Chief Crowfoot and the Priest Who Became President of the Canadian Pacific Railway

by Betty Woods

Manitoba Pageant, April 1960, Volume 5, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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A lone Indian sat on his pony on the hill top. Silhouetted against the sunset, the feather, worn in his hair, indicated his rank as chief. This was Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot tribe and he was rightfully angry.

The peace known to the foothills of the Rockies down through the ages was now echoing to the clanging sounds of steel tracks being laid, and the shouts of the railway workers.

The workmen and these tracks which would bring the Fiery Horse were intruding on the reservation belonging to the Blackfoot tribe.

The young men of the tribe were eager to go on the war-path to keep these ruthless pale-faces from taking their land. How could the Indians live if they were forced away from this place where they hunted and fished?

Father Albert Lacombe
Source: Mrs. H. Woods

That evening the Indians succeeded in tearing up the tracks on their land. Father Doucet, the priest in charge of the band, felt inadequate to deal with the situation, so he sent a message to Father Albert Lacombe to come from Calgary, to help avert trouble resulting from the railway trespassing on the reserve.

Father Lacombe had been in the west since the 1850s when he was attached to the mission at St. Boniface and used to accompany the buffalo hunters to the plains on the spring and fall hunts. More recently he had been chaplain for the French-Canadian workers when they were building the strip of railway tracks from Montreal to Fort William. He had taken the first ox-cart transport from St. Boniface to Calgary where he was now in charge of the Parish of St. Mary's. As he was known and liked by both Indians and Whites, he could sooth the ruffled feathers if anyone could.

Pausing at the trading post, Father Lacombe bought tobacco and tea for the Indians. Then he rode hastily to Chief Crowfoot's village.

Chief Crowfoot did not want to fight the white people and he agreed calling a council at Father Lacombe's suggestion. At the council, Father Lacombe took upon himself to assure the Indians that the Government of Canada was going to give the Indians other good land to make up for the land that the railway needed to go through on its way to link the Pacific with the Atlantic. The Indians allowed the workers to proceed with their tracks through the Blackfoot Reservation.

When the first train reached Calgary from the east it was a big event in that settlement of a dozen or so log houses. All the ladies and gentlemen went down to greet the arrival of the train.

On board this train were important officials who were carrying out the almost impossible feat of building a railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Donald Smith, Lord Elphinstone, R. B. Angus, Count Hohenlohe, William Van Horne and George Stephen were all on this train.

Father Lacombe was invited to have lunch with the officials on their private car. During the meal the talk turned to the near uprising that had been averted at the Blackfoot Crossing by the quick action and quick thinking of Father Lacombe.

William Van Horne suggested that it would be a fitting tribute to the good Father to elect him President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. So, on the motion of R. B. Angus, Father Lacombe was elected president. The president resigned and, for one hour, the black-robed Father Lacombe was president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The first transcontinental passenger train from Montreal arriving at Calgary in 1886
Source: Mrs. H. Woods

Chief Crowfoot with his fortitude, tolerance and understanding was the other hero of the story. The grateful William Van Horne presented the Indian with a perpetual pass on the Canadian Pacific Railway and the aged chief had the pass framed and wore it around his neck on a chain for the rest of his life.

Page revised: 30 June 2009