Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the grand re-opening of Elk Island National Park’s new Visitor Centre. It was so amazing to see the space re-imagined! Previously it was a pair of pokey buildings joined together by a dark archway. Its bathrooms had ancient brown tiles that looked dirty and dusty even when freshly cleaned, and the visitor centre had only small tinted windows that looked dark and closed. The whole thing also looked a lot like a maintenance shed; there wasn’t a real sense of arrival for new visitors. In great contrast, this newly renovated building is light and airy with an exhibit space as well as an information counter, water bottle filling station, and retail space… and a separate brand new set of gender-neutral bathrooms. (You have to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! You can’t underestimate the value of clean and modern bathrooms to visitor experience!)
So much thought was put in to think about this space from a staff member’s perspective (to be a positive, safe, and useful place to work) as well as a visitor’s perspective. You’ll notice some excellent displays that answer some of the most common questions asked by visitors, including stuff about visitor safety (particularly how to safely observe bison) and where the bison are. The trail map on the wall behind the info desk has something new: a heat map drawn from GPS collar data from the last several years that show where bison hang out in the park most often. Staff can also draw on the map with dry-erase marker! I think that’ll get a lot of good use. I think this space head some common questions and issues off at the pass, and will be a friendly, welcoming, and informative space that’ll set the tone for one’s visit.
I understand that Elk Island worked closely with local Cree First Nations as well as Metis groups to create some of the displays. The park also worked with a group of incarcerated Indigenous women who are part of a program to gain training and job skills while at the Edmonton Institution. Among other projects at Elk Island, the women created the star blanket (made traditionally on bison hide) that is the first thing visitor see when entering the building.
Cree Elder Melaine Campiou gifted the visitor centre the name Wahkotowin, which refers to the relationship with the land and all that live on it.
I congratulate my friends and colleagues at Elk Island, particularly Kat and Cam, for all the work they’ve done carrying this project through to completion! Kat marshaled a lot of folks with separate skills, knowledge, and expertise, to finish a wonderful project. I was involved tangentially in some of the initial research and visioning of the exhibit, plus sourced some of the images and did a quick review of the French text for accuracy. It’s amazing to see the space fully realized in person, instead of in a draft design PDF! I definitely excitedly pointed out a few historical images to my mum.
The other exciting thing for me was to see copies of my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story* in the flesh! They were literally hot off the press, having arrived at the park the week before. It was absolutely thrilling to see them there – and to see them being purchased! I autographed a few copies, including one for a well-respected bison expert and friend Wes Olson. I also got to ask the question “Who shall I make this out to?” for the very first time.
I had to round out my visit by heading out onto the landscape spoken of in the displays. After all, the new Visitor’s Centre is meant to be only the gateway to the park experience! My mother and I hiked out into the Bison Loop on foot. It was the early afternoon (not “bison o’clock”) so as anticipated they weren’t visible from the roadway. We spotted a lot of bison signs, including the scattered bones of a bull bison. In the end, we watched a group of cow bison hanging out at the treeline over the rise: one of their favourite spots. An excellent way to end our visit!
* You can read a free digital copy of my book on Elk Island’s website. We ended up changing the title of the print edition because at the last instant we uncovered a small print run of books on bison from the 1990s with a title that was too similar. We’ll be changing the title on the website soon. Only the cover, effectively, will change, so in the meantime you can still learn all about the history of bison conservation in Canada, and admire many archival and modern images of bison. Of course you can pick up a print copy of the book in either French or English at Elk Island’s new visitor centre!
Metis interpreter Peter Erasmus lived a full and adventurous life. He travelled thousands of kilometres across the interior of the North American continent, acting as a guide and interpreter for a variety of now-famous people. He never went to Europe. At one point, Erasmus was offered the opportunity to travel to England for an education, expenses paid by Captain Palliser and Doctor Hector of the Palliser expedition, for whom Erasmus had worked as a guide. After much internal debate, Erasmus declined the offer. I found the reasoning for deciding not to go to England both tongue in cheek but also telling of the attitudes of settlers.
Perhaps I had missed an opportunity of bettering my condition. At any rate my pride soon established itself. Reading the captain’s letter of recommendation I became convinced that I had made the proper decision I would hold the respect and friendship of these two men, the better in their memories than would otherwise have been. I knew it would have been difficult to adjust myself to the attitude of a million Englishmen when, in my own environment, it took a lot of self-restraint to ignore the supercilious mannerisms of the few who found their way into my country.
Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights, 113.
Further reading on the life and times of Peter Erasmus, interpreter extraordinaire:
The Irish-Canadian artist Paul Kane travelled to what is now Western Canada in the height of the fur trade in the 1840s, sketching and drawing Indigenous peoples at a time before the dominance of photography. He spent the Christmas of 1846 at Fort Edmonton, which at the time was the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the Saskatchewan District (any post along the Saskatchewan rivers). I love his description of the day because it is so evocative.
“On Christmas-day the flag was hoisted, and all appeared in their best and gaudiest style, to do honour the holiday. Towards noon every chimney gave evidence of being in full blast, whist savoury steams of cooking pervaded the atmosphere in all directions. About two o’clock we sat down to dinner. Our party consisted of Mr. Harriett, the chief [trader or factor], and three clerks, Mr. Thebo, the Roman Catholic missionary from Manitou Lake, about thirty miles off, Mr. Rundell, the Wesleyan missionary, who resided within the pickets, and myself, the wanderer, who, though returning from the shores of the Pacific, was still the latest importation from civilised life.
The dining-hall in which we assembled was the largest room in the fort, probably about fifty by twenty-five feet, well warmed by large fires, which are scarcely ever allowed to go out. The walls and ceilings are boarded, as plastering is not used, there being no limestone within reach ; but these boards are painted in a style of the most startling barbaric gaudiness, and the ceiling filled with centre-pieces of fantastic gilt scrolls, making altogether a saloon which no white man would enter for the first time without a start, and which the Indians always looked upon with awe and wonder. . . .
No table-cloth shed its snowy whiteness over the board ; no silver candelabra or gaudy china interfered with its simple magnificence. The bright in plates and dishes reflected jolly faces, and burnished gold can give no truer zest to a feast.
Perhaps it might be interesting to some dyspeptic idler, who painfully strolls through a city park, to coax an appetite to a sufficient intensity to enable him to pick up an ortolan [a small old-world bird], if I were to describe to him the fare set before us, to appease appetites nourished by constant out-door exercise in an atmosphere ranging at 40° to 50° below zero. At the head, before Mr. Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump ; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf. Start not, gentle reader, the calf is very small, and is taken from the cow by the Caesarean operation long before it attains its full growth. This, boiled whole, is one of the most esteemed dishes amongst the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose ; the gentleman on my left distributed, with graceful impartiality, the white fish, delicately browned in buffalo marrow. The worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue, whilst Mr. Rundell cut up the beavers’ tails. Nor was the other gentleman left unemployed, as all his spare time was occupied in dissecting a roast wild goose. The centre of the table was graced with piles of potatoes, turnips, and bread conveniently placed, so that each could help himself without interrupting the labours of his companions. Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton ; and long will it remain in my memory, although no pies, or puddings, or blanc manges, shed their fragrance over the scene.
In the evening the hall was prepared for the dance to which Mr. Harriett had invited all the inhabitants of the fort, and was early filled by the gaily dressed guests. Indians, whose chief ornament consisted in the paint on their faces, voyageurs with bright sashes and neatly ornamented moccasins, half-breeds glittering in every ornament they could lay their hands on ; whether civilized or savage, all were laughing, and jabbering in as many different languages as there were styles of dress. English, however, was little used, as none could speak it but those who sat at the dinner-table. The dancing was most picturesque, and almost all joined in it. Occasionally in among the rest, led out a young Cree [woman], who sported enough beads round her neck to have made a pedlar’s fortune, and having led her into the centre of the room, I danced round her with all the agility I was capable of exhibiting, to some highland-reel tune which the fiddler played with great vigour, whilst m partner with grave face kept jumping up and down both feet off the ground at once. . . I believe, however, that we elicited a great deal of applause from Indian [women] and children, who sat squatting around the room on the floor. Another lady with whom I sported the light fantastic toe, whose poetic name was Cun-ne-wa-bum, or “One that looks at the Stars,” was a half-breed Cree girl ; and I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did with great patience, holding her fan, which was made of the tip end of a swan’s wing with an ornamental handle of porcupine’s quills, in a most coquettish manner.
After enjoying ourselves with such boisterous vigour for several hours, we all gladly retired to rest about twelve o’clock, with guests separating in great good humour, not only with themselves but with their entertainers.”
Aside from the fascinating description of all of the dishes at the head table (white fish in a bone marrow sauce! Moose nose! Buffalo hump! An entire bison fetus!), I would like to highlight the fact that Paul Kane was one of only a handful of people at the fort who spoke English. Cree and French were far more useful languages in the West, though because the Hudson’s Bay Company’s official documents were intended for the management in London, most of the primary sources from these posts are written in English.
James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.
Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.
Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:
“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”
Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.
To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.
After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)
All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.
Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:
“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”
There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.
Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.
For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”
All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.
I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!
I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
When Peter Erasmus (1833 – 1931) was an “old timer” in the 1920s, he dictated the story of his life to a man named Henry Thompson. The manuscript of the first half of his life was eventually published as Buffalo Days and Nights. I consider it one of the single most fascinating books about the fur trade era and the time of transition and trauma that led to the destruction of the great bison herds, rebellion, and settlement.
Peter Erasmus was well-known in his time as a Metis interpreter between Indigenous languages such as Plains Cree and English. He translated for missionaries, traders, and Indian agents as well as, most famously, on behalf of Chiefs Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ah-tah-ka-koop (Star Blanket) at the Treaty 6 negotiations. Eramus’s account is the only (?) first-hand written account of the treaty negotiation process that reported on the discussions happening in the Cree camp, not only in the British governor’s tents. He quotes Chief Poundmaker powerfully arguing: “This is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”(244)
The introduction in my copy by Irene Spry recounts this story about Erasmus’s linguistic prowess. He spoke Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Ojibway, English, Blackfoot, and Stoney (Assiniboine), and could also read Greek besides. She quotes another author, George Gooderham, who tells the story of two travellers to the West coming across a mysterious sign on a telegraph pole, covered in “funny characters.”
“Just then Peter Erasmus appeared, seemingly an old Indian. In signs and Pigeon English the drummers asked him about the notice. Coming forward with a smile, he stated it was no foreign language though the characters were not unlike Greek; they were actually Cree syllabic characters and the notice said it was unlawful to buy intoxicating liquor and the supplier would be penalized by fine or imprisonment, or both.” (xxiii)
One of the things I find most fascinating about his book Buffalo Days and Nights is the role language plays in it. The book is written in English and the words that other figures speak are transcribed or paraphrased in English too. Erasmus doesn’t always explicitly state what language the people are speaking. However, it becomes very apparent very quickly how much Cree is being spoken all the time by Erasmus and the people around him. Here are a few examples that jumped out at me:
When a young and inexperienced Erasmus crosses a river with a horse and nearly drowns, in that emergency situation a man named Sam yelled instructions to him in Cree. (29)
During the Palliser Expedition, Erasmus works with a Stony man nicknamed Nimrod. His words are transcribed in the book as being in simple but grammatically correct English, but there are several mentions of Erasmus interpreting between Nimrod and other members of the expedition. I suspect that they were using Cree as a way to communicate, with Cree being Nimrod’s second language. Erasmus is said to have later known the Stony language, but in this early chapter in his life Nimrod is the one who communicates exclusively with any Stony the expedition encounters and the paraphrasing instead of quoting implies that Erasmus didn’t understand them at that time. So what language were Erasmus and Nimrod using to communicate? My bet is Cree. (74-85)
At the Christmas of 1863, Erasmus helps coordinate the appearance of a Father Christmas for the children of the mission at Smoking Lake (now Smoky Lake), with the help of a volunteer and a bunch of white horsehair to form a beard. “When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water.” (170)
Peter’s first wife Charlotte Jackson, a Metis woman, didn’t speak a word of English when they first married, only Cree, and had her husband teach her so she could thank the missionary family the McDougalls for their help at the wedding and in the early days of their marriage. (177)
Erasmus makes mention of an HBC clerk called Harrison Stevens Young who could understand “some Cree but not enough to carry on a conversation.”(286) Even though he was an Englishman, Cree was something one had to learn out West to be useful.
Interestingly, none of the Indigenous characters in Erasmus’s work speak with broken English as they are often transcribed in other contemporary sources. The only people written as speaking bad English are French people and one black man. Indigenous people are written as eloquent speakers because they were speaking to Erasmus in their native language, which Erasmus understood.
We now think of what is now western Canada as being overwhelmingly Anglophone (English-speaking). Many people assume that because the region is now majority English-speaking, it has been so since the first Europeans arrived. That was not the case. The documents written by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which are often cited by historians of this time period, were in English, but that’s because they were written by clerks who were writing for bosses in Fort Garry and London, England. It was an English company so the documents were written in English. Monolingual historians don’t always think of seeking out documents in other languages. Sometimes it’s not that the documents aren’t there, it’s that many historians can’t read them.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when Erasmus mentions people with what I see as European names speaking Cree too; it wasn’t just Indigenous people speaking the language. It was a true lingua franca in the West, at least until the time of the second Riel Resistance. Erasmus recounted a time when his Cree speaking worked against him in 1885. Hudson’s Bay Company stores had been raided by rebels, and Erasmus’s family had fled. He returned late at night to a friend’s place on a strange horse, and was confronted by someone he doesn’t know and was held up at gunpoint:
“It was very dark and I was startled by a voice behind me, ‘Stand fast and give me your first name.’
‘Peter,’ I snapped out. I was getting tired of having guns pointed at me.
‘All right,’ the man ordered. ‘Walk straight ahead to the house. Knock three times on the door when you get here. You have the right word but the wrong horse. Umla will know if you’re the right man.”
. . . .
‘Give your last name and the name of the man you were with today,’ the voice spoke out of the darkness.
‘Damn it, man, I’m Peter Erasmus, the man was Young and you’re Umla with the two bear skins.’
The man spoke up behind me. ‘He’s riding a different horse. I’ll keep a gun on him while you get a light.’
[Peter Erasmus’ face is revealed by the light.]
‘Go to that table, your supper is waiting. If you had spoken English instead of Cree all [this] time, you might have been eating some time ago. There are lots of big men like you in this area but very few can talk English like you do.'”
In this scenario, this final line makes clear that this whole conversation was happening in Cree, and that speaking good English even as late as 1885 was a distinguishing enough characteristic that would have identified Erasmus on the spot because it was so unusual.
One of the main things historians do is think critically about the sources of their information. However, too often we look at sources in translation, in our own native languages, or the only sources available are contemporary transcriptions of translations of varying and unverifiable accuracy. We need to remember that what is now Western Canada has always been home to dozens of different languages and different world views, and we need to seek out sources that represent that. By reading English-only sources, we’re getting a clouded and second-hand view of events. The story of Peter Erasmus’s life reminds us that despite what our documents imply, English wasn’t the most useful language in the West in the 1800s: Cree was.
Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus, as told to Henry Thompson.