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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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to the ploughshare and make a decent living for the
always numerous progeny.

From the one place and the other their old shep-
herd, who had known and loved the Metis in their
Golden Age, would now gather them into some fer-
tile corner of the west, remote from the influence
of white men, their liquor and their scorn. Instruc-
tion in farming and the elementary trades will be
given his Metis there, implements be provided for
them: he will create a Metis Utopia!

This plan had been taking shape in his mind for
some time, and during the past two years, he had
repeatedly urged the Government at Ottawa to
grant sufficient land for the purpose. The tre-
mendous earnestness of the old missionary had its
effect* Lord and Lady Aberdeen, who were now
the vice-regal representatives in Canada and whose
guest he was on each visit to the east, were early
won to his belief in the plan. Sir Mackenzie
Bowell listening one day to his ardent advocacy, ex-
claimed :

"Your plan is an act of Christianity for you: for
us it would be an act of patriotism."

Now in 1895 Father Lacombe resolved to make a
supreme effort to realize his scheme. He wrote to
Bishop Grandin:


"We, the old missionaries must not forget what we have
done for the Metis and what they have done for us. For
their fine attachment and devotion gives them a right to our
affections still, notwithstanding the demoralization of a great
number. Let me expend what physical force and energy re-
mains to me in labouring for this undertaking with which God
has inspired me, and in which I have faith. It seems to me
that Providence has preserved to me, at my advanced age,
such measure of health as I have simply that I may under-
take and carry through this work which to others may ap-
pear impossible and absurd."

Bishop Grandin was doubtful of the result, but
he could not withhold his consent to that plea, quali-
fying it, however, with a warning:

"Go, and may God bless your zeal, but remem-
ber if to-day is a Palm Sunday, there will soon be
a Good Friday."

The warning fell on deaf ears: nothing could
dampen Father Lacombe's ardour.

In February, 1895, he went east to St. Boniface
for the consecration of Archbishop Langevin, the
successor of Archbishop Tache, and from there to
Ottawa. Here he received such encouragement in
his plan that he felt justified in instructing two ca-
pable brethren, Father Therien and Father Morin,
to go and look for a site for his colony in the vicinity
of his old mission of St. Paul de Cris, north of the
North Saskatchewan.

A letter to the Hon. A. C. La Riviere, M. P.,
written by Father Lacombe whilst journeying east,


indicates how strongly he was preoccupied with his
plans to uplift the Metis:



"19th February, 1895.
"Very dear old friend:

"Seated in a royal palace car of the Pacific, meditating on
the things of the past of the Great Past, and dreaming of
what the future may have in store for us I am assailed by a
thousand thoughts which flutter through my head like a flight
of birds.

"I think of my benefactors so numerous and so generous,
and I pray for them. I think especially of that King of
the Canadian Pacific, Van Home, my brother by adoption,
who has done so much for our country and for our mis-

"But above all the souvenirs, happy and sad, of le bon
vieux temps, above all my pre-occupation with the future,
hovers one thought which little by little is absorbing my mind
entirely. Now I wish to make of the realization of this idea
of this dream, as some may perhaps maliciously call it
the business of the remainder of my poor life as a mission-

"The Latins said that they feared the man who read but
one book. Timeo Tiommem unius libri. Moi, I have but one
plan, one supreme plan and that is to secure to one unhappy
race a place of peace and of sweet prosperity. . . ."

He refers then to letters enclosed, addressed to
himself by some Metis "naive letters full of con-
fidence," asking him to help them get a bit of land
to farm. These he says, are but some of many let-


ters received from Metis in Montana and the Ca-
nadian west; while a prominent westerner has just
written asking him to look after other Metis who
are in a very bad way.

Father Lacombe concluded his letter by telling
Mr. La Riviere that there were at least 8,000 Metis
in the west, most of them poor, many of them de-
moralized. They were undoubtedly in a bad way,
but, their venerable advocate insisted that traders,
missionaries, and the white race generally owed them
a real debt for their diplomatic services with the In-
dians in the opening days of the white man's era.
They were kind and grandly hospitable then would
the Government not be hospitable to these poor un-
fortunates now?

It was in this way Father Lacombe approached
anyone and everyone who could possibly influence the
Canadian Government to grant his request.

When he arrived in Ottawa he found the School
Question in a fresh ferment. Archbishop Tache was
dead, but the war he had planned went on. At last
the Government understood that the Catholics of all
Canada were supporting the western minority in
their demand for a restoration of their schools, and
realized the need of action.

Father Lacombe wrote in March to Father Legal :

"How big and hot this school question becomes. We have
reached a most critical moment. Truly it is little reassuring.
Our adversaries, obstinate enemies armed with falsehood, cal-
umny and ruse, are achieving the impossible to obscure the


question and gain their cause which is that of Satan. What
is going to happen in the face of such opposition? Is the
Government going to resign? Will they hold a session? Or
will they make an appeal to the electorate?"

Again :

"The School Question of Manitoba will not be settled for
a good length of time. It is true that an Order-in-Council
is going to be adopted, sent to the legislature of Manitoba
and doubtless will be respected there.

''But when will this Remedial Ordinance be proclaimed
law, if the parliament is dissolved and an appeal is made to
the public? I have talked so much to-day that I am tired to
death. . . ."

The Remedial Order was passed by the Council
on March 21st, but to become effective it had still
to make its way through Parliament.

Father Lacombe returned west in April, but the
summer found him again in Ottawa together with
the Mayor of Edmonton delegated to secure a bridge
across the Saskatchewan at Edmonton. The rail-
way terminated in the meadows across the river and
as the directors would not incur the expense of a
bridge to go into Edmonton, and the village grown
up from the old trading-post would not move over
the river to the railway, matters between the two
stood at an impasse. An uncertain ferry solved the
problem fairly at some seasons, but these circum-
stances naturally hampered the growth of Edmon-
ton: while its towns-folk maintained a rebellious at-


titude toward the Government and railway company.

Various demands sent by them to Ottawa for re-
lief were disregarded, for Edmonton's pioneers, a
splendid group of Old-Timers, were more versed in
Indian-trading and horse-racing than in diplomacy.
Notably in 1893 they had defied a departmental or-
der to move the Government Land Office across the
river and after an exciting comic-opera insurrection
with a Home-Guard, guns and Mounted Police in
evidence they brought the Ottawa Government to
terms. All of which was soothing to local pride, but
disastrous to the hope of Government grants.

Now in 1895 the Town Fathers conceived the idea
that their one hope lay in this irresistible old mis-
sionary-diplomat, who had a few years before secured
a grant from the Government for a bridge at Cal-
gary. Father Lacombe acquiesced readily, and with
the Mayor endeavoured not only to get the bridge,
but also to have the Calgary and Edmonton line
continued across the river.

In the discharge of his mission Father Lacombe
interviewed the new Premier, Sir Mackenzie Bowell,
Foster, Daly, Ouimet, Sir Charles Tupper, Sir Wil-
liam Van Home, and William Whyte; and in re-
lation to the Calgary and Edmonton he approached
the leading stockholders in Toronto and Winnipeg.

He was readily granted the bridge. However, one
member of the Government who had no personal
cause for dislike of the Edmontonians of that day
but who had an unqualified distaste for their methods


of doing parliamentary business, confided to Father
Lacombe that they were uncouth and buffoons.

The old priest kept the ministerial comment to
himself then, though it is likely that Edmonton with
its generous quota of western independence would
have cared little if it had heard the remark. The
bridge was soon built, and up to 1912 this monument
to Father Lacombe's diplomacy has had the distinc-
tion of serving Edmonton's needs alone.

During this visit east Father Lacombe also secured
a Government grant of four townships of land for
the Metis colony, and he returned home shortly after
with an enthusiasm and light-heartedness that
laughed at his sixty-eight years.

But his work for the Metis colony had only be-
gun: he had still to secure funds for its operation.
By letters and personal visits on every trip he made
to the east for years thereafter the old missionary
was obliged to beg for money to help his Metis with
their buildings and purchase of farm implements.

The work was all the more difficult that people
generally believed the plan destined to fail.

Many of his brethren laughed at the plan. To
them it was hopeless to make the half-breed leave
the squalid splendor of the city's fringe for the
prosaic work on open fields at St. Paul de Metis.
Some papers, opposition organs, naturally attacked
the project as a misappropriation of Government
lands and assistance and occasionally referred bit-
ter Iv to Father Lacombe-


It would be useless to say that he did not feel all
this acutely particularly the laughter of those of
his friends who did not believe in the scheme, though
they vowed they loved the old missionary for his
great heart and mistaken zeal. He felt the hurt, but
he was not in any way deterred. He believed
. . . that was sufficient.

His next step was to issue a circular letter printed
in French, English and Cree calling the poorer Metis
to take shelter in his new colony. His letter in its
solicitude for the welfare of the half-breeds reveals
with what poignancy the old priest's mind dwelt on
what might be called the tragedy of civilizing the In-
dian: the gradual degradation of this child-race
brought out of paganism by Christianity as taught
on coming into contact with Christianity as prac-
tised by the majority.


THE journey to Eastern Canada from which Father
Lacombe returned in August was the second he had
made within six months, yet once more at home his
feet are "burning" to take him away again.

Each month finds him in a different quarter of
Alberta, and at the New Year, 1896, he is in Ottawa
again a minister plenipotentiary from the western
Bishops to act in the school question. The moment
was opportune, for general elections were approach-
ing and governments are proverbially impression-
able before general elections.

He writes on January 9th:

"Very dear Father:

"Where are we now? To what point are we drifting?
If you could look in on the trouble, the anxiety, and all that
is passing at this moment in the city of Ottawa you would
be astonished. The Conservative Government is falling to
pieces. The question of the Manitoba Schools is more and
more uncertain. Each day brings new fears.

"The newspapers have already told you of the embarrass-
ment which exists. The Bowell Government is greatly weak-
ened by the defection of several ministers and by the
unfavourable results of bye-elections.

"Sir Mackenzie Bowell, my friend, whom I regard as sin-
cere and who is going to fall in defending us, is no longer



supported. Things are going badly. Laurier what will
he do when he arrives in power? For this is very probable,
unless a re-organization takes place with the formation of a
new cabinet by Tupper as leader and premier.

"For my part, I have no confidence in this arrangement.
Since the Conservative party has come to this point and as
our Catholic people show themselves so indifferent and so in-
capable C'est egal it is as well that the Liberals should
come at once to take their place.

"How tired I am with all this bustle! All the same, not-
withstanding my occupations and pre-occupations I do not
forget you. I have seen about the schools. . . .

"This is very regrettable, but what would you have me do ?
The state of politics here does us an injury. My plans are
all upset. This throws us back a year at least.
The day before yesterday I dined with Sir Mackenzie Bowell.
Truly he is greatly disgusted with the state of affairs. I
think that he will perhaps resign to-day.

"Attention. . . . La, the trouble will commence again
I tell you greater than ever. I sigh for my Hermitage.
Is it possible that those who pretend to be my friends plan
only to separate me from it!"

A letter he wrote about this time to Wilfrid
Laurier, the French-Canadian leader of the Opposi-
tion brought a lively squall about his sturdy self; but
he was equal to meeting it. This letter which had
been sent as a private communication to Laurier had
been possibly in the exigencies of politics pub-
lished in full and with unkind comment by La Presse,
an active organ of the Liberal party in Quebec at
that time.


The letter to Laurier reads:

"MONTREAL, January 80, 1896
"Hon. Wilfrid Laurier, M.P., Ottawa:

"My DEAR SIR: At this critical moment for the School
Question of Manitoba, permit an old missionary, to-day the
representative of the Bishops of our country in this cause
which absorbs the thoughts of everyone permit me, I ask, to
make an appeal to your faith, to your patriotism and to your
sense of justice to beg you to comply with our request. It
is in the name of our Bishops, of the Hierarchy and of Ca-
nadian Catholics that we demand of your party, of which you
are the worthy leader, to aid us in settling this famous ques-
tion, and to do this by voting with us for the Remedial Bill
along with the Government.

"We do not ask you to vote for the Government, but for
the Bill which will restore our rights, in the form in which
it will be presented in a few days in the House. I consider,
or rather we all consider, that this act of courage, of good-
will and of sincerity on your part and of those who follow
your policy, will be greatly in the interests of your party,
especially at the time of the general elections.

"I must add that we could not accept your proposition of
a Commission for any consideration, and we shall do every-
thing to oppose it. If, though may Heaven prevent this, you
do not feel it your duty to meet our just demand and that
the Government which desires to give us the promised legisla-
tion should be beaten and overturned, the while it stands true
to the end of the fight, I must inform you with regret that
the whole episcopate as one man united with the clergy
will rise to support those who have fallen in defending us.

"I trust you may pardon my frankness, which makes me
speak in this way.


"Although I am not an intimate friend of yours, I may
say that we have always been on good terms. I have always
regarded you as a gentleman, an honourable citizen and a
clever man, qualified to be at the head of a political party. I
trust that Providence may sustain your courage and your
energy for the good of our country.

"I remain respectfully and very sincerely,
"Honourable Sir,

"Your devoted and humble servant,


"P. S. Some members of your party reproach me for
holding aloof from you and ignoring you. You have too
much judgment not to understand my position. Having no
political party myself I address myself to those who have been
placed by the people at the head of affairs. If one day the
voice of the nation calls you to the direction of public affairs,
I shall be loyal to you and have confidence in you as I am
to-day to those who are opposing you.

"If you desire to see me and to have any further explana-
tions I shall be at your service whenever it pleases you at the
University of Ottawa or at your private office, provided that
you inform me of the hour selected by you.

"I shall be at Ottawa on the 23rd to remain there for sev-
eral days,

"A. L., O. M. I.''

A despatch sent out from Ottawa to several Op-
position journals on February 21, claimed that the
significance of Father Lacombe's letter to Laurier
was that "this old, respected and confiding and de-
ceived missionary . . . has been used as an in-
termediary between the Dominion Government and


the Quebec hierarchy." . . . The letter, it states,
is a bold attempt on the part of the clerical forces
to intimidate and coerce the leader of the Liberal
party, whom they "threaten to destroy if he does not
come to the support of the position taken by certain
bishops who have mismanaged and bedevilled this
subject from the start."

This despatch, designed like scores of others of
this period to make political capital out of events,
purports to be well-disposed to Father Lacombe. It
is less flattering than direct attacks however in mak-
ing the old "confiding and deceived missionary" out
to be a simpleton and a tool. The writer ignores,
or is ignorant of the fact, that the management of
the School campaign from the start lay in the hands
of the stateman- Archbishop of St. Boniface and his
lieutenant and counsellor, Father Lacombe. And
while an outcast, foot-sore and shiftless, could readily
impose on the heart of the latter no politician, lay
or clerical, could ever deceive his mind.

Le Journal, an active organ of the Government
party now as in duty bound in the political campaign
published an editorial rebuking La Presse and those
who inspired its comment, and proceeded to interpret
Father Lacombe's letter in another way than the un-
pleasant one of La Presse. Whereupon Father La-
combe publicly voiced his thanks to the editor of the
Journal, and this went to swell the tide of journalistic
literature rising about the School Question and
everyone engaged in the contest:


"I thank you for the interest which you take in me. It is
well ; you explain the letter as it should be explained. . . .
Thank you. I shall see you soon and I shall then give you
certain information that will make those who have made an
ill-use of this letter blush.

"Truly I regret that La Presse has forgotten itself in such
a manner. It harms itself more than me. People will rec-
ognize that its zeal is a sham and this will only have the ef-
fect of damaging its arguments against 'the letter.' . . .

"Since my friend, Mr. Laurier, is not more scrupulous than
this, to take advantage of intimate communications sent him
in the interests of the country's peace, to violate my confidence
and exploit my views for his own benefit, by means of journals
which live upon sensations : that is his affair.

"Those who cry out against an old missionary, who has
every right and a definite commission to aid in the solution of
this burning question of the schools, let them reflect a little
and give me credit for my good intentions toward the Liberal
chief to whom I only wish to do good.

"If La Presse had been a witness of my intimate interviews
recently with a man whom I consider as a noble citizen and
worthy of being the head of a party, this sheet would have
expressed its zeal in another manner How can people
know how to write so well, yet to act in such a disgraceful
manner !

"For your part, continue to defend our cause with courage.
Say to those who read your articles and who will carry the
word on to all my compatriots that we will go right to
the end. We have decided to assist those who to-day have the
power in their hands in order that justice may be done to us.
Those who wish to make political capital out of this question,
I disown them. A solemn moment has arrived.


"To-day after five years of suffering on the part of an
oppressed minority, which I am commissioned to defend, I
make an appeal to all friends of Justice no matter to what
party they belong, and I beg them in the name of patriotism
and honour to fall into line on our side. Is it not simply
this that I have done with Mr. Laurier and his supporters ?

"Why then does La Presse in its zeal imply to me such
false motives?

"It is not now the time to reply to that journal when it
questions my standing with the Hierarchy. For the present
let us only try to settle this question of the Manitoba Schools,
and to this end let all intelligent minds lend their co-opera-
tion in what is an act of justice and patriotism.

"When this question is to be decided then may the nation
recollect itself and prepare loyally and honourably to unite
upon the field of combat, where once again people will give
freely and conscientiously their votes for the party which
should govern the country.

"As an old missionary accustomed to live among the sav-
age tribes or ministering as a priest to the new settlers I am
far from any desire to claim the skill of politicians. To my
great regret, circumstances have thrown me into this at-
mosphere so foreign to my habits. Only obedience and duty
can sustain me in the midst of these contradictions which I
am encountering. . . ."

The attacks made by various papers upon Father
Lacombe finally roused the Montreal Witness, a
paper of much editorial weight in the nineties and one
neither Conservative nor Catholic, to enter the lists
and there break a lance for the old missionary
whose figure despite its inherent sturdiness presented


a pathetic aspect as this storm of abuse broke around
him in public and private.

Many of the Liberal party, who were raising the
storm, probably did honestly believe that Father La-
combe or the Hierarchy behind him, was using the
School Question as an instrument to aid the Con-
servative party in the approaching elections. In
this, however, they did him an injustice. His one
political dogma through life has been to uphold the
party in power, to assist it in its administration
just so long as in his belief it was acting justly and
in the interests of the people as he saw the interests
of the people. There was an official opposition to
hackle and criticise the administration: his duty as
a non-partisan was to uphold it.

When it was no longer able to serve the peo-
ple or fit to govern it then Red or Blue; Grit or
Tory he wanted to see its departure from office
hastened and the new brooms set in motion. . . .
and he would cry right heartily "Le Roi est mort:
vive le Roi!"

Nor was this mere opportunism in the old mission-
ary. It was something nearer a high ideal of pa-

In 1896 he desired with all the ardour of his
vigorous nature that the Conservatives should be re-
turned to power, but simply because of their exist-
ing pledges to grant remedial legislation with regard
to the School Question.

The tribute of the Montreal Witness of Febru-


ary 26th, 1896, first narrates the various services
which Father Lacombe had rendered the country as
an effective police-chaplain during the construction
of the first Canadian transcontinental road, and the
esteem in which he was held by prominent and dis-
cerning men in Eastern Canada. It continues :

"Father Lacombe has done able and effectual missionary
work amongst the Indians, whose fruit is seen in the good
order which prevails amongst them, and the degree of civiliza-
tion to which large numbers of them have attained. Apart
from this aspect of his work, to which he has devoted himself
with much zeal, he has never been indifferent to the political
outlook. He has always watched the trend of public affairs
with much interest, and it is undoubted that he has more than
once influenced legislation in directions which subserved the
interests of his Church as a whole. He has always wielded
power at Ottawa. Having laboured successfully to improve
Indians and keep them quiet, it has probably been felt that

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Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 21 of 28)