City of Regina in 1883.

These are the Prairies

Chapter Seventeen


1905 was the year of the Provincial Establishment and it marked a change in the life of the Great Plains so remarkable that it requires the balanced perspective of the historian to estimate its true significance. The wilderness was emerging from the immemorial shadows of time, and quickening to what we, for want of a better definition, call "modern civilization". The last creaking caravan of native hunters had passed over the hill on the trail from which there is no returning; the buffalo herds, that within the memory of the pioneer blackened the prairie pastures, had thundered away on the last stampede, and the war shouts of contending Indian tribes no longer evoked the echo of hill or valley. The rifle and lariat of the plainsman had been discarded for the homely implements of husbandry; the stubborn prairie sod was falling away in long black waves from the breaking plough of the settler and towns and cities were rising where the native hunter had wandered. The North West, wearing with some awkwardness its new-cut garments, was stepping forward to take its place among the provinces of the Canadian confederation.

In previous pages we have said little about things political, not because the subject was unimportant, but because matters that might be controversial have little place in our simple narrative. Nevertheless, it would be a manifest omission to pass by in silence the men who piloted the country through its formative years, or to ignore their influence on the life of the period.

The North West Territories Act of 1875 provided for the appointment of a Lieutenant-Governor and an advisory council of six to administer the local affairs of the territory that stretched westward from the Manitoba boundary to the Rocky Mountains, and northward from the American Line to the unknown silences of the Arctic.

At first there was nothing democratic about the Council. Its members were appointed by the Dominion Government, and in no electoral sense represented the will of the people. Provision, however, was made for future responsible representation. An area of one thousand square miles, containing not less than a thousand inhabitants other than Indians, could be proclaimed a constituency and send an elected member to Council. When the members thus elected should reach the number of twenty-one, the Council was to become a legislative assembly.

It was not until November 1876, that Hon. David Laird of Prince Edward Island, Minister of the Interior in the Dominion Cabinet, was sworn in as Lieutenant-Governor of the North West Territories, and his Council appointed.

The seat of Government was first fixed at the junction of the North Saskatchewan and the stream known to the natives as the Battle or Fighting River. It was from the latter designation that the name Battleford was evolved. The situation was a beautiful and convenient one. Arrangements were made to erect the necessary Government buildings there. Pending their completion, Governor Laird and his Council held their first session at a place that had been prepared for the western headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police but had been abandoned as unsuitable for that purpose. Fort Livingstone was not far from the important Hudson's Bay post of Fort Pelly on the Swan River.

In 1877, the move was made to Battleford. In 1881, Mr Laird was succeeded as Lieutenant-Governor by Hon. Edgar Dewdney.

In 1882, it was decided that the Capital had to be on the mainline of the transcontinental railway and the following year the plant and machinery of Territorial Government were moved to Regina.

In 1883, when the first session was held in the new location, several elected members appeared at the Council board. During succeeding years the appointed members gradually disappeared and the Council took on the aspect of a legislative assembly.

When the sparse population of the Territories is considered, the quality of the men called to Council appears remarkable. Dominion party politics found no place in Territorial Governmental affairs. The members of the Executive Council, which took on the aspect of a local administration, and the ordinary members of the House devoted themselves with singleness of purpose to the business of government and the solution of the problems that confronted the people.

From a conflict that developed in the early nineties of last century, between an arbitrary Lieutenant-Governor and the Assembly, two men emerged whose names will always be associated with the evolution of responsible government in the Prairie region. They were F. W. G. Haultain and James Hamilton Ross. Mr Haultain was Chairman of the Executive Council, a position that corresponded to that of Premier, while Mr Ross was his chief lieutenant.

No prairie chronicle can be even approximately complete without giving honoured place to these two men who with courage, foresight and steadfastness, dry nursed the country through its political childhood, and injected such a decent British spirit into all their works that scandal never breathed upon them, and their administration was as clean and wholesome as the prairie air.

Mr. Haultain was then in the prime of his early manhood, able and vigorous, possessed of an excellent education, a sound lawyer and a finished and logical speaker. Although his life from infancy had been in Canada, his characteristics were essentially English. He graduated in law at Toronto in 1882, and in 1884 went to MacLeod in the Provisional District of Alberta to practise his profession.

MacLeod was then the ranching metropolis of the North West. Herds of cattle, wild as buffalo, grazed summer and winter on the fenceless foothill pastures, and the people of the region were the men of the "open range", who furnished many a colourful page in frontier history. They elected Mr Haultain to represent them at Regina in 1887, and he was returned for the constituency at each succeeding election until Provincial Establishment in 1905. For nearly fifteen years, his was the hand that guided the North West through many a difficult period.

J. H. Ross, Mr Haultain's colleague, belonged to the Scottish Highland race that has made so many contributions to the life of Canada. He came West from London in Ontario and, in the late seventies, was "driving dogs" on Lake Winnipeg. In 1882, he reached Moose Jaw and was one of the earliest ranchers in the Qu'Appelle Valley. He was the first elected member of the North-West Council for the Moose Jaw district. In 1887, when Federal representation was granted, he contested the constituency of Western Assiniboia against the redoubtable Nicholas Flood Davin, and although defeated, gave a very good account of himself. After his defeat in the Federal field, he went back to the Territorial Assembly.

Early in his political life Mr Ross had married Barbara Mackay, the acknowledged belle of Moose Jaw, and their marriage was regarded as the union of the two most popular young people of the district. Their life together was ideal, and he found rest and relaxation from an exacting public life with his family.

After long and faithful service in the Government of the Territories, in 1901 he accepted the office of Commissioner of the Yukon. There had been talk of corruption in high places there. The population of the northern El Dorado contained a wild and turbulent element (often found in a gold rush); a strong hand was needed, and Mr Ross went to a man's job. His influence was at once apparent. Difficulties were straightened out, injustice righted, and it was felt that an able and righteous administrator had come to judgment.

He had left Mrs Ross in Regina and during the summer, when travel in northern waters was at its best, she joined him in Dawson City with her baby of a few months. Residential quarters had been secured, and after a short sojourn in the Yukon metropolis, Mrs Ross started on her return to Vancouver to purchase the necessary plenishings for her new home.

No one will ever know what happened. The Islander, a well-found steamer of the Canadian Pacific Coastal Service, was ploughing its way through calm waters in the velvet hush of a summer night when it struck some hidden obstruction and went down.

A survivor saw Mrs Ross with her baby in her arms running up the sloping deck as the vessel reared for its final plunge. She wore no life belt and the eye witness saw some unknown hero remove his life preserver and adjust it on her body. Both mother and child perished. Mrs Ross' body was found with the dead infant still clasped to her breast. They were buried in Ross Bay in Victoria, one of the most beautiful sanctuaries of the dead in the Dominion.

To Mr Ross the blow was a fearful one. His appearance changed in a few days from a vigorous and robust man to one upon whom grief had set its signet. He was needed at his post and he turned away from his wife's grave to resume his duty. He was stricken by illness nearly mortal, and his two sons, recently bereft of one parent, were summoned to what seemed the death bed of the other. But a strong constitution and resolute will prevailed, and he slowly recovered. He was the first Federal member for the Yukon Territory and was afterwards appointed a Senator of Canada.

Years later when we were living in Victoria, B.C., Mr Ross, accompanied by Hon. Walter Scott, then Premier of Saskatchewan, came to visit us. It was characteristic of these two men that the ostensible object of their visit was to bring us news of my people and the Hamilton family whom they had seen before leaving Saskatchewan. Mr Scott, who was not in good health, was preparing to leave for England to attend the Coronation of George V. After lunch while I was talking to Mr Ross, Scott took my husband aside and said:

"Zack, will you do something for me? Mr Ross wants to visit his wife's grave; I am not equal to it; will you go with him?"

My husband agreed and they spent the afternoon together in that quiet spot. He never quite recovered from the shock of his wife's death, and when he died was laid beside her.

When the Assembly was in session, the queer old building on Dewdney Avenue housed within its restricted walls men who would have been great at any council board. Haultain was easily the most commanding figure. He was a splendid parliamentarian and, although he never cultivated the art of pleasing the multitude, could on occasion reach heights of restrained eloquence. There were honesty and sincerity about every utterance that arrested attention. His exposition of a subject was clarity itself and his diction polished and scholarly. He was fair to those who differed with him, and never indulged in the flouts and jeers too common in Canadian public life although, when roused, he was a master of the satire that,

"Should, like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen".

Mr. Ross was of an entirely different type. He was a man of great natural gifts whose wide human sympathy, knowledge of people and conditions, and political insight amounting almost to genius, furnished a valuable element in the Government. These two men made an ideal combination.

Hugh Cayley, a brilliant young lawyer and journalist from Calgary, was Mr Haultain's chief critic, and nearly as able a parliamentarian as the Premier himself. A verbal duel between these two young men was an event long to be remembered.

Frank Oliver of Edmonton was another man who lent strength and colour to the House. In his early political career, he was inclined to be radical and given to picturesque and, on occasion, somewhat profane speech. He left Territorial politics in 1896 to enter the Federal arena and, in later years, was Minister of the Interior in the Laurier Administration.

Thomas MacKay of Prince Albert, of the notable MacKay family, was the advocate of the native people. As a young man, he had hunted buffalo on the Plains, served the Hudson's Bay Company with intelligence and fidelity and, during the Rebellion of 1885, risked his life to mediate between the Government and the insurgents. He was a big burly man with a coal-black beard, and his clear resonant voice had the sibilance inherited from Gaelic speaking ancestors. He had a natural gift of graphic and expressive speech, and there was an atmosphere of sturdy rectitude about him that gave strength and dignity to his discussion of a subject.

C. A. Magrath, who for some time was a member of the Haultain Administration, played a leading part in the early settlement and development of southern Alberta. An able engineer, he was the father of irrigation on the southern Prairies, and mainly responsible for settling portions of the district with Mormons from Utah who, with their knowledge of irrigation and frontier conditions, furnished a valuable element in the life of the foothill country. In later years he was the Chairman of the Ontario Hydro-Electric Commission and, during the First Great War, was Canadian Fuel Controller.

D. H. McDonald of Fort Qu'Appelle, member of a dominant Hudson's Bay family, was Leader of the Opposition during the closing years of the nineteenth century. He was a banker, a keen and successful businessman, and one of the only two Canadians associated with the successful Saskatchewan Valley Land project.

Arthur Sifton, who for a time was Commissioner of Public Works in the Territorial Executive, belonged to a family important in Canadian public life, and some competent observers have declared him the ablest of his clan. He was a dark and saturnine appearing individual, and I think it was R. B. Bennett who once said that he reminded him of Mephistopheles in Faust. He was utterly indifferent to criticism, and never rose in the House unless he had something important to say. He was a capable and constructive legislator and a good debater, although by no means pleasing to his listeners, owing to the rather harsh and rasping quality of his voice. After leaving the Territorial Government, he was successively Chief Justice of Alberta, Premier of that province and a member of Canada's wartime Cabinet.

R. S. Lake was another member who gave consistent support to the Haultain administration. He belonged to one of those British families that seem to inherit instinct for public service. His father had been a Colonel in the army, and his brother, Sir Percy Lake, was a soldier of distinction who during the First Great War played an important role in the Mesopotamia campaign. Mr Lake's associate in the Assembly was A. E. Cross, whose great cattle herds wandered the foothill ranges, and who was connected with a large brewing industry in Calgary. I remember Dr Patrick of Yorkton referring to these two men as fine examples of the old Latin proverb: Mens Sana, in corporate Sano, Mr Lake was subsequently elected to the Dominion House, afterwards Lieutenant-Governor of Saskatchewan, and received the honour of Knighthood.

Dr. Brett, later Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, was a prime favourite with all the members. He was at one time the head of a Territorial Administration but was defeated in the House. The Lieutenant-Governor refused at first to relieve him of office because it was said he enjoyed a close association with the genial doctor and appreciated his good stories. However, not having a majority, Dr Brett could get no supplies, and stories or no stories, the Governor was eventually forced to accept his resignation. He was for a time Leader of the Opposition, but his criticism was so kindly and good-natured that it never aroused the hostility of those against whom it was directed. In private life, Dr Brett was a distinguished physician and was one of the founders of the Manitoba Medical College. He lived at Banff where he conducted an institution that was partly a sanitarium and partly a pleasure resort.

It was in the Territorial Legislature at Regina that Richard Bedford Bennett served his apprenticeship to public life. He "hit the Assembly in 1898", to quote one of Bob Edwards' expressions -- "like a rocket out of Calgary", and shattered the Legislative calm in a series of verbal coruscations.

He wore beautiful vesture, that flashed like shining armour amid the sober utilitarian garments of his fellow members. He came to battle like a crusader and when he found no Saracens to slay, did not hesitate to couch his lance at any stray windmills that appeared upon the landscape. He instantly recognized Mr. Haultain as the foreman most "worthy of his steel" and assailed him with volleys of declamation and arraignment that would have floored most men, but only aroused curiosity and amusement in the Territorial Premier, whose cool and incisive argument and sardonic humour gave him complete mastery over the hurricane attacks of the young man from Calgary.

Nevertheless, Mr Bennett was a useful member. He scrutinized legislation with acumen and understanding and when the question of provincial autonomy overshadowed lesser matters he gave Mr Haultain's policy powerful support. There were many others, but those mentioned will serve as examples of the quality of the members of the North West Legislature in the days before provincial establishment.

Under the guidance of Mr Haultain and Mr Ross, the country slowly and surely developed its political institutions. The growing needs of the lusty young country were very great, and there were few precedents to guide. The legislation was carefully prepared and enacted; equitable forms of taxation evolved; problems met and solved and an educational system said to have been one of the best in the Dominion inaugurated. While all Canada was agitated by the "Manitoba School Question" Separate Schools were operating in the North West Territories with such frictionless efficiency that they were causing scarcely any comment.

The decade from 1885 to 1895, for the most part, was one of famine. There were only two seasons when the harvests were normal and during several drought-stricken years, the crops failed. There was little money in the country, and the pioneers suffered accordingly. Under those conditions, the responsibilities of the local government were very heavy. Nevertheless, Premier Haultain and his colleagues were equal to every situation, and so conducted themselves that as each election was fought it found them firmly entrenched behind increased majorities. Seldom in the history of Canada has a similar government enjoyed more fully the confidence of the people.

The famine cycle ended in 1895. Queen Victoria's birthday of that year came in with heavy showers and it continued to rain with only very occasional dry intervals for thirty-four years. The crops were amazing; new areas were being brought under cultivation; immigration was increasing the population, and the demand for governmental and municipal services was nearly overwhelming. Tremendous prairie spaces had to be served by trail and roadway; swift and turbulent rivers and streams had to be bridged; hundreds of miles of "corduroy" had to be thrown across the quaking surface of muskeg and morass; the maintenance of an adequate educational system entailed heavy expenses upon the government of a still sparsely settled country, and provision had to be made for many other services.

It was not a time of spectacular Territorial policies; rather of exacting responsible governmental labour. How it was ever accomplished with the limited funds available will remain the wonder of the historian. On being questioned in the Legislature about his policy, Mr Haultain said: "This Government is neither Liberal nor Conservative; it is devoted solely to the service of the people of the North West Territories. Read our statute books and you will find our policy written there."

As the century drew to its close, it was apparent that provincial establishment could not long be delayed. A Territorial legislature had neither the authority nor the resources to deal with the many problems arising from the wave of immigration that was commencing to flow into the country and the new interests developing.

Premier Haultain had very definite ideas of the terms upon which the Territories should attain provincial status. As early as 1898, he outlined in the Legislature the position of his Government in respect to that important question and served notice on the Federal authorities that, when the North West Territories became a province or provinces, they must receive the same treatment as the original members of the Canadian confederation family.

After a great deal of discussion, in February 1905, the Autonomy Acts were introduced at Ottawa providing for the establishment of the two provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

It is neither our scope nor our intention, to deal with the bitter controversy that developed between Mr Haultain's Government and the leaders of the Liberal party then in power at Ottawa upon this constitutional question that was to involve the country in political and factional strife for many years. Mr Haultain in the Legislature and from the public platform strenuously opposed certain clauses of the Autonomy Acts as unconstitutional and, although at the previous Territorial election every member of the Legislature had been elected to support his provincial autonomy policy, the Lieutenant-Governor, Hon. A. E. Forget, called upon Walter Scott, the Leader of the Federal Liberal Party in the Territories to form the first Saskatchewan Provincial Government. Mr Scott had never been a member of the local House, although he had represented Western Assiniboia in the Dominion Parliament.

As the Territorial Assembly had automatically gone out of business on the Autonomy Acts becoming effective in September 1905, a provincial election was necessary, and Haultain prepared to vindicate his policy before the people.

Although he had resolutely set his face against the introduction of party lines in the Assembly, he inclined to the Conservative side in Federal politics, and several of his colleagues were strong Liberals. Indeed Mr Ross, who had stood by his side in many a battle, was one of the most influential Liberals in the West. Before the provincial question became acute, however, Ross had resigned to become Commissioner of the Yukon, and later, certain other of Mr Haultain's Liberal supporters in the Assembly fell away from him owing to his opposition to the Autonomy legislation enacted by the Laurier Government.

The Haultain party was defeated at the first provincial election after one of the bitterest political battles ever waged in Canada.

The Government of Sir Wilfred Laurier has been severely criticized for not instructing the Lieutenant-Governor to summon Mr. Haultain to form the first provincial government, and for choosing a man who had never sat in the Legislature in his place; but it must be remembered that the Territorial Premier had severely attacked certain provisions of the Autonomy Acts, and it is unlikely that any Government in power in Canada at that time, whether Liberal or Conservative, if faced with a similar situation, would have acted otherwise.

For seven years Mr Haultain sat in the Provincial Legislature as Leader of the Opposition and criticized Legislation with such constructive skill that many of the statutes in force today bear the evidence of his influence. In 1912, he was appointed to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal and for many years was Chief Justice of the province. He was knighted for his distinguished public services, and in 1938 retired, with health and faculties unimpaired, to spend in relaxation the evening of a long and useful life, more than half a century of which had been devoted to the service of the people of this western land. He died in Montreal in February 1942, in his eighty-fifth year.

The constitutional struggle which arose over the terms of the Autonomy Acts will be a matter of deep interest to the future historian, but the events are too recent and party feeling still too high to allow them yet to be considered with the cold detachment necessary for an impartial chronicle.


And now my tale is told. I have travelled far along the old prairie trails, and provincial establishment marks the end of our wanderings.

The first decade of the present century witnessed an agrarian invasion that completely changed the western scene. Its only parallel on this continent was the American movement west of the Mississippi following the Civil War, and in some respects, the Canadian rush to the land was more significant. Marie Albina Hamilton. In 1903, I travelled with my brother from Moose Jaw to Willow Bunch, and for eighty miles saw no human sign. In 1915, I saw the same region from the windows of a railway coach. Much of the land was under cultivation. Farm homes and buildings dominated the plain, and half a hundred little towns had come into being. It seemed as if the prairies had been transformed overnight into a landscape of fenced and bounded fields. The cowboy cavalier, that we used to meet on the trail, in all his brave habiliments, had given place to the overalled farmer driving his wheat to market from the spring seat of a brightly painted wagon.

Many Metis families retreated before the inexorable advance of settlement, north beyond the River where the stubborn forest defied the plough of the settler and where elk, moose and wolves still lingered. The smoke of the new, built cities and towns darkened the prairie air. The plains and hills and valleys were still as of old, but nothing else was the same.

And so it seems fitting that I should end my simple chronicle here. More than forty years have passed since provincial establishment. It has been a period of epic achievement, and there is much to tell, but that belongs to another epoch, and I may well leave its narration to abler pens.

I am of the old West and have many a regret at its passing. In memory, I can still feel the acrid tang of the prairie fire in my nostrils as it roars down the hillside; hear the thunder of hooves as the horse herd sweep tumultuous through the valley; watch the graceful antelope merge into the prairie haze, or listen to the clang of the wild geese as the squadrons cleave the upper air. And out of the shadows of other years come well-remembered faces, Legare, Father Hugonard, Pere Lacombe, Davin, the great MacKays, Bob Edwards and many others. I can hear the very inflexion of those long silent voices as if they had just spoken. Neither time nor change can erase these memories.

If I have aroused some interest in events and scenes of other days, perhaps a useful purpose has been served. If I have helped to rescue some of the pioneers from the oblivion into which their memory was cast during the hurry of the changing years, I am more than content.


Author: Webmaster -
"Date Modified - June 6, 2024."

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