Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: March 2016


Fort Qu'Appelle Federal Polling Station 1904

Westerners had to fight for vote

Securing a voice in the running of their government did not come easy for the residents of the North-West Territories.

Canada acquired the region for settlement purposes in 1870, but had no interest in providing effective or representative government. The federal government wanted a free hand in deciding and shaping the region’s development — without any local input or interference.

This colonial status meant that the territories’ first government was based outside the territories, in Winnipeg, and headed by the lieutenant governor for the new province of Manitoba; he effectively wore two hats. There was also provision for an appointed council (with executive and legislative duties), but no appointments were made until December 1872.  In fact, the NWT government did not hold its first legislative session until March 1873.

Any and all decisions made by the lieutenant governor and council, moreover, required the approval of the Canadian government to come into force. Nor was there any territorial government staff at the beginning. Ottawa preferred a policy of administrative economy — in other words, do nothing and save money until action was absolutely necessary.

The 1875 North-West Territories Act finally created a separate government for the territories, and brought together in a single statute all previous legislation concerning governance of the region.

And even though the government structure remained the same under the new legislation, the lieutenant governor now had to reside in the territories and hold council meetings there (first, Fort Livingstone, then Battleford, and finally Regina).

These changes did little to appease the growing territorial population. The settlers who emigrated West in the late 1870s and early 1880s had come from a tradition where they enjoyed a popular interest in political affairs and exercised a voice in governing themselves. That was why a lively regional press — in the form of newspapers — appeared in several communities in the North Saskatchewan country and along the CPR main line.

But the new North-West Territories Council after 1875 consisted initially of only three appointees (two magistrates, the other the NWMP commissioner) who were not even paid for their duties because they were already salaried government employees. The lieutenant governor, meanwhile, continued to exercise sole control over the territorial budget and exercised wide discretionary powers.

The 1875 NWT Act did allow for elected council representation, but not until there were 1,000 people in a district. It was consequently not until 1880 that Lorne, the first electoral constituency in the future province of Saskatchewan, was created in the Prince Albert area.
Westerners objected to the glacial pace of democratic reform — and the fact that the federal government had to be repeatedly prodded. It could have been worse.

In 1880, Ottawa floated the idea of returning the territorial government to Winnipeg. Even though it never happened because of the storm of regional protest, the proposal underscored the federal government’s contempt for territorial government.

Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie once told the House of Commons that the territorial administration should “be in the hands of the Government here in Ottawa.”

His Conservative successor thought the same way. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald believed that the position of lieutenant governor was such a “useless expense” that Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney could easily handle both jobs.

This autocratic rule spawned a spirited protest movement, spearheaded by some of the first elected territorial councillors but powered by the full force of the white and Métis communities.

One Prince Albert resident charged that the West was being deliberately held back “through circumstances over which we have had no control.”

Newspaperman Frank Oliver, the elected representative for Edmonton, was more blunt.

“If history is to be taken as a guide,” he thundered in an Edmonton Bulletin editorial, “what could be plainer than without rebellion the people of the North West need expect nothing.”

Lieutenant-governor Dewdney dismissed Oliver’s remarks as “wild talk.”

But as the Regina Journal declared: “The North-West … will be satisfied with nothing short of an administration responsible to the people in the fullest sense of the word.”

It was not until 1888 that a fully elected 22-member legislative assembly was established. Responsible government took another nine years.

Voting privileges in Saskatchewan today would be the envy of people living in the territories in the 1870s and 1880s.

Please take time to cast your ballot on Election Day.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-B1176
Photo caption: A polling station near Fort Qu’Appelle during the 1904 federal election.
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william spreadborough

Bird collector accidentally kills Indian Head man

Field work was the backbone of Canadian natural history research in the late 19th century. The 1870 expansion of the young dominion to the Pacific and Arctic coasts created an immense field of scientific inquiry.

Much of the credit for rolling back Canada’s natural history frontier belongs to John Macoun, who served as naturalist for the Geological Survey of Canada for three decades. Macoun was known as “the field naturalist” for his collecting prowess and had a town named after him (between Estevan and Weyburn) on the CPR Soo Line in southeastern Saskatchewan.

But even the indefatigable Macoun could not do all the work himself; he relied on the collecting activities of other Survey field parties. He was also ably assisted by his son James (Jim) and long-time field worker William Spreadborough.

Spreadborough’s life was one of great accomplishment — and great tragedy.

A quiet, unassuming backwoodsman from Muskoka, Ontario, Spreadborough lost his wife in childbirth and signed on shortly thereafter as cook for a Survey expedition to northern Manitoba in 1888. There, his natural history skills impressed fellow expedition member James Macoun, who convinced his father to hire him the following season.

Spreadborough quickly became a fixture on the Macoun field parties to western Canada. Usually the advance person in the field, he collected a wide assortment of animals, but tended to concentrate on birds, often working with arsenic to preserve the specimen skins (at the expense of temporarily losing the feeling in his fingers). He also knew how to make the most unpromising campsite comfortable and was renowned for his cooking and campfire stories.

But tragedy continued to mar Spreadborough’s life.

While riding in the back of a wagon in the Indian Head area in 1892, his specimen gun accidentally discharged and killed the driver. For many years thereafter, he looked after the man’s widow and eventually married her.

Spreadborough spent his entire Survey career as a temporary summer employee. Despite persistent lobbying by the Macouns to have him taken on the permanent staff, he had to work at odd jobs every winter to tide him over until the spring and the start of another field season.

But Spreadborough did not seem to mind. He willingly dropped everything to join the Macouns, especially in time for the spring bird migration in western Canada.

By day, the trio would cast their net over the surrounding countryside, gathering all forms of flora and fauna they happened upon.  At night, their catch was put up. Plants were dried and pressed in felt blotters leaned against stakes around the campfire.  Birds and mammals were skinned. Fish and reptiles were plunked in alcohol-filled jars. And insects were meticulously placed in gauze cases. For anyone who might have stumbled upon their camp, the scene could easily have been mistaken for a kind of devil’s workshop.

Over time, the bond between the naturalists grew quite strong. One night in the foothills, Jim left camp to go into the nearest town to get supplies. The next morning, William told Jim that he “had a companion on your way back last night.”

Jim asked, “What do you mean?”

“Nothing, but a cougar followed you most of the way.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, I was following the cougar.”

Spreadborough left no papers — just field notes. And any surviving correspondence consists of letters sent to him. But it is quite clear from the scientific record that this tireless field worker, largely unknown outside Survey circles, was one of the foremost bird men of his generation. He had few equals in the field.

Spreadborough and James Macoun worked their last field season together in 1919, when Jim fell seriously ill and died only a few months later from cancer. Spreadborough’s heart for field work died with Jim, and he found a job working for the city of Esquimault, British Columbia.

What became of Spreadborough — the day he retired in 1931 — was found in ornithologist Percy Taverner’s correspondence at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.

“The feeling of uselessness was too much for him,” Taverner wrote a friend, “and he hanged himself in his little workshop leaving a note for his wife that they had not saved enough for two; rather than live on in poverty, it was better that he should pass out. Too bad, poor old Spreadborough.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy the Spreadborough family
Photo caption: A creased studio portrait of William Spreadborough, probably on his wedding day.
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Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca
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Telegraph Repair Team Sask

This worse than useless telegraph line

Victorian Canadians looked to technology to make sea-to-sea nationhood a reality in the mid-19th century.

The steam locomotive and the electric telegraph promised to tame the North-West wilderness by effectively shrinking the vast distance between central Canada and the Pacific Coast.

It was all a relatively simple matter of plotting a route for the telegraph and railway. Any engineering challenges, according to Canadian expansionists, would “dissolve … into insignificance.”

The two projects were to be built in succession. The transcontinental telegraph line would be tackled first, followed by the national railroad along the same general route, if not the precise line.

The telegraph was expected to facilitate settlement and development of the western interior. It would not only lessen isolation by providing a link to the outside world, but provide logistical support for construction of the railway. Messages, for example, could be exchanged the same day rather than take weeks, if not months.

CPR Chief Engineer Sandford Fleming likened the telegraph line to a kind of “spinal cord” in the eventual communication and transportation network.

From the outset, it was assumed that the telegraph and railway would travel along the North Saskatchewan country (the fertile or settlement belt) and then through the mountains by the Yellowhead Pass. But the exact route across the northern prairies had still not been defined by 1874, when the federal government called for tenders “to provide a pioneer line [telegraph] throughout the whole extent of the country.”

The successful contractors had to clear the right-of-way along their section of the telegraph, string a one-wire line, and erect stations within at least 50-mile intervals.

Over the next two years, surveying of the telegraph line proceeded at a feverish pace. Starting at Fort Livingstone, the first territorial capital near the present-day Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, a general line was marked out west to Edmonton.  Surveying parties then performed a more detailed location survey — remaining in the field for two consecutive winters — so that construction of the telegraph sections could commence immediately.

By the end of 1876, 800 miles of telegraph line had been erected between Winnipeg and Edmonton. The only delay was caused by a band of Cree who temporarily halted the cutting of poles and laying of wire along the North Saskatchewan River to accelerate treaty discussions with the government.

The “pioneer” telegraph lived up to its name.

Because of the speed with which the line was located, its routing was largely based on the ease of grades and availability of construction materials.

Wide river valleys were avoided whenever possible in favour of sending the line northward, sometimes through wet, unstable ground. In other places, the line ran close to timber stands.

These sections proved a construction nightmare — something that was not fully appreciated, let alone anticipated, because the detailed survey work had been done in winter.

Once the line was in place, poles kept falling over and damaging the wire, throwing sections of the line out of commission for days, if not weeks.

Service consequently varied from day to day and could be depended on with any certainty only during the winter months — when the poles remained frozen in place.

Surveyor W.F. King complained bitterly about the unreliability of the line. He wasted the better part of the summer of 1876 trying to use “this worse than useless telegraph line” in his field work in the Battleford area. His experience at Edmonton the following year was another “complete failure.”

By the end of the 1870s, the federal government found itself saddled with a telegraph that was a drain on the federal treasury.
Then, in 1881, Ottawa reached an agreement with the CPR Syndicate to take over and complete the railway project. One of the syndicate’s first acts was to send the main line across the southern prairies — a decision that effectively undermined the rationale for the location of the government telegraph line. In fact, the CPR decided to erect its own telegraph along the new right-of-way.

It was not until January 1887 that a reliable transcontinental telegraph was in operation — ironically, more than a year after the driving of the last spike.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board
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Email Bill Waiser at bill.waiser@usask.ca
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