Two Young Men, 1869: Charles Mair and Louis Riel
by W. L. Morton
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 30, 1973-1974 season
Men enact history and history is men in action. In looking at that most dramatic juncture in Canadian history, the events of 1869 and 1870 in Red River, we may therefore properly concern ourselves with two actors in that great act of historical theatre, Charles Mair and Louis Riel. That they were young only makes the drama more poignant and only led to the vehemence of the tragedy they played. Each was cast for a part, the role of English Canada in the Northwest, and the role of the native people of Red River. Both had prepared as if by destiny guided for his part. Both left their record of the event. Both were poets, capable of seeing events psychedelically, and they saw, in broader range than others did, the unfolding of the drama. Severe as a tragedy of Racine in its structure, melodramatic, and even comic, as a historical play of Shakespeare in its spirit, the year of Red River in 1869-70 enacted, not the putting together of the Canadian contrived at Charlottetown, Quebec and Westminster, but the origin of the Canada we know and live in. What Quebec and Westminster had united, Red River proclaimed, the Canada of one central, imperial purpose and the Canada of many stubborn local loyalties and of passions and positions formed and taken long before Canada had come to he. In that tragi-comic theatre, still playing with its theme unexhausted on James Bay, Charles Mair and Louis Riel struck to their attitudes and declaimed their lines, each in the manner to which he was born.
On a fall evening late in October, 1868, Charles Mair and John Snow of the road party sent by the Canadian government to make work in Red River distressed by drought and the failure of the hunt, with horse and buggy approached St. Boniface by the trail on the east side of the Red River, "just in time to hear the convent bells of St. Boniface sounding sweetly over the water."  They crossed by the ferry to the west bank and the village of Winnipeg and took rooms at Dutch George Emmerling's hotel. Charles Mair had arrived in the West, quite conscious that he had a part to play in the drama about to begin.
But what was Charles Mair, a young man turned thirty years of age from Perth in Lanark County who had just published Dreamland and Other Poems, doing in Red River? He was in strictest fact there by accident. A medical student at Queen's University, as well as a poet, Mair had, during the summer, of 1868 crammed up the history of the Hudson's Bay Company and of the Northwest for Hon. William McDougall, Minister of Public Works in the first cabinet of the Dominion of Canada, and a member for North Lanark since 1864. In early October McDougall, as representative of Ontario, had left with Hon. George-Etienne Cartier, as representative of Quebec, for London to negotiate the surrender of Rupert's Land and the Northwestern Territory to Canada. Briefed on the history of the Company by Mair, McDougall had planned to take Mair with him to London. An illness of Mair's sister made it impossible for him to go. McDougall then arranged for Mair to leave for Red River on the Dawson road party and to write articles on the Northwest for The Globe. Thus, if Mair was in Red River by accident, he was also there by destiny and as an agent of Canadian manifest destiny.
That he was such an agent is truer than has been known until recently. Not only had he suddenly become knowledgeable in the history of the Northwest; he also knew and represented those elements in English Canada which saw Confederation as preparation for and prelude to the expansion of the new Dominion to the Rockies and the Pacific. McDougall himself was part of one such element. This man, who was to be broken by the drama about to open, was a Father of Confederation, a journalist, whose newspaper, the North American, had merged with George Brown's Globe, itself the mouthpiece of Upper Canadian expansion since the Dawson and Hind expeditions of 1857 and 1858. A lawyer and a politician, McDougall headed that Clear Grit element in Upper Canada which looked to the broad lands of the Northwest to furnish farms for their younger sons. Little known is the fact that McDougall was also a poet in a minor way, whose verse picked up that northern theme apparent in English verse in mid-nineteenth century, and which was to become so evident in the thought and writings of Mair and his friends.
Those friends made up a small group of young men in Ottawa in the spring and summer of 1868. In their meetings the association and the ideas known as Canada First took their rise. Five young men, including Mair, made up the group, W. A. Foster of Toronto, the chief mind of the friends; George T. Denison, fiery cavalryman and agitator, who was to end a notable career as a police magistrate in Toronto; Henry J. Morgan, devoted biographer of Canadian notables; Richard G. Haliburton, son of the author of Sam Slick and an ardent pusher of the theme of the hardihood and manly virtue of northern people such as Canadians-the true North, strong and free. They were all, except the Nova Scotian Haliburton, Upper Canadian, all of British origin, all Protestant. In their own eyes, however, they were first and foremost Canadian nationalists, and all certain that Canadian nationality would find and make its destiny in the Northwest. To do that it was necessary to provoke the indifferent British into using the power and prestige of the Empire to thwart the unsleeping design of the United States, as they thought, to absorb the Northwest. Thus their nationalism went easily, if impatiently, with a somewhat sluggard British imperialism. Canada First was, after all, a form of imperialism in itself and, as Mair was to note, the Northwest was to be its empire. 
Nevertheless Canada First was essentially nationalist and its inspiration and mentor was one of the great voices of nationalism in the nineteenth century, Thomas D'Arcy McGee. McGee had been an orator and poet of Young Ireland in the 1840s. In the 1860s, after coming to Canada and learning that it was a country in which, unlike Britain and the United States, the Irish were accepted and respected, he became the orator of the 'new nationality' that Canada was to be. Then on April 7, 1868 McGee was assassinated in Ottawa by a Fenian agent for the fight he had made to keep Canada free of the Fenian temper which he thought had no place in Canada. He thus became the martyr of Canada First, and Mair struck off and added to his poems just ready for the press, the best and most vivid of its pieces.
Such was the spirit and the theme of the high talk, refreshed with not a little drink, of the young men of Canada First in the summer of 1868. And it was as a member of the group that Mair devilled for McDougall and as their emissary that set out for the Northwest, having thoughtfully bought himself a revolver and ammunition for $15.25. It was as such that he wrote those glowing accounts of the Red River valley which duly appeared in the Globe, and out-Hinded Hind in the praise of the richness and the opportunities of the Northwest. Of these articles perhaps the most characteristic was to be that written of Mair's visit to Portage la Prairie in the spring of 1869. It ended,
You may think that a trifle coloured and even inflated, as indeed Louis Riel was to do, but I think you will also recognize it as the pure milk of Canada First.
In Red River, the agent of Canada First, besides discharging his duties as paymaster of the road party, fell into a series of adventures. Cheery, confident, cocky, Charlie Mair, a blond, stocky Anglo-Saxon, was a self commissioned apostle of the higher civilization of old Canada. He soon left Emmerling's hotel to be the guest and the friend of John Christian Schultz, the leader and champion of the 'Canadian party' 'the Canadas,' in Red River. It was a natural affinity and a common purpose which drew the two men together. And Mair was quickly praising his new ally to his friends of Canada First back in Ontario, urging that they consider him a member of the group, as they did. But as a fast friend of Schultz, the long declared enemy of the Hudson's Bay Company, Mair took on the liabilities of becoming unwelcome in the homes of those friendly to the Company. The centre of that segment of Red River society was A. G. B. Bannatyne, free trade merchant and Postmaster of Assiniboia, who had made his peace with the Company and upheld its regime. His wife was a daughter of Andrew McDermot, oldest and wealthiest of Red River traders, as was the wife of Governor William Mactavish. In short, the Bannatynes were creme de la creme of Red River society. There was nothing surprising, of course, that Mair as a polished and educated young man should be invited to their homes. It was, however and alas, these good people whom he offended, inadvertently no doubt, but most unfortunately. They were prepared by his too evident Canadian sense of superiority and his friendship with Schultz to view him with some reserve and perhaps too much to resent his unintended offence.
That, of course, was his somewhat satirical letter to his brother Holmes Mair in which he discussed the sensitivity in Red River with respect to native blood, such as many ladies in Red River had, Mrs. Bannatyne among them. His brother, with the colossal indiscretion which distance in Canada begets, sent the letter to the Perth Courier. The Toronto Globe picked it up, and, of course the Globe was taken in Red River. So poor Charlie Mair fell into disgrace and had his nose pulled and was horsewhipped by Mrs. Bannatyne on King (Main) Street in Winnipeg, so Rev. Georges Dugas records. Perhaps it is time to note that Mair took his whipping as a gentleman should.
It was at this point that the comic muse, Shakespeare-like, took over the playing of the Red River drama. Bannatyne had an assistant who had become his partner, one Alexander Begg from Quebec, like Mair a Canadian incomer, and like Mair a writer, if not a poet. Begg was indefatigable - he would have enjoyed the word - as an observer and a commentator. A somewhat sly and graceless fellow, he had a keen eye and a sharp sense of the ridiculous. He had already marked Mair down as a victim of his satire. He had been the Bannatynes' guest to a dinner at which Mair both had had too much to drink and had been caught by Mrs. Bannatyne kissing the maid in the kitchen. Harmless enough, no doubt, but did a half-breed girl know how to deal with such a circumstance? In any event, Mair became the target of Begg's malicious glee and the result was the beginning of humorous literature in Manitoba since, of course, carried on by Paul Hiebert, the late Tom Tweed, and by Larry Zolf.
That beginning was Begg's novel entitled Dot It Down, A Story of Life in the North-West, published in Toronto in 1870. Its theme is the adventures of a Canadian girl, Grace Meredith, who had come to Red River to visit her relatives, also Merediths, (Bannatynes). In the course of her coming and goings, Grace gives the author opportunity, taken rather heavy handedly, to describe the life and customs of Red River, and the tensions it felt as it faced the prospect of annexation to Canada. The descriptions are well done, the story and the characters are not well rendered. But the narrative comes to life when Begg's satirical pen begins to work on Dot it Down (Mair) and Cool (John Schultz). Here is Mair's first appearance in Red River as seen in Begg's caricature. It was at a performance by a just organized theatrical company, played in a hall twenty by forty, the largest Red River afforded. Two strangers walked in with all the assurance in the world. One, unnamed, was presumably John Snow, "the other, a stout dumpy little fellow," was Mair. Twaddle, (W. R. Bown), editor of The Buster (Nor'Wester) sidled up to him. "Haw!" said the little man, "deuced rum little hold this!" With this opening comment on Red River's cultural amenities, Mair fell into conversation with Twaddle. On each interesting remark, Snow urged Mair to 'dot it down.' "Haw, yes, of course, and taking out a memorandum book, the necessary item was noted."  So arose Mair's nickname and the title of the book. Begg had noted that Mair was indeed dotting items down for his articles in the Globe.
Dot's roving eye then fell on Grace Meredith, who, of course, rebuffed his advances. Nevertheless a riotous evening began, crowned by a theatrical supper at Evening's (Emmerling's) Hotel. It ended up with Dot drunk and carrying two black eyes.
When, however, Cool called on Dot next morning, he and Dot became allies and friends in the cause of Canadian annexation. So poor Mair, in the malicious pen of Begg, began to 'dot' and 'hic' and 'haw' his way through Red River, offending Mrs. Cool by calling on her drunk and Mrs. Meredith (Bannatyne) by making love to her maid in the kitchen. It was all, the Merediths agreed, a disgrace that Canada was represented by such people. It is all, one should note of Begg's account of Mair, not historical evidence, but slap-stick satire. But it does give a clear and vivid account of how the innocent and exuberant Mair struck Red River people friendly to the Hudson's Bay Company and the old order in Red River.
Thus did cheery, cocky Charlie Mair burst upon Red River in the fall of 1868. In that time he twice met, so far as is known and without memorable result, the other young man. But that young man, like Mrs. Bannatyne, did not like Charles Mair, and also castigated him, not with a horsewhip but a pen.
That, of course, was Louis Riel, also young, twenty-five years of age, also a poet, if unpublished as yet, also a man of college education. But with that any resemblance ends. Riel was of French and Indian ancestry and Red River birth. He belonged, not to an imperial race bent on expansion, but to a conquered people, jealous and fearful of its rights. His personal life was one of unusual purity; not for him the bottle or the kitchen maids, still less the fever of a land rush. Above all, his mind and spirit were possessed by an extraordinary religious devotion, inherited from his father and still more from his mother, a devotion which had brought him back to Red River to take up his father's mission to safeguard the rights of the French and Métis and which was finally to drive him in the same cause to his martyrdom.
To say that Riel's sense of mission brought him back to Red River is to take a liberty, there is no positive documentation of why Riel came back in 1868. In 1858 he had gone with two companions, thanks to the help of Mde. L. F. R. Masson, to Montreal, to go to college and be educated, perhaps for the priesthood but certainly to give his people the educated elite they lacked. He did not finish his studies, however, and in fact dropped out of his last year. For the following year he worked in Rodolphe Laflamme's law office, the year of the great debate on the Confederation which was to acquire the Northwest. Laflamme was anticlerical and anti-confederate. Riel might, that is, have become a lawyer and a politician like his patron, M. Masson, and no doubt heard much talk of Confederation. That career, too, he abandoned and went to Chicago, where Louis Schmidt tells us, he was friends with Louis Frechette. The two, Schmidt says, who must have learned this from Riel himself, practised writing verse together. Frechette in the manner of Victor Hugo, Riel in that of Lamartine.  From Chicago he went on to St. Paul, which had, as no doubt Chicago had too, a 'Little Canada,' the district where the French Canadians lived. There he worked in a dry goods store. Then in 1868 he returned to Red River.
A failure, poor, Riel none the less was a most significant person. As Mair embodied the imperialist spirit of Canada First and Canadian expansion, Riel personified the Northwest Canada was about to annex, a vast and empty territory, without settlement, roads, courts, police, law or government, (except in Red River), yet in which there lived people with their customs, their own history, pride, claims and rights. More than that, Riel was that personality rare in history, but likely in the circumstances to which the Northwest had come. (One thinks of Tecumseh, caught between white and red, for example; how interesting it is that Mair wrote a poetic drama on his life, and in order to celebrate the place of the Indian in Canadian history).  That personality knows at once the doomed old order and the irresistible new. Caught in the crunch, it struggles desperately to reconcile the irreconcilable, somehow to assist or at least to mediate the doom of its people. Because Riel was such a personality with its fatal charisma, he could not do or be other than he was. When the old order was finally destroyed in 1885, it was necessary and ineluctable, symbolically at least, that Riel should die with the Northwest that also had died. 
With his brooding sense of mission and his dark anticipation of wrongs to be suffered, Riel began to take up the course of events in Red River. Since the Dawson and Hind expeditions of 1857 and 1858, there had been a Canadian party in Red River, "the Canadas," as they were called. They were English Canadians and they were forerunners, clearly and consciously, of Canadian 'manifest destiny.' John Schultz, Mair's new friend, had emerged as their leader. Now in 1868 they were joined by Canadian government work party, cutting the road that Dawson had recommended to open the way to Canadian expansion and settlement. Moreover, Mair by his articles in The Globe, itself since 1857 the advocate of northwest expansion, was, as Hind had done in 1858, breaking the silence that had been the Northwest's chief defence. As long as it was known as an Arctic Paradise of the fur trade, few settlers would be attracted to it. But if it were to be seen as Hind and Mair described it to be, then a land rush would follow as the dawn the night. Bishop Tache, good missionary that he was, was writing a pamphlet to discourage settlement and answer Mair sounding, as Hind had done, the clarion notes of a climate suitable for farming, and a land fertile and fit for settlement.
It is not surprising, then, that in Le Nouveau Monde there appeared on February 25, 1869, a letter dated February 1, 1869, ridiculing Mair's latest article in The Globe. Le Nouveau Monde was a Conservative organ in politics, and clerical in tone and temper, as was its political director, Hon. Hector-Louis Langevin. It was almost the only French-Canadian newspaper to have had a continued, if intermittent, interest in the Catholic missions in the Northwest. Hence it was a suitable vehicle in which to reply to Mair's grandiloquence in the expansionist and liberal Globe.
The letter was signed 'L.R.' There is no proof positive that 'L.R.' stood for Louis Riel, but the circumstances of its publication and its tense and bitter style make it morally certain that the letter was Riel's. Its tenor was that of the missionary defence of the Northwest, that the accounts of summer travellers exaggerated the country's possibilities and were not at all to be trusted. And it makes so thoroughly a job of sarcastically discrediting Mair, who is named in the letter, that one feels that the spirit of Alexander Begg must have inspired Riel. Charles Mair was so easily made into eager, busy Dot, as this quotation shows:
It was, then, in the columns of Le Nouveau Monde rather than by the banks of the St. Boniface Seine, that Mair and Riel had met, and met in mortal contradiction. The old Northwest had answered the new Canada First, and rejected it. Rejected it, that is, in the name of the people of the Northwest. Riel had written in the letter, "Moi, je suis metis" - I am myself a half-breed. And the dogged Métis had given his muted message that the Northwest was for the Northwesters in repudiation of the excited Canada Firster's vociferous claim that it was there for Canada to possess.
Quickly thereafter in 1869 did the drama take form. First, there was the news, never official but from rumour and the press, that the Northwest was to be transferred to Canada. Hurried public meetings followed, the 'Canadas' were jubilant, the Métis depressed. Then came the Canadian survey party to mark out the land which was not yet Canada's. Riel, with the timing of a film producer, had a giant Métis follower plant his foot on the surveyors' chain. The imperial march of Canada was halted.
The leading dramatis personae rapidly took the centre of the stage. Riel and Abbe Ritchot of Saint Norbert, Abbe Georges Dugas of Saint Boniface, on one side, conferring, writing a Bill of Rights, erecting a barrier at Saint-Norbert; sending a party of buffalo hunters to Pembina; on the other side William McDougall, back from London with the Northwest in his pocket, advanced from Canada, preceded by Métis runners from St. Paul, to enter Caesar-like on the empire he had won and was to govern. In Red River Mair and Schultz waited exultingly to welcome him.
Again the comic muse took over. McDougall was stopped at the frontier and denied his empire. While he fumed on American soil - how ignominious facts can be! - the Métis burst into Abbe Dugas' mock heroic song, "On the Trials of an Unfortunate King," as they escorted McDougall's furniture to Fort Garry, along with what they insisted was the imperial throne, actually the commode sent for the greater comfort of the Queen's representative.  The tune was "The Wandering Jew"; as someone pointed out, it might better have been "Wandering Willie," for McDougall never entered Red River and was forced to retire in disgrace to Ottawa.
Few events in Canadian history are better documented or more minutely analyzed than that of this tumult on the banks of the Red. Nor has one ever been more thoroughly enjoyed, despite the essential tragedy of the event. Suffice it, then, to pass over the twists and turns of the Resistance, and simply to sketch the issues which the two young men personified. To Mair and Canada First what was at stake was the future of the new nation which Confederation had brought into being. It was to make its place in the world and assure its future by annexing the Northwest, the greatest acquisition of territory at one stroke since the purchase of Louisiana. But on the other side there was also another 'new nation,' as the Métis bad claimed to be since the Selkirk troubles in 1815. They were a 'peculiar people in extra-ordinary circumstance,' as Riel himself was to write. To them, and to the Indian tribes who had no spokesman, the Northwest was a land already occupied and known, with its own customs and its own ways. They, and this was the refrain of their discontent in 1869, they had not been consulted. Such was the protest of Louis Riel then; such is the protest of Peter Lougheed today. The drama of 1869 has been rewritten many times. And how very Canadian it is. Indeed, I am persuaded that when the Day of Judgment comes, and the Archangel starts to raise the trump of doom to his lips, to blow one loud, last lingering note of doom, Canadians all, man, woman, and child, will with one voice from sea to sea, protest that they had not been consulted. Certainly the Métis did in 1869, and, after their fashion, in council and with guns in their hands.
However that may be, it is apparent that the drama of 1869 and the two protagonists were actors in a drama which ran deeper than the surface play of events. And to understand the role of the government of Canada and the part played by the great statesman whose birthday we commemorate this evening, we must ask what was the actualities beneath the posturings and the actions of Mair and Riel. Sir John Macdonald had, after all, to be outside and beyond the passions of Red River because it was only one of the matters with which he had to deal. Over the Atlantic was an imperial government concerned to minimize its responsibilities. Over the border was the United States, still sore over the irritations arising out of the Civil War, and still working with the tide of manifest destiny. The stability of the continent, destroyed in 1861, had not yet been restored. And Macdonald's power rested on the twin pillars of Quebec and Ontario. Vociferous elements in Ontario were rallying to Mair; Quebec, self-centred on the development of its own new government, heard with perplexity and annoyance of Riel and a French element in a long-forgotten Northwest. How were all these dangers to be quieted and the creaking new ship of state to be held on its course?
It is indeed possible that Macdonald would have been glad to postpone the acquisition of the Northwest. He had not been keen for its addition in 1857; that was a Grit demand, feared by Lower Canadian Conservatives. To annex the Northwest might strain the Anglo-French partnership on which the Conservative party rested. It might also mean a lawless frontier of land speculation and Indian warfare, such as occurred below the border. But Confederation and the acquisition of the Northwest had been forced on by events beyond control or evasion. Macdonald had therefore to acquiesce in Northwest expansion, but he distrusted it, and sought to restrain, guide and control it. From this came, it may be, his always stern attitude to the Northwest, and his final stand on the execution of Riel. Riel had twice risked the loss of the Northwest to land speculators and the United States.
As Macdonald read the telegram from Red River, he sensed the actualities, the things that were happening beneath the confused surface of events. They may be stated simply, for clarity, not because they were in fact simple. The chief, although it was to prove more a fear than an actuality, was that the acquisition of the Northwest would unloose a land rush. That would come almost entirely from land-hungry Ontario, the only province to look to the Northwest in 1857, and the only province to insist on the inclusion of the acquisition of the Northwest in the B.N.A. Act of 1867. And not all the rush would be made up of sober farmers who would till the soil they occupied. Many would be speculators in rising land values. Speculation was the ultimate factor in the occupation of North America; it was the prime end of settlement. By it fortunes were most quickly made in a society on principle and with pride an acquisitive and a speculative society. In 1869, as in 1884 and 1885, Macdonald, who knew land speculation from personal experience and from his watching of the American saturnalia in land settlement, was gravely worried by the possibilities of land speculation in a land without law and without police. His chief concern was to save the land of the Northwest from unrestricted speculation, and from the political demands that would follow. The new lands were to be used for the purposes of the Dominion, not just those of local people, for only by the sale of the new land could Canada hope to pay for the new territory and the Pacific railway.
Next he wished a limited government to be created, and controlled and used also for the purposes of the Dominion.
Then the native people were to be protected, their tribes brought into treaty in the Upper Canadian fashion, and set - not thrust - aside from the land rush.
Next, Canada's title to the Northwest, given by Britain, must be guarded from American challenge, provoked perhaps by American sympathy for a small people struggling to be free.
Of these actualities, so clear to Macdonald, our two young men were largely unaware. Mair was the innocent and thoughtless champion of the land rush and the speculators. He indeed was to become a modest speculator himself in the Portage la Prairie he had praised so highly as "the path of empire." Riel, however, was the brooding, pertinacious defender of the people of the Northwest and their rights as they saw them. The confrontation of Mair and Riel was the drama of 1869. But in the greater action of 1870 Macdonald was in seeking to preserve Canada's title and ensure the discharge of the duties it assumed with the title, the control of the land rush, the protection of native rights, the setting up of a humane and effective government. In doing so he had to compromise the Dominion's policy for the development of its new territory by creating the province of Manitoba in the Red River valley on the basis of Riel's Bill of Rights. The Northwest had had to be consulted, and to the extent of the Manitoba Act, Riel had triumphed. He was indeed "the founder of Manitoba," for without him there would have been no province for some time.
At this point I should like to drop the metaphor of our two young men as protagonists in a drama, and change to the metaphor of having put them into the scales of historical balance. But before attempting to weigh them against one another, I must quickly complete the tale of their acts in Red River. Mair, so difficult is it to keep private life out of one's historical doings, married Eliza McKenney, a daughter of Henry McKenney, Sheriff of Assiniboia, a lastingly happy marriage. He then joined Schultz and other Canadians in resisting Riel's coup, and was imprisoned with them in Fort Garry for his pains. In doing so he lost the manuscript of his next volume of the poems, one of them, "Zardust and Selima," was inevitably, his masterpiece. He escaped from Fort Garry and went to Portage and Eliza rejoined him there. He marched with the Portage expedition. but escaped back to Portage on their capture. From Portage he went by snowshoe to St. Paul, an epic journey paralleling the equally great journey by Schultz by the Lake of the Woods and Duluth, but apparently done easily enough. With Schultz he returned to Canada, and helped Canada First to arouse Ontario to avenge the shooting of Thomas Scott.
Riel, triumphant, drafted the revised Bill of Rights, dispatched the Red River delegates to Ottawa, and awaited news. When it came with the return of Father Ritchot, the only delegate to come back, and with that of Bishop Alexandre Taché, the news was good. Red River had won the substance of its demands and there was to be an amnesty. So Riel awaited all summer for the coming of the new lieutenant-governor and of the troops of the Red River Expedition. The Resistance had ended and all that remained was to complete the military demonstration the Expedition was, and install the new civil government. The troops, however, arrived before the lieutenant-governor and no amnesty was proclaimed; none in fact had been granted. Riel, leaving his breakfast uneaten in Fort Garry, fled across the Red to Saint-Boniface and from there rode south into safety across the border.
For Riel there followed continued exile, furtive journeys back to Saint-Vital, for Ontario had put a price on his head, expulsion from Parliament when elected in 1874, detention in Beauport asylum in Quebec, refuge in the United States, the beginnings of his visions, his answering the appeal of the Saskatchewan Métis in 1884 and the scaffold at Regina. It was Mair who returned to the Northwest in 1870, to Portage were he opened a store, bought land and wrote poetry. He, Canada First, and British and Protestant Ontario had won, and were confident they should have won. They had forestalled the United States and opened the Northwest to empire, Canadian empire.
Because the Red River Resistance was not a play on which the curtain came down before a house satisfied with a resounding close, but a historical event, its momentum and its personae went on to work out the consequences of what had been done in the events of 1869-70. Our two young men were not to confront one another again. It may well have been a pity and a loss that they never came to know one another. For Mair became a lover of the Northwest he had helped to open. He lived there from 1870 to 1884, moving to Prince Albert in 1877. It was in these years that he wrote his poetic drama Tecumseh, all too solid proof that he too loved the Indian background of Canada. Even more effective was his concern with the distress of Indians and Métis, as well as of white settlers, on the Saskatchewan, and his going East in 1882 at his own expense to attempt to arouse a somnolent government to the troubles fermenting on the prairies. In that he failed, not for want of effort. And in 1897 he took a government job in the Upper Mackenzie River Basin, seeing even more the farther Northwest. In short, he not only helped possess the Northwest, he came to love and champion it.
That should remind us that neither Mair nor his friends held the native peoples of the Northwest in contempt, or meant to dispossess or oppress them. By their lights they meant well and were full of good will. It was their misfortune that their lights were inadequate and that they saw themselves as leaders of progress and apostles of civilisation.
The memory of Mair seems somewhat clouded therefore by the unperceived and unintended wrongs done in the acquisition of the Northwest by Canada. Nor did his reputation as a poet, despite his devoted labours, remain bright. He lived out his days as a rejected poet and a kindly old gentleman, reminiscing often of Red River. It was not Mair who was finally to confront Riel, but Macdonald, Macdonald who was neither Canada First nor Northwest First, but the fulcrum on which rested all the conflicting pressure of a continental dominion.
Riel, for his part, moved as a sleep-walker to his martyr's doom, accomplishing nothing in practical life, and publishing no volume of verse. His destiny was very different from that of Mair; he was traduced by his enemies all his days, loved only by his family, respected only by his own people, the Métis, for whose cause he was to drop from the trap at Regina. Yet how different his memory to-day to that of Mair, and how vastly greater his impact on Canadian history. Only at his death did he make his life a success, and only then did he give his career a meaning. What that meaning is, we do not yet clearly know, although it may be, as our native people speak out more and more, that we shall see the ways in which the kindly and well-intentioned Mair was blind, and most Canadians blind with him. Because the meaning of his life has not been clear, Riel has become a symbol; his ghost still walks among us, and will walk until we understand. Because he was a symbol, a symbol instinctively felt to be one of man's inhumanity to man, he has attracted poets, playwrights, novelists, at least one musician and at least one sculptor. He was not the only Canada rebel, and, conservative country though it is, none has cherished its rebels more than Canada. But he is the latest Canadian martyr, not a martyr of the heathen in their blindness, as were Brebeuf and Lalemant, but a martyr of the Queen's justice in its might and majesty, a martyr of Canadian national policy. Need there is therefore that we should understand the two young men of 1869, and the stern Prime Minister who twice sent troops to this Northwest, if we are indeed to comprehend the origins from which this country came, and how we are to reconcile the jarring elements from which it was composed.
1. Norman Shrive. Charles Mair, Literary Nationalist, Toronto, 1965, pp. 58-59.
2. Carl Berger, The Sense of Power, Toronto, 1970, Chapter 2 "Canada First."
3. Charles Mair, Dreams and Other Poems, Montreal and Ottawa, 1868, p. 139.
4. W. L. Morton, ed. Alexander Begg's Red River Journal and Other Papers Relative to the Red River Resistance of 1869-1970, Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1956, p. 409.
5. Alexander Begg, Dot It Down, Toronto, 1870, p. 239.
6. Morton, Begg's Journal, p. 465.
7. N. Shrive, Mair, pp. 157-8. One may also recall the Mahdi in the Sudan in the 1880s.
8. E. B. Osler, The Man Who Had to Hang, Toronto, 1961.
9. Morton, Begg's Journal, pp. 199-203.
Page revised: 3 November 2022