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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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the Government owed him some return. At all events he has
always had the ear of those in power, nor have any of his
requests been denied.

"He is an able, far-seeing man, of keen intellect, and he
pursues his object, whatever it may be, with tireless but un-
obtrusive persistency.

"The Good Father has a store of reminiscences, which, if
printed, would make thrilling reading. He has spent forty
years among the Indians, turning his back upon civilization,
and seen life in the wild in curious places. When he comes
back to the asphalt and the corner policeman and finds himself
at the table of a friend, the genial missionary makes demands
upon the memory and tells story after story of pioneer life,


of Indian cunning and stoicism, and diplomacy triumphing
over force ... of humor and pathos which is found in
all relations and associations of life. Ordinarily he is reticent
and must be well assured that he can trust to honour before he
relaxes, but if the demand be made upon him in a happy mo-
ment the old missionary becomes a vivid dramatist, who en-
chants the hearers with the varied incidents of a fruitful ex-

On March 14th, Father Lacombe writes from
Montreal to Father Legal:

"I have just arrived, very tired, from Ottawa, where I have
a trying combat to sustain. Who would credit it? Here
am I, hurled into politics, exposed to many attacks of lies
and falsifying. . . . Our Question of the schools is far
from being decided. Our adversaries are making an infernal
opposition, especially the Liberals of Quebec who are hypo-
critically representing themselves as more Catholic than we
are. It is unbelievable what people will attempt to get to

This letter, like others of 1896, written to one of a
small group of very intimate friends, is significant
of Father Lacombe's real attitude on politics. It
was a rather unusual outlook for one who had come
so much in contact with politicans. For while he was
somewhat of a politician, he was nothing of a par-
tisan, but frankly the representative of the Indians,
the Metis and the Catholics of Western Canada.

He regarded the Government solely as the public
servant of the country rather than the opponents of


the "glorious Reform Party that had given Canada
Constitutional Government," or the upholders of the
equally "glorious Conservative Party that with a pro-
tective Tariff had made Canada."

Notwithstanding his attitude he found himself
literally embroiled in the last heated struggles of a
Government which was now in a desperate hope to
save itself willing to grant in their Remedial Bill
what the Catholics of Canada had demanded for five
years unavailingly. Several of the political leaders
had all the time professed their belief in the justice of
the minority's claims, although they did nothing to
secure them. . . . "Governments," as Sir John
Macdonald once remarked, "would always prefer to
do right if by doing so they could retain their seats
on the right side of the Treasury."

The proposed Remedial Bill was the direct if be-
lated result of the campaign instituted by the late
Archbishop. The Catholics of Canada had formed
themselves into a defensive fighting phalanx, the at-
tack upon their schools having effected this, as it al-
ways has elsewhere and is quite certain to do at any

They had effectual argument in living thousands
of Canadians educated in Separate Schools and who
were as broad-minded and as loyal citizens as any of
their countrymen and equally well-equipped to fill
their positions in life.

The party was enthusiastically led in this instance
by their bishops. Most of these prelates conformed


ordinarily to the understanding that a clergyman
should not in his public capacity use his clerical pres-
tige to sway man to his private opinion on political
matters, however wise or legitimate his opinion as an
individual might be. In this instance, however,
where the conscience and religious life of a whole peo-
ple were affected, they took sides squarely on the
question. They acted with as avowed a purpose as
in more recent years the non-Conformist clergymen
of Great Britian have come out in chapels and even
upon the hustings to combat the Education Act of
the Unionist party.

The Canadian prelates sent pastoral letters to the
parishes under their jurisdiction, calling on their peo-
ple to support the Government which had promised
remedial legislation.

But the courage to apply even this remedy had
been achieved too late by the Conservatives. The
people of Quebec had lost faith in the sincerity of the
Government's intentions. Several very wise heads
in the clerical party believed the Remedial Bill was,
as one said, only a "trompe A' oeil"

Moreover, long before this Bill came in on the
eve of an appeal to the country, the opposition, led
by Wilfrid Laurier, the brilliant young French-
Canadian leader, had imbued the laity of Quebec and
many of the clergy with the belief that the Liberals
would make a more satisfactory restoration of the
Catholic Schools to the Western minority.

The choice then lay between the opposition's prom-


ises and the stop-gap policy of a dying Government
between Laurier and Tupper.

Quebec en masse called for Laurier, and a "solid
Quebec" sways the balance of power this way or that.
The end came on June 23, 1896. The Government
went down in a most crushing defeat: Quebec, once
roused, had done its work thoroughly. Ministers of
the Crown saw themselves defeated there by mere
striplings of politicians. Even the Liberals were
astonished at the extent of their victory and the Con-
servatives had no words to describe it.

It was this School Question which had overthrown
the Conservative Government after a reign of eight-
een years, that brought the Liberal party back into
power with its opportunity to be "more Catholic than
the Bishops/' In opposition it had shown the aspir-
ing politicians' fatal facility for making promises.
Once in power, however, with an equal facility for
post-campaign inertia common to all governments, it
gave only an unsatisfactory settlement, and left the
Catholics more or less unpropitiated until l 1904.

i Then in the Autonomy Act, it again constitutionally pledged Can-
ada to uphold the minority's educational rights in the new provinces of
Alberta and Saskatchewan. This somewhat cleared the political atmos-
phere on the famous school question.


SHORTLY before Father Lacombe's departure from
Ottawa a pleasant note from Lord Aberdeen invited
him again to luncheon at Rideau Hall. This, with
similar occasions that winter at the homes of other
friends, marked for Father Lacombe the oasis in his
journey through what he calls "an arid and burning
wilderness of unpleasing politics."

In June he was "freed from this Edmonton."
His old comrade Father Leduc was installed there
"to the satisfaction of everyone and especially of
me," Father Lacombe writes to his friend in a bright
letter from Macleod as he stops over-night on his
way to his Hermitage. He is travelling there "in
a big rough farm-waggon like any ordinary man!
Lo, what it means to be a Hermit." But he assures
the other he has no regret for his "palace" at Edmon-
ton or the fine horses and carriage he had there.

Was ever a Hermit more abruptly or more per-
sistently thrown back into the world from his re-
treat? . . . On August 4th he is again in Mac-
leod, called to Calgary by the serious illness of Bishop
Grandin. The Bishop lies in the Calgary hospital
pending the doctor's decision as to the need of go-
ing to Montreal. If he must go, Father Lacombe
must take him. Poor Hermit! "I was already



seated in the solitude of my Hermitage and the
programme of my repose was traced, when this un-
lucky telegram came. Am I then condemned to be
always in motion?" he asks.

Two weeks later he is in Montreal with the bishop
at the hospital.

On May 13, 1897, his friend, Father Legal, was
appointed coadjutor to Bishop Grandin with right
of succession.

The announcement was a source of genuine pleas-
ure to Father Lacombe who had been expecting such
an eventuality for years. He promptly sent the
young bishop the mitre and breviary that had been
given him as souvenirs of his dead friend Arch-
bishop Tache, and in a letter of this date assures him
he will continue to be "a faithful friend, a devoted
missionary, to aid you in my humble position to carry
the burden which they have placed on you." Thus
simply this venerable counsellor of bishops slipped
into his place as adviser and trusted friend of the new

All summer and autumn he spent at his Hermit-
age with occasional visits to Macleod and Calgary.
From the latter place he writes on December 1st this
pathetic little note:

"Just a word to tell you that it is very cold and
still colder. My kidney-trouble seems a little better,
but to offset that I have a frenzied cold in my head
which torments me cruelly Look you, I am old"

He was then but two months away from his


seventy-second birthday, and like most of the Oblates
who had so generously worn themselves out in the
painful and exacting mission work of the west, he
had not escaped bodily ills.

For close on to twenty years he had suffered from
disorders of his kidneys and bladder, and at times
he was seriously and painfully ill because of these
ailments. Yet he was still obliged to do his share
of parochial work. The influx of new settlers into
the west calling for new parishes, together with the
needs of the Indian missions and schools, made it
almost impossible for the Bishop of St. Albert to
release any man from his post.

Added to his failing health is a rather constant
care self-imposed by his work for the Metis at his
colony. He had secured as resident superintendent
Father Therien, a priest of admirable executive abil-
ity and tact, but the latter had his hands well-filled
with the administration of the colony and efforts to
locate the unsettled and unlikely-to-settle Metis: he
could give little time to help secure a revenue.

The burden of financing consequently fell upon
Father Lacombe alone.

His friends had been very generous to his appeals
for funds, but there was necessarily a great deal of
money required by a plan that comprised a chapel, a
residence, a boarding school, a flour and saw mill,
implements, cattle and horses for the Metis and other
assistance to them from time to time.

The colony had now been formed three years and


in view of the aid already given the Government
sent an official to make a full report upon the con-
ditions of the colony, its finances, and administra-
tions : likewise with regard to the proposed school for
which Father Lacombe was then seeking assistance.
Lord Aberdeen commented in writing upon the Re-
port when submitted to him :

"It is with much pleasure that I signed this Report, and I
take this opportunity of offering cordial good wishes for the
success of the scheme which has been devised with so much
warm-hearted earnestness and practical sagacity by my friend,
Father Lacombe."

Mr. Ruttan's report is very favourable through-
out. "It is wonderful," he states in one place, "what
has been done with so little money."

Encouraged by Lord Aberdeen to seek further as-
sistance in the east Father Lacombe left Calgary
toward the end of 1898, and early in the following
year he reports to his friend at St. Albert generous
gifts from Lord Strathcona, James Ross and others.
Apart from these he found little practical sympathy
for the Metis, and his entire general collections
amounted to only $1,000.

On this visit to Ottawa Father Lacombe had met
Lady Minto, the wife of the new Governor-General,
and although he formed no deep friendship with this
vice-regal pair as he had with his whole-hearted
friends, the Aberdeens, their relations would seem to
have been of a pleasant nature, for Lady Minto in


April conveys to him a portrait of Queen Victoria
sent to Father Lacombe by the Queen with a letter
from her daughter.

This gracious remembrance was deeply pleasing to
the loyal old missionary, who had frequently spoken
to his Indians of the virtues and power of the great
Queen Mother across the seas. It brought him, too,
the renewal of a charming acquaintance with the
Abbe de Bie, then Abbot of Bornheim Abbey in Bel-
gium, but in the early seventies secretary of Mon-
signor Smeulders, the Papal Legate to Canada.

This pleasant letter, written in French like almost
all of Father Lacombe's correspondence, reads :

"ABBAYE DE BORNHEIM, May 11, 1899.
"Rev. Father and Friend:

"FoiZa, my dear Reverend Father, what a fit of jealousy
seizes me! I have just read in a Brussels daily: 'The Rev.
Father Lacombe, the valiant missionary of the northwest, at
present in Montreal working in the interests of his beloved
missions has received from Queen Victoria the portrait of
Her Majesty sent by herself and accompanied by a letter
written by the Princess Beatrice, in which she says: "The
Queen is deeply interested in what has been told her about
Father Lacombe and has agreed with pleasure to your sug-
gestion to send him her portrait. . . ."

" 'TiensT I said to myself, *I am very glad that the Queen
of England feels such an interest in Father Lacombe and
sends him her portrait, but how can she feel as much interest
in him as you, who lived some time with him in Montreal
you who have received from him so many marks of friend-
ship and fraternal affection?'


"My project was quickly made knowing you to be in
Montreal, I hasten to write you a little letter accompanying
it, too, with my portrait as your gracious Sovereign has done.
Without doubt this will be much less honour for you (and if
all those who are interested in you should send you their por-
traits you would have enough to decorate all the palaces of
the Saskatchewan), but at least I hope that it will not be dis-
agreeable to hear a word again from your friend, the little
secretary of the late Monsignor Smeulders, the Apostolic
Delegate to Canada.


The movement of the gold-seekers north from Ed-
monton in 1898 or, as it is known in western his-
tory, the year of the Klondyke rush had not only
brought Edmonton into the eyes of the continent and
given it a first impulse toward becoming a great in-
land city but it had brought the whole north coun-
try before the consideration of the Government.

Since a find of minerals was liable at any time to
send a rush of other and more permanent settlers
there, it became necessary for the Government to get
some control of the Crees, Chipewyans and Beavers in
the Athabasca and Peace River countries. It was
consequently decided to send a party of Commis-
sioners in there to bring these tribes into treaty re-
lations with the Government.

The committee of the Privy Council appointed by
His Excellency to consider this matter reported on
May 3rd, 1899, that the Superintendent-General of


Indian Affairs had reason to believe there would be
trouble in negotiating the Treaty with the Indians of
Athabasca district and dealing with the claims of the
half-breeds, as the Indians were suspicious of white
men entering their country and the Metis likely to
be dissatisfied with the measure of recognition given
to their claims. The Committee moreover were
handicapped by the meagre knowledge that the De-
partment could furnish them concerning these In-
dians. . . .

These considerations led the Committee to the be-

"That it would be desirable if the Commissioners could have
the assistance and counsel of the Very Reverend Father La-
combe. Father Lacombe has been so long in the country as
a missionary, knows the Indians and half-breeds so intimately
and possesses their confidence in so marked a degree that he
would be able to render most valuable and effective assistance
to the Commissioners in their difficult mission."

In view of this Report the Hon. Mr. Sifton, Minis-
ter of the Interior, called upon the old missionary
and requested him to give his services to the Govern-
ment in this connection, to urge the Indians and half-
breeds to make the Treaty peaceably. Although de-
cidedly pleased at the compliment conveyed by the
offer, Father Lacombe refused to go.

"It is too much for me," he said to the Minister,
"I am too old to travel hundreds of miles in little
boats, and I will only bother your people to take care


of me if I fall sick. Try to find somebody else."

"No, we want you," Mr. Sifton persisted. "You
will have everything at your disposal to make the trip

The Prime Minister also added his persuasions.

"Bien" Father Lacombe said finally, "Telegraph to
Bishop Grandin. If he orders me to go, I will go."

When the proposed Treaty was under discussion
in the House of Commons in June of this year the
Minister of the Interior said :

"Along with this Commission we have asked the Reverend
Father Lacombe to go, not as a member of the Commission,
but in an advisory capacity. Everyone who has lived in the
northwest for the last fifteen or twenty years, Protestant and
Catholic, knows well that there is no man in the northwest
looked upon by the Indians with the same reverence and af-
fection as Father Lacombe." 1

"Hear! Hear!" interjected Nicholas Flood
Davin, the brilliant, genial member from Regina,
calling out from his seat on the Opposition benches.

On May 11, Father Lacombe wrote from Mon-
treal to Bishop Legal "I have decided to accept the
offer of going on that Commission. Pray for your
old missionary. It is finished. There is no more re-
pose for me. May the good Saviour have pity on
me!" Again he writes, "This is doubtless the last
service I will render our Congregation and my coun-
tryAs God wills!"

i Debates, H. of C., 1899, Vol. 1, p. 5694.


The party left Edmonton on May 29th, driving
in heavy stage-waggons and escorted by eleven
Mounted Police, among whom was Fitzgerald of
heroic memory. At Athabasca Landing, then a tiny
hamlet dotting the water-front, the party crossed the
border-land into the wilderness. From here to the
settlement on Lesser Slave Lake they travelled in
open scows, tenting by night.

Father Lacombe and the physician of the party
shared one tent, the younger man always finely solic-
itous for the comfort and health of his venerable com-
panion. As the journey lengthened, however,
Father Lacombe to his extreme delight found that
his health was improving: he felt himself renewing
the days of his prime, and again proclaimed the woods
an anodyne.

He had brought a light portable chapel with him,
which was easily converted into an altar, and some
mornings he celebrated Mass in his tent with Com-
missioner McKenna as his acolyte and the half-breed
trackers as a congregation.

From Bishop Grouard of Fort Chipewyan, who
was returning from Europe and had joined the party
at the Landing, Ex-Governor Laird, President of
the Commission, learned that June 13th would be the
fiftieth anniversary of Father Lacombe's priesthood.
The entire party, like a group of boys before Christ-
mas, thereupon planned a celebration to surprise their
old travelling companion. They succeeded:

"It was on the eve of my feast that they did cele-


brate it," he recalls. "That dear old man, the Gov-
ernor, he was at the bottom of it, I know. . . .
Well, that night at a fine open place where the Saul-
teau river meets the Little Slave a fine place with
the green forests on each side the Governor called
out the word to camp. It was early; I was surprised
that we camp so early, for we were in a hurry to
meet the Indians as we promise.

"While the rest they pitched camp, I walked off
with my breviary. When I came back I see every-
thing in fine order and a flag-pole up with a flag
flying. But I did not guess anything then.

"I was sitting in my tent in a little while, look-
ing out on the river Oh, that was fine poetique
to look on! Yj . . And suddenly the Governor
he came to my tent and ask to come in. . . ."

The whole party came behind Mr. Laird with an
address and a poem inscribed on birch bark, and
after the speeches a banquet was spread on the

"Next morning the bishop and I said Mass, that
good old bishop serving mine. The door of the tent
was wide open, and many knelt on the grass out-
side. After Mass we pitched our tents and started
for the Lake. > . Ah, that was a pleasant day
fifty years from the day the old Bishop Bourget
ordained me for the missions of the west."

Reaching Lesser Slave Lake settlement l on June

i Now named Grouard in honour of one of the most delightful of
ecclesiastics, the venerable Bishop of Athabasca.


19th, they found the Indians awaiting them in hun-
dreds of tepees on the fine open meadow-lands.

These Indians, among the most advanced in the
north, entered into the Treaty willingly enough after
much parleying by the Chiefs Moostoos and Kenoos-
hayoo with Mr. Laird and Father Lacombe. The
concluding speech was made by the old missionary
who, notwithstanding his little contact with the
Northern Crees, was known to several of these In-
dians personally and to all of them by fame. On
the following day the documents were signed and the
annuity-payments began.

The Metis had to be dealt with next and this
proved a more difficult task. Their chief speaker
declared that he and his people did not want the
Government's money in exchange for their land : they
wanted to be left undisturbed in their own country.
This with much more in a disaffected strain was only
a preliminary to their objection to non-negotiable
script being paid them as the Government pro-

The intention this year was to make half-breed
script non-transferable, to save the unwary half-
breed from speculators. This was a condition that
Father Lacombe together with other friends of the
Metis had been particularly anxious should be at-
tached, and he now made an ardent and impressive
speech to the half-breeds urging them to safeguard
their own and their children's interests by accepting
it. He recalled with indignation the way in which


the half-breeds of the plains had been parted from
their scrip lands by greedy and often unscrupulous

Here again the half-breeds clamoured for the right
to do as they pleased with their scrip to sell it or
not as they chose. They insisted upon this point be-
ing ceded; their alternative was a refusal to enter
into any negotiations with the Government. The
motley gathering of white traders and scrip-hunters
who had camped on their trail were perhaps not with-
out influence upon the half-breed leaders in main-
taining this attitude.

That night a Council was held by the officials of
the Treaty party and Father Lacombe, when it was
regretfully decided that the scrip should be dis-
tributed in the old way with no conditions attached.
It was essential that there should be no failure to
negotiate with this insurgent group of Metis or they
would grow disaffected and rouse other Indians
against the Treaty.

In the House of Commons in 1900 fault being
found with the Government for this action, Sir Wil-
frid Laurier informed the House that when Com-
missioner Laird and Father Lacombe found the half-
breeds would not take the new non-negotiable scrip
they had been obliged to issue the old form. "There
is no man," he added, "who has taken a stronger
view than Father Lacombe against the excesses re-
sulting from issuing scrip or who saw less benefit in
its results to the half-breed. But in view of the de-


termined attitude of the half-breeds . . ."no
other course was open to them.

With the treaty-making past the party pushed on
to the north. Some days later Father Lacombe
wrote to his friend from the banks of the Peace say-
ing he had wanted to tell him about their journey
on the ninety miles of Peace River Trail, but con-
cluded he had no words to describe it. The road
was obstructed by stumps, by swamps, by creeks
swollen with the rains and "all this in the middle of
a forest so black and high that we scarcely knew there
was a sun. The rain went with us during the first
five days. Clouds of mosquitoes and flies followed us,
fighting for more blood. . . ."

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Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 22 of 28)