A FLURRY OF VISITS TO CENTRAL CANADA IN 1886 GAVE PLAINS FIRST NATIONS CHIEFS A DISTURBING GLIMPSE INTO THEIR FUTURE.
Visits to Central Canada in 1886 gave some Plains First Nations chiefs a disturbing glimpse into their future.
A YEAR AFTER TROOPS suppressed an 1885 uprising by Métis and First Nations in the North-West Territories, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald received a letter from a young Mohawk land surveyor working in the Assiniboia district (now part of Saskatchewan). Thomas Green was no stranger to Macdonald. Green was a recent graduate of McGill University whom the prime minister had recommended for a job with the Dominion Land Survey. Moreover, he was possibly the first Indigenous person in Canada to be certified as a land surveyor.
Green’s temporary work in the North-West Territories made him aware of the dire situation of the Plains First Nations people, who were suffering from disease and hunger due to the disappearance of the bison and the government’s failure to fulfil its treaty promises.
In a letter written in March 1886, Green suggested that Macdonald reach out to important chiefs who had remained neutral during the five-month conflict in 1885: “Show them, or at least, allow them to be shown the principal sights and cities of Ontario and Quebec, and above all, have them visit the most prosperous Indian reserves of these provinces. Let them see how their Indian brethren are prospering in those provinces; let them understand that the Indian can subsist like the white man where there is no game; and let them understand that the government do not wish to exterminate them.”
The young Mohawk’s advice might have influenced Macdonald. A few months later, the prime minister held a brief meeting with western chiefs during a stop at the Blackfoot Siksika Reserve east of Calgary while on his first, and only, trip across Canada on the new transcontinental railway in July 1886. Shortly afterwards, he extended invitations to nine First Nations chiefs. The government-sponsored trips — presented as gifts for “loyalty” — would take groups of Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibwe leaders to southern Ontario and Quebec by train. They would stay in comfortable hotels and tour factories, schools, churches, jails, reserves, and farms. They would also be guests of honour at the unveiling of a memorial to Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant and be received at Earnscliffe, the prime minister’s stately residence.
For Macdonald, it was a way to impress the prairie leaders with the Dominion’s numerical strength and technological achievements. The First Nations population of the West at the time was about fifteen thousand. In contrast, Ontario and Quebec had a total population of about three million. For the chiefs, the trip was an opportunity to make their difficulties known to politicians and the public.
Interestingly, another group of Plains First Nations leaders toured Central Canada at around the same time. The two prominent Cree leaders and a young Stoney Nakoda chief were sponsored by the Methodist Church. The organizer, Reverend John McDougall, was a Protestant missionary who frequently spoke out against the Indian Act, arguing that it gave the Department of Indian Affairs unwarranted autocratic power and discouraged self-help as well as self-respect. He also protested a newly instituted pass system to restrict off-reserve travel by First Nations members.
Not surprisingly, the federal government declined to fund the Methodist contingent. Nor were the Methodist visitors invited to meet the prime minister. McDougall’s group left first, in early August 1886. The Blackfoot contingent left in two groups in late September, and the Cree-Ojibwe chiefs followed shortly afterwards.
There are no first-hand accounts of the chiefs’ impressions of their trips — few First Nations people on the prairies spoke English or French, and almost none could write those languages. But there was abundant press coverage, as well as written commentaries by McDougall and Reverend John Maclean, a Blackfoot-speaking Methodist missionary.
One of the Blackfoot delegations included the renowned Chief Crowfoot (Isapo-Muxika) and his foster brother Three Bulls, both of the Siksika Blackfoot First Nation. They were accompanied by Jean L’Heureux, a colourful French Canadian who had lived with the Blackfoot for two decades and who travelled with them as an interpreter. Father Albert Lacombe, a legendary Roman Catholic priest who spoke both Blackfoot and Cree, joined them in Ottawa and travelled with them to Montreal. The second Blackfoot group included Blood Chief Red Crow (Mékaisto), Red Crow’s pipe carrier One Spot, and North Axe, the newly elected chief of the Peigans.
Riding the trains as passengers, they likely reflected on how these conveyances had altered their way of life. Crowfoot’s people had reluctantly allowed the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to build its line through the Siksika reserve. But they became alarmed when the speeding “fire wagons” belched sparks as they thundered past, causing prairie fires and killing some of the Blackfoot’s muchprized horses. “Great damage was caused,” Crowfoot told a journalist writing for Toronto’s Daily Mail in 1886. “Our horses lost their food and some were lost by going on the heated ground. … Last year we asked for damages but have yet received no answer. If this harm was done in the white man’s country, it would be redressed.”
Crowfoot took these grievances with him as he travelled east with Three Bulls. Red Crow, One Spot, and North Axe followed on a later train. In Montreal, Crowfoot met with CPR president William Van Horne. Van Horne refused to pay compensation but did offer Crowfoot a lifetime rail pass. The chief wore the prized
pass on a chain around his neck but his fight with the railway continued until his death in 1890.
Surprises met the chiefs at every turn. Maclean recorded how Red Crow and North Axe described the extraordinary experience of stepping into a “small room which had an iron door,” being lifted upwards and then downwards to “where the white men say the Great Evil Spirit dwells.” Finally, the ride stopped, the door opened, and they came “at the same place where they had started from.”
As astonishing as their elevator ride was, the biggest shock for the First Nations visitors was the contrast between rich and poor. Sharing was deeply entrenched in Plains First Nations culture, and everyone was provided for after a hunt. According to Maclean, when Red Crow and North Axe later told their fellow Bloods and Peigans of the poverty they had witnessed, they remarked, “In many things the white men were inferior to the Indians.”
The western chiefs drew crowds wherever they went. Crowfoot in particular was lionized by the press and the public. At fifty-six, his proud bearing, colourful regalia, and thin, hawk-like face fit perfectly with the public’s conception of a great chief. Tall and lithe, he wore a tiny owl’s head in a top knot in his hair as a holy protector. The Montreal Star described his voice as “sonorous, well inflected, and evidently one accustomed to command.”
In Montreal they stayed at the Richelieu Hotel, an establishment that boasted having “every possible modern convenience and luxury that careful thought can suggest.” In contrast to their usual fare at home of boiled beef, bannock, and tea, they were offered an extensive menu that included pies, custards, and sweets. At least one chief with the Methodist party — Pakan — “weighed 180 pounds when he first reached Toronto [and] now weighs 205 — a clear gain of twenty-five pounds in one month,” the Toronto Globe reported. This style of living did not suit Crowfoot, however; he became ill and exhausted only a few weeks into the tour.
After Montreal, Crowfoot and Three Bulls spent three days touring Quebec City. While there, they stopped at the renowned Livernois studio, where a photographer took several elaborately staged photographs of them.
On October 9, Crowfoot and Three Bulls joined with the recently arrived members of the rest of the Blackfoot contingent. Together, they travelled by horse-drawn carriages to the prime minister’s home. “As the barouches drove through the gates of Earnscliffe, Lady Macdonald, with characteristic grace, advanced to meet her visitors,” reported the Ottawa Journal. “Alighting from the main entrance, Crowfoot and his Indian allies were escorted to the parlour, where the usual handshaking took place.” Crowfoot then launched into a lengthy speech, which the newspaper described as a “masterpiece of eloquence” from the “Indian point of view.” Crowfoot stated: “With the coming of the white man, the buffalo have gone, and we will need partial support at least.” He asked for help in starting farms and establishing a market for their produce.
According to the Ottawa newspapers, Macdonald promised to find a market for their surplus production, stating, “If they were all peaceable he would see that they were well cared for.” It was a brutal age. As social welfare historian Hugh Shewell has written, welfare relief in North America “was not a readily accepted function of the state in the middle to late nineteenth century.” Macdonald saw no need for any additional compensation, apart from a gift of twenty-five dollars
to each of the chiefs and a promise to send “more presents and clothing to their people.” In parting, Lady Agnes Macdonald gave a photo of her husband to Crowfoot. Afterwards, they all gathered on the lawn, where a photographer took a group photo.
Two days later the Blackfoot chiefs were feted at an afternoon levee at Ottawa’s city hall, this time joined by the party of Cree and Ojibwe chiefs who had reached Ottawa on October 11. The latter delegation included Big Child (Mistawasis) and Starblanket (Ahtahkakoop) — both from the Prince Albert area. Big Child and Starblanket travelled with Indian agent Allan Macdonald, interpreter Peter Hourie, and two other chiefs — Kahkewistahaw, commonly known in English as Flying in a Circle, and Louis O’Soup, a Saulteaux (Ojibwe). O’Soup, or Osoop — which meant literally “back fat” — was a noted orator and successful farmer.
A group photo taken at the levee shows all of the visitors on the steps of city hall with Mayor Francis McDougal. For Crowfoot, the levee marked the end of the trip. By then too ill to continue, he soon boarded a train home, accompanied by Three Bulls.
The next stop on the chiefs’ tour — now minus Crowfoot and Three Bulls — was Brantford, Ontario, for the unveiling of a memorial to Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), the great Iroquois leader who fought beside Britain during the American Revolution. Like other Loyalists, Brant and his people were forced to flee to Canada after the revolution.
By the late-nineteenth century, the Six Nations territory west of Hamilton had become a showpiece for the Department of Indian Affairs. With its many productive farms run by members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, it was touted as
Mohawk land surveyor Thomas Green.
Chiefs and interpreters on the lawn of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s residence in 1886. Seated, left to right, are North Axe, Three Bulls, Crowfoot, Red Crow, and One Spot. Father Albert Lacombe, left, and Jean L’Heureux, stand behind.
The Joseph Brant Monument in Brantford, Ontario.