What pre-Confederation Edmonton tells us about Canada today
In August of 1859, James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk, arrived at Fort Edmonton. Carnegie didn’t believe in travelling light. He arrived in Edmonton with an entourage of 75 guides and servants, who hauled with them, among other things, the Earl’s India-rubber bathtub and his edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare. The 32 year-old Scottish Earl was our first celebrity tourist. He was the first European to come here, not to explore or trap or trade, but just to see what he could see.
He hauled plenty of metaphysical baggage with him, too. He’d recently suffered a complete nervous collapse, a major depression, after the death of his beloved wife. And so he left his children and his castle and ran away into the far west. He planned to hunt big game—and to hunt up fresh inspiration for this poetry. Oh yes. He wrote poetry. Astonishingly awful poetry, which he had published in London—at his own expense.
Lordly moose were slain and carried
O’er the snow to those that tarried
Halting on their hunter’s track;
Sighted on the far horizon,
Moved a mighty band of bison,
Surged a bellowing sea of black.
In 1859, the territory we now call Alberta was not a part of Canada. The nation of Canada wouldn’t actually exist for another eight years. That which we call Alberta today was then part of what was known as Rupert’s Land—a huge swath of land, under the economic control and administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). But while the land was under the nominal control of a London-based corporation, it wasn’t exactly an official part of the British Empire, either. When Southesk arrived here, 19 years before the signing of Treaty 6, this was still very much the sovereign territory of the Cree, the Nakoda, the Blackfoot and the other First Nations who hunted, trapped and traded here in a symbiotic relationship with the HBC.
Day by day, with packs of peltry
Goes he to the store-house sweltry,
Fain to barter fur-goods fair –
Mellow marten, mink and beaver,
Wolverine and wolf the reaver,
Fox and fisher, lynx and bear.
There he waits in calm endurance,
All the traders’ trained assurance
Weak to bend his patient will,
Juggling him with artful measures,
Tempting him with tawdry treasures –
Firm of purpose rests he still.
There were about 150 people living in Fort Edmonton in 1859—HBC traders and staff, and their wives and children. Since there were no European women here, those wives and children were either First Nations or Métis. English was the official language of the HBC but, in 1859, you’d probably have been at least as likely to hear people speaking in French or Cree or Michif, the Métis language that blended French and Cree with some borrowings from other tongues. You might have heard smatterings of everything from Gaelic to German, too—this was a polyglot, multicultural place, even 158 years ago.
Of course, figuring out who was Métis and who was “European” was a rather difficult question, after four generations of marriages between fur traders and locals.
Southesk, for example, was hosted during much of his time at Fort Edmonton by Chief Trader William J. Christie, and his wife, Mary Christie. Christie’s father came from Glasgow, and had ensured that his son was sent to back school in Scotland. But Christie’s mother was Métis, the daughter of a Welsh father and a Cree mother. Christie’s wife Mary was part of the fur trade’s aristocracy. Her maternal grandfather had been a founding partner of the Northwest Company—and her maternal grandmother had been Anishinaabe. To judge by archival photos, Mr. Christie looked “European.” Mrs. Christie looked “Indigenous.”
But in the Edmonton of 1859, those distinctions don’t seem to have mattered much. As the lord and lady of the fort, William and Mary Christie laid on their best hospitality for their noble guest. When Southesk returned to Fort Edmonton in October of 1859, after his exploration of the Rocky Mountains, he was delighted with his welcome.
“Mr. Christie,” he wrote in his diary, “received me with the utmost kindness and hospitality. It is delightful to be again enjoying some of the comforts of civilization—such as wine, well-made coffee, vegetables, cream-tarts, and other good things too many to mention.”
Southesk couldn’t have realized then that he’d arrived here at a fateful turning point in Edmonton’s history. He’d arrived here the same year the very first Grey Nuns arrived in Alberta, to serve as missionaries with Father Albert Lacombe in Lac Ste. Anne. He arrived here four years before the Catholic Church founded the Métis settlement of St. Albert. Until the late 1850s, there had been a bare handful of Methodist and Catholic missionaries scattered across Rupert’s Land. Now, for the first time, missionary work—for good and for ill—was beginning in earnest.
At the same time, the Palliser Expedition had just launched its fact-finding tour—sent to scope out the
region’s agricultural potential, to determine whether the land was actually fit for settlement. Up until the late 1850s, no one in Britain had given much thought to wholesale colonization of the western wilderness. Westminster had been quite content to let the HBC take its profits, and to leave Rupert’s Land largely alone. Now, that thinking was starting to change. Meanwhile, by 1859, bison populations had declined enough to cause tensions between the Cree and Blackfoot, as they competed for food and hunting territory. Still, no one could imagine the plains without the buffalo. No one could imagine the cataclysm to come.
And so Southesk arrived at precisely the right moment to bear witness to a cultural golden age, a high-water mark in post-contact prairie relations. And he arrived at a time of remarkable artistic achievement. When he returned to Scotland, he schlepped back to his castle some truly remarkable works of art and craft, stunning artifacts created by Indigenous and Métis artisans between Red River and the Rockies, most of them women, most of their names lost to history. These prairie virtuosos enjoyed access to Venetian glass beads, embroidery silks from China and Japan, printed calico cloth from India, metal blades from Sheffield, as well as traditional materials such as hide, sinew and porcupine quills. Indeed, the women Southesk met during his travels west laughed at the big ugly glass beads he’d brought with him to trade. They were accustomed to far finer materials. Fort Edmonton was just one link in an interconnected global trading empire. And the exquisite handiwork the Earl purchased during his tour across the prairie west includes a remarkable fusion of First Nations, European, Asian and Middle Eastern motifs and materials.
I don’t want to be overly romantic, to describe the Edmonton of 1859 as a non-racialized utopia. It certainly wasn’t that. But it was a place of cultures in some kind of fragile equilibrium, a place where the lines between us and them were as blurry as a prairie twilight. Like Alice in Wonderland, Southesk had stumbled into a strange realm, wildly different from the world of Victorian British society, where the rules of Victorian British society did not apply.
“What joy to be distant long thousands of miles/From fashions and fancies and hypocrite smiles!” he later rhymed.
In 2006, the Royal Alberta Museum repatriated many of the pieces that Southesk had collected here, buying them at auction at Sotheby’s, after the current Earl placed them at auction. It was a great moment for the museum; but for me, as a journalist who covered the story, it was also a very personal—and disorienting—epiphany.
Growing up in Western Canada, coming of age post-1967, in a time of chest-thumping, unabashed Canadian nationalism, I’d never truly questioned our received cultural narrative of Canadian history. At school we learned about Upper and Lower Canada, about the Family Compact and the Château Clique, about the Fathers of Confederation and the building of the railroad. It was a narrative that made Confederation itself seem both inevitable and triumphant, the logical consequence of Canada’s historic evolution. Alberta’s annexation by Canada wasn’t something I’d ever questioned. In a very real way, my own imagination had been colonized by the official stories and official storytellers of Central Canada.
But the Southesk collection offered me an unsettling and wondrous revelation. I’d suddenly caught a glimpse of Edmonton’s alternate timeline—of the palimpsest past we’ve erased and written over. For the time, I could imagine a counter-factual Edmonton. A fantasy Alberta that evolved without conquest or colonization, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures cross-pollinated and blossomed into something vibrant and resilient and creative and unique. What might have happened here if the bison hadn’t disappeared? If the European market for beaver-felt hats hadn’t collapsed? If John Palliser’s skeptical survey reports had dissuaded more people from farming here—and limited the flood of Central Canadian and European settlers? What (oh, radical thought) if we hadn’t joined Confederation at all?
Of course, we don’t live in that alternate universe.
In our merciless timeline, the buffalo died, and the treaties were signed and the reserves were created and the residential schools were opened and Riel was hanged and the settlers poured in and in and in. And with those waves of settlement, the narratives of the complex First Nations and Métis cultures that once existed here were all but erased from the popular imagination. In 1869, 10 years after Southesk’s visit, a terrible smallpox epidemic swept through Treaty 6 territory, decimating local First Nations communities, killing thousands, drastically reducing the Indigenous population. The next year, the HBC ceded its control of this land to the two-year-old Dominion of Canada, selling all of Rupert’s Land for £300,000, then the equivalent of $1.5 million. That was a steal of a deal, given that the Americans had just paid $7.2 million U.S. to purchase Alaska from the Russians in 1867. But then again, given that the Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t actually own the land it had just sold to Canada, I guess you could say they made a tidy profit, too.
It was another six years, though, before the treaties were signed, legally establishing Crown control—Canadian control—over what had been sovereign native land just a few decades before. By cosmic coincidence, James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk, died in 1905, the same year Alberta became a province and officially joined Confederation. By then, the world he’d known when he visited Fort Edmonton in 1859 had all but vanished. Yet thanks to James Carnegie, our first titled tourist, we can catch faint echoes of it today in his published diaries and in his deliriously bad poetry, the first-known published poems in English that were inspired by Alberta’s landscape and peoples.
Most of all, we see it in the stunning artifacts he purchased on his travels from the Red River Settlement in modern-day Manitoba, through to the Rockies. Those pieces give silent voice to the talented craftswomen who created them, the often-nameless First Nations and Métis women who have been so rarely allowed to star as the leading characters in their own stories. Now, after years in storage, their handiwork will finally go on permanent display when the new Royal Alberta Museum opens at the end of this sesquicentennial year. A sesquicentennial that gives us a chance to shift our consideration from “What might have been?” to the greater question of “What will we choose to be?”
(One little two little three Canadians)
We love thee
(Now we are twenty million)
(Four little five little six little Provinces)
Proud and free
I was two years old the summer of Canada’s centennial. But I still remember putting on a red-and-white terrycloth playsuit, one of my favourite outfits, and dancing on our front porch, singing along to Bobby Gimby’s Canada song on a 45 record, played on my plastic record player. I sang it over and over and over, doubtless driving my poor parents and the neighbours to distraction. One little, two little three Canadians. A variation, of course, on the children’s nursery rhyme: “One little, two little, three little Indians.”
Which nobody seemed to find at all problematic, back in 1967.
It seemed natural to me, as a toddler, to think of “Indians” as characters in nursery rhymes, people who, like Simple Simon’s pie man or Wee Willie Winkie, lived in the fantastical world of the olden days. Maybe that’s why, even after I grew up, even after I became a journalist who wrote often about First Nations issues and Edmonton’s contemporary urban Indigenous community, I never really considered an alternative outcome for the history of this place. Maybe that’s why the revelation I felt as I read Southesk’s diaries was such a shock to my complacency. I’d never before realized just how thoroughly I’d bought into the triumphalist narrative of pioneer prairie settlement, and into its parallel joyous narrative of easy multicultural harmony.
Small wonder I loved that mythos. After all, this was the place that welcomed my paternal Jewish grandparents more than 100 years ago, the place that gave them refuge from the pogroms of their present, and shielded them from the Holocaust that was to come. This was the place that welcomed my mother here as a child refugee after the Second World War, the country that provided sanctuary to my Oma, a penniless war widow with three small children, and which gave her the chance to succeed.
As we mark Canada’s sesquicentennial year, I want to celebrate the glorious tale of Canada as a multicultural land of freedom and peace and opportunity. But I can’t dance and sing, in unselfconscious innocence, the way I did 50 years ago. None of us should. We’re not as naively patriotic as we were in 1967, I hope, as tone-deaf to the complicated nuances of our relationship to the First Nations and Métis Albertans who called this territory theirs long before 1867 and who still call it home.
But maybe we can make this sesquicentennial a goad, a chance to redefine the social contract of our city—to rediscover the values of community, of interdependence, of cross-cultural accommodation, that gave Edmonton its earliest start. In this 150th year of Canada, we Albertans should celebrate the reality that Indigenous culture did not die, despite all the best efforts of governments, churches and schools to destroy it. It endured, and it endures today in new, evolving and powerful ways that enrich our whole city—the culture of resilient, courageous, creative Indigenous peoples who demand respect and inclusion, not pity or guilt.
It’s not enough to pay lip service to the fact we’re on Treaty 6 land before every meeting and local event. It’s not enough to put up a few Cree street signs, or to fly Treaty 6 and Métis flags outside Edmonton City Hall, and then deem ourselves reconciled.
It’s not enough, these tentative, stumbling first steps towards rebuilding the fundamental foundation on which this city was built. We can’t shape a fairer, more honourable, more equitable future, where everyone has a voice, where everyone has the chance to tell his or her or their story, until we recognize the limitations and omissions in the story of Canada that we think we already know. That won’t be enough, either, but it’ll be a start.
To Revive and not Revise by Paula Simons originally ran in the Canada150 issue of Eighteen Bridges magazine, which was a special collection of essays commissioned for Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) High Level Lit project — a partnership between ECF, Eighteen Bridges, and LitFest. The published collection of these essays was awarded Best Editorial Package of the Year at the 2017 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards and was instrumental in Eighteen Bridges being named Magazine of the Year at those same awards. The project was also nominated for two National Magazine Awards, including Omar Mouallem’s essay Homeland for the Holidays, which won gold in the Personal Journalism category. To mark Canada’s 151st anniversary of Confederation, ECF is making digital versions of these stories available to the public.
You can listen to ECF’s interview with Paula about her essay on The Well-Endowed Podcast by clicking here.