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An Historical Sketch of the Diocese of Saskatchewan of the Anglican Church of Canada

By W. F. Payton, Archdeacon Emeritus

Prince Albert: The Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan, 1974.

Chapter 8. The Riel Uprising--Loyal Indian Chiefs

It is not the purpose of this narrative to describe the unhappy events of 1885, or the situations which led up to it. Suffice it to say that the unrest which had permeated the North-West Territories, particularly in Saskatchewan, had its roots in grievances which were valid. Professor George Stanley in his book The Birth of Western Canada gives an admirable and detailed account of the many meetings and discussions which were held in the Prince Albert district in the years prior to the uprising. He makes it quite clear that not only the English and French Metis, the Indians themselves, but also the white settlers were of one mind in their dissatisfaction with the apparent refusal of the Federal Government to deal with the land-rights in the North-West Territories. A similar situation had been settled with some satisfaction in Manitoba and the people of Saskatchewan were strongly of the opinion that some effort should be made to satisfy the grievances which existed as a result of the new land surveys and the economic problems which had arisen as a result of crop failures and the collapse of the land boom, which had depended, particularly in the North, upon the coming of the railway. Since the railway was being routed through the South, the whole economy of the North was very unstable and money was practically non-existent.

With the arrival of Riel who came at the request of the settlers in the North, the situation became very forboding. When it became apparent that he was going to resort to armed conflict in order to gain satisfaction for the settlers, the white people withdrew from the movement and it was left largely in the hands of the Metis settlers.

The story of Prince Albert's part in these unhappy events is well known. A stockade was built in the town around the Presbyterian Mission quarters, and here the residents gathered at night to ward against a surprise attack. Sentries were posted and all precautions taken to protect the lives of the citizens. Dr. Charles Mulvaney, who was a member of the Queen's Own Rifles during this time, wrote a book entitled The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 which was published in the same year. He describes the scene as follows: "The manse, church and shed were filled with the people of the town; three women with little babes only two or three days old were carried on mattresses into the manse. The houses near at hand were also filled with people ready to run into the stockade as soon as an alarm should be given." He goes on to describe the fear which filled the hearts of all and a false alarm being given at 7 o'clock on Saturday evening--the church bell was rung in order to give the alarm. This resulted in the entire population converging upon the church and manse, including women from their sick beds and children snatched up in their night clothes. The door was sternly guarded and women and children only admitted, admittance being refused to what Mulvaney calls 'selfish or timid men and boys'. He goes on to describe the return of the dead from Duck Lake to Prince Albert on Sunday, followed on Tuesday at 2 o'clock by the funeral procession to St. Mary's Cemetery, where it was thought best to lay the nine victims in one common grave. The Prince Albert Band led the way, playing a funeral march, followed by the volunteers, a body of police, the Presbyterian Minister, and the Bishop and two of his clergy who read the burial service.

[29] It was a dark hour for Prince Albert and indeed for the Diocese, because the events that followed divided friends and even families from each other. Reference must be made, however, to the loyalty of the Indians who had received the ministrations of the church in the Prince Albert area. Robert Dunning, in his history of the Presbyterian Mission, records that Mistawasis in 1885 hastened to Prince Albert to offer his services and the service of his braves to protect the young settlement against the rebels. His services were not required at that moment but he and his band of braves remained close by on the North bank of the Saskatchewan River just in case they were needed. For his loyalty and volunteered services, the Government presented to him a flag which he afterwards raised and lowered each day on his Reservation.

Among the records of the Diocese of Saskatchewan are the minutes of a meeting of the Saskatchewan Finance Committee of the C.M.S. held at Goschen, Prince Albert, on Monday, May 18th, 1885. Present were the Bishop of Saskatchewan, the Reverend Principal W. R. Flett (secretary), the Reverend J. Hines and the Reverend A. H. Wright, It is recorded that the Reverend J. Hines introduced a party of seven Indians. It included the Chiefs of Assissippi, Snake Plain and Sturgeon Lake. The Bishop expressed his thankfulness to God that while so many Indians had rebelled against the Queen's authority, they had remained faithful. The Chief of the Snake Plain Indians said that long ago when they were heathen "they would readily have joined the rebellion and would have made very light of it, but now that they are Christians they think very different. When they saw that it was coming to actual fighting, they knew they would be asked to join the rebels on pain of punishment, so they voluntarily left their homes and went a great way off to avoid them, and further that they would rather die on the spot than fight against the Queen. He added that during the time they had been in Prince Albert they had been agitated by many contradictory rumors, but in the midst of all they had been able to look to God for help and guidance." Starblanket, Chief of the Assissippi Indians, said that "he was glad we had all met together, that he foresaw this rebellion last Summer--that he had confidence in the white people and in the Queen and in Lord Lome--but chiefly he trusted in God for deliverance--he had always tried to promote peace and he believed that God would open up his mind that he might know his duty--that he and his brother Chiefs acted in concert and helped each other--that the rebels had reviled him for not joining the rebellion--that Riel, the rebel leader, had sent them letters asking them to join, but that they would not even reply to his letters. Their friends the Indians at Duck Lake, who were rebels, had also pressed them to join but in vain--that he was sorry for this rebellion as they had very nearly become able to support themselves by their own labour--it is too late now to sow any wheat this year, but they are going back to see what can be done about garden produce--that they thank the Queen for sending soldiers to put down the rebellion and they hope that God will prevent this happening again." The loyalty and faithfulness to Christian principles manifest by the above record will certainly never be forgotten, either by the Indians or by the church.

It is perhaps fitting to record at this juncture that a symbolic memorial exists in some respect to this loyalty at Big White Fish Reserve on the Anglican Church there. Outside the church on a tower stands the same bell which was referred to above in Dr. Mulvaney's record of the rebellion in Prince Albert. The original mission bell of the Presbyterian Church later became the property of the Prince Albert School Board and this bell was removed from Central School because its weight was found to have loosened the roof. [29/30] Canon G. J. Waite bought it from the Prince Albert School Board for $30.00 and had it erected on the Montreal Lake School where he was then the teacher. Money to purchase the bell was provided by the women of the Reserve through Mrs. Henry Charles, who was president of the W.A. at that time. It was subsequently exchanged for a smaller bell which was owned by the church at Big White Fish, and the bell which Montreal Lake School had used was then given to Big White Fish in exchange. Thus it is that the original bell used to warn the citizens of Prince Albert during the rebellion has found its home to summon the Indians to worship on one of the Reserves closely associated with the loyal Chiefs of the North Saskatchewan.

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