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Manitoba History: Charles Mair and the North-West Emigration Aid Society

by Allen Ronaghan
Barrhead, Alberta

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Adams G. Archibald
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Charles Mair and the members of North-West Emigration Aid Society have received only scant attention from scholars. Mair’s biographer, Norman Shrive, only hinted at Mair’s connection with the Society, and implied that it was an activity of the years after 1875. [1] More recently Carl Berger, writing about Mair and “Canada First,” mentioned the Society only in passing. [2] As for H. D. Kemp, D. N. Sprague and Gerhard Ens, all of whom have written articles on Manitoban land issues, they have given attention chiefly to the period following the departure of the first lieutenant-governor, Adams George Archibald, from the province in 1872. [3] Thomas Flanagan, in his Riel and the Rebellion of 1885 Reconsidered, likewise does not touch upon Mair and his associates and their work in the Society. Yet we cannot properly understand the unfolding of Manitoba’s land problems without giving consideration to these men.

It is necessary first to put Mair’s work into the context of events occurring in the late winter of 1869-1870, when John J. Setter, Dr. James Lynch, William Drever, John C. Schultz, Mair and others made their way to Ontario to resume their struggle against Riel and the Provisional Government. There they set to work immediately. The execution of Thomas Scott at Fort Garry did not instantly arouse Ontario public opinion against that Provisional Government. Stimulating public opinion took time and a carefully followed plan, using materials that were readily available in Ontario society for those who knew how to use them. Colonel G. T. Denison, of “Canada First,” was one of those who knew. We have it from Denison himself that when “Canada First” first heard of the arrival of Mair, Schultz, and the others at St. Paul, Minnesota, a meeting was called privately, “so much did we dread the indifference of the public and the danger of our efforts being a failure.” [4] This meeting was called on April 2nd, a Saturday. The first news of Scott’s death had been published on March 26th, the previous Saturday. [5] A creek’s news of the event had not set the Ontario “heather” afire. The “Canada First” committee built its campaign of “indignation meetings” around the “sufferers,” the “refugees” who had “risked their lives in obedience to a proclamation in the Queen’s name,” on the “price” which was on Schultz’s head, and the sufferings that “Ontario men” had undergone as prisoners in Fort Garry. [6] Without Scott’s execution, of course, there would have been no turned rules in George Kingsmill’s Telegraph, [7] no rope to display, no “murder” to add to the list of Provisional Government—crimes,” but the same campaign would have gone forward in the same way, using the same young men as crowds at “indignation meetings.”

The “friends” with whom Col. Denison and “Canada First” had met were officers of Orange lodges in Toronto and the communities between Toronto and Ottawa, men who were the underpinnings of Sir John A. Macdonald’s electoral support. There were many Orangemen among the “sufferers” and their tales of woe were soon heard in communities all across Ontario. [8] The “indignation meetings” called in this way made April of 1870 a very anxious time for Macdonald and his government. “Canada First” had three immediate demands: a force must be sent to Red River; no amnesty should be issued to those involved in the Red River troubles; and Cartier and Macdonald must not meet with the two “rebel” delegates, Father Ritchot and Alfred Scott. Two of these demands were met. Plans for an expedition had been made secretly before Scott’s execution and were announced during the negotiations. No amnesty was issued to anyone concerned with the “rebellion.” However, as Macdonald explained to Denison, the government had no option but to meet with the delegates since the British government was favorable to their reception. [9] Bitterly disappointed, Denison reported this result to Schultz and Lynch, and it was decided that, since Lynch had been requested by his fellow prisoners in Fort Garry to represent their views, [10] he should put their case before the Governor General. Denison later claimed to have drafted the protest which Lynch wrote out and signed on April 12th, the same day that Ritchot and Scott were first received by Cartier. [11] Copies of this protest were sent to the press and widely published. [12] As a result of Lynch’s letter Sir John Young asked Lynch to come and see him, and a “lengthy interview” took place. [13]

While Denison and Lynch were busy in Ottawa, Schultz had errands to do in Montreal. Creditors were pressing for payment of accounts unpaid since before the Insurrection. [14] He had no money for them yet, but began to see his way clear to receiving compensation for his losses. Also, there was a suggestion from Cartier that he wished to follow up. Through Cartier, Schultz was made acquainted with members of the Montreal business community, and through members of this community he was presented to Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s seventh child and third son, then visiting Canada. [15] With the approval of the province of Ontario filling the newspapers and his presentation to the Queen’s son as the climax Schultz was becoming something of an imperial figure, and when he requested letters from his creditors there was no difficulty. There was also the problem of getting some kind of advance payment to take care of the expenses of such people as Lynch and Mair, who would want to return to Red River. [16] On April 19th Schultz was back in Ottawa giving evidence before the Senate’s select committee of Rupert’s Land and Red River. The Senate was taking advantage of “the presence at Ottawa, during the existing Session of Parliament, of a number of persons recently from Red River, all more or less familiar with the North-West Territory.” Called before this committee were such gentlemen as John J. Setter, Dr. James Lynch, Major Boulton, John C. Schultz and Charles Mair. Charles Mair was heard on April 25th, when the Select Committee wound up its hearings. [17]

By April 25th, when Cartier and Macdonald began to negotiate with the three delegates from Red River, the “Canadian party” and “Canada First” had had plenty of time to use their influence at Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. They were soon to set in motion what Denison in later years called an “armed emigration” similar to what had taken place in the early years of settlement of Kansas and Texas. [18]

On May 2nd, the same day that the Manitoba bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Sir John A. Macdonald, Charles Mair was writing a letter outlining his proposal of a “party of immigrants after the German model.” “None but men with some capital,” Mair wrote, “should go to the North-West at present.”

Opposition will disappear with the presence of soldiery in Red River, and immigrants will have plenty of time to select land, build temporary shanties for themselves, and even to make hay, before the season closes. [19]

Mair did not explain that immigrants would have to be squatters at first, since no land had been surveyed for settlement. He must surely have known this, especially since he was recommending for settlement “the tract of country lying from between Lake Manitoba and the Assiniboine westward along the river on both sides,” an area not touched by the surveys of 1869. “To push a band of immigrants through this section of the country,” wrote Mair,

it is not necessary to descend from Pembina to Fort Garry and thence ascend the Assiniboine to the point indicated. The speediest and easiest way of reaching it would be to cross the country from Pembina, or even from a point higher up, and follow the old trail directly westward to Portage la Prairie, fording Riviere Sale at the upper crossing, where the water is shallow and the bottom firm.

Mair did not suggest where the settler, after his long trip north from the end of steel in Minnesota, was to obtain supplies if he avoided Winnipeg.

By this route ... Fort Garry, Red River Settlement and its insurrectionary half-breeds, and everything else, would have been entirely avoided, and people who fear however groundless those fears may be—for their lives and property, would travel in security and in peace of mind. [20]

The Globe published Mair’s letter on May 16th, less than a week after the passage of the Manitoba Act. We cannot know how much interest in emigration to Manitoba developed as a result of this letter. We do know that “Canada First” members were at work on the problem. Schultz wrote to Denison in late May that “Mair [was] at Lanark and [was] going into our Emigration scheme which I wish you would work up with him. ...” [21] Schultz had previously informed Denison that “Garrett [was] going to lecture and get up emigration.” [22]

There must have been a certain amount of interest shown in the scheme because by July 19th Mair was able to advertize that he was “forming a party of Canadian Emigrants from Ontario to the New Territory.” Applications would be received “until the fifteenth day of September next.” “Ho for the Assiniboine!” the advertisement began.

Terms of through passage to Fort Garry, conditions and statement of outfit, together with all other important information will be afforded upon application by mail. P.O. address, Perth, Ontario. [23]

The Manitoba Act had only come into effect on July 15th. No surveyors were in the new province and, needless to say, no preparations were being made to receive immigrants.

By August 3rd the members of “Canada First” were able to give more attention to emigration to Manitoba, meeting at the Mechanics Institute in Toronto. John Haldan, the man appointed to be chairman, does not appear to have been a member of “Canada First,” but most of the others mentioned in the press report were. Denison moved that an association be formed “for the purpose of assisting emigrants who desire to settle in the North-West Territories of the Dominion.” Mair spoke in support of the resolution, followed by Schultz. Schultz made these points:

... Red River was a desirable place to emigrate to: another was that there were numbers who wished to emigrate: and a third was if not done by us it would speedily be done by others.

W. Howland seconded Denison’s motion, and it was carried unanimously. J. D. Edgar then made a long speech outlining the principles of the organization being founded:

Ontario had laboured long and hard to acquire that fertile region, and now that it was within her grasp, she must see to it that the land was peopled and settled by a population liberal and intelligent, and in sympathy with her own language and traditions. As Dr. Schultz had hinted there was a determined effort being made to import another element into the population, whose political and national sympathies would be a bar to progress, and to the extension of a great Anglo-Saxon Dominion across the continent. This attempt could be counteracted only by the people of Ontario and by such action as [was] proposed ...

Efforts should be made, Edgar concluded, both to encourage Ontario’s enterprising young men “to settle in our own Great West” and to “prevent English-speaking emigrants from passing through here to settle in the United States.” Communications should be established with all the Emigration Aid Societies in Britain for that purpose.

Edgar then moved, seconded by W. A. Foster, a series of resolutions to place the new Society on a sound practical basis. Until the appointment of permanent officers, Hugh Scott was “empowered to open a book and take the names of persons who desire to become members of the Association.” A committee was appointed to frame a constitution and by-laws. [24]

Neither Mair nor Schultz, it must be observed, is reported as having reminded the meeting that no surveys were under way in Manitoba, and that, as things stood, settlers arriving there would either have to “squat” on unoccupied land or purchase land from those already established. If they talked privately of possible violence resulting from clashes over land this has not been recorded.

The North-West Emigration Aid Society of Canada produced its “Circular No. 1” on October 12th, 1870. It contained the text of a letter sent to the Hon. Christopher Dunkin, minister of agriculture and emigration, on September 22nd, and the text of Dunkin’s reply of September 28th. It also contained comments on the Minister’s reply. Both the letters and the comments are worthy of study, containing matters of intrinsic interest. The comments, in particular, reveal that the men of “Canada First” had grasped the essentially imperial implications of the Manitoba Act, and were eager to take advantage of them. In producing the Society’s first circular they were pushing themselves forward into the basically imperial role of giving advice about the administration and use of land which only one or two of them had ever seen. [25]

The letter of September 22, 1870, asked five questions:

First. What quantity of land may a settler obtain?

Second. Will he be entitled to a free grant, and if so upon what conditions? or will the government demand any, and what price per acre?

Third. Have any townships been surveyed? and if so, in what localities?

Fourth. Until surveys are made, will immigrants settling on unoccupied lands obtain thereby a prescriptive right to purchase, or to a free grant?

[has] any organized system of transport VIA Lake Superior, Rainy Lake, and Lake of the Woods, ... been adopted for the accommodation of emigrants next spring[?]

Questions three and four reveal that the lack of a comprehensive survey had indeed been discussed. These men well understood the implications both of that lack of a survey and of what they were doing by encouraging the emigration of settlers to Manitoba at this time. They must have realized that much confusion, possibly violence, could result.

Dunkin answered the questions by

a reference to the assurances given on behalf of the Government when the Manitoba Bill was under discussion in Parliament to the effect that every practicable effort will be made by a literal land-policy and otherwise, to further the development of the resources of Manitoba and the adjacent territories. The whole question of the best means to be taken to this end is still necessarily under consideration. But as soon as possible after the Government shall have received such reports from the Lieutenant-Governor as may enable it to act in this most important matter, it will not fail to make public its policy in respect of the various matters as to which your letter inquires.

It is difficult to see how Dunkin could have replied otherwise. By September 22nd Lieutenant-Governor Archibald had not been able to set in motion the taking of an “enumeration” which was essential to his following his instructions with regard to the lands of Manitoba. [26]

In its comments upon Dunkin’s reply the Society regretted that no land policy for the North-West had been decided upon, “as a season has been lost by the delay.” It then went on to deal with what it called the “excuse for delay.”

The excuse for delay seems liable to the charge of unconstitutionality, because all ungranted or waste lands in the Province shall be, from and after the date of the said transfer, vested in the Crown, and administered by the Government of Canada for the purposes of the Dominion” (Manitoba Act, 33 Vic., Cap. 3, Sec. 30). They are not subject in any way to the action of the local authorities, whose opinion and advice, the Minister informs us, he is waiting for.

“It will be regarded,” the Committee’s comment went on,

as an abdication of the functions and the trust which Parliament has, for very good reasons, specially reserved to the Government of the Dominion, to submit questions respecting the terms on which the lands of the people of the Dominion are to be granted, to a newly organized local authority, swayed by contending factions, some of whom were recently in arms against the Government of the Dominion.

The Committee was careful not to remind readers that Section 31 of the same Act had, at the insistence of the Red River delegates, reserved 1,400,000 acres of these ungranted lands “for the benefit of the families of the Half-breed residents,” and empowered the Lieutenant-Governor to “select such lots or tracts ... as he may deem expedient” and divide the same among the children of the half-breed heads of families residing in the province at the time of the said transfer to Canada ...” The Committee was, instead, coolly suggesting that the Minister disregard local considerations and advice as it set about determining a policy with regard to the lands of the new province.

At one stage in the negotiations concerning the Manitoba bill Macdonald and Cartier had promised to “authorize by order in council the persons [the Red River delegates] would choose to name ... to form a committee charged with choosing and dividing ... the 1,400,000 acres ...” [27] The Red River delegates had originally urged that this distribution of lands to the Métis ought to be “under the supervision” of the local legislature. [28] The promised order-in-council had never materialized, however, and in its place Cartier had given Ritchot his letter of May 23rd, 1870, in which the postscript stated that

the regulations authorised to be made from time to time by the Governor in Council respecting that reserve, will be such as to meet the wishes of the Half-breed residents ... [29]

Lieutenant-Governor Archibald was in a special position with respect to the “ungranted or waste lands” in Manitoba. He had been appointed “administrator” of these “ungranted or waste lands” with instructions” to report to this Department ... the Regulations which ... should be made ... under the 31st section of the Act ... for the selection of lands ... and their division among the children of the half-breed [sic] heads of families residing in that province at the time of the transfer ... together with the mode and conditions, as to settlement or other-wise, which you may consider desirable to embody in such regulations.” [30] As Lieutenant-Governor, Archibald had instructions to “cause an enumeration to be made of the half-breed [sic] heads of families residing in the said Province at the time of such transfer and of their children respectively.” [31] Such an enumeration was absolutely essential if the exact population of Half-breeds involved was to be known to those responsible for making decisions.

There can be little doubt that the special appointment of Archibald as “Administrator” of these “ungranted or waste lands” indicated that the Canadian government intended to keep the spirit of the promises it had made to the Red River delegates. At the same time, Circular No. 1 of the North-West Emigration Aid Society reveals that even before Archibald could make the necessary “enumeration” there were men lobbying the Canadian government to ignore such promises.

We cannot know how many would-be emigrants contacted the Society during the fall of 1870 and the spring of 1871 in response to its campaign. However, the Society must have found the response satisfactory because on May 1st it published its “Second Circular.” [32] This circular contained information on the type of survey which had been adopted as well as on the basic homesteading regulations. It also stated that “the Land Office at Ottawa [had] been placed in charge of Col. Dennis, P.L.S., attached to the Department of the Secretary of State (Hon. J. C. Aikins), who is now (1st May), organizing a corps of surveyors who will be set to work in Manitoba as soon as possible.” A man or family ought to take with him from Ontario at least five hundred dollars in cash, a single man from two hundred to two hundred fifty. Of the four routes avail-able, the emigrant was warned that the Canadian route was recommended only for “parties of young men without families and travelling light.”

Beyond the press report that the Society had raised $30,000 [33] for the assistance of intending immigrants, nothing more is known about the Society’s activities. What is known is that the new province of Manitoba was ill-prepared for the sudden influx of people which appeared in the spring of 1871, people who had been assured that land was waiting for them. An embarrassed provincial government found itself without immigrant sheds, without a Commissioner of Lands [34] and with no surveyed lands [35] for the emigrants to settle on. The stage was set for trouble, and it was not long in making its appearance. When it came, both parties to it found themselves in possession of official assurances concerning their position. As we have seen, the Métis had Cartier’s statement that “the regulations ... respecting that reserve, will be such as to meet the wishes of the Half-breed residents ...” [36] For their part, the immigrants could point to an order-in-council stating that “irregular” proceedings of people squatting on lands “in advance” of survey would be “countenanced” and that parties found on the land at the time of survey would be “protected in the enjoyment thereof.” [37] On one hand the old settlers looked apprehensively at the unoccupied lands next to their parishes—lands which they hoped would soon be theirs by the terms of section 31 of the Manitoba Act. On the other hand the newcomers, weary from their long trip from Ontario, looked hungrily at the same unoccupied lands, hoping to be able to establish homes there.

The gentlemen of the North-West Emigration Aid Society, in inducing an early migration of Ontario people to Manitoba before arrangements had been made in that province to receive immigrants, were forcing the hands of the provincial authorities in the spring of 1871. The discipline of the Métis people and their willingness to trust Lieutenant-Governor Archibald helped to prevent a massacre of immigrants from taking place. That, however, is part of another story.


1. Norman Shrive, Charles Mair: Literary Nationalist (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 129.

2. Carl Berger, The Sense of Power (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), p. 59.

3. H. Douglas Kemp, “Land Grants Under The Manitoba Act”, Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Series III, No. 9, 1954, p. 33; D. N. Sprague, “The Manitoba Land Question, 1870-1882,” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Autumn 1980, p. 74; Sprague, “Government Lawlessness in the Administration of Manitoba Land Claims, 1870-1887,” Manitoba Law Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, 1980, p. 414; Gerhard Ens, “Metis Lands in Manitoba”, Manitoba History, no. 5, 1983, p. 2.

4. Telegraph, April 6, 1870. G. T. Denison, The Struggle For Imperial Unity, (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1909), pp. 22, 25.

5. Globe, March 26, 1870.

6. Many Ontario newspapers for April, 1870, have accounts of these meetings. See, for example, the Chatham Banner, April 21, 1870. In this case McVicar and Campbell were the “returned refugees.”

7. Denison, Struggle, p. 22. Kingsmill was a member of the committee. Turning the rules gave black borders to the newspaper columns.

8. PAM MG12 E3, Schultz Papers, poster for a meeting at Blyth, Ontario, April 20, 1870] . An account of the meeting, which was attended by “about two hundred” people, may be read in the Seaforth Expositor, April 29, 1870.

9. Denison, Struggle, p. 28.

10. Denison, Struggle, p. 29.

11. The Ritchot Journal can be found in English in W. L. Morton (ed.), Manitoba, The Birth of a Province (Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1965) and in French in Revue d‘Histoire de l’Amerique Francaise, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Mars, 1964. See Birth of a Province, p. 133; RHAF, pp. 540-41.

12. Globe, April 30, 1870.

13. Globe, April 28, 1870.

14. Schultz Papers, letters to Darling and Jordan, Merrick & Company, etc.

15. Ibid. A scrapbook has an account by the Ottawa correspondent of the Quebec Journal. No date shown.

16. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1871, debate of Feb. 20. Sir Francis Hincks answering a question about refugee claims asked by Mr. Bodwell: “Dr. Schultz stated that with $500 he would undertake to pay their expenses and send them back to the country.”

17. “Report of the Select Committee of the Senate on the Subject of Rupert’s Land, Red River and the North-West Territory, 1870,” pp. 28-32.

18. G. T. Denison, Soldiering in Canada (Toronto: George N. Morang & Co. Ltd., 1901) p. 179; see also Denison, Struggle, p. 43.

19. Globe, May 16, 1870.

20. Ibid.

21. Metropolitan Toronto Library, Denison Papers, Schultz to Denison, May 30, 1870.

22. Denison Papers, Schultz to Denison, May 20, 1870.

23. Globe, July 19, 1870.

24. Globe, August 4, 1870. The constitution is in the Denison Papers.

25. Denison Papers. The Executive Committee consisted of the following: Hon. W. McDougall, A. McLean Howard, John Haldan, G. R. Kingsmill, G. M. Rae, W. H. Howland, K. McKenzie, Q.C., G. T. Denison, Jr., W. Arthurs, W. A. Foster, J. D. Edgar, R. Graham. Schultz’s name does not appear in the list.

26. See Manitoban, October 15, 1870, for proclamations showing Archibald’s steps in setting up his administration.

27. Morton, Birth of a Province, Ritchot’s Journal, May 5, 1870, p. 147.

28. Ibid., Ritchot’s Journal, May 2, 1870, p. 143.

29. For the text of this letter see House of Commons, Journals, “Report of the Select Committee of 1874,” p. 74, Cartier to Messrs. Ritchot and Scott, May 23, 1870.

30. C.S.P. 1871 (No. 20), E. A. Meredith to Archibald, August 4, 1870, p. 7.

31. Ibid., p. 4.

32. PAC Denison Papers MG29 E29 Vol. 18, #47, “Second Circular of the Executive Committee of the North-West Emigration Aid Society.”

33. Le Métis, June 15, 1871.

34. PAC MG26A, Vol. 61, Macdonald Papers, G. McMicken to Macdonald, Oct. 5, 1871.

35. The Manitoban, July 22, 1871, announced the arrival, on July 10, of the first party of surveyors.

36. PAC Denison Papers MG29 E29 Vol. 18, #47, “Second Circular of the Executive Committee of the North-West Emigration Aid Society.”

37. PAC, PC 1036, 26 May, 1871.

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