10 Bill – Macdonald, Big Bear and Poundmaker
This three-image transposition documents the connections between John A. Macdonald (1815–1891), Chief Poundmaker, Pitikwahanapiwiyin (1842–1886), and Chief Big Bear, Mistahimaskwa (1825–1888) in the mid- to late 1800s, when the Dominion of Canada was being established and the reservation system was being implemented. This period was the darkest, most tumultuous era in Canadian history, with Aboriginals being forced off of their traditional lands, their ceremonial gatherings and travel being banned, and with many of them beginning to starve on meagre food rations. These circumstances led to Aboriginal retaliations, including battles and the hostage taking of settlers for use in negotiations. Aboriginals, settlers, and police all lost their lives during this period in which negotiations with the government proved futile for First Nations.
“10 Bill – Macdonald, Big Bear and Poundmaker explores the identities of three primary leaders of this era, flipping the ideological perspective of iconic portraits on Canadian banknotes to assert the presence of great Aboriginal leaders in Canadian history.”
Macdonald was born in 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland, and immigrated to Canada as a young boy. After practicing law in Kingston, Ontario, he entered politics as a Conservative and during the 1860s played a significant role in the establishment of Canadian Confederation. He was instrumental in securing the British North America Act, and is considered the primary organizer of the Dominion of Canada, serving as its first Prime Minister from 1867 to 1873 and again from 1878 to 1891. Macdonald also served as Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1878 to 1887, Minister of the Interior from 1878 to 1883, and Acting Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1888. Macdonald’s positions gave him the decisive authority to secure land for Canada by apprehending Aboriginal land. To this end he created a variety of government acts and treaties, including the Department of the Secretary of State Act, the Manitoba Act, the 1870 Rupert’s Land and North-Western Territory Order, in which Canada purchased Rupert’s Land and much of Western Canada (the North-Western Territory) from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and several treaties beginning in 1871. The Manitoba Act explicitly worked “[t]owards the extinguishment of the Indian Title to the lands.”vi The mass takeover of the lands was met with protests by First Nations, Métis, and some white settlers, who sent letters and petitions to the government, which eventually culminated in uprisings and battles across Canada from 1860 to the 1880s. Macdonald remained in the position of Prime Minister until he died of a stroke on June 6, 1891.
The best known uprising of Macdonald’s time was the North West Rebellion of 1885, which included the Battle of Batoche and the Frog Lake Resistance, in which the Métis and allied Aboriginal people resisted the laws and government orders that were eroding their free access to their lands and their ways of life, and denied negotiations for fairer land settlements. The Battle of Batoche, a two-month standoff between a group of Métis (led by Louis Riel) and the North West Mounted Police, occurred in a community forty- four kilometres southwest of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Riel was taken prisoner in Batoche, leading to the collapse of his Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, and he was later hanged in Regina. After his hanging, animosity increased between French- speaking and English-speaking Canadians, and Macdonald lost political support in Quebec, where Riel was regarded as a martyr to the forces of British imperialism.
Chief Big Bear, or Mistahimaskwa, was a Saulteaux/Cree chief, born in 1825 near Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan. He was famous for his intelligence and his fearless, outspoken leadership. He was instrumental in treaty negotiations, the Battle of Belly River (1870), the North West Rebellion (1885), the Battle of Batoche (1885), and the Frog Lake Rebellion (1885), and for creating alliances with Plains nations in an attempt to save traditional territories from treaties.
In the 1870s, the newly created Canadian government began to vigorously pursue treaty signing to secure lands for the Dominion of Canada. Big Bear, however, refused to sign, because he understood that the Dominion’s offer of tiny reserves and five dollars in annual payments to individuals meant nothing if the hunting of the buffalo was denied. He insisted on negotiating a fair agreement with the government, stating: “We want no baits. Let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.”vii In June 1879, he spoke to Macdonald for several days about the vanishing buffalo, the starvation of his people, and the inadequate treaties, but Macdonald did not listen. Big Bear refused treaty for six years, and the Canadian government responded strategically, failing to provide his band with adequate famine relief. Once the buffalo were gone, Big Bear had no choice but to sign Treaty No.6 at Fort Walsh on December 8, 1882.
Big Bear was also known for his involvement in the Frog Lake Resistance, intended to be a peaceful resistance to unfair treaties imposed by the government and to draw attention to the plight of the Cree, who were starving due to food rationing and government- imposed sanctions on hunting across much of the land (starving out the Cree is a well documented political strategy). Big Bear led his men to a white settlement near the Frog Lake Cree community in North-West Territories (now Alberta), close to the Saskatchewan border. His plan was to take Indian Agent Thomas Quinn hostage. When Quinn refused to come with them, the warrior Wandering Spirit shot him, triggering panic that saw the deaths of nine white men and the taking of three others as hostages. Two white women and William Bleasdell Cameron escaped, protected by Big Bear and the Cree wife of trader James Kay Simpson. Big Bear had not wanted the violence and regretted that he could not control the young warriors. At the conclusion of the 1885 Resistance, six Cree men were tried and sentenced to death for their roles at Frog Lake. It is the largest mass execution in Canadian history.
On July 2, 1885, Big Bear surrendered and on September 11, 1885, he was convicted for his participation in the North West Rebellion despite evidence of his efforts to actually prevent the killings at Frog Lake. The 60-year-old Chief was sentenced to three years at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary. At his sentencing, Big Bear gave his last speech, which lasted two hours. He stated his innocence and pleaded for the protection of his people:
“When White men were few in this land, I gave them my hand in friendship. No man can ever be witness to any act of violence by Big Bear to any White man. Never did I take the White man’s horse. Never did I order any one of my people to act of violence against the White man . . . I always thought it paid to do all the good I could. Now my heart is on the ground. I am dead to my people. Many of my band are hiding in the woods, paralysed with terror. Cannot this court send them a pardon? My own children, perhaps they are starving and outcast, afraid to appear in the light of day.”viii
He was released from prison on March 4, 1887 before serving his complete sentence, as a result of his failing health, and he died shortly afterward on January 17, 1888, at the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan.
Pitikwahanapiwiyin, known in English as Chief Poundmaker, was a famous peacemaker, and a key figure in the events of Treaty No. 6 (1876), the Battle of Cutknife (1885), and Battle of Batoche. Born around 1842 near Battleford, Saskatchewan, Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) was the son of Sikakwayan, a Stoney shaman, and his Métis wife. Poundmaker was recognized as a leader of his people and a skilled orator by both Aboriginals and the colonists during the tumultuous years surrounding the government’s takeover of land through the treaty system.
In August 1876, as a leader of one of the River People bands, although not yet a chief, Poundmaker was deeply involved in the negotiations for Treaty No. 6 at Fort Carlton, where he expressed his grave concerns over the unfairness of the land settlement and the state of his people, who were near starvation. He signed the treaty on August 23, and his people were placed on a reserve at Battle River, near Battleford. On several occasions during his leadership, Poundmaker prevented bloodshed between his people and the North West Mounted Police, including at the Thirst Dance celebration in June 1884 and at the Battle of Cutknife in May 1885. After Louis Riel’s defeat at Duck Lake and failed negotiations with the government, Poundmaker surrendered on May 26, 1885, whereupon he was charged and convicted of treason. Poundmaker responded to the verdict by saying, “I have saved a lot of bloodshed. I can’t understand how it is that after saving so many lives I am brought here. I am a man do as you like. I am in your power; I gave myself up; you did not catch me.”ix Poundmaker was sentenced to three years in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba, although he served only one year before being released due to poor health. He died four months after his release from a lung hemorrhage on the Blackfoot (now Siksika) reserve in Alberta.
To Canadians, Macdonald left his legacy as a ‘father of confederation’ and as the first Canadian Prime Minister, with his image today on the ten dollar bill, though for First Nations and Métis, his legacy marked the ‘dark time’ when they were starved off of their traditional territories and hung and jailed for resistance. MacDonald’s leadership left the legacy of poverty and hardship still evident today and has changed Aboriginal communities forever.