George Flett, Presbyterian Missionary to the Ojibwa at Okanase
by Alvina Block
On 15 July 1875 William Wagner, a surveyor for the reserves of Treaty Two in southwestern Manitoba, visited Okanase (now know as Keeseekoowenin) Reserve. He reported to David Laird, Superintendent of the North West Territories, that the newly established reserve at Riding Mountain House was better off than the surrounding reserves because the Presbyterians had sent a “schoolmaster, a Mr. George Flett” to work there. This Mr. Flett did not “stand on his dignity as a Rev’d gentleman would do but like the old Philosophers” went from “house to house” teaching the people. 
George Flett who was of Orkney/Cree background, lived at Red River as a youth, farmed and engaged in free-trade on the White Horse Plains as a young adult, was a postmaster for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Victoria (near Edmonton), served as an interpreter on the first Presbyterian missionary expedition to the Northwest from 1866-1869, and became a missionary to the Ojibwa at Okanase Reserve from 1873-1895. Flett, his career, and his relationships are exceptionally interesting. He lived during a critical time in the history of the Northwest, and was involved in many aspects of economic, political and religious life.
Several different voices found in archival materials help to inform a reconstruction of the life of George Flett. My focus is on the family backgrounds of George and his wife Mary Ross Flett; on the perceptions that the Ross family, secular institutions, religious organizations and individuals had of George Flett; and on how George Flett perceived himself. These perceptions, or voices, seem to divide into two segments, or to present two divergent pictures of Flett. The first one is the picture of an “old Philosopher” or Native Elder. The second one portrays a “Rev’d gentleman” or a devoted missionary under the auspices of the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Committee (FMC). The objective of this paper is to explore these at times contradictory perceptions, in order to better understand the complex character of George Flett.
George Flett was born on 10 February 1817 at Moose Lake on the Saskatchewan River where his father, George Flett Sr., was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Flett Sr. came to the North West from the Orkney Islands in 1796 at the age of twenty-one. He worked as an inland labourer and boatman under the jurisdiction of York Factory until 1810. From 1810 to 1822 he worked at Moose Lake, near Cumberland House, first as assistant trader and then as clerk. Flett Sr. was one of the employees who retired to Red River after the merger of the HBC and the North West Company (NWC) in 1821. 
George Flett’s mother, Margaret (Peggy) Whitford was, in his own words, “an English Half-breed.”  Her father, James Peter Whitford, came from the parish of St. Paul’s, London and entered the HBC service in 1788, working in the York Factory district. Whitford married Sarah, an Indian woman, doubtless Cree, sometime before 1795, probably at Severn. From 1813 until he retired, he worked at Carlton House on the Saskatchewan. 
According to oral tradition passed on by J. A. Donaghy, a missionary at Okanase from 1909-1917, Flett’s mother was a sister to Michael Cardinal (Mekis), a “strong warrior, hunter or chief.”  Mekis had three wives—of Dakota, Orkney and French origins. With these women, Mekis had such notable children as Keeseekoowenin and George Bone who later became chiefs at Okanase Reserve, and who played a major role in securing treaty protection for their people from the Canadian government.  Mekis signed Treaty Number Two in 1871, and Keeseekoowenin and Baptiste signed the revisions to treaties one and two in 1875.  If oral tradition is correct, these Okanase chiefs were George Flett’s first cousins.
Other sources corroborate the oral tradition passed on by Donaghy. Osborne Lauder, a descendant of Annie and Lauder (Flett’s adopted daughter), remembers that Flett was related to the Okanase chiefs although he is not sure how.  Walter Scott known as Old Baldy, Keeseekoowenin’s ninety-year old grandson, agrees.  After Flett’s death, George Bryce wrote a tribute in which he said that Flett was related to the people at Okanase.  There is evidence that the Okanase Ojibwa had some French or English background. Isaac Cowie, an HBC apprentice at Fort Pelley in 1869, later observed that the Indians there, “like the Okanase band about Riding Mountain, were remotely descended from Europeans, but born and brought up with the Indians.”  Clearly there was a relationship of some kind between Flett’s mother and Michael Cardinal.
When George Flett Sr. and his wife Peggy retired at Red River in late 1823, they already had five sons. They had been married according to the custom of the country, but in December 1823 the Church of England minister, David Jones, legalized their marriage. On the same day he baptized their five sons, George being the third oldest.  The Flett family acquired thirty-four acres of land in the Point Douglas area. George Flett Sr. received thirty pounds annually from the HBC. 
George Flett Jr. was educated or “trained” at the parish school.  George, born in 1817, was of school age during the early years of the Red River Indian Mission School, which “opened its doors to the children of settlers, Company, and Indians alike.” Here the students learned to read and write but they also learned practical skills such as fishing, hunting, fixing a gun. 
On 26 November 1840, George Flett married Mary Ross at St. John’s with Cuthbert Grant, Francis M. Dease, and John Dease as witnesses and William Cockran officiating.  Mary’s father was Alexander Ross, a Highland Scot who, before he retired to Red River in 1825, had been a chief trader for the Pacific Fur Company and the NWC.  While working in the West, Ross married Sally Timentwa, the daughter of an Okanagan chief, according to the custom of the country. When Ross set out for Red River in 1825, he left Sally to follow him with four children. She journeyed across the mountains on horseback, one child in front of her, one child behind her, and two on another horse, arriving at Red River in the summer of 1826. 
Mary Ross, one of the children who came across the Rockies, received her education at the Red River Academy where she learned to read, write, sing and “the proper deportment for young ladies.”  The Ross family enjoyed a higher economic status than the Flett family. Ross retired to Red River on 120 pounds per annum and a grant of 100 acres of land upon which he built his home, called Colony Gardens. 
Flett’s voice comes to us through two documents which demonstrate how his early experiences shaped his life. The first document is a transcribed oral story, a description of a family journey when he was eighteen. The second document is a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law, James Ross in 1854. When Flett was seventy years old he told William Coldwell, his brother-in-law and a Free Press reporter, about a unique family journey which took place in 1835. After the Flett family settled at Point Douglas, they experienced the 1826 Red River flood, so it was 1828 before they got ahead with farming. George Flett Sr. thought
Since he took six sons and one daughter with him on his search for utopia, a further concern could have been that he anticipated a land shortage for his sons in Red River because river frontage farming strips were becoming scarce. The Flett family did not travel alone; five other families went with them to “spy out the land.” A “Sioux halfbreed, Larocque of Fort Pepin” accompanied them as a guide. The Fletts transported a “years stock of provisions” in ten Red River carts. They had “fifteen or twenty head of cattle, and horses for use and sale.”
Their destination was undetermined; either the States or Canada would do, if it appealed to them as an advantageous place to live. Their journey took them along the west side of Red River to Pembina and across the boundary into Dakota territory. One night, while the group camped near an “Indian village,” two “Sioux” came to Larocque’s tent but he did not invite them in. Next they went to a French family’s tent where hospitality was denied them as well. Then they tried young George’s tent and, according to his report, he was “civil to them.” They stayed for some time and left during the night. The next morning two oxen were missing—one belonged to Larocque and the other belonged to the French family. Flett implied that by talking to the “Sioux” into the night, he gained their good favour while the people who refused hospitality had to bear the consequences. This experience, no doubt, taught Flett to deal with native peoples with generosity and wisdom, a model that was to stand him in good stead later, when he was a missionary at Okanase.
The Flett family and their company passed through the one-shanty site of Minneapolis and on to Chicago, alternating between travel via carts or boats. Eventually they arrived at Sault Ste. Marie. As winter was approaching, they agreed to stay for a few months. They spent the time ice-fishing, but they found that they had a “hankering for a return to the delights of buffalo hunting” so they decided to go back to Red River in the spring. Before the Flett family left, the Indians at Sault Ste. Marie called a great council to which Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal missionaries were invited. The Indians were confused because the teachings of these religious leaders differed so much. According to Flett, one old chief told the missionaries;
The Flett family returned safely to Red River by canoe, the Canadian way. On their way back, they crossed paths with George Simpson who was traveling at “almost lightning express speed round the shores of the lake,” and who supplied them “liberally with biscuit and ham” for their journey.
That the council of Indians and missionaries at Sault Ste. Marie left and indelible mark on Flett Jr., is demonstrated by a letter from Flett to James Ross, his brother-in-law, who was attending the University of Toronto. In this 1854 letter, Flett describe a journey he made in December 1853, from Red River to St. Joseph, located approximately thirty miles up the Pembina River from Pembina. Flett was there “geatheren [sic] up some debts [he] had given out in year 1850.” 
At St. Joseph, Flett stayed in a Presbyterian home where he met a schoolmaster named Smith. When Smith realized that Flett spoke English, French, Cree, and Ojibwa, he tried to persuade Flett to join their missionary cause. Flett knew that there was already a Catholic mission headed by Father Belcourt at Pembina, as well as a Baptist mission. As well, a certain James Tanner was there, preaching to the Indians in the Chippewa language, using a Chippewa testament and hymn book translated by his father, the famous John Tanner. 
Flett replied to Smith’s plea with various excuses. First he said that he was not a good scholar but Smith countered, “Good a nough for indiens [sic].” Then Flett told Smith that his talking was better than his reading and writing. But Smith saw through all these excuses. Flett’s words, Smith said: “I know you are able for the work field is large go forth.” Finally Flett replied that he would be an unprofitable missionary because he had “seen too much of the kind before.” Flett’s answer to the Presbyterian referred directly to his experiences almost twenty years before. He said that when he was at the Sault in 1835 Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, and Methodists were there and “one spoke as bad as he could of the other.” He continued:
Flett continued that when the differing denominations could agree upon one God, then he would be a missionary. His final comment was: “Friend I can not join you to do good is not to speak evel of one another and the indians won’t believe you.” Flett returned to his farm on the White Horse Plains on 2 January where he had a comfortable home, a good garden and crops in summer. He and his brother-in-law, James Cunningham, were in the process of building a water mill there. That Flett went to St. Joseph to collect money indicates that he was also engaged in free trade. He ended his letter, apologizing for his bad writing and his lack of education.
Flett, with his poor spelling and bad hand-writing, was not intimated by James Ross, the university student, who was winning scholarships and awards for his brilliant work. James, studying in Toronto, far away from his home in Red River, depended on letters to connect him with his family. James received numerous letters from home, many of them from his father who exhorted him to study hard, enter the ministry, see to his moral life, and be sure to include certain items in his letters when he wrote home. James left the impression that a letter from “beaufrere Jordy,”  as James called Flett, was refreshing after correspondence from home that pressured him to conform. Jordy’s letter reminded him of the happy days they had spent together. 
Flett’s correspondence with James Ross and his oral narrative related to William Coldwell demonstrate his talent for story-telling but Flett was more than an entertaining story-teller. He was also a practical person. In the 1850s the trip from Toronto to Red River was so arduous that it could only be made through special arrangements. When James returned to Red River from Toronto for a visit, Alexander Ross arranged for Flett to meet James at St. Paul.  After William Ross died in 1856, it was Flett who helped the widow Jemima with her business affairs.  Later in 1856, when Alexander Ross was terminally ill, Flett was “one of his most assiduous and skilful nurses.”  Apparently Flett was a dutiful and faithful son-in-law even though he made tongue in cheek remarks about his father-in-law, the “old Scottish chief.” In June 1854, he closed a letter to James by writing; “I have wrot [sic] nothing but nonsense; what else could you get from Jordy.”  Ross family voices inform us that there was more than nonsense to Flett. His active, practical self was typical of the Native Elder who took responsibility for his family and his tribe.
The voices of secular institutions confirm the image of Flett as a practical person. Although I have found no reference to his previous HBC career, Flett worked for the Company in 1864 when he was appointed to open a new trading outpost at Victoria, in the Edmonton District. Opening this post involved putting up buildings and beginning trade with the Indians in the surrounding areas. When George and Mary got to Victoria, there were no permanent buildings there. Labour and supplies were hard to get, so “presumably, Flett operated under tent and canvas until the necessary men were found.” It was October 1865 before there was a house for the Flats to live in.  Flett was the clerk in charge of the post. He began his work in September and, although the 1864 season was a short one, he “furnished the Edmonton depot with a steady supply of furs, usually of high quality.” The local Cree also brought in buffalo robes, buffalo tongues, and dried meat, and Flett and his two assistants were kept busy organizing horse and dog trains to bring these goods to Fort Edmonton. 
During his service at the Victoria post, Flett became acquainted with missionaries of different denominations and was exposed to their competition for souls. Victoria was the site of the Methodist mission where George McDougall and his son John worked with the Cree. John McDougall wrote of Flett
It was during his stay at the Victoria Post that Flett also made friends with Father Albert Lacombe, the well-known Roman Catholic missionary to the Cree and Blackfoot in the Victoria area. When Lacombe Published a French-Cree dictionary, he sent Flett an autographed copy.  There was tension between the Methodist and Roman Catholic missionaries at Victoria,  but Flett apparently maintained friendships with both parties. When Flett left Victoria in the spring of 1866, he received three carts, two gallons of gunpowder, a few pounds of shot and $100 on his account.  From the gifts he received it seems likely that the HBC appreciated his work. He had demonstrated that he was a useful HBC servant who was able to get along with missionaries of different denominations and capable of understanding the language and customs of the Cree with whom he traded.
While the Fletts were in Victoria, James Nisbet and his newly acquired bride lived in the Flett’s home at White Horse Plains.  Nisbet, a graduate of the Knox College in Toronto, was the new Presbyterian minister who came to Red River in 1862 to assist John Black. Nisbet’s dream was to begin a mission to the Cree in the West; in 1866, he received permission from the FMC to open a mission for the Cree in the North Saskatchewan River valley.  Black and Nisbet invited the Fletts to join the mission where George was to act as an interpreter.
Why did Flett accept an invitation to join a mission expedition when his work at Victoria was successful and he had turned down such an invitation in 1854? Perhaps in the two years between 1862 and 1864, Nisbet had influenced the Fletts. The Presbyterians held regular services at Headingley in the homes of George Flett and James Cunningham, both married to Ross daughters.  Nisbet may have convinced Flett of the significant role Flett could play in missions in the West. No doubt Black, Flett’s brother-in-law, also played a large part in the call and in Flett’s decision to accept it. “George Flett finally agrees to join Mr. N. as interpreter, and an excellent one he is.” wrote Black to his brother. He continued:
George and Mary, coming from Victoria, joined Nisbet’s party a day’s drive from Carlton House, shortly after crossing the South Saskatchewan River. 
When the group reached Forth Carlton around the middle of June 1866, Chief Factor Lawrence Clarke advised them that a spot about thirty miles down the North Saskatchewan would be a good place for their mission. Leaving the rest of the party at Fort Carlton, Nisbet and Flett went to inspect the proposed site. They found that it was highly suitable for their needs but the Cree, who congregated at the site between hunting seasons, were not willing to let them settle there. The Cree were afraid that a mission would attract settlers and drive away the buffalo. Flett, after “some two days parleying,” was able to convince them to let the mission have their site.  Flett convinced the Cree by speaking “earnestly to the Indians man-to-man” telling them that he was born near to the site, that some of the prairie chiefs were his cousins, and that his wife had important native relatives.  Andrew Browning Baird, later the co-convener of the FMC, explained the situation thus in retrospect:
After the fledgling mission was partially organized, Nisbet and Flett travelled farther west to hold meetings at HBC forts and Cree camps. Nisbet wanted to meet George McDougall at Victoria. Flett, of course, was the ideal man to accompany Nisbet since he knew the Cree language, was well acquainted with the countryside and Victoria, and had a warm friendship with McDougall. On this trip, Flett showed how familiar he was with the native way of life. One night when Flett and Nisbet camped, they were visited by some Indians who had come to steal horses. Flett gave them supper and talked with them. When the Indians decided to stay for the night, Flett kept talking with them until they fell asleep. Then Flett and Nisbet harnessed their horses and left. 
Flett’s way of dealing with the Cree, both in choosing a mission site and in dealing with the horse thieves, was to take the time to talk with them. That was also his way of conducting missions. Later, in 1890, Flett reported to mission headquarters: “It requires that the missionary live among them and be with them talk to them every day talking and reasoning with them and talk them out of there foolish notions.”  This way of doing mission work was what Wagner, the surveyor, referred to when he said Flett was like and “old philosopher” going from house to house and on Sundays to the tents of the residents at the Okanase reserve. 
The Fletts stay at the Prince Albert mission was brief, only a year. Publicly, the official reason for their termination was that Mary was ill and needed medical help at Red River.  Private correspondence shows that Flett and Nisbet disagreed strongly about mission methods. Nisbet wanted to establish an agricultural base while Flett favoured an itinerant missionary plan. Baird later wrote that the “plan for itinerating which had bulked largely in the original letters about the mission had not been carried out.”  According to private correspondence between Nisbet and Flett, the tension between Nisbet and Flett was also about the use of time and the kind of work Nisbet wanted Flett to do. Flett wrote: “My only reason or at least my chief reason for not going back to you is because you wanted me to work all day at something or other.” He continued:
Flett’s definition of work was probably different from the way Nisbet understood work. Flett wanted to be in contact with the Cree, to make connections, interpret, and teach. He likely did not find building stockades to keep the Cree and their dogs away from the turnips in the garden compatible with his concept of being a missionary. He probably did not want to labour all day and evening at developing a model farm. His idea of missions was to share material possessions with those in need. Time and productivity were not important. What was meaningful was to take time to meet the Cree between the new Prince Albert mission and Victoria, to sit patiently with them, to talk with them, and to care for their physical and spiritual needs. Flett’s concept of missions was more in line with the ideas of a Native Elder than Rev’d gentleman.
The Fletts returned to Red River and remained there until they began their work on the Okanase reserve in 1874. During this interlude, a time of great turmoil and stress at Red River, secular institutions showed their trust in Flett. On 26 January 1870, he was chosen to be an English delegate in Riel’s provisional government. He participated in debates about whether Red River should join the new Confederation as a province or a territory, and what should be included in the terms of union with Canada.  Flett also witnessed the signing of the adhesion of the Fort Ellice Saulteaux Indians to Treaty Number Four in 1874.  The voices of secular authorities inform us that Flett was a highly respected and trusted man in whatever community he worked. In Prince Albert, however, he was more comfortable with the Cree than with James Nisbet. His Native roots and the atmosphere in which he had been raised had influenced him to such an extent that he could not wholeheartedly adapt to the European work and time ethic. His leaning towards what the surveyor William Wagner called an “old Philosopher” was already quite pronounced.
Beginning in June of 1874, however, Flett entered the world of a Rev’d Gentleman. The FMC reported to the general assembly that “new ground [had] been occupied by the appointment of Mr. George Flett” who was “an earnest and devoted ... Christian layman.” He had been “very highly recommended to the Committee” and was qualified for the mission work among the “Indians” because of “his thorough familiarity with the Cree language and acquaintance with Indian habits and modes of thought.”  Flett “held a roving commission...among several widely scattered bands” around Fort Pelly and also south of Riding Mountain. The areas were Flett was to minister were separated by 150 miles; it soon became obvious that he could not attend to such a large district. Flett chose to establish his headquarters where “a considerable body” of Indians were “likely to become permanently resident,”  southwest of Riding Mountain on the little Saskatchewan River, near the present town of Elphinstone, about twenty miles from Fort Pelly and 160 miles northwest of Winnipeg.  From this centre, Flett was to minister to other reserves such as Rossburn (Waywayseecappo) and Rolling River. Flett named his new field “Okanase” which meant “Little Bone” in the language of the Ojibwa people.  By 1883, twenty-six families lived on the reserve, most of whom were related, being descendants of Chief Okanase who had three wives, sixteen sons, and nine daughters.  This description of Chief Okanase’s family sounds like Donaghy’s family tree of Michael Cardinal (Mekis), mentioned earlier in this article. Osborne Lauder believes that Michael was known as Okanese. 
Flett was “licensed an ordained missionary to the Indians” by the Presbytery of Manitoba on 18 August 1875 and received as a member of the Presbytery.  He was fifty-seven years old when he was ordained; a good portion of his formative years were behind him. His way of looking at life and people was already well developed. His early experiences gave him an interdenominational outlook. At the same time, since his father had come from Firth, Orkney his religious convictions were well embedded, being part of a family that had been involved in the church for generations. Certainly he had been impressed either negatively or positively by the missionary efforts of McDougall and Lacombe in Victoria and of Nisbet in Prince Albert.
Flett was categorized as a “foreign” missionary, working under the auspices of the Synod of Manitoba and the North West FNC, rather than a “home” missionary, because the people on the reserves were not Christian or Caucasian, and were considered to be “other heathens of a strange tongue.” Because preaching, teaching, and publishing books (such as hymn books and Bibles) in native languages presented unique challenges, and because churches on reserves were not usually self-supporting, the “foreign board’s expertise better suited the case of the Indians.” 
Voices of religious organizations and individuals who tell us about Flett’s work at Okanase Reserve can be grouped into the public and the private. Reports of the FMC to the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada contained glowing accounts of Flett’s success. Although Indians on other reserves resisted the missionary message to convert to Christianity, the Okanase Reserve was an example of what the FMC hoped to achieve everywhere. In 1895, the year of Flett’s resignation, the Committee reported that in the twenty years that Flett had been the reserve missionary, he had “seen the transition from barbarism and superstition to civilization and Christianity.” 
According to the 1889 FMC report, the chief (Keeseekoowenin) had become a Christian after having resisted for fourteen years. His wife and twelve children had previously “renounced faith in the medicine man and [had] become followers of Jesus.”  Baird repeated the same story, adding what a comfort it was to Flett, in his seventy-ninth year, “to be surrounding by a body of Christian Indians who reflect credit on the training they have had.” 
Donaghy, writing in hindsight, maintained that every member of the Okanase band had been converted to Christianity while Flett was at Okanase. The last to become a Christian was Chief Keeseekoowenin whose descendants remained faithful church workers. Donaghy stated that “Flett broke down in the influence of the medicine man, with the result that he saw a generation grow up who knew nothing about the pow-wow or the Sun dance.” 
Osborne Lauder, a great grandson to George and Mary Flett, wrote that his mother told him that when the Okanase residents converted to Christianity during Flett’s time they had to “give up all their old Indian beliefs.” He added: “They now seem to be reverting back to them.”  Lauder’s comment demonstrates that the glowing public reports were premature. Flett had only begun the process of converting the Ojibwa. Furthermore, Flett spoke to his parishioners in Ojibwa, not in English. What he taught them is not known and more syncretism could have taken place than was apparent to the FMC. Instead of eradicating old beliefs, as a “Rev’d Gentleman” would do, Flett may have taught the Ojibwa only the basic Presbyterian beliefs, allowing them to entertain a number of conflicting ideologies. Flett himself may have been comfortable with a combination of Ojibwa traditions and Presbyterian beliefs. FMC reports inform us that Flett was generous when the Cree and Ojibwa were in need. In 1880, there was a shortage of provisions at Okanase and in the surrounding areas. Flett brought food, clothing, and medicine to a camp of Indians to the north. When he saw that they were in danger of freezing to death, he made two trips with his team of horses to bring twenty people to his home where he fed them for over a month. At the same time, he provided food for more than twenty residents on his own reserve.  Flett was not concerned only with spiritual matters. He addressed physical needs when they occurred, expending his own time and money. Like a Native Elder, he demonstrated a propensity for generosity to the people at Okanase and its environs.
Public voices also inform us of Flett’s travel experience in the surrounding countryside. Baird recognized that it was due to Flett’s good judgment that many of the reserve missions had been established on such advantageous sites since Flett had a knowledge of the needs of mission stations, geographical locations, and the Indian’s way of life.  When Baird and Hart, co-conveners of the Presbyterian FMC in the North West, travelled to outlying areas, they took Flett with them. He always had a bag of pemmican ready for the trip from which he made various “tasty” dishes. He was a good guide, driver, camp boss, cook, and interpreter.  Flett had a taste for adventure and spontaneity, and an inclination for the experimental. He was not afraid to try old or new methods or to take some risks, either for himself or to help others. He was not bound to a personal schedule, it seems, so there was always time for other people. As a person who loved adventure, Flett liked to travel, to become acquainted with people of different communities, and to accept them as friends. His relaxed attitude towards time and place are more in keeping with the picture of a Native Elder than that of a Rev’d gentleman.
Finally, public voices characterized Flett as a good storyteller. After he had resigned, the FMC report concerning Okanase at the General Assembly took the form of a tribute to Flett’s long career as a missionary. The report stated that Flett’s
One example of his story-telling that has been preserved is Flett’s narrative of the family journey to Sault Ste. Marie as related to Coldwell, and described above. Coldwell noted that Flett remembered the entire journey that took place fifty-one years ago “as if the whole scene, panorama-like, passed vividly before him.” He spoke without using any notes, giving “minute details.” His mode of communication was that of Native Elder, a philosopher like Old Keyam, the story-teller in Edward Ahenakew’s experience. 
Public voices hailed Flett as the instigator of the model of civilization that Okanase had become. The Cree and Ojibwa at Okanase were now farmers—“almost as civilized as white people.”  George Bryce, founder of Manitoba College, after an inspection tour of Okanase in 1877, said that Flett was an interpreter, a farm instructor, a foreman in building operations, a Christianizer, a civilizer, and a missionary who had saved the government enormous amounts of money. 
Although public voices gave glowing accounts of Flett, private correspondence depicted Flett as a quarrelsome man who, in his old age, had to be reprimanded and warned. Problems occurred between Flett and a number of white female school teachers who taught at the Okanase day school. Between 1882 and 1890, the teachers were Native male instructors with the exception of a two year period when J. A. Lauder, Flett’s son-in-law, taught at the school. In April 1890, Miss Cameron became the teacher. She registered her surprise that the children spoke and understood very little English. Although she thought they were generally quite clean and tidy, she thought there was a “sickening smell” about them.  Miss Cameron thought that a teacherage should be added to the school but she hoped “Flett and the Indians [would] have nothing to do about it or it [would] be apt to cost much more than need be.”  By August of the same year, she complained of Flett’s moodiness  and by October, she had a major disagreement with Flett about the distribution of clothing sent by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society.  It is not clear what caused this disagreement except that Flett complained that Cameron “threw [the clothes] away from her with contempt.”  By November 1890, disagreement between Cameron and Flett threatened to split the reserve into two factions, according to Flett’s perception.  Apparently Cameron had a superior attitude towards Flett and the Okanase Ojibwa which must have bothered the missionary. Another area of contention between them was Cameron’s desire to teach the girls to sew while Flett said the girls’ mothers had taught them to sew long ago and that they could sew as well as Cameron could. 
The quarrel was exacerbated when Cameron won a government prize of $70 for conducting the best day school in the North-Western Superintendency in 1892 and again in 1893.  The warm praise Cameron received from the FMC exasperated Flett and he threatened to resign. In January 1893 he wrote Baird that he had never expected to resign while he could talk and drive a horse but this predicament was forcing him to think about it. He continued:
The Committee replied to Flett’s complaints:
Fortunately for Flett, Miss Cameron got married and left the Reserve but when Miss Macintosh took over in the fall of 1893, there was tension and friction between her and Flett as well.
When Flett finally resigned in March 1895, the FMC appointed R. C. McPherson as missionary at Okanase. He began his work sometime in the fall of 1895. McPherson and his wife were also appointed to teach in the reserve day school since Miss Macintosh, “the devoted and successful teacher of the Okanase School” was going back to Ontario. The FMC described McPherson as a man who “for a number of years” was “favorably known in connection with Christian and educational work in this country.”  He had a provisional teacher’s certificate dated June 1891, in Regina.  In his correspondence with Baird, McPherson reported that, in his opinion, Flett was “an earnest Christian”!  But by the summer of 1897, McPherson was having difficulties, especially in getting an interpreter and he blamed Flett for being “at the bottom” of all the trouble.  However, when Flett died on 28 October 1897, McPherson reported that he was holding his little hymnbook and “humbly but firmly trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ.” 
McPherson modified the missionary’s role at Okanase, and Flett was there to see the changes. His son-in-law, J. A. Lauder, described the transition:
Flett was angry because the FMC sent a missionary who could not converse with the Okanase residents in their own language. About white teachers, he had earlier complained to Baird:
Like Cameron, McPherson displayed a condescending attitude towards Flett and the Ojibwa. Facilities that had served Flett well for years were not good enough for him. He identified much more closely with the “English” world and the world of a “Rev’d gentlemen” than Flett ever had. His methods of teaching, his use of the English language, and his style of missionary work disturbed Flett. To Flett, it must have seemed as though McPherson was in it for the money rather than for the good of the people. The methods of this “Rev’d gentlemen” were not compatible with those of a Native Elder—Flett’s method of carrying out mission work.
Presbyterian Church reports and private correspondence portrayed very different sides of Flett. In the former, he was considered a hero while in the latter he was described as a trouble-maker. Nor does the picture of Flett before he was ordained fit the FMC’s depiction of him as a paragon of virtue. The portrait of Flett as a generous man, a practical individual, and a story-teller fits with his earlier life, but other parts are puzzling. The 1879 FMC report depicted Flett as being in a competition for souls with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1893, Flett wrote to Baird:
Here Flett wants to distribute clothes at places other than Okanase. He likely thought the Okanase Ojibwa were not as needy as those at Rossbum, a further reason for his possessive attitude with regard to parcels from the East. Flett’s obvious rivalry with Catholics for souls, however, is hard to reconcile with his earlier experience at Sault Ste. Marie and the way it influenced his view of Christianity. At that time, and in 1854 when he related his Pembina experience to James Ross, Flett was interdenominational in his outlook. Moreover, Flett related his narrative to Coldwell in which he stressed non-competitive missions in 1887 while he was a missionary at Okanase, although according to the above quotation he engaged in competitive mission work.
Obviously, Flett had to work in a way that satisfied the expectations of the FMC. But Flett operated on two different planes, one revealing his Native side and the other portraying his European side. In many ways, he identified with his Native blood. Flett’s naming practice demonstrated native identification. Whereas Nisbet named the first Presbyterian mission Prince Albert, in honour of the royal consort, Flett named his mission Okanase, in honour of a famous chief. When he told the story of the Flett family’s 1835 journey to Coldwell in 1887, Coldwell remarked that Flett reverted to telling time by seasons rather than by calendar dates. He loved to hunt buffalo and to make pemmican. He associated with the Cree and Ojibwa in a reciprocal relationship. When they needed food, medicine, or clothing he gave it to them. When he needed help in building a church or a home, the Okanase residents were ready to help him. He did not hurry conversations; he talked until the crisis passed, whether it was about horse stealing or religious issues.
Historian Winona Stevenson’s parents and grandparents told her that Charles Pratt, her Native ancestor, was a wonderful story teller, a buffalo hunter, an interpreter for the government, and a partner in native ceremonies “beyond the watchful eyes of his Anglican superiors and Indian agents.” But she discovered, from archival records, that he was also the missionary who “wrote like every other missionary” and whose “language and ... message differed little from [other] tenacious evangelicals.”  Stevenson concluded that Pratt lived in two worlds, one for his descendants to whom he bequeathed his oral history, and one for his CMS superiors whom he hoped to convince that he was an ideal missionary. 
Unlike Pratt, Flett did not use pious language, denigrate the Cree and Ojibwa, or use subservient and servile language in his correspondence. Yet he worked for twenty years to Christianize and civilize the Okanase residents and the Native peoples of the surrounding areas and he did not want them to retain any of their Native beliefs. Flett was well aware of Native traditions but needed to convince the FMC that he was conforming to their missions policies. Flett knew how Canadians thought and operated.
In my opinion Flett saw himself in his later years as an elder who taught the people wisdom. Edward Ahenakew, in documenting the stories of Old Keyam, the storyteller who kept native history alive, described the wisdom of an elder. The elder was responsible for instilling beliefs and values in the people and in return, was able to command their respect. The role of an “Old Man” was an institution of Indian life throughout the centuries.  Flett was part of kinship networks; like Old Keyam, he was getting on in years, he was a good story-teller, and he took time to listen and to talk to people. According to ethnohistorian Katherine Pettipas, “the concentration of religious knowledge resided with the elders, who throughout their lifetimes acquired both practical and spiritual expertise to guide their people.  Pettipas describes the ability of elders to function as protectors and keepers. Flett witnessed the signing of Treaty Two and many other documents that his Ojibwa and Cree friends sent to the government and by keeping some reserve papers in his home he became the guardian of the reserve. However, as Pettipas maintains, the position of the elder passed from leaders to Department of Indian Affairs employees, mission teachers, and graduates from Indian schools. When Indian agents, white missionaries, and teachers became the possessors of knowledge, elders were seen as unprogressive.  In his last years Flett became angry when his position as an elder was challenged by the FMC’s praise of an Anglophone teacher, or when an outsider missionary who couldn’t speak Cree or Ojibwa took over his position. Without the influence of an elder such as Flett the future of the reserve and its residents was threatened. In their old age, death, and burial George and Mary Flett remained connected to their Native friends. They lived at Okanase after they retired, they died there—George in 1897 at the age of 80 and Mary in 1912 at the age of 91—and they were buried in the Indian cemetery behind the church that they had established. 
In the end was Flett, an “old Philosopher” or a “Rev’d gentleman?” The missionary’s early experiences disposed him towards the attitude and disposition of an old Philosopher or Native Elder. What he had heard the Native people at Sault Ste. Marie say about competitive missions profoundly shaped his ideas about how mission work should be carried out. He became convinced that as long as denominational competition existed, native missions were useless. Why then did he join Nisbet’s expedition to the North West? As a result of their divergent ideas of how mission work should be conducted, Nisbet and Flett soon parted ways. Yet after a few years. Flett joined the Presbyterian mission, was ordained, and actively competed with Roman Catholics in his area. Obviously Flett had become a “Rev’d gentlemen.” Ultimately, however, his views clashed with the FMC. In his retirement and death, he identified with his Okanase cousins, and was buried beside them. Flett was both an “old Philosopher” and a “Rev’d gentleman,” an intermediary who lived in both a Native and a European world.
2. Flett’s birth date is given in a letter from Flett to Coldwell, 21 August 1875. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, William Coldwell Papers, MG14 C73, Box 7. Information about George Flett Senior comes from Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, search file on George Flett (1775-1850).
5. Donaghy’s recollections of oral sources do not supply Mekis’ tribal identity. Mekis surname was Cardinal while Flett’s mother was a Whitford, thus making it hard to reconcile that they were brother and sister. One interpretation is that Michael Cardinal was the son of Sarah (Salley) and Jacques Cardinal, a French Canadian. Sarah (Salley) subsequently married James Peter Whitford. See Rarihokwats, “Sarah/Salley,” a profile deposited at United Church of Canada: Archives of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, 25 April 1997. Rarihokwats is a researcher for the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council.
6. United Church of Canada: Archives of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, J. A. Donaghy Collection PP 11, 82-P200, “Okanase Indian Mission,” 1-2. See also Peter Neufeld, “George and Mary Flett: Forming the Faith on the Frontier,” The Presbyterian Record, (January 1979): 15.
13. Frits Pannekoek, A Snug little Flock: The Social Origins of the Riel Resistance of 1869-70, (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1991), 20. See also Hudson’s Bay Company Archives search file, George Flett (1775-1850) and William Coldwell, “Fifty-One Years Ago,” Free Press 12 March 1887.
18. Laurenda Daniells, “Ross, Sally,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. XI (1881-1890), 775-776. See also notes in Coldwell Papers, Box 7, Correspondence File 1899-1900. For Sally Timentwa’s surname, I am grateful to John A. Coldwell of Prince Rupert B.C. who is a descendant of William Coldwell and has researched the Coldwell family tree.
24. Peter Neufeld, “John ‘Black Falcon’ Tanner,” Brandon Sun 8 September 1972. John Tanner was abducted from his home in Kentucky by Ojibwa warriors in 1789. He lived with Ojibwa and Ottawa peoples for almost thirty years before he unsuccessfully tried to reenter the world of his family of origin. John Tanner was a translator for the Baptists at Sault Ste. Marie around 1830. See John Fierst, “Return to Civilization: John Tanner’s Troubled Years at Sault Ste. Marie,” Minnesota History (Spring 1986).
27. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Ross Family Collection, Letter No. 117, Alexander Ross to James Ross, 23 January 1855.
28. Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Ross Family Collection, Letter No. 189, Henrietta Black to James Ross, 7 August 1856. Henrietta wrote that “Jordy is down getting a boat and crew for Jemima to send off to York.”
34. Donaghy 17. Father Lacombe’s guide throughout his many years in the West was Alexis Cardinal. Peter Neufeld thinks that Alexis may have been Michael Cardinal’s brother. See Peter Neufeld, “Forming the Faith on the Frontier,” 15. According to Donaghy, Michael Cardinal came from Bow River. There were many Cardinals in Alberta; Isaac Cardinal and Charles Cardinal were among the chief’s and head men who signed Treaty Six at Fort Pitt in 1876. See Morris 359.
48. Andrew Browning Baird, “The Indians of Western Canada” (Toronto: Press of the Canada Presbyterians, 1895), 17. Baird reports that George and Mary Flett left Prince Albert in 1869; according to private correspondence they left in 1867.
51. Alexander Begg, Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal & Other Papers, ed. W. L. Morton (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1956), 285, 429. See also W. L. Morton, Manitoba: The Birth of a Province (Altona: D.W. Friesen & Sons Ltd., 1965), 23.
53. United Church of Canada: Archives of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (APP) 1874, Appendix 58.
56. Conaghy 4. According to Cowie’s reference to the Indians at Okanase in 1869, the area was likely already named but Flett did not rename the mission after the British monarchy, like Nisbet did at Prince Albert.
60. Michael C. Coleman, Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1885), 15. Although Coleman’s book is about the policies of the United States Presbyterian Church, it is likely that Canadian Presbyterian missionaries to the Indians worked under the FMC for the same reason.
91. Winona Stevenson, “The Journals and Voices of a Church of England Native Catechist: Askenootow (Charles Pratt), 1851-1884,” in Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, eds. J. S. H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert (Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1996), 305-329.
Page revised: 31 December 2013Back to top of page