“Our great brother here.”
Those words were used by Chief James Smith in addressing Canada’s governor general at a meeting at Fort Carlton in August 1881.
He wasn’t being disrespectful. His words reflected his understanding of the treaty relationship between the Crown and the Cree people.
Five years earlier at Carlton, during the Treaty Six negotiations, both the Crown’s representative, Indian Commissioner Alexander Morris, and Cree chiefs Mistawasis and Ahtahkakoop talked about the agreement as the beginning of a new, long-term relationship rooted in the concepts of family and kin.
The Cree were prepared to accept the Queen’s hand and shared the land with white newcomers on the understanding that they would get government assistance making the transition to agriculture. They fully expected and looked forward to a beneficial and meaningful relationship with the Crown.
But Cree bands found that the surveying of reserves was often delayed and that promised agricultural equipment and supplies were not immediately forthcoming and generally insufficient.
They also suffered crop failures and had to survive on limited rations because of the disappearance of the bison from the northern plains. These relief provisions were available only to Indians on reserves — and only to those who first performed manual labour.
One of the first opportunities for the Cree to voice their frustration with Canada’s failure to fulfil its treaty obligations came in August 1881 when the governor general, the Marquess of Lorne, toured western Canada with a North-West Mounted Police escort and representatives of Canadian and British newspapers. Despite the busy schedule, time was set aside to meet with Indigenous leaders at several places, including forts Carlton and Battleford.
Lorne, the youngest person to serve as Canadian governor general, had a special connection to the British Crown. He was married to Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters — something that was keenly appreciated by the Cree.
That’s why the chiefs addressed him as brother or brother-in-law at their meetings. They not only believed that they had a kin relationship with Lorne as the Queen’s son-in-law, but that they were speaking directly to the Queen Mother through Lorne. When they shook hands with Lorne, they were effectively shaking hands with Victoria.
The governor general, on the other hand, seems to have been cautioned about Cree dissatisfaction. He advised the leaders at Carlton, “I have come from the Queen to inquire about you but not to change the treaty.”
But Lorne was prepared to listen to their needs and grievances. At one point, he said he wanted “to see how by keeping treaties I can help them (the Cree) to live.”
Cree leaders spoke with candour.
Acknowledging that farming was the only way that the Cree could make a living now that the bison were gone, Mistawasis complained about the lack of implements and animals.
“At the time of the Treaties,” he reminded the governor general, “it was mentioned that while the sun rose and set and the water ran the faith in the treaties was to be kept.”
Ahtahkakoop made a similar request. He lamented his band’s losses during harvest and asked for “a thresher and reaper and the power to work them.”
In fact, the need for farm implements was repeatedly mentioned by the chiefs when it came their turn to address the governor general.
During the councils at Carlton and Battleford, it was painfully evident that the Cree wanted to succeed at agriculture but were handcuffed by the limited assistance that the Canadian government provided. Nor could they understand why only white farmers should be using equipment to bring the land into production.
The chiefs also looked to the governor general to do something about their situation. “We lean on your generosity,” Petequakey implored. “We are all your children.”
A handwritten transcript of Lorne’s meetings with Indigenous leaders was given to the John A. Macdonald Conservative government that fall. Senior Indian Affairs officials reviewed the document, paying particular attention to how the governor general had responded to Cree demands.
It did not matter in the end. The Canadian economy slid into a recession in the early 1880s and the department of Indian Affairs drastically cut expenditures.
Lorne resigned the governor generalship early to try to revive his political career in Great Britain. His 1883 departure ironically coincided with the beginning of a Cree diplomatic initiative to get the Crown to deliver what had been solemnly promised in the treaties.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: The Buffalo Dance was performed for Governor General Lorne at Fort Qu’Appelle in August 1881.
Photo Source:THE SCOTSMAN, 16 SEPTEMBER 1881
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.