In July 1870, Canada secured title to Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory (literally northwest of Rupert’s Land).
It was a phenomenal real estate transaction. Canada increased seven times in size. It was the kind of empire associated with older, more powerful countries, not a dominion just three years old.
For Canada’s future on the North American continent, the transfer kept the land out of American hands, especially after the United States had purchased Russian Alaska in 1867 (the same year as Canadian confederation).
The three-million-acre acquisition was also seen as the means to greatness. The North-West Territories (as the region was now called) would help create a powerful northern nation from sea to sea to sea and provide the basis for new provinces, including Saskatchewan. But the deal may have foundered if not for the intervention of the British government. And the HBC got much more in the end.
The sticking point was Canada’s refusal to recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territorial rights. In 1670, an English royal charter gave the fledgling HBC control over Rupert’s Land – namely, all of the land within the Hudson Bay drainage basin (about 40 per cent of modern Canada).
The HBC steadfastly maintained its monopoly claim to this vast territory for the next two centuries and considered rival traders as interlopers.
But in the mid-19th century, Canadian political leaders argued that the young dominion was the rightful heir to Rupert’s Land because of past French fur trade activities in the western interior. They also insisted that the Canadian claim had not been extinguished in 1821 when the Montreal-based North West Company joined with the HBC.
As for the company charter, Canada argued that it was completely invalid and that even if the HBC had claim to any land, it was confined to the shores of Hudson Bay. Interestingly, the validity of the HBC charter was never tested in British courts.
In the winter of 1868-69, Canadian government negotiators finally sat down with the HBC directorship in London to discuss the acquisition of the region. No Indian and Metis peoples from Rupert’s Land were invited to participate, let alone even consulted.
Discussions soon reached a stalemate, largely over continued Canadian questioning of whether the company actually owned the territory in question.
At this point, British Colonial Secretary Lord Granville, acting as an intermediary, proposed a settlement that was effectively forced on the two parties.
The HBC agreed to surrender its charter rights to Rupert’s Land in exchange for £300,000 in compensation from the Canadian government. The company also kept its posts and surrounding land and was entitled to a land grant of one-twentieth of the so-called fertile belt.
Canadian takeover of the North-West did not bring an end to the fur trade. The HBC not only continued its traditional operations north of the new settlement frontier, but created a Land Department to handle its new real estate interests. And these interests proved quite substantial.
In the late 1850s, the Palliser and Hind scientific expeditions had defined the fertile belt as a band of land confined to the North Saskatchewan country.
But in the 1869 British order-in-council sanctioning the land transfer, the size of the fertile belt was miraculously enlarged.
Clause six of the formal transfer order extended the southern boundary of the Fertile Belt all the way to the 49th parallel.
It is not known how or why this expansive interpretation came about.
There is no doubt, though, that the new boundaries substantially increased the HBC’s land grant over the next few decades – one estimate has placed the windfall at close to five million acres.
The enlarged fertile belt also mirrored Canada’s great ambitions for the region.
Once dismissed as a frozen wilderness, the North-West had been transformed into an agricultural Eden that was expected to attract millions of immigrants.
And because the region was deemed so essential to Canada’s future prosperity and well-being, the land had to be settled and developed as quickly as possible – even if that process conflicted with the interests of the local aboriginal population.
As Sweetgrass, the leading chief in the Fort Pitt district, complained, “We heard our lands were sold and we did not like it.”
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
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