Troubles in the North West

Land of Red and White 1975The Manitoba land boom began after 1875. With new milling methods, it was virtually impossible to overproduce wheat. In 1876 Red Fife wheat was yielding twenty-five bushels to the acre. Four years later St. Boniface, Manitoba had its first grain elevator. There were self-binding reapers and chilled steel plows available. In 1878 various railway sections had been completed. On December 1 of that year, the first train ran from St. Boniface to the border (the Pembina Branch).

The government in Ottawa was trying to cope with leadership changes, tariffs and other economic matters, and railroad building, as well as many other problems. The West was swinging from prosperity to catastrophe - a situa­tion not understood by many Easterners, who had never been west. It was somewhat like a parent having trouble understanding his adolescent child, having forgotten the problems he had growing up in his day.

Government officers in the Northwest were troubled by changes in government policies. Some of those policies had purely political motives. In the spring of 1883, Charles Mair, Minister of the Interior, journeyed to Ottawa to plead for concessions to the Metis and whites in Saskatchewan before blood was shed. Ottawa was indifferent. In Septem­ber of 1884 Mair moved his family from Prince Albert back to Windsor, Ontario.

A month before, Dewdney, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Territories, wrote a letter to Ottawa summarizing the problems of the Northwest. He also criticized the Superin­tendent-General of Indian Affairs, Vankoughnet, for his handling of his job, and spoke out sharply against the Department's penny pinching. John A. Macdonald made a note to discuss the letter with Vankoughnet, but it was dated June 30, 1885 - almost a year after it arrived.

Between 1880 and 1882 there was a break in the depres­sion. Prices and exports went up. A new tariff increased revenue by fifty percent in the two years. More immigrants came to Canada in 1882 than in any one year in the pre­vious thirty. In the summer of 1883 the railway progressed under Stephen Smith and William Van Horne. By fall, Smith had sustained financial losses. A loan bill for $22,500,000 went through in March 1884. That fall of 1883 prices were falling and immigration declining. From 1883 to 1885 summers were dry and autumns brought early frosts.

All three major social groups had adjustment problems. Although white settlers faced declining land values, poor harvests, lower prices for goods, and higher freight rates, as well as higher elevator charges, they were coping with a system they already understood. Not so for the Indians and Metis. Their open, free prairie life was disappearing, and many were within the narrow confines of reserves. When the Metis fled from Manitoba, the tide of white government and settlement followed them.