One group was headed by Honourable David Laird, with H. B. Round of the Hudson’s Bay in charge of travel arrangements. Camp manager Henry McKay, secretaries, Northwest Mounted Policemen, and Interpreter Pierre d’Eschambault completed the group.
These, with auxiliary personnel, were to negotiate Treaty Number 8 with the Indians and extinguish the aboriginal rights over the northern half of Alberta and large parts of Saskatchewan. British Columbia’s Peace River country and parts of the Northwest Territories were included in the treaty.
The other party, headed by Major James Walker, a retired officer of the Mounted Police, was to conclude a deal with the Metis by issuing them “scrip”. Scrip (not “script” as it is often mistakenly called) was a certificate showing the right of the bearer to purchase a quarter section of land for a small price.
The second party was fortunate to include as its secretary a colourful old gentleman named Charles Mair. He had been captured by Riel’s provisional government but had broken out of prison and escaped. Other narrow escapes included near-death from drowning, freezing and prairie-fire. Although he is almost unknown today, he was then a popular adventure-writer, poet and playwright. After his journey as part of the treaty team, he published a book called Through the Mackenzie Basin. He had been a newspaperman, merchant, farmer, land speculator, unsuccessful politician, a soldier and civil servant.
Other famous people who joined the party were Bishop Grouard who spoke the Athapaskan tongue of the Beavers, Chipewyans and Slaves, and Father Lacombe who was fluent in French.
Inspector Snyder, Sergeant Anderson and Corporal Fitzgerald of the North West Mounted Police were later to become famous for their work in the North, much of it protecting the Indians and looking after their needs.
Just now they were busy keeping watch on the moneybags, for treaty was paid in cash. Maintaining some kind of order in a huge camp of Metis and Indians with all their horses, dogs and children both effort and tact. There was constant activity around the traders’ booths, refreshment tents, gambling tents and two huge dance floors. As more and more “treaty money” was distributed, the faster the tempo of fun became. In the presence of the Mounties, though, the flow of booze had to cease, or go “underground”.
Meanwhile the secretaries were having a difficult time. The name, date of birth and other statistics must be recorded for each person. How do you record the birth date of a child born in MEEKSUO PESIM (month the eagles return – February?) Or a “long time ago” in OGHPAHO PESIM – (the month when the birds begin to fly – August?) What do you do about a person whose culture permits, or even requires, that he change his name from time to time? What do you do about people whose name is Mishoostiquan, Waupune Bapow, or Kanawatchaguayo? In desperation the secretary will likely ask, “What does that mean?” When explained by an interpreter and written down literally, some strange surnames were produced. Some of these names, in their literal translation, cause embarrassment to the children of those families when they attend school.
Charles Mair encountered the name Pos-ca-pee and recorded its Indian meaning as opposed to the French meaning that has been ascribed to it.
The Metis presented problems peculiar to themselves. The names, where their white fathers were known, were usually either French or Scotch. In many cases they used their mother’s surname. Here, also, names that sound peculiar in white society were recorded, and have persisted to this day. Sometimes misunderstanding of a French name spoken with a Cree accent sounded like something else. For example “Belle feuille” or Beautiful Leaf” could become “Bellyfull”.
Furthermore, some of the Indians and Metis had escaped from the prairies after the Riel Rebellions and come north to settle. A person who had taken treaty or scrip under one of the earlier treaties was not entitled to have it a second time. Much searching of records was involved. In spite of all the opportunities for dishonesty which poor records involved, Mair stated that there was not one clear case of attempted fraud among all of the Lesser Slave Lake Metis.
One of the interesting characters who turned up at this point was Catherine Bisson, reputed to be the daughter of one of Mackenzie’s voyageurs. She had been born on New Year’s Day in 1793, 106 years before. Mair reported that “she was now blind and was partly carried into our tent – a small, thin, wizened woman with keen features and a tongue as keen, which crackled and joked at a great rate with the crowd around her”. Technically she was a Metis, which points up the fact that a Metis might elect to take treaty, if he or she wished.
It took the party six days to travel to Dunvegan by way of Peace River Landing, thence up the Peace. An old Indian named Peokus headed the overland travel at a pace that was tirelessly rapid. Pierre Cyr, then over seventy, was the bowman on the scrip commission’s boat, a heavy affair carrying twelve passengers and their gear.
Back again at the Peace River Landing, they found Alexander Mackenzie’s grandson, now a retired Chief Trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company. On down the Peace to Wolverine Point, (now Carcajou) and then to Fort Vermilion where the Lawrence family had 110 acres of fine wheat ripening.
Mair’s book astonished the world with its description of the agricultural possibilities of the North. Among the Metis was another voyageur who had paddled for Governor Simpson fifty-five years before, like another old man at Dunvegan who had canoed with Simpson on his first posting to the Peace as a clerk at Fort Wedderburn on Lake Athabasca. King Beaulieu also was there. His father had sketched a map of the Coppermine River for John Franklin in 1820. At Fort Chipewyan, they were met by the son of Colin Fraser, Governor Simpson’s famous bag-piper.
The commission went as far as Great Slave Lake, and then turned back via Fort McMurray and on up the Athabasca River to Pelican River, where the scrip commission turned west to the Metis settlement of Wabiskaw (now Wabasca from the Indian word Wapooskow meaning “Grassy Narrows”.) Here Catholic and Anglican missionaries had wonderful gardens. It was a thriving district, prosperous and contented.
Their business was concluded here. Altogether they had issued 1 843 scrip certificates; only 48 of which were for land. Unfortunately, the latter were transferable, although it had not been intended that way by the government. As it was, traders and hangers-on bought the land certificates, sometimes for a bottle or a horse, and made small fortunes on the resale of the land years later.
Mair had been present when treaties Number 1 through 7 had been negotiated. He noted that the Northern Indians were different from the ones he had seen twenty to thirty years before. There were no paint or feathers, no scalp locks, breechclouts or buffalo robes. Instead, there were ‘store clothes’ and combed and short cut hair. Absent, too, were the threats of violence, the long, impassioned oratory and stone peace pipes. There were just well dressed men smoking regular pipes and replying to questions in brief and sensible statements. Only among the Wood Crees were any formal speeches made and these were brief. On this occasion, the Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope Indians were not brought under treaty.