The Honourable James McKay, Gentleman, Jurist and Pioneer
by J. R. Bothwell
Manitoba Pageant, January 1963, Volume 8, Number 2
Published in the Regina Leader-Post, 12 January 1932.
The history of a country can be traced in the biographies of its great men. No history of Canada would be complete without mention of the name of McKay, one of its illustrious pioneer families. To such as these outriders of civilization, who did battle with the primitive and the elemental, do we owe a lasting debt.
With the death in Toronto of Hon. James McKay, K.C, B.A., Justice of the Court of Appeal of Saskatchewan, the West lost not only a noted Jurist but a striking figure in its colorful history.
John McKay, his great grandfather, was born in Scotland, and early entered the service of the great trading and fur company, being sent to Canada in the far-away year of 1790. A man of great ability, he rose to the position of factor in the service, and is mentioned as one of the trustees in the Lord Selkirk agreement with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
John Richard McKay, his son, was born at Brandon House in Manitoba. After being educated in England, he returned to Canada spending most of his life with the Hudson’s Bay Company, being in charge at Fort Ellice. Here the trade was so extensive and among so many tribes as to require the service of interpreters speaking seven different languages. Over this wide domain, Mr. McKay held sway as chief for nearly a generation. Daring feats of horsemanship and swordsmanship won the admiration of the many tribes, and the records give him a reputation for fair dealing, and courage; his knowledge of Indian character won him the name of “Mac-guy-eh-ness” (“Little Bear Skin”), which descended to his sons and grandsons, worthy scions of a worthy sire.
William McKay, son of John R. McKay, was born at the Hudson’s Bay Post at Beaver Creek, in the year 1819 when half of the whole business of trading in the famous Swan River country was done under this famous factor. This post was situated in the valley of the Assiniboine near the mouth of Beaver Creek, and was about 400 yards east of the site on which Fort Ellice was established in the autumn of 1831. William was apprenticed to a trader by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and rose by sheer merit to chief trader in 1866. He served at Fort Ellice until 1870 when he was put in charge of the Swan River District. In 1872, having been promoted to factor, he was transferred to the charge of the troublesome post of Fort Pitt in the Edmonton District where he remained until his death in 1884. The hereditary family mantle of the Bear Skins descended on him and he enjoyed great prestige among the tribes. He was described by some of the noblemen with whom he came in contact in connection with the great company, as being one of Nature’s Noblemen”. His mother was said to be a very superior woman, being a daughter of Chief Factor Ballenden of York Factory and Fort Garry. A big, broad-shouldered, muscular man with fair hair, bushy beard, ruddy complexion and merry blue eyes—such was the father of the Honourable James McKay.
Captain Palliser’s famous party of exploration through the North West counted among its number Joseph McKay, a brother of William and a man who inherited all the native talents of the McKay family. A very handsome man he was, who wore his flaxen hair in ringlets.
Another brother, Edward, was clerk in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Pembina until he retired to hunt and trade in the Qu’Appelle Valley until his death. In 1873, he was nominated by the North West Council as a justice of the peace and, being an able interpreter, he was chosen to act in that capacity at the Qu’Appelle Treaty of 1874.
In the year 1849, at Fort Pelly, Saskatchewan, (then only known as Rupert’s Land) a son was born to William McKay, and named Thomas; this was an older brother of James, the subject of this sketch. He was educated at St. John’s College, Winnipeg, and entered the Hudson’s Bay service, being clerk for that company until the year 1873 when he removed to Prince Albert where he was influential for nearly fifty years. Prince Albert claimed him for its first mayor in 1886, and he was a member of the North West Territory Assembly for twelve years. He gave distinguished service in the 1885 Rebellion and at its close was appointed a member of a commission of three to inquire into conditions and losses brought about by the revolt, and to arbitrate matters for the government.
Fort Ellice—1862; this was the birthplace of James McKay. It was situated at a point on the level of the prairie where the deep and picturesque valley of the Beaver Creek joined the broad valley of the Assiniboine River, which could be seen wending its way for miles to and fro in the park-like bottom lands to join the Red River at the “Forks” by which name Fort Garry was known throughout the great plains. Great spruce trees surrounded a square, in the rear of which stood a large house, the Hudson’s Bay Quarters. In the middle of the square was a fur press and a tall flag-staff, on which was the British ensign with the “H.B.C.” on the fly, and this was hoisted on Sundays, holidays and in honour of visitors.
Fort Ellice was the port of entry for Americans travelling or fleeing from the Upper Missouri posts. Army deserters from Fort Union and other military posts continued to head for it down to the year 1872. A few of them engaged in the Hudson’s Bay service but they mostly found their way to Red River. The men who came over the intervening country, the hunting ground of the Sioux and other Indians, who would gladly have robbed or slain them, must have had desperate motives to attempt the journey.
St. John’s College, Winnipeg, received young James McKay as a student, and from here he graduated with honours and a B.A. degree. He then studied law with the old firm of Bain, Blanchard and Mulock, being called to the bar of Manitoba in 1886. He practised in Winnipeg for the year, going to Prince Albert in 1887. In 1896, he was a Conservative candidate for the House of Commons, opposing Sir Wilfrid Laurier, by whom he was defeated. He was, however, elected to the House of Commons for the constituency of Prince Albert in 1911, and was appointed a few years later to the appeal court of Saskatchewan.
The old territorial bar and the provincial bar of Saskatchewan has had very few members with a longer record of service than his. In later years, many must have been his memories of thrilling adventure, exciting exploit. In the year 1885, when he was a member of “C” company of the Winnipeg Rifles during the North West Rebellion of 1885, he was engaged chiefly in the hazardous duty of carrying despatches. When Colonel Bedson, at that time warden of the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, and Captain MacDowell, formerly member of parliament, with a party were on their way to Prince Albert to investigate conditions in that vicinity, their despatch bearer was young McKay. On reaching the South Saskatchewan, it was found that the ferry was on the opposite bank. He undertook to bring over the boat, and through the river filled with broken ice he partly swam and partly used a cake of ice as a raft, finally reaching the other side.
In the year 1897, the West and indeed all Canada, was ringing with the name of “Almighty Voice”—the renegade young Indian who struck terror into the hearts of women and children when he escaped after killing several Mounted Policemen and civilian volunteers. “Almighty Voice” was the son of Sounding Sky, a member of One Arrow’s band of Crees, whose reserve lay a little east of Batoche. There was danger of a general uprising on account of his still being at large, but James McKay took a leading part in organizing a band of volunteers at Prince Albert to assist in capturing the outlaw. It was due to this volunteer force that the Indian and his two companions were captured.
And so this Canadian of three generations, descendant of “Little Bear Skin,” and the beloved Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who became a distinguished jurist, governor of the University of Saskatchewan, a man of learning and broad insight, was a representative of a splendid group of pioneers. Even a brief sketch of his career illustrates many points in the history of Western Canada.
Page revised: 4 December 2011