buildings will be available, and two
Roman Catholic schools one under the patronage of the
Archbishop and the other of Bishop Grandin. The Order in
Council has been passed. Mr. Dewdney has been instructed
to take steps for their establishment and Sir Hector Langevin
has called the attention of their Lordships to the importance
of the Principals or Heads of the schools being good adminis-
trators. Learning and piety, however necessary, are not all-
sufficient. Good business ability is, if possible, a greater
requisite than either of the other two. . . ."

In 1884 Qu'Appelle and Dunbow schools were
opened. Father Lacombe, although still supervising
the southern mission-field, was given direct control of
Dunbow school. He had already chosen the site and
directed the construction of the building. On its
completion he rode out among the Bloods and Pie-
gans asking the parents to send their boys to the
school. Father Legal and Jean L'Heureux did a
like service at Blackfoot Crossing.

The Indians however absolutely refused to part
with the younger boys for whom the schools were
intended. Eventually after much persuasion the mis-
sionaries succeeded in assembling seventeen boys from
15 to 17 years old.


Father Lacombe received the boys at Dunbow. As
a preliminary they were shown to a room containing
washtubs. They were directed to bathe. Their long
hair was combed by Father Lacombe and his assist-
ant, for the parents had refused to have it cut. New
clothes were supplied to each boy, and his own tat-
tered garments rolled away in a bundle to be returned
when he went home again.

About as much at home as wildcats in a beaver's
well-ordered domicile the young Indians were given
a supper which they appreciated more than the
grooming. Then they were sent out to the prairie
for a playhour. This was Bedlam.

The lid of a repression imposed by awe of their
surroundings was thrown off, and in all his experience
of Indian children Father says he never witnessed
anything like this. The boys ran wild in a riot of
horseplay. . . . But a bell rang; and at its un-
wonted sound the poor young mavericks of civiliza-
tion were rounded up and sent to a dormitory to sleep.

Here were compensations for the broken playhour.
. . . The stairway was a novelty, and the boys
found rare amusement in running surreptitiously up
and down the steps. In the dormitory they were in-
vited to undress, and each put in possession of a little
bed decently equipped with bedding. After the first
shock of surprise there was another Carnival for the
seventeen dusky human mavericks!

They laughed and sang, and with all the Indians'


power of ridicule made light of the odd furniture.
They examined the beds, explored them above and
below and punched their pillows. Some crawled un-
der the beds and found there a new vantage-point
from which to hurl missiles and ridicule at those who
ventured to lie on the beds.

There was no sleep in the dormitory for hours.
Father Lacombe, old now to the ways of Indians
sympathetic always to youth, merely controlled
them from his own apartment without any effort to
repress them. Through the night however he was
awakened by a hilarious rout in the hall below the
stairs, where some of the boys had elected to finish
their frolic.

On the following day the teacher went about or-
ganizing a class. With the consuming curiosity of
their race the boys were interested in its first session.
They were then and always reverent and quiet at
prayers but when their first recess came there was
pandemonium again, and reluctance to return to the

It was so during all the early weeks of the school.

"You could open the doors and look inside and see
Hell that first winter," said Father Lacombe twen-
ty-five years later.

The main difficulty was that these boys were too
old to be broken to school ways, but they were the
only boys available. All winter they continued to
be as wild as young elk. Sometimes they would turn


the playground into a battlefield; more often they
would slip way to a big hill a mile distant and play
there well away from the shadow of the school.

Occasionally the teacher on ringing the bell for his
charges would not find one in sight. In an instant,
so it seemed, they had hidden themselves about the
yard, ready to lope off to the prairie if the teacher
would not come out to round them up. During the
winter some of the boys ran home. When spring
came they all clamoured to be free.

Father Lacombe went north and obtained boys
from Cree reserves. By degrees the Blackfoot elders
acquired clearer ideas of boarding-schools. They al-
lowed a few of the younger children to go with Father
Lacombe some girls as well as boys; and the work
was considered established.

In this way the first Indian Industrial school of
Alberta took shape.

The Grey Nuns who had volunteered as teachers
quickly secured control of the younger pupils and
held their affections. Little by little a regular school
routine was formed, the children lending themselves
more readily to manual training than to books after
the first novelty wore off.

This was the beginning of a system that has since
spread throughout the west, an honest endeavour by
men with the best interests of the Indians at heart to
solve their problem. The schools were designed
to bridge for the Indian the Transition stage from
barbarism, so that at least the children's children of


the warriors of Natous and Sweet-Grass should be fit
to cope with the Caucasian civilization that threatened
to overwhelm their race.

In the autumn of 1884, after this Industrial school
was opened, Father Lacombe as Superior of the whole
southern district had the delight of welcoming Arch-
bishop Tache to Calgary.

Aware of the Archbishop's invalid state and antici-
pating his anxiety to witness the marvellous develop-
ment in the remoter west the president of the
Canadian Pacific had courteously placed a private
car at his disposal. On September 21st he arrived,
and found there to welpome him Father Lacombe
and Father Remas, who had made a retreat with him
in the northern woods thirty years before; Fathers
Legal, Doucet, Claude and Foisy, with several lay-

The venerable prelate heard the story of each. He
marvelled. He could scarcely credit that this or-
ganized district with new buildings at each mission-
point and prospectively valuable property in the town
was the same field to which Father Lacombe had re-
turned two years earlier.

There had been then only two missionaries and two
log-huts, mud-chinked and floorless. To-day . . . !
The Archbishop looked about him, and recognized
the old powers and organizing genius of his friend
ff ni matchi Albert."


THE frontier town of Calgary was rapidly rising
from its first semblance of a tented village. Primi-
tive restaurants, pool-rooms and shops lined the Main
Street with false fronts and aggressive signs behind
which the newcomers laid plans for future fortunes.

Meanwhile elsewhere on the plains, in the homes
of the Metis Old-Timers, there was much sullen dis-

The insurrection of 1885 was impending.

It was no summer thunder-cloud coming out of
clear skies. Grievances had been rankling for at least
five years. Repeatedly in letters and interviews the
Saskatchewan Metis, and Bishop Grandin in their
name, had urged the Canadian Government to meet
their claims to land-scrip similar to that granted to
Manitoba Metis; likewise to initiate measures * for

1 The formal list of claims of the Metis included :

(1) The division of the North-West Territories into Provinces;

(2) A grant to the Metis of Saskatchewan of the territorial privileges
conceded to the Metis of Manitoba;

(3) That persons already located be secured in title to their hold-

(4) The sale of 500,000 acres of Government land, the proceeds of
which were to be devoted to the establishment of schools, hospitals
and other institutions for the Metis together with a grant of seed and
agricultural implements to the poorer of their number;

(5) The reservation of 100 townships of land to be distributed in
time to the children of the Metis;


the improvement of the Indians' condition as well as
their own.

Differences with minor officials of the government
and instances of misunderstanding concerning their
right to hold land on which they were located were
causes of irritation among the Metis. A conscious-
ness that they were retreating before the dominant
newcomers had set the hidden fox of envy gnawing
the vitals of a race still free and proud: the Federal
Government neglected their communications. . . .
Here was sufficient material to fire a Metis rising.

Manitoba Metis, who had sold their holdings to
unscrupulous white men for trivial amounts, had
emigrated in poverty to the Saskatchewan. They
were now living examples of what their brethren
might expect in the future. . . . The Saskatch-
ewan Metis resolved to make a stand for themselves
and their children.

Gabriel Dumont, a noted hunter and relative of
Louis Riel, a recklessly brave, dashing and hospit-
able fellow, was now pushed to the leadership of the
French-Metis; while James Isbister of the Scotch-
Metis made common cause with him against the new
Regime. The united halfbreeds held an assembly in
May and there delegated Dumont, Isbister and others
to go into Montana and bring Riel back to lead them.

Louis Riel was then employed peaceably earning a

(6) A grant of at least $1,000 for the establishment of an Academjr
at each settlement of Metis;

(7) The improvement of the conditions of the Indian nations.


livelihood for his family as a schoolmaster in the par-
ish of St. Pierre. He did not leap with enthusiasm
to the offer of leadership at first, but he finally made
up his mind to accept. Honore Jaxon (Henry
Jackson), the young Ontario aide of the Metis and
graduate of Toronto University, joined Kiel on his
arrival in Canada and assisted him in framing what
they termed a constitutional agitation. 1

A number of white men were now interested in the
movement, urging on the more ignorant Metis.
Some of these were probably moved by envy of the
newcomers' progress. It is still believed along the
Saskatchewan that others interested themselves in
promoting agitation in order that the country might
be flooded with negotiable script. Out of this the
Saskatchewan man of affairs might hope to make a
fortune as easily as his prototype of the Red River
had done.

When word came to Bishop Grandin that Riel was
again in Canada, and greeted by the Metis as a Na-
poleon returning from Elba, the bishop hurried
down to Prince Albert. For fifteen days he visited

i Jaxon stated to me in Edmonton in October, 1909, that Isbister
and Dumont brought Riel letters from leading white men among the
old-timers and business men of the Saskatchewan valley, urging him to
come back to curb the ambitions of the newcomers and secure the rights
of his own people.

These letters Jaxon saw burned at Prince Albert at the close of
the Rebellion before he fled to the United States and freedom. A
prominent statesman of Western Canada also informed me that he
knew of those letters held by Jaxon and burned by a relative of the
latter at Prince Albert in order that the writers might not be com-
promised should an investigation be held.


among the Metis, pointing out the dangers of a
course that might lead to combat and the forfeiture of
all rights instead of securing them.

Seriously alarmed by what he had seen and heard
the bishop wrote a formidable warning to the Prime
Minister :

"I have seen the principal Metis of the place, those whom
we might call the ringleaders; and I am grieved to real-
ise that they are not the most culpable. They are pushed
forward and excited not only by the English half-breeds
but by inhabitants of Prince Albert persons of some
prominence and opposed to the Government, who hope with-
out doubt to profit by the regrettable steps of the Metis.
These must certainly be strongly supported to act in this way
without the knowledge of their priests, who have now been
represented to them as sold to the Canadian Government.

"It will surely be easy for your government to suppress
this sort of a revolt which might later have painful conse-
quences ; because the Metis can do as they please with the In-

"How many times have I not addressed myself in letters
and conversation to Your Honour without being able to ob-
tain anything but fine words . . .! I have written at
their dictation the complaints and demands of this discon-
tented people ; I send them to you again under cover with this.

"I blame the Metis and I have not spared them reproaches.
But I will permit myself to say to Your Honour with all pos-
sible respect, that the Canadian Government is itself not free
of blame ; and if I had the same authority among its members
that I have with the Metis I should tell them so more re-
spectfully doubtless, but with the same frankness. . . .


"I implore Your Honour not to be indifferent to this and
to act so that this evil may be checked."

He gravely warned Sir Hector Langevin:

". . . Once pushed to the limit, neither pastor nor
bishop can make them listen to reason, and they may pro-
ceed to acts of extreme violence. I beg you then to in-
stantly employ all your influence to secure for them what-
ever is just in their demands."

The bishop's letters were written in September,
1884 in ample time for the Ottawa Government to
have averted the Rebellion of 1885. Ottawa did not
unbend. Why they did not why they paid as little
heed to this solemn warning as they did to Tache and
MacTavish in 1869 has gone down into the grave
with the men who were in authority then.

On March 18, Kiel, whose weak brain was again
unbalanced by excitement, called his followers to
arms. He had already in his madness set himself up
as a sort of Pontiff, had a new scheme of religion
planned and proposed to reorganize the Catholic
Church and reform Canadian Government in the west.

Swiftly following upon Dumont's encounter with
Crozier at Duck Lake came news of Big Bear's dep-
redations and the massacre at Frog Lake, where the
Agent Quinn, Father Fafard and Father Marchand
were murdered.

Canada was now awake to the urgency of the Metis


Father Lacombe hearing the news telegraphed into
Calgary mourned again that he had not been left
on the plains in 1872 to continue the work of Chris-
tianizing the Indians. Had he done so the mission-
aries would have had Big Bear and Poundmaker un-
der their influence to a degree that even Dumont or
Riel could not prevail against.

Chief Crowfoot he felt confident could be relied
upon to help him keep the southern tribes at peace.
He wired this assurance to Sir John Macdonald, who
stated 1 in the Commons on March 26 :

"I had a telegram from the Rev. Father Lacombe
to-day, and he vouches for the loyalty of all the Black-
foot Indians at Carlton and the west."

The Prime Minister's idea of western locations
seems to have been very inaccurate. The news he
conveyed was received with applause however.

Father Lacombe's confidence in his Blackfeet was
presently tried. On the evening of March 27th
grave rumours spread through Calgary of fatalities
near Prince Albert. Though remote from the dis-
turbance, the townspeople grew afraid.

It was known that emissaries from the Saskatch-
ewan Metis and Crees had been skulking in the
camps of the Blackfeet for some time. It was real-
ized too that if the Blackfeet and their allies, the
best fighters on the plains and the least docile of all
western Indians, should unite with Riel they could

i Debates, H. of C. (March 24), 1885, Vol. 2, p. 745.


temporarily destroy white settlement in the country.
Calgary had reason to be cautious.

A Home Guard of 104 men was organized, and
the leaders telegraphed Ottawa and Regina for arms.
That evening the almost incredible news was flashed
from Langdon station that the Blackfeet were about
to attack Calgary. The Guard was sworn in for
service; armed patrols were set to watch the town by

The routine of life was rudely broken; people
gathered in groups on the street to discuss the shock-
ing news. Timid hearts could see visions of the
painted and feather-decked Blackfeet riding down on
them. Excitement was intense in the little town.

In their extremity the people of Calgary turned
that night to Father Lacombe. He agreed to go
out to pacify the Indians, though protesting there
was no truth in the rumour.

"That's only humbug!" he said. "Crowfoot
would never let his braves attack Calgary."

Men shook their heads. Not all of Calgary shared
his belief then in the Head-Chief.

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Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 17 of 28)