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Manitoba History: In Greater Manitoba ... With A. V. Thomas

by Elizabeth Blight
Head, Still Images Section, Provincial Archives of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 15, Spring 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

By 1910 it was a virtual certainty that the boundaries of Manitoba would be extended northwards to Hudson Bay. In anticipation of this event there was considerable discussion and curiosity among the people of Manitoba about the benefits of giving this vast tract of land provincial status, and endless debate over the relative merits of Port Nelson or Churchill as the terminus of the railway proposed for this new territory.

A young Winnipeg journalist, Alfred Vernon Thomas, who wanted to see this country for himself, signed on as clerk to an Indian Treaty Commission headed by John Semmens. Thirty five years earlier the Government of Canada had negotiated and signed a treaty (Number 5) with the Indians around Lake Winnipeg. Faced with the prospects of mineral and other economic development in the North and the early construction of the Hudson Bay Railway the Government of Canada thought it wise to extend the provisions of the treaty of 1875 to the Indian bands residing further in the interior. In 1908 and 1909 John Semmens, a long time Methodist missionary now working for the Department of Indian Affairs, had signed adhesions to Treaty 5 with the Indians at Cross Lake, Split Lake, Nelson House, Fisher River, God’s Lake, Island Lake and Oxford House. Semmens’ party in 1910 was to extend the treaty to the final three bands—Deer’s Lake, York Factory and Churchill—as well as paying treaty benefits to those bands previously included. The treaty party consisted of Commissioner Semmens, Dr. H. J. Hassard of Sidney Manitoba as medical officer, W. M. MacEwen of Selkirk as commissary, and Thomas as clerk.

Chief elect Robert Fiddler, Deer’s Lake Band East, 9 June 1910. The treaty signed, the Commissioner pinned upon Robert Fiddler’s coast a silver medal, and three around his shoulders a Union Jack, telling him that the flag would protect him from his enemies.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Commissioner John Semmens and clerk A. V. Thomas paying treaty at Nelson House, 12 July 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Giving out the King’s Meal, Little Grand Rapids, 1910. At treaty-paying time each year the King would give them a free meal of bacon, flour, and tea, and furthermore a quantity of the same things would be left in charge of the chief to be given to the band’s destitute members.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Women of Deer’s Lake East Band, June 1910. Soon after our arrival at the top of the clearing, the women of the band approached diffidently and in single file from the Indian village, which was concealed from view by a rise in the ground.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Indian children going to school, Fort Churchill, July 1910. ... the Commissioner insisted on seeing every member of every family ... All told, there were 180 Indians, thirty men, forty-eight women, fifty one boys, and fifty one girls ... Some of the women and girls were quite striking in appearance, in fact, they were probably as fine a set of Indian women as we had seen on our travels.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Interior of Hudson’s Bay Company store at York Factory, July-August 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Indian grave at Deer’s Lake side of Long Portage, June 1910. Characteristic poles placed on the tomb of the Redman. They suggest the totem poles of the Alaska and British Columbia Indians.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Making bannock and cutting pork on the Burntwood River, 1910. A thousand little acts of kindness were rendered to the Commissioner’s party by its Indians and its comfort ministered to in many ways which were not and could not be paid for ... and they transported four white men 3,000 miles without occasioning any of them a finger scratch.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Alfred Vernon Thomas was as old as the treaty itself; he had been born in Manchester England in 1875. After finishing school Thomas took up a position as a representative of a lace firm in Switzerland and Germany. While in Europe he contributed regularly to the Manchester Guardian. Thomas came to Canada about 1905 on the start of a world tour. Eventually he ended up in Winnipeg where he obtained a position on the staff of the Manitoba Free Press. He remained in Winnipeg until 1917 when he moved to New York with his wife, Lillian Beynon (whom he married in 1911). Returning to Winnipeg in 1920, Thomas worked for the Tribune until his retirement in 1944. Thomas died in 1950 at the age of 75.

The treaty party of the four white men and a minimum of nine Indians (local Indians were added as guides where needed) left Selkirk on 25 May and before returning on 7 September covered 3,000 miles by canoe, steamboat and Hudson Bay sailing boat. Their course followed the major canoe routes—the Berens, Nelson, Burntwood and Hayes Rivers.

Ever the journalist, Thomas wrote a series of articles for the newspapers on his return describing the land and the people. He had taken a camera with him. An album containing 174 of his northern photographs is now part of the Photograph Collection of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. While his landscape scenes are often weak in comparison to his written description of the vastness and beauty of the land, Thomas’s photographs of the people he met are his real legacy to all the people of Manitoba.

Page revised: 23 October 2012

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