rby Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The famine of 1868 wasn’t confined to the Red River Settlement, as communities to the west were also suffering its effects.
“I have recently visited La Portage (today’s Portage la Prairie),” wrote Rev. George Young, a Wesleyan minister and the founder of Grace Church in Winnipeg in 1871, to the Nor’Wester on August 11, 1868, “and, with the exception of two or three small patches of peas and a few late-planted potatoes, there is nothing growing between that place and this (Red River) on all the beautiful farms, save grass and reeds.”
St. Boniface Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché’s letter to the Nor’Wester mentioned that although the settlement “had been visited by different calamities, and we have witnessed a great deal of suffering: but the ‘Old Settlers’ all agree to consider the combined plagues of this year as the worst yet experienced as far as food is concerned. The stock of various provisions is, I may say, completely exhausted in every quarter, and with the best will, it is impossible to meet with the wants of the population,” which at the time numbered about 12,000 people, the majority of whom were French- and English-speaking Métis.
To address the famine, the Council of Assiniboia, the settlement’s governing body appointed by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), allocated £1,600 for the relief effort on August 10: £600 was for the purchase of seed wheat (with no crops, this item was totally absent from the settlement), and £500 for the purchase of flour from the United States.
Between 1820 and 1870, the HBC issued its own paper money. The notes in pounds sterling were printed in London and issued at the York Factory and Fort Garry. At the time, £1 was roughly equivalent to $5 in both Canadian and U.S. currencies.
The remaining £500 was used to provide twine, hooks and ammunition to settlers who “desired to attempt the fisheries in the neighbouring lakes.”
The council was to later learn of the complete collapse of the fishery — probably attributable to the over-warming of the lakes during the abnormally hot summer — and the futility of providing fishing tackle to the settlers. Another consequence of the hot weather for a three-year period was that the Red River water level dropped and was often too shallow to permit regular steamboat service from the U.S. to the colony, which limited the amount of essential supplies, such as flour, that could be imported throughout the navigation season.
On August 12, 1868, Nor’Wester proprietor Walter R. Bown sent a plea for aid to Canada, which was then made up of the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In the letter, he also included the August 11 issue of his newspaper, outlining the extent of the famine.
“I know that our fellow countrymen in Canada will also be actuated by a strong desire to win regard and good will of this people, soon, we trust, to be united to them in common bond of political union.”
In the midst of the famine, negotiations were underway between the British and Canadian governments and the HBC to transfer Rupert’s Land to Canada. The Rupert’s Land Act of 1868, an act of the British Parliament, authorized the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the control of the HBC to the Dominion of Canada. But it wouldn’t be until June 22, 1870, that the transfer to Canada was completed. The HBC was paid £300,000 ($1.5 million) to relinquish 3.9 million square kilometres of land — a third of the territory of present-day Canada.
“A movement is already on foot for calling of a meeting of our leading citizens for the purpose of appointing an efficient ‘committee of management for relief of the suffering and distressed in Red River Settlement,’” Bown announced in his letter.
Further pleas for relief came from members of the local clergy and leading citizens, who wrote for help from Canada, Britain and the U.S.
“A retired pensioner named Michael Power wrote a letter to the Times of London, outlining the disaster,” wrote J.M. Bumsted in his book, Thomas Scott’s Body: And Other Essays on Early Manitoba History (essay entitled, The Red River Famine of 1868). “The governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in England, the Earl of Kimberley, added his voice in the newspaper as well. A letter from F.E. Kew, ‘Agent in England for the Red River traders,’ also appeared in the Times.”
In his letter, published in the Nor’Wester, Kew stressed the urgency of the need and that donations could be sent to the London and Westminster Bank and its branches under the head of the “Red River Relief Fund.” Kew also mentioned that he had already contributed £20 to the fund.
In London, the Earl of Kimberley’s letter to the Times solicited so many donations that he was able to send a telegram to the HBC’s agent in St. Paul, Minnesota, authorizing him to immediately spend £2,000 to purchase provisions for Red River.
(Next week: part 3)