His Mouth Got Him Killed and His Death Changed History

Thomas Scott grew up poor. His parents were Protestant Irish tenant farmers so he would have understood the history of Protestants struggling against the power and enmity of Ireland’s Catholic majority and of the famine, disease, and economic hardships that gripped the country during his childhood and teenage years. In 1863, at age 21, the six-foot-two, ruggedly handsome Scott joined the wave of those leaving Ireland. He arrived in Canada West, what is now Ontario, and settled near Belleville. Scott worked as a labourer and joined Sterling’s 49th Hastings Battalion of Rifles. He also joined the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge.

Seeking greater opportunities, Scott travelled west. In the spring of 1869, he arrived by stagecoach in the Red River Settlement, at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, at what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was home to about 5,000 descendants of French explorers and fur traders who had wed Indigenous women. Most Métis were Catholic and French-speaking and many were Protestant and English speaking. A growing number of Protestant, English-speaking Canadians, like Scott, were also moving to Red River.

His Mouth Got Him Killed

Thomas Scott

The Red River Settlement was part of an expansive region called Rupert’s Land that had been owned by the Hudson Bay Company. In March 1869, just before Scott’s arrival, it had been sold to the British crown with the intent to sell it to the two-year-old Dominion of Canada. The Canadian purchase would not be official until December 1. That nine-month interval created confusion regarding who owned the land and governed its people and added to the resentment among those at Red River that they had not been consulted about the sale. Racial, religious, and ethnic tensions were made worse by the belief that the sale would spark an influx of even more English Protestants from Ontario. The settlement was further split because some people wanted to join Canada, others wanted independence, while others hoped Red River would become a British colony.

Upon his arrival, Scott joined a construction crew building the Dawson Road between Red River and Fort William. In August, it was discovered that the project’s superintendent and paymaster, John A. Snow, had been underpaying the workers. Scott led a gang that dragged Snow to the river and threatened to toss him in. In November, Scott was charged with assault, fined £4, and fired. Scott found work as a labourer and bartender and became known for fighting, drinking, and loudly stating his anti-Catholic, anti- Métis views.

While Scott was working on the Dawson Road, a Canadian survey crew had arrived near the Red River Settlement. They had ignored current land ownership titles and property lines. The Métis quite rightly insisted that until the December 1 ownership transfer, the crew had no official status and were simply trespassers. The Métis spokesperson was a 25-year-old charismatic, fluently bilingual, Louis Riel who had just returned home from Montreal where he had studied to become a priest. Supported by armed men, Riel dramatically placed his foot on the surveying chain and ordered the crew to leave. Its leader, William McDougal, retreated and took his men to nearby Pembina.

The Métis took Upper Fort Garry, the Hudson Bay Company’s post in Red River, and formed a provisional government called the Métis National Committee. Riel was its secretary. On December 1, a frustrated McDougall led his men back to the Red River Settlement but armed Métis, this time acting on behalf of their government, stopped him again.

Meanwhile, the trouble-making Scott had met the 29-year-old doctor and entrepreneur John Christian Shultz. Shultz led the Canadian Party which was a small group of English Protestants who wished to see Red River annexed by Canada and led by English Protestants. In early December, 67 Canadian Party adherents gathered at Shultz’s warehouse in Lower Fort Garry to plan an attack on the Métis government.

A newly constituted provisional government called the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation had been formed with Riel as president. On December 7, Riel had Shultz and his followers arrested and detained. Scott had not been at the warehouse but upon hearing of the arrests he met with Riel and demanded that the prisoners be freed. When the soft-spoken Riel refused, Scott became belligerent, yelled racist insults, and so was arrested. He continued his tirades while under confinement, threatening at one point to shoot Riel.

On January 9, Scott and twelve others escaped. He and fellow prisoner Charles Mair found snowshoes and somehow walked 103 km through a howling blizzard to Portage la Prairie. A month later, still suffering the effects of frostbite, Scott joined Canadian Major Charles Arkoll Boulton and about 60 others who marched through cold and snow, intent on capturing Upper Fort Garry, freeing the prisoners, and overthrowing Riel. They were joined along the way by another 100 men armed with muskets and clubs. Upon their arrival, they learned that Riel had already released the prisoners. While the news led many to turn back, Boulton, Scott, and 45 others continued to insist on Riel’s ouster. Riel had them arrested.

A military council determined that Boulton was guilty of treason and should be executed. After appeals from church leaders and Donald Smith, the commissioner from Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s government, Riel waived the sentence. The incident, and Riel’s mercy led to even broader support among Red River’s disparate groups for the provisional government.

 Meanwhile, the still imprisoned Thomas Scott had become a nuisance. He complained about conditions and constantly shouted violent threats and racist insults at his Métis guards. They chained his feet and hands but he persisted. On February 28, after striking a guard, two other guards dragged Scott outside and began beating him until a member of Riel’s government, who happened to be passing by, intervened. Riel visited Scott and, speaking through a hole in the door, tried to calm the man but Scott merely shouted insults.

Scott’s Execution

On March 3, Scott was brought before a six-man council and charged with insubordination and treason. He was not allowed a lawyer and, because he spoke no French, understood none of the evidence brought against him. Witnesses were not cross-examined. Only at the trial’s conclusion did Riel address Scott in English and summarize what had happened. One member of the council voted for acquittal and another for banishment but four declared Scott guilty and said he should be executed by firing squad.

A minister, a priest, and Donald Smith asked Riel to spare Scott’s life but he refused. Riel believed that the trial and Scott’s execution would demonstrate the legitimate power of his government to the people of Red River and, as he said to Smith, “We must make Canada respect us.”

At one o’clock the next day, March 4, 1870, Scott’s hands were tied behind his back and he was escorted from his cell to the courtyard outside. With Riel watching, Scott knelt in the snow and a white cloth was tied to cover his eyes. He shouted, “This is horrible. This is cold-blooded murder.” Six Métis men raised their muskets but upon hearing the order to fire only three shots rang out. Scott was hit twice and crumpled to the ground but was still alive. François Guillemette, a member of the firing squad, stepped forward, withdrew his revolver, and delivered the coup de grâce, ending Scott’s life.

His Mouth Got Him Killed

French-speaking Quebecers had rallied to Riel’s side as a protector of French-Catholic rights. But with Scott’s execution, many in Ontario, spurred by propaganda spread by Dr. Shultz, who had returned to his native province and was supported by the Orange Lodge, demanded that Riel be arrested for Scott’s murder. Prime Minister Macdonald had welcomed representatives from Red River and agreed with nearly all of Riel’s terms; that Manitoba should be created as a province, there be guaranteed protection for Métis land, the Catholic religion, and French language, and that treaties be negotiated with Indigenous nations. The raging controversy around Scott’s death did not change Macdonald’s mind about Manitoba’s creation but to assuage Ontario’s anger he dispatched 1,200 men to Red River, comprised of a British battalion and two Canadian militia battalions. By the time they arrived, Riel had fled to the United States.

Riel’s part in Scott’s execution had destroyed his ability to take a legal, leadership role in Canadian politics. In July 1870, Manitoba became a province largely under the terms he had proposed and the people of the new province elected him as their Member of Parliament three times. However, denounced as Scott’s murderer, Ontario Orangemen had placed a $5,000 bounty on his head and so a fear of arrest or assassination made him unable to take his seat.

His Mouth Got Him Killed.

Louis Riel

Fifteen years later, Riel returned from his American exile to lead Saskatchewan’s Métis in their fighting for fair treatment by the Canadian government. Riel’s return led Ontario’s Protestant majority to renew their demand that he be arrested for Scott’s murder. The 1885 Northwest Rebellion was crushed, Riel was arrested and charged with high treason. Scott’s execution played a significant part in the jury’s determination of Riel’s guilt, its death sentence, and in Macdonald’s allowing that sentence to be carried out.

Rumours persist over what happened to Scott’s body. Some claim it was thrown into the river and others that it was buried in an unmarked grave or under a building. It has never been found. More importantly, echoes of the gunfire that ended Scott’s life still reverberate through Canada’s culture as bitter and brittle emotions still inform many of our political debates.

  This was written for the Canadian Encyclopedia, on line resource that I highly recommend. If you enjoyed the column, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com

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A Time For Heroes

We have always yearned for heroes.  A hero personifies, in character and deed, traits that inspire admiration and imitation. A society’s values are revealed and reinforced by those deemed heroic. In the same way, your heroes say a lot about you.

In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan observed, “Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day.”  The president understood that we need not seek a hero in history or myth or among the famous and powerful. They are all around us. It was an important thought, but it was wasted on me. I already knew where to look.

Among my heroes is a man you have never heard of. He never got his name in the paper. He won neither medals nor laurels. There will never be a statue erected or movie made about him. But he was heroic. His character and the manner in which he lived render him as worthy of admiration and imitation as any whose names are known around the globe. He was a gentle, humble, dignified hero. He was my grandfather.

John Boyko 001

John W. Boyko

He believed in moderation. My Dad told me of golfing with him.  Dad would blast drives out 275 yards or so and then watch as his father did as he always did: 150 yards, straight down the middle. Then, as the others hit those marvellous iron shots that fade magnificently and, when they work, bounce and bite on the green, his father would strike a little bump and run. Without the awe of the masterful shot, most would roll closer than the others.

At the end of nearly every round, my grandfather would stroll from the eighteenth green with the same ball he struck from the first tee, and almost always with fewer strokes than his flashier opponents and partner. The metaphor is apt. Moderation informed his decisions about friends, family, fun, and every other aspect of his long life. Moderation matters, it’s heroic.

He believed in loyalty. Last summer, a colleague launched into a highly-charged rant detailing all that was wrong with our place of employment. I was nodding at the litany of things apparently wrong when I unexpectedly thought of my grandfather. While pretending to listen, I reflected on the 42 years he gave to Dofasco, the mammoth Hamilton steel plant. I never once heard him utter a critical word.

This man who lived through a depression and world war taught me to be grateful for a safe place and fair wage and to always give more than expected. If one’s employer does not reciprocate loyalty with loyalty, then don’t become disloyal, find another employer. Loyalty in all aspects of life and, ultimately, to one’s dignity, matters. Loyalty is heroic.

He believed in patience. On a great number of misty mornings and sunny afternoons I accompanied him to Oakville’s Bronte pier. He loved fishing. I hate fishing. But I loved being with him and so along I’d go, secretly cheering for the fish. One warm afternoon, I pointed to a string of boats about three hundred yards out into Lake Ontario. He said they all had fish finders and guessed that the Coho salmon were out there. A few moments passed before I ventured, “So, does that mean that we haven’t a chance of catching anything here?” He shook his head and said, “No, but it’s a nice day, and you never know.”  We practiced our casting for another two hours, had great chats, and headed home. Patience matters – it’s heroic.

Bronte pier

He believed in generosity. We are captains of our own ships, embarked on journeys of our own design, but family is the beacon that always guides us home; home to the sanctuary where we are reminded of whom we truly are. My grandfather celebrated my triumphs and, from time to time, commiserated with my despair. He always offered compassion without judgment. He knew that the most generous gifts are time and attention. And those gifts, bestowed with gentle grace and twinkling eyes were the essence of the man. He seldom gave advice, even when asked; winter can’t warn the spring. His advice was in his example. Generosity matters – it’s heroic.

We have known heroes from Achilles to Kennedy and from Louis Riel to Eleanor Roosevelt. They matter for what they offer and reflect about the societies and individuals who revere them. I have my own hero. I share his name. I share his values. Every day he instructs me. Every day, I strive to be worthy of his memory.

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A Man You Need to Know More Than Ever Before: Mistahimaskwa

On June 26, 2014 Canada changed. The Supreme Court rendered a decision that remade the relationship between Native nations and the Canadian state by dictating that Native land and related concerns must be respected even if absent a treaty. We need to begin adjusting to the new reality and perhaps a good place to start is bringing Native heroes to the centre of Canada’s story. The effort must afford them respect as individuals with agency and not simply victims or foils or important only as they hindered or helped the country’s development. Let’s begin with someone we should all know – Big Bear, whose real name was Mistahimaskwa.

He was born around 1825 near what is now Port Carlton, Saskatchewan. Home was a predominately Cree community that included a number of Ojibwa people. His father was Black Powder, his people’s respected Chief. Young Mistahimaskwa internalized the freedom of the plains, moving south with his community every summer to hunt buffalo and back to winter along the North Saskatchewan River. By the early 1870s he was Chief of the 500 or so people living well according to ancient ways. But things were changing.

God, gold or the gumption to start life anew brought the Hudson’s Bay Company, the police and then more and more White settlers. The aftermath of the 1869-1870 Manitoba uprising introduced a Metis community. More people meant fewer buffalo and less freedom of movement. Metis buffalo hunter Gabriel Dumont began practices that affected traditional migration routes and there was a clash but Mistahimaskwa and Dumont met and arranged a compromise.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man but with respect to Native nations his tactics and goals reflected the racism of his time. He wanted the semi-nomadic plains nations immobilized and farming or gone. In 1874, he sent a Hudson’s Bay commissioner to bring them to treaty. Some nations accepted the proffered blankets, tobacco and trinkets but Mistahimaskwa said no. He explained that he meant no disrespect but he would not be bought and would not sign.

A Methodist Minister arrived the next year promising more gifts including that of God’s blessing. Mistahimaskwa again declined saying, “When we set a fox-trap we scatter pieces of meat all round, but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head; we want no bait; let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.” The Minister reported that while several Native leaders were friendly and had signed, Big Bear was a trouble maker.

A year later, Macdonald sent another delegation, this time led by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris. Morris convened a large conference at Fort Carlton and with Treaty No. 6 offered reserves, money, and farm implements. A number of Chiefs signed. Mistahimaskwa arrived just as the conference was wrapping up. He carefully considered all that was on offer but again rejected it. In an impassioned speech he equated trading the 120,000 square miles of prairie for reserves to slipping a rope around the necks of his people. He had become the leader of the defiant Chiefs and a thorn in Macdonald’s side.

With buffalo herds continuing to shrink Mistahimaskwa and others invented new ways to trap and hunt. In the fall of 1878 he was asked to help Chief Minahikosis who had found White surveyors on land that had been ceded to his people near present-day Medicine Hat, Alberta. Mistahimaskwa met with the surveyors and police and had the work stopped. The incident afforded him even more prestige and power.

By the winter of 1878–79 the buffalo were all but gone. For the first time in their long histories, many Native communities suffered starvation. Mistahimaskwa convened a remarkable gathering of Chiefs and other leaders from the Blackfoot, Bloods, Sioux, Saulteaux, Sarcees, Stoney, Assiniboine, Metis and Cree Nations. Dumont was there as was Sitting Bull. Nations who had based their cultures on the buffalo and the freedom of the plains understood that everything they treasured was disappearing. He encouraged them to learn new ways, to share what they had, and to avoid fighting one another while keeping peace with the growing White communities.

Another spring saw more Native Chiefs taking treaty to secure food for their hungry children. Mistahimaskwa led his people and any who wished to follow to Montana where it was rumoured that the buffalo still roamed. The plan failed as the American herds were gone too. Mistahimaskwa returned and tried several ways to renew prosperity but by the winter of 1882 the 250 people that remained in his community were reduced to eating gophers. On December 8, Mistahimaskwa travelled to Fort Walsh and traded his signature on Treaty No. 6 for food.

The next summer, his people moved north to their assigned reservation near Fort Pitt. The land was terrible. He toured other reserves and found similar conditions. He repeatedly contacted Ottawa’s officials with demands that treaty obligations be observed and asked that his people and all others that wanted it be awarded new land that was more like they needed and had been promised. His requests were answered by his people’s rations being cut and then ended.

Mistahimaskwa organized another large meeting of Chiefs. In the spring of 1884 he led around 500 men and women from his community and rode to Poundmaker’s reserve near Battleford, Saskatchewan. The gathering began with songs, drums and, in honour of Mistahimaskwa, a special Thirst Dance. About 2000 people from several nations negotiated things they could do together to improve the lot of them all.

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 Mistahimaskwa

While negotiations proceeded, a young Cree man left to purchase food and beat up a White government official who refused him. News of the incident spread quickly and soon about 90 police stood glaring at a line of 400 armed Native men. With guns cocked, the two lines strode toward each other when suddenly Mistahimaskwa and Poundmaker galloped between them yelling, “Peace! Peace!” Both sides retreated and the two Chiefs negotiated a supply of food to placate their angry young men. A massacre and perhaps a war had been averted.

Mistahimaskwa met with Metis leader Louis Riel but refused to support or join his planned resistance. His rejection of Riel and constant talk of peace alienated a number of angry young men in his community who wanted quick action and quicker results. Near the end of March they heard of Metis fighters having won a victory against Canadian soldiers at Duck Lake and were inspired to attack the White settlement at Frog Lake. Mistahimaskwa rushed to the scene and arrived yelling, “Stop! Stop!” But this time he was too late. A church service had been interrupted and the unarmed and terrified people forced outside. An Indian agent, two priests and seven other men were killed. The settlement was destroyed.

A growing number of young Cree men who rejected Mistahimaskwa’s leadership were now led by Āyimisīs and Wandering Spirit. Two weeks later, on April 13, they surrounded Fort Pitt with 250 men. Mistahimaskwa got a note to those trapped inside advising them to escape and forget thoughts of negotiation as the young men were wild and beyond his control. A number of soldiers managed to get out but the Fort was taken, ransacked and burned.

Mistahimaskwa saved the twenty-eight civilians captured at Fort Pitt by returning them to his village. Meanwhile, Poundmaker led an attack at Battleford and Riel’s forces clashed with soldiers at Batoche. Canadian troops and militia won both contests and near the end of May, more troops defeated Wandering Spirit’s men near Frenchman Butte. During each of the battles, Mistahimaskwa had been home protecting the White captives and his equally frightened people.

When soldiers began arresting Native leaders, Mistahimaskwa rode to Fort Carlton and on July 2, 1885, he surrendered. He was charged with treason-felony and in September stood trial in Regina. A number of witnesses swore that he had not been present or in any way participated in any of the battles and had, in fact, tried to stop them. Judge Richardson told the six White men of the jury that he could be found guilty only if he had left his reservation and participated in or led the insurrection. It didn’t matter. After only 15 minutes the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Mistahimaskwa was then allowed to speak for the first time. He asked for nothing for himself, saying only, “Many of my band are hiding in the woods, paralyzed with terror. . . . I plead again, to you, the chiefs of the white men’s laws, for pity and help to the outcasts of my band!” Richardson sentenced him to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Locked behind walls and bars the free man of the plains grew weak and ill. In March, 1887 he was released. His family and people had been scattered among various reserves. He made his way to Poundmaker’s reserve where on January 17, 1888 he died. Mistahimaskwa’s body was consigned to the prairie he loved, near the spot where the Thirst Dance had honoured his courage and celebrated his spirit. In this new country in which we now live, may we do the same.