We Always Recall the First

George Washington was America’s first president but who was the second? Can’t recall? It’s a rare Canadian that couldn’t name Sir John A. Macdonald as their first prime minister but how many know their second? We seldom remember the second of anything. Because the purpose of History is to recall our past without prejudice in order to better understand our present with clarity our natural predilection to focus only on the first is a shame.

Canada’s second prime minister, like America’s second president, was a man whose character was sound, ambitions restrained, and accomplishments significant. Are those not qualities that we value in leaders and celebrate in those who helped shaped our story? It is with this perspective that we should recall and understand Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie.

Those who work with stone must be patient. To rush is to risk crumbling what to an untrained eye seems indestructible but to the skilled mason can be carefully shaped to stand and serve forever. Imagine a stone carver bringing that sensibility to the leadership of a nation.

Mackenzie learned to work with stone while a boy in his native Scotland. He was born in 1822 to a large and poor family. By the age of 16 he had mastered his craft and was helping with expenses. The Mackenzie family was one of thousands who fled poverty for the hope of a better life in Canada. Mackenzie’s skills acquitted him well and he soon secured contracts to build houses, churches, canals and public buildings. He eventually settled in Sarnia, Canada West.

A dour man, Mackenzie was slow to smile, joked only to jibe, drank very little for those hard-drinking days, and believed sports a waste of energy. He was none the less a popular figure in Sarnia and became active in public affairs including serving on the fire brigade and school board. He was attracted to the Reform Party (a precursor to the current Liberals) which reflected his belief in free markets and rewards based on merit and effort. He won a seat in the legislature in 1861, just as the American Civil War was seeing the butchering of brothers and the increasingly belligerent neighbour was leading Canadian political leaders to sense the urgent need to protect the country by growing the country.

alexander mackenzie Mackenzie

At first Mackenzie opposed his party’s joining with the hated Conservatives to bring about Confederation. He was not convinced that the scheme was a good idea and he had little respect for John A. Macdonald who he considered politically duplicitous and personally unsavory. The Great Coalition government nonetheless created the skeleton that would become Canada.

The Confederation negotiations led to Reform leader George Brown’s resignation in 1865 and a party crisis. Too many men of too little talent vied to succeed him. Mackenzie watched the leadership competition with disdain while continuing to work hard at his craft and in both the provincial and federal legislatures. His talents and diligence were rewarded when in March, 1873 he won the party’s leadership. He had little time to celebrate, however, for within a month the Pacific Scandal rocked the Macdonald government. In November it fell.

Mackenzie was asked to form a government and shortly afterwards he called for an election. Few outside of south western Ontario knew him. Although disgraced, Macdonald remained a giant. To Canadians he was a rogue but he was their rogue and they had grown used to forgiving his mistakes and foibles. The scandal, however, had been too much. Canadians turned on him and handed Mackenzie a handsome 60-seat majority.

Mackenzie faced a number of problems going forward and the first was the knives in his back. The Reformers/Liberals were at war with each other and the worst of the lot was the conniving and ambitious Edward Blake. He believed he should be party leader and even had the temerity to ask Mackenzie to step aside so that he could become prime minister. Of greater importance to Canadians was that the country had slid into a deep recession. Contracts were cancelled, trade declined, and unemployment climbed. Absent today’s social programs, the suffering was devastating. Another leader may have panicked or taken rash action but the stone carver weighed options and moved slowly.

Plummeting tax revenue met demands for more funds to continue the massive railway project that Macdonald had begun. Mackenzie was forced to slow construction and even ask the people of British Columbia who had been promised the line to entice them to join Canada to wait a little longer. Railway construction continued but at a much slower, more affordable pace.

Canada was less than a decade old. While Mackenzie needed to address current issues he also recognized his responsibility to build the infant country. In 1875, he created the Supreme Court of Canada. It was designed to wrest power from Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council which at that point was Canada’s court of last resort. It would not be until 1949 that Canada’s Supreme Court would be truly supreme but Mackenzie’s action was an important step in Canada’s march toward judicial independence.

Mackenzie had been a militia major and respected the military’s role in securing Canada’s defence and establishing its sovereignty. He undertook a complete overhaul of the Department of Militia and Defence. He also established Canada’s first military training college in Kingston.

He completely revamped Canadian democracy. Mackenzie introduced the secret ballot. He passed laws that led to elections being held in all ridings on the same day. He removed property as a qualification for candidates for public office. To protect the people from unscrupulous politicians he created the office of the Auditor General and had it report not to the prime minister but to parliament.

The sprawling country was linked with three bold new laws. The Post Office Act created door-to-door delivery to cities across Canada. The Weights and Measures Act said that everyone had to begin using the same systems. The Collection of Criminal Statistics Act modernized police services across the country through the gathering, filing and sharing of information.

Mackenzie’s government had accomplished a great deal but the people cared more about the government’s addressing immediate needs and those needs had become desperate. There were even food riots in Montreal. While all of this was going on Sir John was reinventing campaigning by creating the political BBQ. He travelled the country attending outdoor picnics where he worked his inimitable charm and slowly earned forgiveness. In the election of September, 1878 Canadians returned the old chieftain to power.

Alexander Mackenzie’s service as Canada’s second prime minister was one of significant accomplishment. He acted with the stone carver’s patience and precision. He slowly did what could be done, left what should be left alone, and carefully moved the project along – the Canada project – the sculpture that to this day remains, as it should, under construction.

(And by the way, the second American president was John Adams.)

A version of this column appeared originally on the excellent site Leaders and Legacies. Find it at http://leadersandlegacies.com/2014/06/26/building-a-nation-brick-by-brick-canadas-forgotten-prime-minister/

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.