Manitoba History: Review: Agnes Grant, James McKay: A Metis Builder of Canada

by Ruth Swan
History Department, University of Manitoba

Number 33, Spring 1997

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Agnes Grant, James McKay: A Métis Builder of Canada, Builders of Canada Series #1, Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications Inc.,1994. pp. 94, ill. ISBN: 0-921827-38-5.

The Hon. James McKay, as he is commonly known to distinguish him from the many other “James McKays” who lived in Rupert’s Land, was the archetype Métis plainsman. According to the dust jacket of this biography from Pemmican Publications, he was “an expert horseback rider, woodsman, and hunter and was especially noted for his skill at the Red River Jig”. He was also successful in bridging the cultural divides imposed by Canadian Confederation on the newly-acquired North West. An accomplished linguist in aboriginal languages as well as French and English, he served as interpreter and government official at four treaty signings and at the same time assumed cabinet positions in several administrations during the first decade of Manitoba’s existence. Because of his chameleon-like ability to transform himself into adopting the manners and cultural behaviours of whatever ethnicity and class was appropriate for the occasion, the Hon. James has continued to fascinate historical writers. Yet despite his universal popularity during his lifetime, he is hardly known to Manitobans outside of a handful of historical readers. [1]

The Hon. James McKay in the 1870s.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Dr. Agnes Grant teaches Native Studies and Education at Brandon University and is well-known for her writing on a variety of topics. In this biography, Grant focuses on McKay’s Métis ethnic identity and uses it to insert descriptions of Métis cultural activities. Thus, while the biographical facts are the skeleton of the work, Grant has fleshed it out to inform readers of the positive aspects of this unique and much-maligned group. For example, the first chapter begins when James is ten years old, with a physical description of the fur brigades arriving at Fort Edmonton in 1838. It continues in Chapter Two with an elaboration of “Métis Lifestyles” where the focus is first of all on his mother’s background which entitles the author to designate him “Métis”; she then adds an imaginative word picture of what the McKay’s log cabin at Edmonton House would have looked like (along with an elaboration of stories collected by Mary Margaret Ferguson from family members about James’ boyhood, uncited because there are no foot-notes). “Margaret [Gladu, his mother] was busy from dawn to dark preparing food, caring for the garden, keeping the cabin clean, washing clothes and sewing ... How she looked forward to the times when the necessary sewing was done and she could work gaily coloured designs with the wonderful beads her husband brought from the trading post!” Readers who appreciate having the women’s and children’s point of view will not have a problem with this insertion of Métis and social perspectives since they do not detract from the storyline and, since Grant’s expertise is in aboriginal studies, her historical imagination helps to paint a more complete picture of the scene which otherwise might be difficult for late-twentieth century readers to share. Descriptive passages which portray aboriginal culture in a positive light obviously reflect Grant’s talent as a writer as well as her cultural expertise and will be appreciated by many readers who are impatient with the stereotypes which are used to characterize Canadian Native History. [2]

While Grant’s biography of McKay is going in the right direction, there are some obvious errors. In the first chapter, there is a detailed description of the canoe brigades and the work done by the “voyageurs” in unloading and packing the furs and trade goods before their “long trip to the east”. The geography here is vague for the only destination mentioned is “Europe” without any mention of the route (North Saskatchewan River) or important posts such as Norway House and York Factory (p. 4). The author neglects to describe the use of York Boats which were introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1788 and became the common mode of transportation between the major provisioning posts after 1821; on this route, they brought goods from York Factory to Norway House along the North Saskatchewan west to Edmonton House. York Boats replaced canoes wherever the rivers were large enough as they were much larger and accommodated almost double goods with the same number of men. [3] Grant seems to be describing the earlier period of rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company which she mentions on page 6. However, this rivalry ended in 1821 whereas she is supposedly still in 1838.

The author would have done well to consult some academic sources, such as Jaye Goossen’s Beaver article published in 1978 and Allen Turner’s shorter entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [4] Her information on McKay’s parentage is quite confused: “H[is father] was an Orkeyman from Scotland who had come to this new land as a trader ... His wife, Margaret Gladu, had been born in the east and had moved to Fort Edmonton with her Métis parents. There she had met James McKay Sr. and she had gladly left her parents’ cabin to marry the Scottish trader” (p. 8). This passage contains several errors. In fact, James McKay Sr. was a Highlander from Sutherlandshire, not from the Orkneys. [5] He was not a trader, but employed in a labourer position as a steersman on the canoe and York Boat brigades from 1816 to 1840 and had worked for Dease and Simpson on their Arctic exploration trip in 1836. [6] Margueriet Gladu McKay was born at Cumberland House which could scarcely be considered “in the east” as it was part of the North West Territories of that time period. [7]

The chronology continues to confuse the reader when on page 10 we read: “The Métis settlement was especially glad when Father Lacombe came to the Northwest for he was a Métis himself ...”. Is this still 1838? Apparently not because Father Lacombe did not arrive at Edmonton House until 1852. [8] The first missionaries at this site were Catholic priests: Rev. Modeste Demers and Father Francois Blanchet who arrived in July 1838 and baptized Chief Factor John Rowand’s four daughters. The third daughter, Marguerite, would later wed James McKay, Jr. These Catholic priests took the opportunity to marry her sister, Nancy Rowand, to Chief Trader J. E. Harriott, the father of her two children which was not unusual in those days. [9] This is quite significant family information which Grant has overlooked. [10]

In later chapters, Grant relies on descriptions of her famous hero in published memoirs such as those of explorer, Captain John Palliser in 1857, and Lord Southesk in 1859. [11] Because of the lack of footnotes, these sources are uncited, except in the bibliography. This is unfortunate because these authors deserve some credit for their unbiased descriptions of the voyageur McKay’s excellent performance as a hunter and tracker, invaluable skills on what looked like “trackless Prairie” to those newcomers unfamiliar with local landmarks. [12] McKay was in demand as a trail guide, apparently following to some extent in his father’s footsteps who had acted as a guide on Arctic expeditions (1836-38). In fact, the title of Goossen’s paper, “A Wearer of Moccasins” is taken from a famous passage by Lord Southesk which is often quoted to describe the archetype Métis and plainsman. [13] Grant does use the passage, but paraphrases the language in her own words so that most readers would not be aware of the sources. It would be worthwhile for modern readers to know that not all European visitors were bigots. Grant also does not include dates. Although McKay only spent two and a half months with Palliser’s expedition from August 15 to November 1, 1857, it takes up twelve pages in Grant’s version. The reader has the impression that McKay single-handedly was responsible for the success of the three-year endeavour [14] (although she does admit that Palliser “did go back and finish his explorations” [p.37]).

The McKay home at Deer Lodge. James McKay is seated centre holding the whip.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Another series of distracting errors appears in the chapter entitled “Deer Lodge”. On page 85, Grant notes: “... another Métis leader, John Norquay, became the first Premier”. Actually, he was the third Premier, following after the Hon. M.-A. Girard and the Hon. R.A. Davis. [15] Unfortunately, this is a popular misconception in Manitoba, especially since the provincial government paraded Norquay’s portrait around the province for Manitoba 125. The irony is that Norquay did not think of himself as “Métis” which had a French connotation and, in fact, both Girard and Davis probably worked more closely with Métis politicians than Norquay who was against French rights in the Manitoba Act. [16]

In the same paragraph, the author makes another slip about his appointment as Speaker of the Upper House, “a position he continued to hold even though the government changed three times”. For one thing, the Legislative Council was an appointed body of seven members and changes in the Lower House (Legislative Assembly) did not affect it. There were actually two other speakers: the Hon. Colin Inkster (of mixed Red River ancestry) and the Hon. John O’Donnell (from Ontario). On page 90, she writes: “His picture hangs in the Legislative Building along with other members of past Manitoba governments.” Actually, this is true since the fall of 1996, but was not true in 1994 when Grant’s biography came out. Because the Upper House had been abolished in 1876, the Speakers’ portraits were stored in the basement of the Legislative Building for many years and moved to the Provincial Archives vault in the late 1980s. When I discovered that these portraits existed, I lobbied my MLA, Jean Friesen, who is also a History Professor at the University of Manitoba, and she persuaded the Government of Manitoba to rehang the portraits last fall. [17] We felt that it was important to have these representatives of mixed ancestry (Inkster and McKay) on display where the public could learn of Red River’s contribution to the new province. However, I am surprised that Grant knew of this move two years before it happened.

Since I was curious about the large print and the shortness of the volume, I called the editor of Pemmican Publications who informed me that this biography is geared to the Grade 7 or 8 level of reading. As well, it should be useful to adult literacy students who suffer from a lack of material written for an adult audience. However, a professional friend who is experienced at writing curriculum materials for aboriginal students tells me that teachers expect accurate facts in the materials they use. It might have been better if Grant had worked from her strength which is creative writing, invented an archetype Métis character on which to build her cultural history, and left the historical writing to others. The Hon. James McKay was undoubtedly an outstanding person who impressed both contemporaries and later writers who have attempted to revive his legendary status. [18] He deserves an accurate portrayal.


Ruth Swan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Manitoba. Her dissertation topic is entitled “The History of the Pembina Métis, 1790-1880”.

1. The Historic Sites Advisory Board of Manitoba erected plaques in French and English (but not Michif, Cree or Ojibwe) at the location of McKay’s Deer Lodge Home on Portage Avenue, Winnipeg and published a booklet, The Honourable James McKay, Winnipeg. Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Recreation, Historic Resources Branch, 1984. This biographical booklet credits a report for the Historic Resources Branch in 1976 by N. Jaye Goossen, “A Wearer of Moccasins: The Hon. James McKay of Deer Lodge” which was published in The Beaver, Autumn 1978. It also cites a popular biography by Mary McCarthy Ferguson, The Hon. James McKay of Deer Lodge, Winnipeg: published by the author, 1972.

2. See for example, The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History, edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart, Winnipeg: Manitoba Historical Society, 1994, with a number of articles that address this question of a flawed historiography. In “Colonialist Enterprise: the Hudson’s Bay Company at the Forks, 1812-1883”, Coutts noted in describing early descriptions of the Battle of Seven Oaks: “... the tales of massacre and mutilation and the portrayal of the Métis as barbarians has helped to promote the traditional portrayal of the Métis in Western Canadian historiography, as the “misfits’ of the Canadian West” (p. 20). Coutts cites among others W. L. Morton. This is not news in the aboriginal community; Rev. Stan McKay, Co-Director of the Dr. Jessie Saulteaux Centre and former Moderator of the United Church of Canada, made the same critique of non-aboriginal history in a speech to the Sir John A. Macdonald Dinner, Manitoba Historical Society, January 11, 1997.

3. See A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 1870-71, London: Thos. Nelson & Sons, 1939:454 in comparing HBC and NWC transportation systems and on use of York Boats.

4. Goossen, opus cited. Turner, DCB, vol. X:473-474

5. Goossen, p.45

6. Goosen’s research is confirmed by the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) Search File, James McKay (a).

7. Provincial Archives of Manitoba (PAM), District of Assiniboia, 1870 Census: Margaret McKay, wife of James McKay, Sr., was 44 in 1870; birth date by extrapolation: 1808. Born at Cumberland House. p. 362, #1131.

8. J. G. MacGregor, John Rowand: Czar of the Prairies, Saskatoon: Western Producer Books, 1978:160-161.

9. MacGregor, p. 104-105.

10. It is hard to understand why Grant did not include the biography of John Rowand in her bibliography although it is not unflawed. MacGregor does not mention at this point that Rowand neglected to marry his country wife, Lizette Umfreville, who was the acknowledged mother of his children. In the index, for example, her entry [Louise] Umfreville is listed under “Mrs. John Rowand”. In Strangers in Blood (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1980), Jennifer Brown noted that “unlike his colleague John McLoughlin, Rowand did not marry Lisette in a rite of his own church when the chance came” (p. 146).

11. Goossen, p. 46.

12. Earl of Southesk, Saskatchewan & the Rocky Mountains, Vermont & Japan: Chas. Tuttle Co., 1969, in Canada, by M. Hurtig, 1969 (reprint). “Whether as guide or hunter, he was universally reckoned one of their best men” (p. 8).

13. Ibid., p. 9. Palliser was similarly impressed with McKay’s abilities and usually referred to him as Mr. or as on page 163 my friend , an unusual term of respect for a class-conscious British gentleman. See The Papers of the Palliser Expedition, 1857-1860, ed. Irene M. Spry, v. 44, Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1968.

14. Grant, The Palliser Expedition, pp. 26-37; there are no chapter numbers which is also somewhat disconcerting. In the Champlain Society volume, this period takes up 53 pages, including extensive footnotes (pp. 123-175).

15. See DCB entries on Norquay in v. 11 by G. A. Friesen and on Davis in v. 13 by Ruth Swan. See also by Swan, “Ethnicity and the Canadianization of Red River Politics”, MA thesis, University of Winnipeg, 1991.

16. See Swan, “Ethnicity ...”, pp. 140-141.

17. See Government of Manitoba Hansard, November 18, 1996, MLA Jean Friesen..

18. I must confess to a personal interest, having written and collected information on the Hon. James McKay since 1985; for example, “The Hon. James McKay and the Founding of Georgetown, Mn., “ Northern Great Plains History Conference, Saint Paul, Mn., 1995.

Page revised: 1 October 2012