Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: October 2015

‘My people made war gently’

On the morning of May 26, 1885, Cree Chief Poundmaker proudly led his people into Battleford under a white flag of truce to meet with Gen. Frederick Middleton, commander of the North-West Field Force. After surrendering their weapons at Middleton’s insistence as proof of their unconditional submission, the chief and his people gathered in a large semicircle at the feet of the general, who looked down upon them from his chair.

Middleton, fresh from his defeat of Louis Riel and the Métis at Batoche two weeks earlier, was in no mood to be generous. The general believed that Indians like Poundmaker should be punished for their role in the 1885 North-West Rebellion.

But it’s debatable whether Poundmaker was actually a rebel.

In late March, upon hearing of the clash between Métis and North-West Mounted Police at Duck Lake, Poundmaker led a delegation to Fort Battleford to affirm Cree allegiance to the Crown and secure rations for his hungry people. But when the Indians reached Battleford, all of the town’s 500 residents had taken refuge in the small police stockade in the belief that the incoming Cree had war-like intentions.

The Cree patiently waited all day for the local Indian agent to meet with them. Only when it became apparent that their mission to Battleford had been in vain did some of the Indians help themselves to provisions in the abandoned stores and homes before heading back home late that night.

From the vantage of the stockade, it appeared to the frightened residents that they were under siege. But the telegraph line was never cut. Nor were the townspeople prevented from drawing water from outside the stockade.

Returning to the Poundmaker reserve, the Cree camped along a creek not far from the base of Cut Knife Hill and anxiously waited to see what would happen.

The uneasy calm was shattered following the arrival of Colonel W.D. Otter’s relief column at Battleford on April 24. Disappointed that he had not seen any action on his march north from Swift Current and determined to punish the Indians for their apparent siege of Battleford, Otter assembled an attack force of about 325 men, complete with two cannons and a gatling gun, and planned to storm the sleeping Cut Knife camp in the early hours of 2 May.

But the Indians were alerted to the coming of the troops and mounted a counterattack which proved so effective that Otter’s retreating force might have been wiped out if not for Poundmaker’s restraint of the warriors.

Middleton did not appreciate Poundmaker’s position. His job was to bring a swift end to the rebellion.

The Battleford meeting consequently started badly for the Indians.

When Poundmaker came forward to exchange greetings, the general waved him away, stating through his interpreter that he did not shake hands with rebels. Middleton then opened the discussions by accusing the Indians of “pilfering like rats.”

Poundmaker replied that he had tried to hold back the young men and that the Cree were simply defending themselves when they were attacked at Cut Knife. “My people made war gently,” he said.

Middleton dismissed Poundmaker’s statements as lies, telling him at one point, “You have been on the warpath since the troubles began … committed murders and kept the country in alarm.”
Tatwaseen (or Breaking-through-the-ice) then asked that his mother be allowed to speak on behalf of the women and children. When Middleton curtly replied that women did not address war councils, Poundmaker wondered aloud why the Queen, the Great Mother, always presided at their supreme councils.

This response brought an approving shout from the Indians and even sent a ripple of laughter through the officers and men when it was translated.

The meeting came to a close when one of Poundmaker’s head men asked how they were to make a living that summer. Standing for extra emphasis, Middleton told the Indians that the government would take care of them if they behaved themselves and returned to their reserves, but that all would suffer if there was any more trouble.

He also announced that Poundmaker was to be taken into custody.

At his Regina trial later that fall, the Cree chief was found guilty of treason-felony and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Poundmaker served only a few months before he was released in early March 1886. His freedom was short-lived. A broken man, the 46-year-old chief died four months later from tuberculosis.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada
Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at
Follow Bill @billwaiser.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Voices of Courage Stories from the World Wars

“Somehow, it didn’t seem like war at all”

Join Bill Waiser at the Frances Morrison Library in Saskatoon Wednesday, October 28 for a screening of Voices of Courage: Stories from the World Wars. The film will be followed by a presentation from Bill, “Somehow, it didn’t seem like war at all”.

This event is funded by the Government of Canada and presented by a partnership of the Yorkton Film Festival and the Saskatoon Public Library. For more information, please visit the Saskatoon Public Library’s website.


Front Line

The Regina taxman cometh

One of the driving forces behind the late 19th century demand for western provincehood was money – or, to be more precise, the lack of money.

Throughout the 1880s, the elected members of the North-West Territories council constantly complained about the small government budget. Some even argued that Ottawa was more interested in exploiting the region for its own benefit – treating it as little more than a colony.

The creation of an elected legislative assembly in 1888 did nothing to ease this grievance. The lieutenant-governor for the N.W.T. continued to exercise wide discretionary powers, particularly over spending, while Parliament never voted sufficient funds for territorial needs.

The solution, for many westerners, was greater independence in the running of territorial affairs, culminating in provincial status. But when self-government was finally achieved in October 1897, the first (and only) territorial premier, Frederick Haultain, found that having control over government spending did not mean much if the territorial legislature did not have much to spend. Any revenue from North-West lands and resources still went to the federal treasury.

The chronic funding shortfall became more acute with the immigration and settlement boom of the late 1890s. The great agricultural promise of the region was finally being realized and the territorial government simply did not have enough money to meet the growing service and infrastructure demands. “We are confronted with impossible conditions,” Premier Haultain admonished the federal minister of the Interior.

In desperation, the Haultain government decided to cash in on the Klondike gold rush and the tens of thousands of stampeders making their way north over the winter of 1897-98. Since the Yukon came under the immediate jurisdiction of the territorial government in Regina, there was a potential windfall to be made in taxes and licences.

G.H.V. Bulyea, the assembly member for Qu’Appelle South, was consequently named Yukon commissioner in January 1898 and sent north to Dawson City to see that the territorial government’s jurisdiction and responsibilities there were respected and enforced. But Ottawa had already named a commissioner to handle federal government interests in the region – ironically, James Morrow Walsh, a former NWMP officer who was probably most famous for his dealings with Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. Nor did the federal government want Regina siphoning off Yukon revenue.

Bulyea’s arrival precipitated a heated showdown with Walsh, who refused to recognize the territorial government’s authority in the Yukon. At one point on 21 May 1898, the two commissioners engaged in an acrimonious shouting match on the streets of Dawson City.

Bulyea appealed to the courts to uphold his appointment. But before a ruling was rendered, the Canadian government passed the Yukon Act in June 1898 and thereby made the Yukon a separate territory beyond the reach of Regina. Bulyea, however, was allowed to retain the nearly $25,000 he had already collected, mostly from the regulation of the sale of liquor.

The Haultain ministry “viewed with apprehension” the federal decision to “cut off ” part of the North-West Territories. Not only did the creation of a separate Yukon territory confirm that Ottawa – and Ottawa alone – controlled and dominated the territories, but it suggested that the federal government would have its way if and when it came to the creation of future provinces.

That is exactly what happened in 1905. The Canadian government ignored Premier Haultain’s proposal for one large western province between Manitoba and British Columbia (to be called Buffalo) and created two roughly equal provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta, in the southern portion of the territories. Even then, the two new provinces were not to become full partners in Confederation. They, along with neighbouring Manitoba, were treated differently – unequally.

Under the terms of the 1867 British North America Act, provinces exercised control over the public lands and resources within their boundaries. But that right was denied Manitoba in 1870, and it was denied Saskatchewan and Alberta 35 years later on the grounds that federal retention of western lands was needed to promote immigration and settlement.

Ottawa attempted to make up for the loss of revenue by awarding the new provinces generous subsidies based on population. Haultain, however, wanted no part of the compensation package and demanded the same right as other provinces in Canada.

That right would not be realized until 1930.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Territorial Government Offices in Regina.

Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at

Follow Bill @billwaiser.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix