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The Pathos of Change

Manitoba Pageant, April 1964, Volume 9, 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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An excerpt from The Making of the Canadian West by R. G. MacBeth. This selection and that which follows give two views regarding the causes of the Red River Resistance of 1869-70:

There is always a strong element of pathos in the way in which the people who have been in undisputed and absolute possession of a country, realize that limitations are being put upon them by the incoming of new population and new conditions. A few years ago it was my privilege to be present on an island in one of our western lakes when the Indians of the district were assembled for the annual treaty payment and the usual supply of rations. Everyone knows how fairly and honorably the Indians of the West have been treated by the Government, and, for the most part, by their agents, and we all realize how the progress of the world and the good of mankind necessitate the acquisition of the land from those who have not had the training or the opportunity required to fully develop its resources; but, withal, the scene at one of these Indian treaties has its sadness for the thoughtful onlooker. As the men who had once been lords of the isles and lakes sat meekly round in a circle to receive each his handful of flour and piece of bacon for the mid-day meal, one could not help feeling that our duty as a Christian people is not wholly done when we bestow a meal, pay a few dollars and provide a reservation. The children of the wild, upon whose heritage we have entered, must become the wards of the nation and the charge of the Church of Christ, that their declining days may be cheered and brightened in the noblest sense.

As one of an armed force I have witnessed the surrender of princely Crees and Chippewyans beyond the banks of the North Saskatchewan - many of them men of magnificent mould and royal bearing - who had been incited to rebellion by people who should have known better. When these misguided men laid down their arms, and were guarded by our wakeful pickets, thoughts of pity for their unhappy predicament filled the minds of their guards in the watches of the night. These Indians must be taught by force, if need be, the wrong of rebellion against a rightly constituted authority that is disposed to treat them fairly; and above all, they must be taught the sacredness of human life. But seeing that in the interests of progressive civilization we have policed the plains over which they once roamed as "monarchs of all they surveyed," that we have placed limitations upon them to which they were wholly unaccustomed, and which were not provided for in their own dark code of ethics, we ought to be more ready to follow them with the blessings of peace than with the waste of the sword.

These somewhat extreme examples will serve to illustrate our opening sentence as to the element of pathos present when people who have had illimitable range begin to find themselves circumscribed, even though this narrowing of the field is for their own ultimate good. They give us to understand how the white settlers by the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, though perfectly ready to acquiesce in the new order of things beginning to obtain amongst them, would feel that a great change was coming over the spirit of their dream. Those who know what the old order had been realize how completely in many ways it was to be reversed, and hence how carefully and judiciously the Government of Canada and those who professed to be its agents, should have acted in bringing the change to pass. For those settlers, once they had conquered their earlier difficulties, life had been singularly peaceable and uneventful. Its central points out-side the home, with all its guileless hospitality and simplicity, were the church and school, both of which bulked far more largely with them than some people in these days of complex society seem able to understand.

They were without the vexation and the heart-burning of active politics, they were ignorant of taxation in any form, while the rivalries that existed were in keeping with their simple life, and had nothing of that fierce element of competition into which the newer civilization was to hurl them. The contests that had been most in evidence were over such matters as the speed of horses, in regard to which the settlement would often be deeply stirred, especially if the horses were owned in different parts of the colony. There was sometimes a great deal of strength put into efforts to be first with the seeding, harvest, hay-cutting, hay-hauling or freighting expeditions. It was the ambition of many households always to have break-fast by candle-light, that they might have a good deal done before their more tardy neighbors arose. In the matter of hay-hauling we used to get up in the night, and going out to the yard, where the oxen had been tied to the carts, grope round in the darkness to get them hitched up, now and then pausing to listen whether we could hear the creaking music that betokened the departure of our neighbor's cart-train to the hay swamps. Friendly contests in feats of physical strength were very common. The number of bags of wheat a man could carry on his back, the quantity of shot-bags he could lift over his head, the weight he could hang to his little finger and then write his name on the wall with a coal, the number of loads of hay he could cut with a scythe in a day, or the number of "stooks" of wheat he could handle with a sickle - these were some of the rivalries that gave zest to the simple life of the early days. The school was another field for competition, and on the great days of oral examination the parents and friends were present as eager and interested spectators of the contest which decided who was the best reader, writer, etc., in the district.

In the business life of the people there was nothing tumultuous. There were no banks and no promissory notes - on the latter of which they would have looked with contempt as on something implying distrust in a man's word of honor. The general stores, either of the Hudson's Bay Company or of individual dealers, were not clamorous for business, as there was no compelling force of competition. Frequently on going to one of these stores you had to look up the proprietor, who, leaving the store to take care of itself, was out at-tending to his horse, or something of that sort. When you went into a store there was no modern clerk to advance with an alluring smile; indeed, the proprietor or clerk might even say that he had not the article asked for, until the customer would wander round and find it for himself. No wrapping paper was used, and you had either to bring a bag with you, buy some cotton, or leave your tea and sugar on the counter.

Think of a community like that being suddenly confronted with the necessity for political strife, with the prospect of municipal government and taxation, with all the keen and sometimes bitter rivalries of present-day business methods, and with, alas, some adventurers all too ready to take advantage of their simple-heartedness, and no one will wonder if it took the people some little time to gather themselves up and accommodate their lives to such new conditions.

But more important in its bearing upon the feeling of the people was the sudden realization of the fact that, after long years of undisputed possession of large privileges on the great areas around them, limitations were being put upon their operations by the in-coming of strangers, who, driving stakes here and there, barred the old ways and the old fields - sometimes unjustly - against a people who could only be expected to learn slowly that their domain must some time be curtailed. There was an element of pathos, and yet, withal, of sound reason in all this, in view of which those who were bringing in the new conditions would have done well to exercise a caution and care they did not always manifest. Add to this the fact that often times it was discovered that the persons who, by show of authority, sometimes excluded the settlers from places, had themselves no rightful claim, and one should not be surprised if the settlers under such circumstances were in some unrest as to the future. I remember, for instance, how the hay meadows to which the settlers had come for many years, with the marking out of a "circle" as the only condition precedent to holding all within it, were closed against them by people who, coming from the village around Fort Garry, desired to hold these meadows for their own profit. If they had just claim it was all right, but if they had not their action was resented. The settlers, however, were not slow to seize the situation, and some incidents took place which showed, to the disgust of the discomfited, that they could hold their own. The "green knoll swamp," lying between the Kildonan settlers and Stony Mountain, was a favorite source of hay supply, and new-comers, finding this out, often came round with formidable papers to frighten the settlers away from their accustomed haunts. A friend of mine still relates with great relish that one day, just as he and the people of his immediate neighborhood were starting into hay-cutting there, an important-looking stranger with a large retinue of men, mowers, rakes, etc., bore down upon him, and with book in hand asked him in great wrath who the people were who dared to come upon this land, as he wished to have them arrested for trespass. The settler, standing upon his mower, told him that the Gunns, McDonalds, MacBeths, Pritchards, Harpers and Sutherlands were visible. All these names were taken down with tremendous emphasis by the irate gentleman, who expected that the settler would at once warn his neighbors, and that he and they would "fold their tents like the Arabs, and silently steal away" from the coveted hay-fields. In this, however, the new-comer was mistaken, for the settler coolly went on to say, "You have not yet taken me down in your book. My name is Francis Murray," upon which the man "with curses not loud but deep," seeing that his game was under-stood, took himself away and was not again heard from.

Besides all this, some of the new arrivals, who had been hospitably entertained by the settlers with their best, wrote to eastern papers ridiculing the manner of life and the accommodation they found amongst them, and made reference to the dark-skinned people under the somewhat contemptuous name of "breeds." The number, of course, who did any of these things was small, but their conduct offended and estranged many who, ignorant of the fact that such people were only the excrescences on the better life of the older provinces, somewhat guardedly awaited further developments.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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