14 Wilson and the North-West Rebellion

This Monday, June 3, will be the 134th anniversary of the end of the North-West Rebellion. The Rebellion was a violent uprising by Metis and First Nations people in Saskatchewan and Alberta against the Canadian Government. Food scarcity such as the depletion of the buffalo and droughts caused stress both among the Metis and First Nations as well as among the settlers. Land issues were also a grievance that was not being addressed by the government to the satisfaction of the Metis and First Nations. The Rebellion was defeated by the federal troops and the leaders were punished by the Government. Poundmaker and Big Bear were convicted and sent to prison, while eight other leaders were hanged in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. Louis Riel was convicted and hanged in a widely publicised trial. On the 23rd of May this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to Poundmaker First Nation in Saskatchewan to exonerate Chief Poundmaker of his unjust and wrongful treason conviction. This is an important step in the path towards reconciliation and an acknowledgement of the disrespectful treatment of Plains Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian Government.

Chief Poundmaker

The first principal of Shingwauk, E.F. Wilson, wrote many letters laying out his thoughts on, and reaction to, the North-West Rebellion. These give an interesting insight into Wilson’s feelings towards First Nations and Metis communities and highlight the motivations behind his push for further Residential Schools. In direct reaction to the Rebellion, Wilson came up with the idea to create “Branch Institutions” which led to the creation of the Elkhorn Residential School in Elkhorn, Manitoba by Wilson and his brother, Wilberforce Wilson.

On April 17, 1885, in Letter Book 2014-017/001(003), Wilson wrote a letter to the Editor of The Mail (a magazine or newspaper, publishing location unknown). Often when he wrote letters to Editors they were intended for publication, but it is unknown if this particular letter was ever published. In this letter he seems sympathetic to the grievances of the First Nations and Metis people, while arguing that the Residential School system is the solution.

Wilson describes their troubles, saying “white people have deprived them of their means of existence and they see nothing but starvation staring them in the face”. This statement seems to be sympathetic and understanding of the fault that colonial communities have in destroying traditional lifeways. He then says “And what has been done to make up to the Indians for their losses? The Government, we cannot deny, has dealt very liberally with these poor people, – but the question is, has it been dealt wisely?” Here he very much seems to take the “white saviour” view by saying that the Government has given help “very liberally”, which appears to be contradictory to his previous statement and does not acknowledge that the help the Government is giving is to solve a problem that they created. Wilson then continues, elaborating on the last part of that statement saying “Would it not have been better to have been less eager about the immediate possession of those vast hunting grounds, and to have limited for a score of years or so the progress of the surveyor with his chain? Would it not have been better gradually to have drawn those 50,000 roaming Indians within the coils of civilization instead of shutting them up suddenly onto Reserve lands like prison houses and compelling them to farm or die?” The last part of this statement shows some sympathy for the horrible situation that the First Nations and Metis communities are in, but he clearly still thinks that Reserves are a necessary part of the solution to the “Indian problem”. He further elaborates on his solution by saying “I maintain, and I think I have common sense, justice, and wisdom on my side, that the only way to deal with the Indians is to take their children while still young and train them up in the path of Christianity and civilization”.

Interestingly, Wilson constantly refers to Dr Barnardo as his role model in what he wants to do for First Nations children. Dr Barnardo was an Englishman who ran an orphanage in London, England, which cared for the large amount of homeless children living on the streets on London. He also took in children who were not homeless, but living in very poor situations. Very early on in his career, he was accused of kidnapping children to fill his orphanage. He openly confessed to this, calling it “philanthropic abduction”. This is a very apt phrase and perfectly describes the feelings of those involved in the Residential School System as well as the Sixties Scoop. The fact that Wilson gives Dr Barnardo such high praise really highlights how he feels about his work at the Residential School. Wilson states that Dr Barnardo “gets the children – gets hold of the children before they are greatly contaminated and brings them up to be useful members of society”.

Since Wilson views Residential Schools as the solution to the problem he presented at the beginning of the letter, he wants to be able to expand on his work at Shingwauk in order to “help” more people. To do this, he proposes establishing Branch Institutions at strategic places in the North-West. He also proposes “this summer [i.e. summer 1885] to go and bring down from the North West some 30-40 of those young braves whose fathers and uncles have taken up weapons against us – because poor fellows they are feeling the pangs of starvation, and in their ignorance imagine that they can stay the tide of immigration which is depriving them of their homes and hunting grounds”. He plans to bring these children to Shingwauk, separating them far from their families, which was the tactic used especially in later years of the Residential School system to remove the influence of parents and communities on the children. Though he shows some sympathy, he sees assimilation as inevitable and colonial ways as the only right ways, with no room for reciprocal knowledge sharing.

Near the end of the letter, Wilson states “I love the Indians. I love my Indian boys and believe in their capabilities as fully and as fervently as Dr Barnardo believes in his street Arab”. He does care for the children and their communities, but is misguided in his views of the best way to help them. He is going about showing his love in the wrong way and does not see the faults in his plan.




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Shingwauk Narratives: Sharing Residential School History Copyright © by Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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