Charles Mair.

Through the Mackenzie Basin A Narrative of the Athabasca and Peace River Treaty Expedition of 1899 online

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inevitably would have led to reprisals and bloodshed had not the
Government stepped in and forestalled further trouble by a prompt
recognition of the native's title. Hitherto he had been content
with his lot in these remote wildernesses, and well might he be!
One of the vast river systems of the Continent, perhaps the
greatest of them all, considering the area drained, teeming
with fish, and alive with fur and antler, was his home - a
region which furnished him in abundance with the means of life,
not to speak of such surplus of luxuries as was brought to his
doors by his old and paternal friend, "John Company." His wants
were simple, his life healthy, though full of toil, his appetite
great - an appetite which throve upon what it fed, and gave rise
to fabulous feats of eating, recalling the exploits of the
beloved and big-bellied Ben of nursery lore.

But the spirit of change was brooding even here. The moose, the
beaver and the bear had for years been decreasing, and other
fur-bearing animals were slowly but surely lessening with them.
The natives, aware of this, were now alive, as well, to concurrent
changes foreign to their experience. Recent events had awakened
them to a sense of the value the white man was beginning to
place upon their country as a great storehouse of mineral and
other wealth, enlivened otherwise by the sensible decrease of
their once unfailing resources. These events were, of course,
the Government borings for petroleum, the formation of parties
to prospect, with a view to developing, the minerals of Great Slave
Lake, but, above all, the inroad of gold-seekers by way of Edmonton.
The latter was viewed with great mistrust by the Indians, the
outrages referred to showing, like straws in the wind, the
inevitable drift of things had the treaties been delayed. For,
as a matter of fact, those now peaceable tribes, soured by
lawless aggression, and sheltered by their vast forests, might
easily have taken an Indian revenge, and hampered, if not
hindered, the safe settlement of the country for years to come.
The Government, therefore, decided to treat with them at once
on equitable terms, and to satisfy their congeners, the half-breeds,
as well, by an issue of scrip certificates such as their fellows
had already received in Manitoba and the organized Territories.
To this end adjustments were made by the Hon. Clifford Sifton,
then Minister of the Interior and Superintendent-General of
Indian Affairs, during the winter of 1898-9, and a plan of
procedure and basis of treatment adopted, the carrying out
of which was placed in the hands of a double Commission, one
to frame and effect the Treaty, and secure the adhesion of
the various tribes, and the other to investigate and extinguish
the half-breed title. At the head of the former was placed the
Hon. David Laird, a gentleman of wide experience in the early
days in the North-West Territories, whose successful treaty
with the refractory Blackfeet and their allies is but one of many
evidences of his tact and sagacity. [The Hon. David Laird is a native
of Prince Edward Island. His father emigrated from Scotland to that
Province early in the last century, and ultimately became a member of
its Executive Council. After leaving college his son David began life
as a journalist, but later on took to politics, and being called,
like his father, to the Executive Council, was selected as one of
the delegates to Ottawa to arrange for the entrance of the Island
into the Canadian Confederation. He was subsequently elected to the
Dominion House of Commons, and became Minister of the Interior in
the Mackenzie Administration. After three years' occupancy of this
department he was made Lieut.-Governor of the North-West Territories,
an office which he filled without bias and to the satisfaction of
both the foes and friends of his own party. He returned to the Island
at the close of his official term, but was called thence by the
Laurier Administration to take charge of Indian affairs in the West,
with residence in Winnipeg, which is now his permanent home.] A
nature in which fairness and firmness met was, of all dispositions,
the most suited to handle such important negotiations with the
Indians as parting with their blood-right. Fortunately these
qualities were pre-eminent in Mr. Laird, who had administered the
government of the organized Territories, at a primitive stage in
their history, in the wisest manner, and, at the close of his
official career, returned to his home in Prince Edward Island
leaving not an enemy behind him.

The other Treaty Commissioners were the Hon. James Ross, Minister
of Public Works in the Territorial Government, and Mr. J. A.
McKenna, then private secretary to the Superintendent-General
of Indian Affairs, and who had been for some years a valued
officer of the Indian Department. With them was associated, in
an advisory capacity, the Rev. Father Lacombe, O.M.I., Vicar-General
of St. Albert, Alta., whose history had been identified for fifty
years with the Canadian North-West, and whose career had touched
the currents of primitive life at all points.

[Father Lacombe is by birth a French Canadian, his native parish
being St. Sulpice, in the Island of Montreal, where he was born in
the year 1827. On the mother's side he is said to draw his descent
from the daughter of a habitant on the St. Lawrence River called
Duhamel, who was stolen in girlhood by the Ojibway Indians, and
subsequently taken to wife by their chief, to whom she bore two
sons. By mere accident, her uncle, who was one of a North-West
Company trading party on Lake Huron, met her at an Indian camp on
one of the Manitoulin islands, and having identified her as his
niece, restored her and her children to her family. Father Lacombe
was ordained a priest by Bishop Bourget, of Montreal, and in 1849
set out for Red River, where he became intimately associated with
the French half-breeds, accompanying them on their great buffalo
hunts, and ministering not only to the spiritual but to the temporal
welfare of them and their descendants down to the present day. In
1851 he took charge of the Lake Ste. Anne Mission, and subsequently
of St. Albert, the first house in which he helped to build; and from
these Missions he visited numbers of outlying regions, including
Lesser Slave Lake. His principal missionary work, however, for
twenty years was pursued amongst the Blackfeet Indians on the Great
Plains, during which he witnessed many a perilous onslaught in the
constant warfare between them and their traditional enemies, the
Crees. Being now over eighty years of age, he has retired from
active duty, and is spending the remainder of his days at Pincher
Creek, Alta., where, it is understood, he is preparing his memoirs
for publication at an early date.]

Not associated with the Commission, but travelling with it as a
guest, was the Right Rev. E. Grouard, O.M.I., the Roman Catholic
Bishop of Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers, who was returning, after
a visit to the East, to his headquarters at Fort Chipewyan, where
his influence and knowledge of the language, it was believed,
would be of great service when the treaty came under consideration
there. The secretaries of the Commission were Mr. Harrison Young, a
son-in-law of the Rev. George McDougall, the distinguished missionary
who perished so unaccountably on the plains in the winter of 1876,
and Mr. I. W. Martin, an agreeable young gentleman from Goderich,
Ont. Connected with the party in an advisory capacity, like Father
Lacombe, and as interpreter, was Mr. Pierre d'Eschambault, who
had been for over thirty years an officer in the Hudson's Pay
Company's service. The camp-manager was Mr. Henry McKay, of an
old and highly esteemed North-West family. Such was the personnel,
official and informal, of the Treaty Commission, to which was also
attached Mr. H. A. Conroy, as accountant, robust and genial, and
well fitted for the work.

The Half-breed Scrip Commission, whose duties began where the
treaty work ended, was composed of Major Walker, a retired
officer of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, who had seen
much service in the Territories and was in command of the force
present at the making of the Fort Carlton Treaty in 1876; and
Mr. J. A. Coté, an experienced officer of the Land Department at
Ottawa. The secretaries were Mr. J. F. Prudhomme, of St. Boniface,
Man., and the writer.

Our transport arrangements, from start to finish, had been placed
entirely in the hands of a competent officer of the Hudson's Bay
Company, Mr. H. B. Round, an old resident of Athabasca; and to
the Commission was also annexed a young medical man, Dr. West,
a native of Devonshire, England, whose services were appreciated
in a region where doctors were almost unknown. But not the least
important and effective constituent of the party was the detachment
of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, which joined us at Edmonton,
minus their horses, of course; picked men from a picked force;
sterling fellows, whose tenacity and hard work in the tracking-harness
did yeoman service in many a serious emergency. This detachment
consisted of Inspector Snyder, Sergeant Anderson, Corporals
Fitzgerald and McClelland, and Constables McLaren, Lett, Burman,
Lelonde, Burke, Vernon and Kerr. The conduct of these men, it
is needless to say, was the admiration of all, and assisted
materially, as will be seen hereafter, in the successful progress
of the expedition.

Whilst it had been decided that the proposed adjustments should
be effected, if possible, upon the same terms as the previous
treaties, it was known that certain changes will be necessary
owing to the peculiar topographic features of the country itself.
For example, in much of it arable reserves, such as many of the
tribes retained in the south, were unavailable, and special
stipulations were necessary, in such case, so that there should
be no inequality of treatment. But where good land could be had,
a novel choice was offered, by which individual Indians, if they
wished, could take their inalienable shares in severalty, rather
than be subject to the "band," whereby many industrious Indians
elsewhere had been greatly hampered in their efforts to improve
their condition. But, barring such departures as these, the proposed
treaties were to be effected, as I have said, according to precedent.
The Commission, then, resting its arguments on the good faith and
honour of the Government and people of Canada in the past, looked
forward with confidence to a successful treaty in Athabasca, the
record of travel and intercourse, to that end, beginning with
the following narrative.


Through the Mackenzie Basin


Chapter I

From Edmonton To Lesser Slave Lake.


Mr. Laird, with his staff, left Winnipeg for Edmonton by the
Canadian Pacific express on the 22nd of May, two of the
Commissioners having preceded him to that point. The train
was crowded, as usual, with immigrants, tourists, globe-trotters
and way-passengers. Parties for the Klondike, for California
or Japan - once the far East, but now the far West to us - for
anywhere and everywhere, a C.P.R. express train carrying the
same variety of fortunates and unfortunates as the ocean-cleaving
hull. Calgary was reached at one a.m. on the Queen's birthday,
and the same morning we left for Edmonton by the C. & E.
Railway. Every one was impressed favourably by the fine country
lying between these two cities, its intermediate towns and
villages, and fast-growing industries. But one thing especially
was not overlooked, viz., the honour due to our venerable Queen,
alas, so soon to be taken from us.

In the evening we arrived at Strathcona, and found it thronged with
people celebrating the day. Crossing the river to Edmonton, we
got rooms with some difficulty in one of its crowded hotels, but
happily awoke next morning refreshed and ready to view the town.
It is needless to describe what has been so often described.
Enough to say Edmonton is one of the doors to the great North,
an outfitter of its traders, an emporium of its furs. And
there is something more to be said. It has an old fort, or,
rather, portions of one, for the vandalism which has let disappear
another, and still more historic, stronghold, is manifest here as
well. And truly, what savage scenes have been enacted on this
very spot! What strife in the days of the rival companies!
Edmonton is a city still marked by the fine savour of the
"Old-Timers," who meet once a year to renew associations, and
for some fleeting but glorious hours recall the past on the
great river. Age is thinning them out, and by and by the
remainder man will shake his "few, sad, last gray hairs,"
and slip out, too. But the tradition of him, it is to be hoped,
will live, and bind his memory forever to the soil he trod,
when all this Western world was a wilderness, each primitive
settlement a happy family, each unit an unsophisticated,
hospitable soul.

To our mortification we found that our supplies, seasonably shipped
at Winnipeg, would not arrive for several days; a delay, to begin
with, which seemed to prefigure all our subsequent hindrances.
Then rain set in, and it was the afternoon of the 29th before Mr.
Round could get us off. Once under way, however, with our thirteen
waggons, there was no trouble save from their heavy loads, which
could not be moved faster than a walk. Our first camp was at
Sturgeon River - the Namáo Sepe of the Crees - a fine stream in a
defile of hills clothed with poplar and spruce, the former not
quite in leaf, for the spring was backward, though seeding and
growth in the Edmonton District was much ahead of Manitoba. The
river flat was dotted with clumps of russet-leaved willows, to
the north of which our waggons were ranged, and soon the quickly
pitched tents, fires and sizzling fry-pans filled even the
tenderfoot with a sense of comfort.

Next morning our route lay through a line of low, broken hills,
with scattered woods, largely burnt and blown down by the wind; a
desolate tract, which enclosed, to our left, the Lily Lake - Ascútamo
Sakaigon - a somewhat marshy-looking sheet of water. Some miles
farther on we crossed Whiskey Creek, a white man's name, of course,
given by an illicit distiller, who throve for a time, in the old
"Permit days," in this secluded spot. Beyond this the long line of
the Vermilion Hills hove in sight, and presently we reached the
Vermilion River, the Wyamun of the Crees, and, before nightfall,
the Nasookamow, or Twin Lake, making our camp in an open besmirched
pinery, a cattle shelter, with bleak and bare surroundings,
neighboured by the shack of a solitary settler. He had, no doubt,
good reasons for his choice; but it seemed a very much less inviting
locality than Stony Creek, which we came to next morning, approaching
it through rich and massive spruce woods, the ground strewn with
anemones, harebells and violets, and interspersed with almost
startlingly snow-white poplars, whose delicate buds had just opened
into leaf.

Stony Creek is a tributary of a larger stream, called the
Tawutináow, which means "a passage between hills." This is
an interesting spot, for here is the height of land, the
"divide" between the Saskatchewan and the Athabasca, between
Arctic and Hudson Bay waters, the stream before us flowing
north, and carrying the yellowish-red tinge common to the
waters on this slope. A great valley to the left of the trail
runs parallel with it from the Sturgeon to the Tawutináow,
evidently the channel of an ancient river, whose course it would
now be difficult to determine without close examination. At all
events, it stretches almost from the Saskatchewan to the Athabasca,
and indicates some great watershed in times past. Hay was
abundant here, and much stock, it was evident, might be raised
in the district.

Towards evening we reached the Tawutináow bridge, some eighteen
miles from the Landing, our finest camp, dry and pleasant, with
sward and copse and a fine stream close by. Here is an extensive
peat bed, which was once on fire and burnt for years - a great
peril to freighters' ponies, which sometimes grazed into its
unseen but smouldering depths. The seat of the fire was now an
immense grassy circle, with a low wall of blackened peat all
around it.

In the morning an endless succession of small creeks was passed,
screened by deep valleys which fell in from hills and muskegs
to the south, and at noon, jaded with slow travel, we reached
Athabasca Landing. A long hill leads down to the flat, and from
its brow we had a striking view of the village below and of the
noble river, which much resembles the Saskatchewan, minus its
prairies. We were now fairly within the bewildering forest of
the north, which spreads, with some intervals of plain, to the
69th parallel of north latitude; an endless jungle of shaggy
spruce, black and white poplar, birch, tamarack and Banksian pine.
At the Landing we pitched our tents in front of the Hudson's Bay
Company's post, where had stood, the previous year, a big canvas
town of "Klondikers." Here they made preparation for their
melancholy journey, setting out on the great stream in every
species of craft, from rafts and coracles to steam barges.
Here was begun an episode of that world-wide craze, which has
run through all time, and almost every country, in which were
enacted deeds of daring and suffering which add a new chapter
to the history of human fearlessness and folly.

The Landing was a considerable hamlet for such a wilderness,
being the shipping point to Mackenzie River, and, via the Lesser
Slave Lake, to the Upper Peace. It consisted of the Hudson's Bay
Company's establishment, with large storehouses, a sawmill, the
residence and church of a Church of England bishop, and a Roman
Catholic station, with a variety of shelters in the shape of
boarding-houses, shacks and tepees all around. From the number
of scows and barges in all stages of construction, and the high
timber canting-tackles, it had quite a shipyard-like look, the
population being mainly mechanics, who constructed scows, small
barges, called "sturgeons," and the old "York," or inland boat,
carrying from four to five tons. Here, hauled up on the bank, was
the Hudson's Bay Company's steamer, the _Athabasca_, a well-built
vessel about 160 feet long by 28 feet beam. This vessel, it was
found, drew too much water for the channel; so there she lay,
rotting upon her skids. It was a tantalizing sight to ourselves,
who would have been spared many a heart-break had she been fit
for service. A more interesting feature of the Landing, however,
was the well sunk by the Government borer, Mr. Fraser, for oil,
but which sent up gas instead. The latter was struck at a
considerable depth, and, when we were there, was led from the
shaft under the river bank by a pipe, from which it issued
aflame, burning constantly, we were told, summer and winter.
Standing at the gateway of the unknown North, and looking
at this interesting feature, doubly so from its place and
promise, one could not but forecast an industrial future,
and "dream on things to come."

Shortly after our arrival at the Landing, news, true or false,
reached us that the ice was still fast on Lesser Slave Lake. At
any rate, the boat's crew expected from there did not turn up,
and a couple of days were spent in anxious waiting. Some freight
was delayed as well, and a thunderstorm and a night of rain set
the camp in a swim. The non-arrival of our trackers was serious,
as we had two scows and a York boat, with a party all told of some
fifty souls, and only thirteen available trackers to start with.
It seemed more than doubtful whether we could reach Lesser Slave
Lake on treaty-schedule time, and the anxiety to push on was great.
It was decided to set out as we were and trust to the chapter of
accidents. We did not foresee the trials before us, the struggle
up a great and swift river, with contrary winds, rainy weather,
weak tracking lines and a weaker crew. The chapter of accidents
opened, but not in the expected manner.

The York boat and one of the scows were fitted up amidships with
an awning, which could be run down on all sides when required,
but were otherwise open to the weather, and much encumbered with
lading; but all things being in readiness, on the 3rd of June we
took to the water, and, a photograph of the scene having been
taken, shoved off from the Landing. The boats were furnished
with long, cumbrous sweeps, yet not a whit too heavy, since numbers
of them snapped with the vigorous strokes of the rowers during
the trip. A small sweep, passed through a ring at the stern,
served as a rudder, by far the best steering gear for the
"sturgeons," but not for a York boat, which is built with a
keel and can sail pretty close to the wind. Ordinarily the
only sail in use is a lug, which has a great spread, and moves
a boat quickly in a fair wind. In a calm, of course, sweeps have
to be used, and our first step in departure was to cross the
river with them, the boatmen rising with the oars and falling
back simultaneously to their seats with perfect precision, and
handling the great blades with practised ease. When the opposite
shore was reached, the four trackers of each boat leaped into
the water, and, splashing up the bank, got into harness at
once, and began, with changes to the oars, the unflagging pull
which lasted for two weeks. This harness is called by the
trackers "otapanápi" - a Cree word - and it must be borne in mind
that scarcely any language was spoken throughout this region other
than Cree. A little English or French was occasionally heard; but
the tongue, domestic, diplomatic, universal, was Cree, into which
every half-breed in common talk lapsed, sooner or later, with
undisguised delight. It was his mother tongue, copious enough
to express his every thought and emotion, and its soft accents,
particularly in the mouth of woman, are certainly very musical.
Emerson's phrase, "fossil poetry," might be applied to our Indian
languages, in which a single stretched-out word does duty for
a sentence.

But to the harness. This is simply an adjustment of leather
breast-straps for each man, tied to a very long tracking line,
which, in turn, is tied to the bow of the boat. The trackers,
once in it, walk off smartly along the bank, the men on board
keeping the boats clear of it, and, on a fair path, with good
water, make very good time. Indeed, the pull seems to give an
impetus to the trackers as well as to the boat, so that a loose
man has to lope to keep up with them. But on bad paths and
bad water the speed is sadly pulled down, and, if rapids occur,
sinks to the zero of a few miles a day. The "spells" vary
according to these circumstances, but half an hour is the
ordinary pull between "pipes," and there being no shifts in
our case, the stoppages for rest and tobacco were frequent.
At this rate we calculated that it would take eight or ten
days to reach the mouth of Lesser Slave River. Mr. d'Eschambault
and myself, having experienced the crowded state of the first
and second boats, and foregathered during the trip, decided to
take up our quarters on the scow, which had no awning, but
which offered some elbow room and a tolerably cozy nook amongst
the cases, bales and baggage with which it was encumbered.

We had a study on board, as well, in our steersman, Pierre Cyr,
which partly attracted me - a bronzed man, with long, thin, yet
fine weather-beaten features, frosty moustache and keenly-gazing,
dry, gray eyes - a tall, slim and sinewy man, over seventy
years of age, yet agile and firm of step as a man of thirty.
Add the semi-silent, inward laugh which Cooper ascribes to
his Leather-Stocking, and you have Pierre Cyr, who might
have stood for that immortal's portrait. That he had a history
I felt sure when I first saw him seated amongst his boatmen at
the Landing, and, on seeking his acquaintance, was not surprised
to learn that he had accompanied Sir John Richardson on his
last journey in Prince Rupert's Land, and Dr. Rae on his eventful
expedition to Repulse Bay, in 1853, in search of Franklin. He
looked as if he could do it again - a vigorous, alert man, ready
and able to track or pole with the best - a survivor, in fact,
of the old race of Red River voyageurs, whose record is one
of the romances of history.

Another attraction was my companion, Mr. d'E. himself - a man
stout in person, quiet by disposition, and of few words; a man,
too, with a lineage which connected him with many of the oldest
pioneer families of French Canada. His ancestor, Jacques Alexis


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Online LibraryCharles MairThrough the Mackenzie Basin A Narrative of the Athabasca and Peace River Treaty Expedition of 1899 → online text (page 2 of 12)