Manitoba History: Thundering Waters Stilled: The Grand Rapids of the Saskatchewan

by Martha McCarthy
Historic Resources Branch, Province 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 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Grand Rapids derives its name from the four miles of turbulent rapids through which the Saskatchewan River dropped seventy feet to drain into Lake Winnipeg. For centuries native fishing parties harvested bountiful supplies of sturgeon at the Rapids. In the historic period the natives stood on the rocks beside the deep pools at O nika pik (the Carrying Place), moved a pole slowly downstream through the deep water until they felt the sturgeon’s ridged back-bone, and came back through the water with their scoop to catch the fish. [1] Quantities of fish oil, used for subsistence and for trade, were made from the catch. The whitefish were also caught in scoop nets, smoked and dried, and then pounded over rocks to produce a fish pemmican, suitable for use in winter and on the trail. [2] In the late 19th century the vicinity of Grand Rapids became a centre for commercial fishing.

Robinson’s fishery at Grand Rapids on the Saskatchewan River by James Settee, 1891.

Robinson’s fishery at Grand Rapids on the Saskatchewan River by James Settee, 1891.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Over the centuries the rapids presented, as well, a formidable obstacle to those seeking to travel between the waters of the lake and river. The variety of cultural influences found at Grand Rapids, with elements from the southwest grasslands, the northwest boreal forest, the Great Lakes, and even from the northern tundra, [3] is indicative of the central role Grand Rapids played in prehistoric times as a transportation nexus as well as a fishing camp. As a result, a well-used portage trail marked the route across the Grand Rapids.

In the early historic period, finds of both Blackduck and Selkirk pottery overlapping with European trade goods [4] suggest the presence of those Cree-Assiniboine middlemen who monopolized the early interior trade with the Bay. If so, this would reflect the integration of the Grand Rapids portage into the native fur trade transport system. As the European fur trade expanded into the interior, the Grand Rapids portage witnessed the movement of rival fur traders back and forth with increasingly heavy loads of trade goods and furs. They had of necessity adopted the same route.

This combination of roles as a centre for fishing and as a transportation node forms a persistent theme throughout the history of Grand Rapids. Fishing provided subsistence for those who lived at Grand Rapids; these residents then provided the labour necessary for portage transport; this wage labour added to the subsistence base and enabled the residents to stay year-round to form the community of Grand Rapids.

Because of its importance as a major entry to the north, Grand Rapids attracted the attention of the early fur traders. In the fall of 1741 La Verendrye sent men to build Fort Bourbon near the mouth of the Saskatchewan. Peter Fidler sketched the site of this old French fort at the east end of the portage. [5] This places it within the present town of Grand Rapids, which can claim to have been a part of the history of New France and of the expansion of its imperial frontier. Although the French post was soon moved, Grand Rapids continued to provide access for native and French traders to the north-western interior.

With the loss of New France to the British in 1763, the Hudson’s Bay Company felt it could assert its charter claims to all of Rupert’s Land, including Grand Rapids, without fear of contradiction. The “pedlars” from Montreal, now associated with British investors, soon posed more of a threat, however, than the French ever had, and stationed themselves throughout the hinterland of the Bay posts. Some time before 1774 two of these Montreal pedlars were situated at the east end of the Grand Rapids portage, [6] probably in one of those fleeting posts, occupied for a year or less, which marked this period of intense fur trade rivalry.

When Matthew Cocking of the Hudson’s Bay Company was led inland in 1774, he encountered seven tents of Indians gathered at Grand Rapids to catch sturgeon. [7] These people were relatives of his native Leader (or Trading Captain), who planned to leave his family and goods with them while he went further inland with Cocking and some other natives. These Cree had thus incorporated the rewards of service to the Hudson’s Bay Company into their already-existing trading and subsistence activities. While some brought furs to York Factory and returned with trading goods and Company servants, others fished at the Rapids and prepared food for the winter. At the same time, their position at the portage enabled them to receive tobacco and other goods from travellers seeking to cross the Rapids. Grand Rapids was the site where these two different branches of the same family or band could be sure to meet in the summer, to mete out the rewards and responsibilities of their shared economy.

These natives were already partially enmeshed in the wage economy as a result of their position on this major transport route, although wage labour was still a byproduct of their subsistence fishing. Another, and very unhappy, result of location at the portage of Grand Rapids was exposure to diseases, so frequently carried through the fur trade country by boat brigades, and so devastating to the natives who came in contact with them.

The proliferation of interior posts meant that the Grand Rapids portage was used more intensively by the end of the 18th century. Alexander Mackenzie, returning to the north in 1792 to resume his search for the river to the Pacific after spending a year in England to study astronomy, brought instruments and other necessities across the Grand Rapids portage. At Grand Rapids he met Peter Fidler of the Hudson’s Bay Company; [8] the two exchanged notes on the problems of surveying and mapping countries new to them. Mackenzie awaited the arrival of ten more canoes with goods for his expedition—an indication of the volume of traffic over the Grand Rapids portage in the summers of the late 18th century, when fur trade expansion produced heavy demands on the transport system. This increased use of the portage, in turn, offered more wage labour to those fishing at Grand Rapids, which meant further diversification of their economy. At the same time, these natives could and did exert considerable control over traffic across the portage, and demanded adequate recompense for their labour.

In an effort to speed up transit, the old portage trail, which ran three and a quarter miles, was supplanted by a shorter one of only 1980 yards. Those who carried goods preferred the short portage, although it was more dangerous. [9] Some were swept into the rapids and drowned; perhaps as a consequence, a small cemetery came into being along the river. When the Hudson’s Bay Company switched to the use of York boats, these were sometimes transported across the portage on roller logs, a practice which aroused resentment in the North West Company men, who carried their canoes across the same trai1. [10] By the mid-nineteenth century the nearly-empty boats were tracked up through the Rapids, an arduous technique which required extra-strength ropes, with the men running along the top of the lime-stone cliffs to haul the boat up. [11]

Places like Grand Rapids, where goods had to be portaged on the trail across the rapids, were natural foci of the discontent and violence which accompanied the fur trade rivalry. As the competition escalated, Governor William Williams of the Hudson’s Bay Company decided to retaliate on the North West Company for its actions in the Athabasca region, and chose Grand Rapids as the scene of reprisal. [12] When navigation opened on Lake Winnipeg in 1819, Williams transported thirty armed men and two cannons from Red River north to Grand Rapids, where he mounted a small cannon on a barge at the foot of the rapids. The other cannon and two swivel guns he placed on shore. With these he could command the portage trail, where several of the North West company wintering partners would cross on their way to their summer rendezvous with the Montreal partners. Williams arrested these men as they walked across the portage, imprisoned them for a time on Devil’s Island in the Saskatchewan River, and then sent his captives to York Factory and thence to England. Unfortunately one winterer, Benjamin Frobisher, escaped from custody and attempted to make his way back inland, only to die of starvation near Cedar Lake, a tragedy which further embittered relations between the two fur trade companies. In 1820 the Nor-’westers intended to capture Williams himself at Grand Rapids but Williams evaded them, although Colin Robertson was arrested and taken to Montreal. With the amalgamation of the two companies in 1821, however, Grand Rapids became again a quiet portage point and fishing site.

Its location gave Grand Rapids some importance in the northward extension of missions which began in the 1840s. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists vied with each other for the souls of the northern Indians, in the Cumberland, English River, Athabasca and Mackenzie Districts of the Hudson Bay Company, areas reached by sailing up Lake Winnipeg, crossing the portage at Grand Rapids, and then travel-ling up the Saskatchewan River. The numerous Cree and Sauteux [13] gathered for fishing and portage work naturally attracted the attention of those missionaries passing through, although no permanent mission was established at the time.

Hudson’s Bay Company post, Grand Rapids, 1890.

Hudson’s Bay Company post, Grand Rapids, 1890.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

When Pere Emile Petitot passed through Grand Rapids in 1863, he saw a large camp of Savanais (Swampy Cree) on the south shore of the Saskatchewan River, near Lake Winnipeg. [14] At least some of these Cree, originally from St. Peter’s mission, were adherents of the Anglican Church. At the west end of the portage trail, Petitot met a group of Catholic Sauteux from Duck Bay, as well as some from Swan River, who had come to fish for sturgeon. These Sauteux may have been relatives of the Métis who settled on the north shore of the Saskatchewan at Grand Rapids by the 1870s; [15] perhaps they were themselves these Métis, for the missionaries often used “metis” or “Sauteux” inter-changeably or together to refer to the Interlake people. Both Anglicans and Roman Catholics thus had core groups of believers at Grand Rapids, and these provided the rationale for the establishment of missions of both churches at Grand Rapids by the end of the nineteenth century.

Grand Rapids also interested the Canadian government, as expansionist fervour gripped Canada West (Ontario) in the 1850s. The Dawson and Hind expedition, sent by the Canadian government in 1857 to report on the resources of the North West, included a study of the Saskatchewan River and its Grand Rapids because these were essential components of the transport system and resources of the great area Canada hoped to acquire from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Free traders began to use the Grand Rapids entry to the Cumberland District of the Hudson’s Bay Company and by 1864 “the Yankee Clement” had set up a post at Grand Rapids itself. To counter this, the Company closed its post at Cedar Lake and built a new one at Grand Rapids, at the mouth of the Saskatchewan on the present Indian Reserve, apparently near Clement’s own house. [16] Evidently, the raison d’etre for this postat Grand Rapids was not the fur trade, which had never previously required a post, but its strategic position. In this locality the Company could mount an effective opposition not only to Clement but also to other free traders who might enter at Grand Rapids in the summer. Despite this post, however, free traders continued to oppose the Company and by 1868 Grand Rapids was a rendezvous for all these traders, both summer and winter. Hoping to overcome this competition, the Company built a large store at Grand Rapids. [17] Liquor was again an item of trade and a means to offset the competition, [18] as it had been in the earlier fur trade era, and proved as destructive as it always had to those affected by it. At Grand Rapids, where the free traders could also sell liquor to the boat brigades, this traffic complicated the operation of the Company transport system, overextended and subject to labour difficulties as it already was.

Plan showing survey at Grand Rapids by R. E. Young, 1904.

Plan showing survey at Grand Rapids by R. E. Young, 1904.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

In accordance with the Deed of Surrender of 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company was entitled to claim fifty acres around each of its posts. Rather than claiming land around the Grand Rapids post, however, the Company moved quickly to choose fifty acres at each end of the portage trail. This selection shows the paramount importance held by the transport potential of Grand Rapids, an importance which far outweighed its significance as a fur trade post, even in a period of intense competition. Because the Company had chosen these two points, it could no longer claim the land on which its post actually stood. In 1875 this became part of the Indian Reserve.

The Company’s selection of land at either end of the portage had not gone unchallenged by the native inhabitants of Grand Rapids and became an issue in the negotiation of Treaty 5 in 1875. The precise origins of the Grand Rapids band which took treaty in 1875 cannot be ascertained. It could be expected that some of those who fished at Grand Rapids, after many summers there, might decide to remain throughout the year. The presence of competing posts, which offered more opportunities for labour and for trade goods, increased the likelihood of this. Some of the Cree may have moved from the Indian village of St. Peter’s near Red River to form the nucleus of the Grand Rapids band, or may have joined an already-existing group settled at Grand Rapids. The Beardys and Cooks from St. Peter’s fished there during the summer in the 1850s [19] and their names were among those signing the first treaty in 1875.

The strategic situation of the Grand Rapids band was one factor in motivating the Canadian government to negotiate Treaty 5 in 1875. Until the railroad was completed to the west, Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River, plied by steamers capable of freighting large quantities of goods, would provide the main access between Manitoba and the north-western prairies. Grand Rapids was vital to this scheme. The establishment of missions around the lake also suggested the increasing presence of whites in this former fur trade preserve. Further factors were the presence of saw-mills around the lake, with the subsequent destruction of timber resources, and the discovery of minerals. All of these elements persuaded the government that it was

... essential that the Indian title to all territory in the vicinity of the Lake should be extinguished, so that settlers and traders might have undisturbed access to its waters, shores, islands, inlets and tributary streams. The mouth of the Saskatchewan river especially seems to he of importance as presenting an eligible site for a future town. [20]

Pressure to make treaty had also come from the Indians, well-aware of the impending disruption of their economy. The inauguration of steam navigation on Lake Winnipeg, with the subsequent loss of many Métis and Indian jobs on the York boats, caused the Norway House Indians to ask for a treaty and reserve land, as a means of helping them adapt to their changed life. On the west side of the lake, according to Rev. Henry Cochrane who was a Cree native and an Anglican missionary, all the Indians from Grand Rapids to as far as the steamers went on the Saskatchewan River were anxious to make treaty, and had already written to the Lieutenant-Governor once or twice on the subject. Cochrane had advised them not to interfere with the steamer, but to wait quietly for the government to act. [21] The use of vast piles of wood to fuel the steam-boats, without recompense to the natives, was bound to cause resentment, as would the use of transport routes without permission (even more so since the new methods of transport required less participation from the natives). Thus commercial and transport changes provided motives on both sides of the treaty-making process, and both parties regarded the treaty as at least some protection for their own vital interests.

Morris travelled to the bands along Lake Winnipeg aboard the Hudson’s Bay Company’s steamer Colvile in 1875. At Grand Rapids, the main Indian village occupied the south shore but some of the members had built houses on the north shore, on the best site for docking a steamboat, probably at the east end of the portage trail. Morris negotiated with the band to accept treaty, and only when this was accomplished to his satisfaction did he bring up the question of selection of a reserve. The band requested the area at the east end of the portage, (the HBC reserve), but Morris refused this

... as the locality they had hitherto occupied is so important a point, controlling as it does the means of communication between the mouth of the River and the head of the rapids and where a train-way will no doubt ere long require to be constructed - presenting also deep-water navigation and excellent wharfage, and evidently being moreover the site where a town will spring up... [22]

Instead, Morris proposed a reserve on the south side of the river, but near its mouth, well away from the vital portage, on land previously occupied by the HBC post. To recompense those forced to move from the north side, Morris agreed to pay $500.

In 1876 when Indian Commissioner Howard arrived at Grand Rapids to pay the treaty money, the band members were camped in tents on the south shore, not yet having built houses. In fact, the band chief insisted that they had not accepted treaty in 1875, but had only held preliminary talks. No explanation was given as to why the Cree made this assertion. Perhaps the speed and lack of ceremony in 1875 influenced their perception and, in all likelihood, Morris’ evaluation that the treaty had been accepted before agreement on the site of a reserve may have been misconceived. Eventually, Howard managed to convince the band to accept the treaty payments and the reserve allotted to them by Morris. The $500 payment was distributed evenly among the band members, at their own request, rather than only to those forced to move. [23] This reflected the assumption that real estate was community rather than private property, a view which separated the native perception from that of the Euro-Canadians.

The sites chosen by the Hudson’s Bay Company at Grand Rapids were essential to the modernization of transport necessary to enable the Company to prosper in the changed circumstances of Canadian sovereignty in the fur trade country. [24] This modernization was equally important to the Canadian government, as witnessed by Morris’ insistence that the Company’s land claims at Grand Rapids should not be allotted to the Indians. The high cost of native labour in the boat brigades and the frequent work stoppages which had marked the 1860s convinced the Company to replace the old York boats with steamboats. Using these on Lake Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan River, the Company could transport large volumes of goods and passengers in a much less labour-intensive way than could the old York boat brigades. Although steam-boats offered a technological improvement over the York boats, theirs was a transitory influence. A steamboat transportation network was still a seasonal one, operable only in summer and subject to the vagaries of wind, water and weather. Such a system could not compete with the year-round reliability of railway land transport. In the interim, however, steamboats bridged the gap between the inadequacies of the old York boats and the as-yet incomplete rail transport system.

The Company launched its first lake steamer, the Chief Commissioner, in 1872. The Company originally planned to use this steamboat on Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipegosis, hoping the Canadian government would build a canal across the Mossy Portage to connect Lake Winnipegosis to Cedar Lake and avoid the Grand Rapids bottleneck completely. After completion, however, the Chief Commissioner could not pass up the Little Saskatchewan (Dauphin) River into Lake Manitoba nor would the federal government build the necessary canal. These factors forced the Company to continue to use the Grand Rapids route. Consequently, the Company decided to use the Chief Commissioner on Lake Winnipeg and to build other steamers on the Saskatchewan to link up with it at Grand Rapids. The Chief Commissioner, however, proved very unsafe for use on Lake Winnipeg, which was so much larger and more dangerous than the waters for which she had been designed. The Company had similar bad luck with its first Saskatchewan River steamboat, built at Grand Rapids in 1873, which was sunk on her maiden voyage.

Profiting from these experiences, the Company built replacements better suited to the very different needs of navigation of lake and river. In 1874 the Colvile replaced the Chief Commissioner on Lake Winnipeg and the Northcote was built at Grand Rapids for use on the Saskatchewan. In 1877 the Lily, a steel-hulled steamboat, was added to the Saskatchewan River fleet. With this transport system in place, the Company could hope to provide a more efficient, labour and cost-saving alternative to the old York boats.

The decision to use steamers rather than boats affected Grand Rapids very directly. The fifty acre site chosen by the Hudson’s Bay Company at the west end of the old portage trail was too close to the rapids for safe docking of the river steamboats. The Company therefore asked the Canadian government to exchange its original site for one better suited to its new transport needs. The government balked at this, however, because it had some hopes of building a canal around the series of three rapids which marked the exit of the Saskatchewan—the Rocher Rouge, Demicharge, and the Grand Rapids. In pursuance of this objective, the land at Grand Rapids was made a Government Reserve in 1875. After much negotiation, the government decided to grant the Hudson’s Bay Company an extra eight acres at the upper end of the rapids, where proper wharfage for steamboats would be possible. [25]

A further complication at Grand Rapids, however, was the old portage trail. Horses hauled wagon-loads across the portage but this method often required five days to unload one steamboat, a delay which offset the huge investment in steam technology. The solution to this problem was to build a tramway across the old portage trail, replacing the road with rails. The Hudson’s Bay Company had considered installing a tramway at Grand Rapids in the early 1870s but doing so represented a large financial investment, one which the Company was unwilling to make unless the Canadian government approved and gave a right-of-way for the line. Eventually the right-of-way was leased (rather than sold) to the Company, with the tariffs to be charged made subject to government approval.

Although the tramway was an innovative attempt to overcome the perennial obstacle of the Grand Rapids, the Company decided to use horses rather than engines to haul the tramway cars, and to use narrow-gauge tracks—technology which had already been superceded elsewhere, and which necessitated custom-building of the tramcars. In June 1877 the Colvile transported Walter Moberly, hired to supervise the construction of the tramway, his crew, and the necessary material to Grand Rapids. The tramway was completed in October, making it the first operating railroad in what is now Manitoba.

The tramway served the purposes intended for it. It saved the labour of a great many men and horses, since one horse could pull a couple of cars with a few tons of freight. It made the use of steamboats as reliable and efficient as possible in the years before the railroad outmoded their use. In 1881 the Hudson’s Bay Company worked out an arrangement with the Winnipeg and Western Transportation Company, to which the Company transferred its Saskatchewan River steamboats and the tramway in exchange for a large interest in the transportation company and a considerable discount on Company freight. In 1882 a similar arrangement was made with the North West Navigation Co. to take over the Colvile and conduct the Lake Winnipeg transport. [26] With these moves, the Company divested itself of the onerous task of conducting a public transport system, yet maintained a favourable discount for its own freight.

Throughout the 1880s Grand Rapids continued to provide a major entry into the Saskatchewan. Settlers and their goods, Indian Department and North West Mounted Police supplies, as well as Hudson’s Bay Company outfits, arrived by steamboat, were transferred across the tramway, and put on board the Saskatchewan River boats. Three large riverboats, the Manitoba, the Marquis, and the North West were steamed, hauled, and winched over the Grand Rapids, to operate on the Saskatchewan—an engineering feat of some magnitude, accomplished by Peter McArthur, the former owner of the North West. The large Hudson’s Bay Company house at the west end of the tramway became the hotel, owned and operated by the Winnipeg and Western Transportation Co., where passengers stayed while they awaited the arrival of the steamboats, which were so often delayed by low water, accidents or contrary winds. The steamboat operations required so much wage-labour from the Grand Rapids people that A. S. Cochrane, surveyor for the Geological Survey of Canada, complained that the natives had become very “independent” and would not work for less than $1.00 per day plus keep. [27] It appears that he found these prices very steep.

The steamboats and tramway carried soldiers of the North West Rebellion in 1885, contributing not a little to the swift movement of armies which is usually ascribed only to the Canadian Pacific Railway. The tram-way was also very attractive to the Grand Rapids children, who often ran the empty cars down the incline to the west end—much to the discomfiture of those in charge, who had to go and retrieve the cars. Perhaps to ease this task, a telephone line was installed in 1886 to enable those at one end of the tramway to communicate with those at the other.

While the transportation aspect of Grand Rapids entered a new phase of technological change, the fisheries, the other base of the economy, also changed. The first successful commercial fishing of Lake Winnipeg began in 1882, made possible by the technological improvements of steamboats and freezers, and made profitable by access to the large United States market. Selkirk became the centre for these first commercial fishing operations, and the well-established steamboat connections to Grand Rapids made it inevitable that the fisheries there would soon be commercialized.

In 1886 Captain William Robinson of Selkirk built a house at Grand Rapids and carried on a combined fishing (Dominion Fish Co.) and steamboat (North West Navigation Co.) operation there. [28] This enterprise by Robinson increased the amount of wage labour available at Grand Rapids. His fishery employed about 100 men, [29] and others were hired to cut the 1000 cords of wood needed for his steamboats, and 3000 tons of ice for his freezers. [30] For a short time also Robinson operated a sale shop, stocked with bacon, flour and other trade necessities, brought to Grand Rapids by his steamboats. By 1889, however, the HBC contracted to supply Robinson with the necessary labour, cordwood and ice, if he would not run this competing shop. [31]

The amount of fish taken by these first commercial fisheries roused the fears of the Indians of Lake Winnipeg that their subsistence would soon be destroyed. Yet these same Indians had little option but to labour in the fisheries for wages to supply their families with basic necessities. They were unable to conserve the fish for their own use, nor were they equipped to compete with the large commercial operations aimed at the United States market. [32] Official enquiries were made and regulations and licensing systems imposed, but the depletion of fish continued.

The fact that so many steamboats called at Grand Rapids, made it almost inevitable that liquor would be smuggled through that entry to the North West Territories. A small detachment of North West Mounted Police was stationed at Grand Rapids through the navigation seasons 1889-91 to watch for such importations but was discontinued thereafter, when the Saskatchewan River steamboat traffic virtually ceased.

Although the Cree had tried to maintain a claim to the Hudson’s Bay Company Reserve on the north shore, by 1883 the whole band had built houses on the Indian Reserve on the opposite shore, and began to plant potatoes and raise cattle according to the terms of the treaty and in line with government policy. Much of the land was unsuitable for agriculture, however, and even though more was added in 1894 to make up for the large amount of muskeg and the inadequate size of the original reserve, agriculture never became a viable occupation for the band members.

The band economy depended on loading and unloading steamboats, working on the boats, paddling canoes for travellers, fishing, hunting, cutting cordwood and ice in winter for the steamboats and fishing boats, with trapping furs as a minor activity. The wage labour opportunities at Grand Rapids, enhanced by their own fisheries, relieved the band of many of the difficulties faced by other bands of Treaty Five. In addition, the competition in goods sold at stores such as Shannon & Co., and at sales shops of the commercial fisheries and navigation companies made it possible for the Grand Rapids Cree to obtain more favourable prices from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Their houses, many of them two-storey, stretched along the south shore of the Saskatchewan River and reflected this prosperity. [33]

The Church Missionary Society of the Anglican Church took possession of the old Company post on the Indian Reserve in 1875 and made it into a chapel, which was named St. John’s. Resident missionaries were stationed on the Indian Reserve beginning in the early 1880s. In the years when no missionary was resident, Chief Peter Beardy and Councillor Joseph Atkinson conducted services; they used English-language prayers, thus displaying both an advanced level of Christianity in their ability to act as lay ministers, and at the same time the acculturation which so often accompanied or dominated evangelization. In 1893 Rev. James Settee, then 87 years old, took charge of the mission for a brief period.

In accordance with the terms of the treaty, beginning in 1880 or 1881 a school was provided for the band children. The teachers’ salaries were notoriously low and Hudson’s Bay Company clerks were warned not to extend much credit to teachers. Often the minister and his wife taught the school, thus augmenting their small incomes. This school, like the rest of Grand Rapids and much of the Saskatchewan District in the 1880s, depended on the steamboats to bring supplies. In 1884, however, the furniture for the new school had to be thrown overboard when the steamer carrying it ran into a violent storm on Lake Winnipeg. [34] Consequently, the school had no furniture until replacements were sent the following year.

The opportunities for labour at Grand Rapids in the fishing and steamboat operations drew several Métis families to settle there. Many of the Métis from the vicinity of Red River had been forced in the 1860s and 1870s to move to northern posts to seek work, when their former occupations of buffalo hunters, carters and boat-men declined and disappeared. Grand Rapids, with its fishing and transport interests, offered a replacement for a lost way of life. Catholic missionaries visited these Métis from the mission stations of Brochet, Pelican Lake, Cumberland and The Pas, in order to maintain their Catholic faith. The population of the settlement was not large enough at the time to justify a resident priest, although the Métis requested one. In 1892 Pere Charlebois purchased Robinson’s house in the Grand Rapids Settlement to use as a combination house-chapel during his visits. In 1901 he and the Métis built a separate chapel on the site. This beautiful little church, fronting on the Saskatchewan, is still in use at Grand Rapids.

Some of the Métis had taken treaty but withdrew in 1887, when Roger Goulet and N. Omer Cote, the federal Half-Breed Commissioners, visited Grand Rapids to assign scrip to any residents who qualified under the terms of Section 31 of the Manitoba Act, (having been born in Manitoba before 15 July 1870). [35] Theclaims which were allowed were made by those seeking to leave treaty, a step facilitated by the 1884 revision of the Indian Act, which removed the previous requirement that Indians seeking to leave treaty and take scrip as Métis would have to repay any annuities they had received. Twenty-one claims were granted, a sizeable proportion of the 139 Cree listed at Grand Rapids in the census of 1881. When they left the reserve it was noted that very little land was then cultivated. This appears to show that these were the people most inclined to undertake agriculture as at least a secondary subsistence base.

Withdrawal from treaty had already proved ruinous to Métis in other parts of the Treaty Five area. Their scrip was quickly sold to the HBC or to the ubiquitous speculators who shadowed the Commissioners, and they were left with neither money nor land. Those who left treaty soon asked to be reinstated and those who had not sold their scrip (a minute number) were allowed to reenter, but the rest were forced to remain out, where they faced a bleak economic future. At Grand Rapids, these Métis depended on wage labour for their livelihood, with no land or treaty rights as supplement. Since all the land at Grand Rapids was reserved to the government, the Hudson’s Bay Company, or the Indian Reserve, the Métis could not acquire any land title but had to live as squatters, in log houses along the north shore of the Saskatchewan. These houses, whitewashed and tinted, presented a colourful and attractive view to arrivals on the steamboats.

Some of these Métis had not belonged to any Indian treaty, nor were they qualified to receive scrip under the Manitoba act. As with those in other parts of the Northwest Territories, these Métis had never received any recognition in land or money of their aboriginal rights. The federal government had consistently refused to negotiate on this topic but, in 1899, with the provision to deal with the Métis of the Athabasca region in the new Treaty 8, the decision was finally reached to deal equally with those in the organized territories and the enlarged province of Manitoba. In 1900 J. A. Cote and Samuel McLeod were appointed Half-Breed Commissioners to deal with the Saskatchewan District (in which Grand Rapids was then located). They met at Grand Rapids from the 8th to the 10th of October 1900; 36 residents claimed scrip or land in their own right, having been born in the North-West Territories, while 12 others claimed as heirs of mixed-bloods who had never received scrip. [36] In most cases, the scrip was quickly in the hands of speculators.

By that time life at Grand Rapids had changed a great deal and many of the wage-labour opportunities had disappeared. The extension of railroads through-out western Canada ended the use of steamboats on the Saskatchewan, and many of the magnificent relics of that romantic era lay derelict along the riverbanks. The demise of the steamboats eroded the labour possibilities at Grand Rapids and made the use of the tram-way as a public carrier almost non-existent. With the close of the steamboat age on the Saskatchewan, the Winnipeg and Western Transportation Co. went bankrupt and the tramway reverted to the Hudson’s Bay Company. But the Company post at Grand Rapids had functioned primarily in connection with the transport business and its fur trade had always been minimal. In 1909 no justification remained for this post, and it was closed.

Despite the loss of commercial transport facilities at Grand Rapids, however, local people still made use of the tramway to carry their own canoes, goods and mail. Occasionally tourists arrived on steamboats and crossed the tramway, in hopes of finding someone to run the rapids in a boat from the west end. The Hudson’s Bay Company surrendered its tramway lease in the 1920s to the federal government, which in turn transferred the land to the Manitoba government, which then handed the tramway to the local government. The people of Grand Rapids continued to maintain and use the tramway until the 1950s; the terminal became a favourite picnic spot, and a place to await returning relatives.

Although Grand Rapids had lost its important role as steamboat and tramway connection, fishing continued to provide an economic base for the community. By the turn of the century, five fishing companies were established on nearby Horse (Selkirk) Island. Over 1000 people gathered there in summer, from Grand Rapids or Selkirk, or tourists aboard the Premier. [37] Whole families moved from Grand Rapids to the island to spend the summer—a move which the Indian Agent considered demoralizing, and which kept the children out of school (although those who were children at the time remember the summers on Horse Island with fondness). The women worked along with the men. They boiled the intestines of whitefish until the oil floated to the surface, then skimmed off the oil into bottles, which were sold as far away as The Pas. Tents dotted the island and dances were held nearly every night. [38]

Although some observers thought the Cree of Grand Rapids would be forced to move because of the loss of so many jobs, the band persisted in pursuing a livelihood at Grand Rapids, saying

We have been at Grand Rapids for a long time & this is where they left us as they knew we could make a living here. We like this place. We go away but we come back. It is easy to make a living here and for that reason we like it. [39]

The Métis of the Settlement of Grand Rapids also found labour opportunities in the fisheries, and maintained their commitment to the community. Perhaps in recognition of this stability, in 1902 the Anglican Church established the church of St. James on the north shore, a church which is still standing and still serving the people of Grand Rapids.

The federal government, which in 1875 had set aside all of the land at Grand Rapids (except for the Indian Reserve and the Hudson’s Bay Company Reserve) as a government reserve in case a canal was constructed, had maintained its hold on the land through the 1890s, when it seemed possible that Grand Rapids might be the site of a bridge across the Saskatchewan for the Hudson Bay Railway. None of the grandiose schemes for Grand Rapids, however, ever materialized. Canals had been pre-empted by railway construction, and it was decided that the proposed Hudson Bay Railway would not run through Grand Rapids. The government released its hold on the land, and R. E. Young surveyed the settlement at Grand Rapids in 1903 and laid out a town site along the river. The lots, from two to ten acres in size, were sold to the Métis and other residents at $1.00 per acre. [40] Within a few years, however, the Métis had sold or lost title to these lands, and asked the government for more. In 1914-15 W.E. Weld made a new survey, adding lots of one to six acres back of the earlier river lots. In an effort to protect the Métis from speculators these lots were leased rather than sold. [41]

The extension of the boundary of Manitoba in 1912 to include the District of Keewatin (in which Grand Rapids was then located) led to renewed interest in the resources of the new north, and for a time Grand Rapids was the focal point of much of this interest. A company called New Manitoba Resources Ltd. was formed and advertised lots for sale at Grand Rapids, “Manitoba’s Greatest Water Power and Coming Manufacturing City.” [42] The Métis loss of land may have resulted from such speculative enterprises. Prospective electric power projects proved premature, however, and the community of Grand Rapids, with its settlement on the north shore and the Indian Reserve on the south, continued as a small fishing centre, an aspect of its economy which had persisted through the centuries of change.

A public school was built in the settlement in 1914, another symbol of the stability of the community, as well as of the integration of Manitoba’s “New North” into the structure of provincial government. This school was not always open, however, since it was difficult to find teachers. At times the school was used as a dance-hall and the children of the settlement attended school on the Indian Reserve across the river. The school attained more continuity by the 1930s, and many of the present residents of Grand Rapids received their education in it.

Throughout the Depression and World War IT, the community of Grand Rapids continued in its quiet existence, with the waters of the Rapids a constant, though ever-changing, presence in the lives of its residents. In the post-war period, however, increased demands for electric power in Manitoba again attracted government attention to Grand Rapids and to the possibilities of developing the hydro-electric potential of the “thundering waters” of the Saskatchewan. No longer considered an obstacle to transport to be overcome by canals or tramways, the rapids became a resource of immense value in themselves, for they could be harnessed to provide a major source of electric power for the “purposes of the province.” These considerations led to the construction of the dam at Grand Rapids in 1962. By damming the waters of the Saskatchewan, however, the Grand Rapids, a source of life and beauty for many centuries, were destroyed. The roar of the water under the ice in spring, shaking the ground on both sides of the river, remains only a poignant memory to the older residents of Grand Rapids. [43]


1. Notes and interviews with Ken McKay and Archie Cinq-Mars, Grand Rapids, February 1987. The visit to Grand Rapids was made possible by the Historic Resources Branch, Manitoba, as part of the research necessary for the lengthy report “Grand Rapids, a History to 1921,” HRB 1987, from which this article is derived.

2. Valentine McKay in Winnipeg Free Press, 1 October 1966.

3. Wm. Mayer-Oakes, Archaeological Investigations in the Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Reservoir 1961-62 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1970), p. 377.

4. Ibid., pp. 352-53.

5. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (hereafter HBCA) E3/1, fo. 82. Peter Fidler, Journal, 23 August 1792.

6. HBCA B239/a/72, fo. 5. Matthew Cocking, Journal, 27 July 1774.

7. Ibid.

8. HBCA E311, fo. 82. Peter Fidler, Journal, 23 August 1792.

9. Ibid.

10. E. Cowes, ed., New Light on the Early Historic of the Greater North-West: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson, 1799-1814. Reprint (Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1965), p. 463.

11. Canada. Report of Progress together with a Preliminary and General Report on the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expeditions. (London: Government of Canada, 1860), p. 88.

12. A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West (London: Nelson, 1939), pp. 611-12.

13. There are so many variations of the spelling of this word that I have chosen to keep the French version, without attempting to anglicize it. It would be preferable to use “Ojibwa.”

14. E. Petitot, En route pour la rner glaciale (Paris: Letouzey et ane, 1887), pp. 229-34.

15. Missions de la Congregation des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Innaculee, 1876, pp. 270-72, Letter from Pere Bonnald.

16. HBCA B49/b/4, fo. 50d. Roderick McKenzie to Wm. McTavish, 12 September 1864.

17. HBCA Al2/45, fo. 175d. George Deschambeault to Mactavish, 1 June 1868.

18. HBCA B49/b/4, fo. 59, Roderick McKenzie to Wm. McTavish, 12 December 1864.

19. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (hereafter PAM), Church Missionary Society A83, Journal of David Anderson, 19 June 1859.

20. Canada, Sessional Papers No. 9 (1876), Report, Department of the Interior.

21. PAM MG12B1, Morris, LG#1021. H. Cochrane to Morris, 17 June 1875.

22. PAM MG12B1, Morris, LB/J #298, 11 October 1875.

23. PAM MG12B1, Morris, LG #1319. Howard to Morris, 10 October 1876.

24. Cf. A.J. Ray, “Adventurers at the Crossroads,” The Beaver April/May 1986, pp. 4-12.

25. PAC RG15 Vol. 234, File 4346. Department of Interior, Memorandum, 7 October 1875 and Canada, Sessional Papers, Vol. XV No. 10 (1882), D.A. Smith to Dennis, 1 December 1876.

26. Ross Leckow, “A Marriage of Convenience: The HBC’s Involvement with Steamboat Companies in the Northwest, 1880-1882,” (typescript, Historic Resources Branch, 1982).

27. PAC RG45 Vol. 138 #1178. Field Notebook, A. S. Cochrane, 6 September 1882.

28. HBCA B49/b/14, fo. 273-4. Belanger to Wrigley, 3 January 1888.

29. PAC RG10 Vol. 3807 file 52,443. Report, G. D. Mc Vicar to Lt.-Gov. Schultz, 2 October 1888.

30. HBCA B49/b/20, fo. 480. Macfarlane to Clark, 4 April 1893.

31. HBCA B42/e/15, fo. 1 & 7, Cumberland Report, 1889.

32. PAC RG10 Vol. 3807 file 524443, McColl, Report, 23 October 1888. Cf. also Frank Tough, “The Establishment of a Commercial Fishing Industry and the Demise of Native Fisheries in Northern Manitoba,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. IV, no. 2 (1984), pp. 303-319.

33. Canada. Sessional Papers No. 27, (1901), Part I, p. 94. Jos. Courtney to Superintendent-General, Indian Affairs, 31 July 1900.

34. Canada. Sessional Papers Vol. XIX (1886). Indian Affairs, Superintendent-General’s Report.

35. Canada. Sessional Papers, Vol. XXI, No. 12 (1888). Department of the Interior, Report of North-West HalfBreed Claims Commission. R. Goulet and N. Omer Cote to A.M. Burgess, 10 January 1888.

36. Canada. Sessional Papers Vol. XXXVI No. 10 Part 6 (1901), p. 8.

37. PAM MG11D3. Solmundsum, Gudmundem E. Transcript of tape, 25 November 1959.

38. Interview with Harriet Ballantyne, Grand Rapids, February 1987 and Syd Keighley, Winnipeg, March 1987.

39. PAC DIAND File 578/30-48-33, Vol. I, Band Meeting held at Grand Rapids, 7 January 1913.

40. HBCA LD493, Plan showing surveys at Grand Rapids by R. E. Young, 1904.

41. DIAND File 578/30-48-33 Vol. I. Deputy Minister of Interior to J. A. Campbell, MP, 17 April 1919.

42. The Pas Herald, 24 July 1913.

43. Interview with Jeanie McKay and Nora (McKay) Cook, Grand Rapids, February 1987.

Page revised: 13 December 2020