Selkirk settler commemoration problematic

Colonial history, betrayal of indigenous peoples glossed over

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Red River Settlement, an agricultural colony founded by a Scottish “noble” named Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk. 

Familiar Winnipeg and Manitoba streets and landmarks, including Point Douglas, Selkirk Avenue and the town of Selkirk, are named after him. 

Numerous events this past summer marked the occasion, including “Bargefest,” intended to “honour the character, courage and culture of the Red River settlers,” with music, dance and sporting events of a distinctly Scottish nature.

A website called Red River 200 (www.redriver200.ca) is representative of this commemorative spirit. It contains a chronology of the early “settlement,” information about Scottish culture in Manitoba, a calendar of bicentennial events and links to in-depth historical information on the Manitoba Historical Society website, which can be found at www.mhs.mb.ca.

It is not my intention here to rain on anyone’s commemorative parade, but it’s important to be clear about what we’re commemorating.

It’s important to get our historical facts right.

And it’s important to challenge traditional interpretations and national myth-making that normalizes and apologizes for settler-colonial projects. 

On its opening page, the Red River 200 website states that on Oct. 7, 1812, near the present-day Disraeli Bridge, the Governor of Assiniboia, Miles Macdonnell, helped plant the first wheat brought over from Scotland.

It goes on to declare that this event “was the beginning of one of the most important movements in Canadian history and the establishment of the farming system of the Prairie Provinces. ... The Selkirk Settlers were the first individuals to establish permanent residence along the Red River in what has grown to become the City of Winnipeg. Their arrival and settlement began the shift in western Canada from a hunter-gathering economy to a farming-based community…”

The only problem with this characterization of the Red River settlers is that it is false. 

There might be many other reasons to commemorate the arrival of these settlers, and one can certainly make a case for their significance to local Manitoba and prairie history.

But this symbolic planting of wheat in 1812 did not, in fact, “establish” farming in the Prairies, these settlers were not the “first individuals to establish permanent residence along the Red River,” and their arrival 200 years ago did not begin a “shift in western Canada from a hunter-gathering economy to a farming-based community.”

This is an old colonial myth, intimately connected to Eurocentric notions of “civilization” and “savagery” that promulgate an agricultural imperative to justify empire and its concomitant: the subjugation and dispossession of indigenous peoples.

But the longevity and popularity of an interpretation has no bearing on its validity. 

Colonizer myths can be powerful even when they’re false.

As historian Sarah Carter noted in her book Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada, archaeological evidence suggests that indigenous agriculture in the Prairies pre-dates the Red River settlement by at least 400 years.

The Red River 200 website itself demonstrates this cognitive dissonance by declaring that Europeans brought agriculture to the Prairies, while simultaneously acknowledging that the Scottish settlers were only kept alive during their first harsh winters due to generous donations of surplus agricultural produce from the local indigenous population. 

The website also pays respect to Saulteaux (Ojibwa) Chief Peguis.

Colonizer myths can be powerful even when they’re false.

One of the events promoted was a ceremony to honour Peguis at St. Peter’s Dynovor Church, where Peguis is buried.

Peguis’s “contribution and friendship to the settlers” was noted in the event description - as it ought to have been. 

His friendship and alliance with the settlers and Hudson’s Bay Company was real, and more importantly, his people’s subsequent history was pivotal to the history of the Canadian Prairies.

But this rosy commemorative narrative is missing something crucial. 

It is also necessary to acknowledge that “we,” the non-aboriginal colonizers, betrayed Peguis and his people.

We dispossessed them of their birthright, even after recognizing it to be inalienable under the “Stone Fort” Treaty of 1871 - we engaged in ethnic cleansing to force the people of Peguis off their land, and most of all, we still, to this day, stand in the way of justice.

I am not opposed to commemorating the Red River settlement, or recognizing the “courage” of these early settlers, but we can’t pay lip service to Peguis and fail to acknowledge this betrayal. 

We ought to reflect on the wider meaning of settler-colonialism from the standpoint of the original peoples of this land, and take some time to learn about the broken treaties, and array of unjust “Indian policies” imposed on First Nations in Manitoba (including those justifying the suppression of spiritual traditions, and placing children in residential schools).

If we are honest, we might even begin to recognize that some of this history has produced painful legacies that endure.

Paul Burrows is currently researching a doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Saskatchewan on Treaty 1 and the betrayal of the “People of Peguis.”

Published in Volume 67, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 3, 2012)

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