Bill Waiser

A case for commemorating Chief Big Bear: an early advocate for Indigenous rights

As we re-examine who’s reflected in statues around Canada, we should aim to honour more Indigenous leaders

Big Bear was a respected chief who rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century as a spokesperson for Indigenous rights. He was a member of a mounted hunting society that thrived on the great bison herds of the northern plains of what is now called Saskatchewan. (Library and Archives Canada C1873)

When the statue of John A. Macdonald was recently toppled in Montreal, Sen. Murray Sinclair, the chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, didn’t applaud.

Instead, he was “more interested in asking why there are not more statues of Indigenous people who have contributed to Canada,” according to an article in the Globe and Mail.

It’s a message that Murray has repeated since the 2015 release of the TRC calls to action that “the contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canada’s history” must be recognized.

I’ve thought deeply about Sinclair’s comments on reconciliation and commemoration through the lens of my years of teaching at university, my writing and especially my work with several Saskatchewan Indigenous communities. Over the past four decades, I’ve come across many Indigenous historical figures worthy of commemoration. 

One person, though, stands out: the Plains Cree Chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa). He resolutely stood up to Canada and demanded a meaningful, reciprocal treaty relationship with the Crown that would be constantly renewed.

A leader of hundreds

Big Bear was a respected chief who rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century as a spokesperson for Indigenous rights.

Born in 1825 near Jackfish Lake in present-day west-central Saskatchewan, Big Bear was a member of a mounted hunting society that thrived on the great bison herds of the northern plains. He drew his spiritual strength from the bear and carried a bear paw with claws in his power bundle.

Chief Poundmaker and Chief Big Bear (left) were convicted of treason-felony in 1885. The two were incarcerated in Stony Mountain penitentiary. Both died shortly after their release. (Manitoba Archives/ Big Bear collection/ 3/ N16092)

By the early 1860s, Big Bear was the leader of his own band that may have had as many as 500 members.

In October 1870, Big Bear was one of several leaders of a large Cree war party that was defeated in the last great battle against the Blackfoot at Belly River (near Lethbridge, Alta). Thereafter, the Cree, weakened by disease and hunger, prepared to deal with a new challenge: an expansive Dominion of Canada.

Big Bear avoided entering treaty for years

In September 1876, the second of two major meetings was held to bring the Cree of central Saskatchewan and Alberta into Treaty Six.

Even though Big Bear was away hunting on the plains, Indian Commissioner Alexander Morris concluded an agreement with Sweetgrass, the leading chief in the Pitt district.

Canada expected Big Bear to settle on a reserve that had been selected for him near Fort Pitt, where he is pictured here in 1884 (far right), deliberately away from other Cree bands. The chief refused to be isolated and launched a peaceful treaty rights initiative. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan S-B134)

When Morris asked Big Bear to enter the treaty, he refused. Big Bear not only believed that Canada was offering too little, he also wanted to see if Canada would live up to its promises.

He tried to tell Morris that he did not want to be an animal with a rope around his neck, but the translator misinterpreted the remarks, and Morris concluded that Big Bear feared hanging.

Big Bear remained out of treaty for six years, gathering around him other families who had become disillusioned with Canada’s Indigenous policies.

Indian Affairs officials considered him a troublemaker.

Treaty rights initiative launched

In December 1882, facing acute starvation because of the disappearance of the bison, Big Bear reluctantly brought his band into treaty at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills.

Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney provided rations only to bands who had taken treaty and then used the withholding of food to force bands to move to reserves.

Canada expected Big Bear to settle on a reserve that had been selected for him near Fort Pitt, deliberately away from other Cree bands, but the chief refused to be isolated and launched a peaceful treaty rights initiative. 

Big Bear met with other Cree chiefs about the need to get Canada to honour the treaty agreement and provide more assistance to bands struggling to make the transition to farming. He even sent messengers to their traditional enemy, the Blackfoot, to bring them on side.

Canada was deeply worried about the growing treaty rights movement and made tentative plans over the winter of 1884-85 to arrest Indigenous leaders, including Big Bear.

Imprisoned for treason-felony

Then, in the spring of 1885, the North-West Resistance erupted along the North Saskatchewan country.

At Frog Lake, where Big Bear’s band was camped, Wandering Spirit and several other warriors decided to settle personal scores and murdered nine men.

Big Bear took no part in the killings; he knew that violence would undermine his treaty rights movement.

A few days later, Big Bear intervened when warriors wanted to capture nearby Fort Pitt.

Big Bear intervened when warriors wanted to capture Fort Pitt. His band remained peacefully in the area, waiting to see how events would unfold elsewhere, until it was attacked by a Canadian military column near Frenchman’s Butte. (James Smith, ‘Loyal till Death’)

The North-West Mounted Police detachment was allowed leave to go down the North Saskatchewan River to Fort Battleford.

Big Bear’s band remained peacefully in the area, waiting to see how events would unfold elsewhere, until it was attacked by a Canadian military column near Frenchman’s Butte in late May. Big Bear survived the skirmishing and for the next month he was a fugitive, largely abandoned by his followers.

When he was accidentally discovered near Fort Carlton in early July, he was a shell of his former self and his diplomatic initiative lay in ruin.

Canada put Big Bear on trial for treason-felony for what happened in the Frog Lake-Fort Pitt region. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain penitentiary.

Chief Big Bear (bottom, second from left) and Chief Poundmaker (bottom, far right) at the North-West Mounted Police Barracks in Regina in 1885. (Library and Archives Canada)

Because Indian Commissioner Dewdney blamed Big Bear for spearheading First Nations resistance to his policies, he allowed the old chief’s hair to be cut upon entering prison.

Big Bear was released early, over Dewdney’s objections, because of failing health.

He died in 1888. 

To this day, he remains a convicted “rebel.”

Commemorating Big Bear could be part of the ongoing reconciliation process, something that Sinclair has been calling for. 

He is deserving of some kind of public recognition: a reminder that there was, and is, a better way forward.

This article originally appeared as an Opinion Piece on cbc.ca.