Thursday, February 2, 2012

Charles Mair: Red River Rabble-rouser, 1868

Charles Mair
Tensions in the Red River settlement rose to a feverous pitch in the years leading up to the transfer of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion government.  The premature survey of the road from the Lake of the Woods to Red River in 1867 proved to be an event which exacerbated tensions between the Metis and the growing number of Canadians.  Arriving with the road crew was a literary figure who would add fuel to the growing fires on the banks of the Red.  That man was the expansionist, Canadian nationalist and "warrior bard", Charles Mair.

Mair's letters home were published in that great liberal rag the Toronto Globe, and his condescending chauvinism was not in favour with the people of Red River.  Arthur S. Morton wrote in the language of his time that the letters, "brought the indignation of the settlers to boiling point, for in the Settlement the half-breeds were a respectable middle class, rather than the outcasts the Canadian public envisaged by the term.  Governor Mactavish's wife was an educated half-breed of remarkable grace and dignity, and he protested in indignant terms that she was fit to grace any table."  (Morton, History of Prairie Settlement, 41)
Charles Mair
As George Stanley wrote in his classic The Birth of Western Canada, "the female part of the population, about whom Mair had made many uncomplimentary remarks, was particularly angry.  One pulled his nose, another his ears, while a third, the wife of a leading citizen of the Settlement, drove him from the Post Office with a horse whip!" (Stanley, 1992, 1936, p.55).  Drought and grasshoppers would further aggravate the citizens of Red River, whose resistance against the expansionist Canadians could best be symbolized by Louis Riel standing on the surveyor's chains, and preventing the measurement for the meridian line.  Mair was paymaster for the original road crew, and would be sentenced to death by Riel and his followers before escaping and fleeing to Minnesota.

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