Memorable Manitobans: Charles Mair (1838-1927)
Born in Lanark County, Upper Canada, Mair attended Queen’s University with John Schultz but did not graduate. In the spring of 1868 in Ottawa he helped organize the secret movement “Canada First.” About the same time he published Dreamland and Other Poems, an echo of John Keats. He received a patronage appointment from William McDougall as secretary for the Canadian mission to London to negotiate the transfer of Rupert’s Land, but was unable to go. He settled instead for an appointment as assistant on the Canadian road works near Red River, and was also named Red River correspondent of several Ontario newspapers, including the Globe. His comments about Red River mixed-blood ladies led to his being horsewhipped by Annie Bannatyne in February 1869, and Louis Riel responded in print to his writing.
Mair married Eliza McKenney, a niece of John Schultz, and was one of the most active of the pro-Canadian party in Red River in 1869. He was part of the group that surrendered to Louis Riel at John Schultz’s house in December 1869, but he escaped a month later. He went first to Portage la Prairie, then south to St. Paul, travelling east with Donald A. Smith. He appeared at a number of rallies in Ontario in 1870 to stir up hostility to Riel and the provisional government, and testified before the Senate subcommittee in April 1870. He received $1,910 compensation for lost property and $66 for imprisonment in 1873.
He was a postmaster (1872-1877) and storekeeper (?-1883) at Portage la Prairie, and was an officer of the Governor General’s Body Guards in 1885. Under pressure from his friends, he sought Canadian topics to write about, and in 1886 he published Tecumseh, a verse-drama well regarded at the time, subsequently being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1889.
Mair later helped to found Kelowna, British Columbia, and wrote Through the Mackenzie Basin (1908), based upon his work as secretary of the commission that negotiated with Indians there in 1899. He moved to Victoria in 1921.
Once a highly regarded Canadian poet, his reputation has slipped into eclipse, at least partly because of the rawness of his Canadian nationalism. His papers are at Queen’s University.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 4 October 2020