Historical Context, Modern Narratives, and Louis Riel

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

One of our popular Blog Series is ‘The Month That Was,’ which looks at a month of newspapers from the past, highlighting interesting stories, images, advertisements, and anything else eye catching. Often, the stories are quaint, humourful, or sometimes, they can give an insight into the happenings and/or politics at the time.  Newspapers leading up to elections are always interesting, especially those from the mid 1800s as the newspapers had very evident political biases. 

Sometimes, a simple annotation to the historical article can enhance a modern reader’s understanding of the event. For example, the August 9, 1872 edition of the Ontario Reformer reported:

Grace Marks received her pardon on condition that she would leave this country never to return.  She left Kingston on Tuesday, for the United States.

With this, an annotation was added, explaining that Grace was the subject of the popular Margaret Atwood book, later turned miniseries, Alias Grace.

When the trivia is short and simple, it makes annotating easy without taking away from the purpose of the article, highlighting stories from decades past.

However, while reading the newspapers in October 1873, news stories gave pause and left questions as to whether to present the articles as written, to annotate, or to exclude the stories because the additional context needed was greater than the blog post allowed. We opted for the latter, allowing another post, this one, to give the needed context.

Many articles in the October 24,1873 edition of the Ontario Reformer were discussing the results of a by-election in Manitoba which saw Louis Riel elected as a Member of Parliament.

The editors of the Reformer published their own editorials, slanted with their Liberal bias:

The Riel Difficulty
Riel, the murderer of Scott, is in Ottawa to-day claiming his seat as one of the People’s representatives, sheltering himself from just punishment behind a pardon granted by Sir John Macdonald… The question will then arise, however, how far that amnesty can be made to stretch.  While granting immunity to subjects in rebellion to Her Majesty’s laws, can it be also held to shelter the wilful, deliberate, unprovoked brutal murder of one of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects – not while in arms against the so-called Provisional Government, but while a helpless prisoner, utterly incapable of either resistance or disturbance. We believe very many of the member’s from Ontario maintain that the amnesty cannot be held to cover this foul crime, and we trust that bad as the character which the second Parliament has earned it, it will not be further sullied by association with a convicted murderer.

There was also the following inclusion:

An Opinion of Riel
We have been requested to publish the following resolution, passed last evening, and we commend it to the attention of the Hon. Mr. Gibbs:

Oshawa, Oct 23rd, 1873

An Emergency Meeting of the LO [Loyal Orange] Lodge, No 686, held at Oshawa, it was unanimously resolved that we regret to learn, that Louis Riel has been elected as a Representative to the House of Commons, of the Dominion of Canada, and , that we, as a Body, feel that his presence as a Representative in your Honorable House, would be a scandal and disgrace to our country, and utterly distasteful to the Members of our Loyal Orange Association, as well as to a large portion of the inhabitants of our Country, and we humbly trust that measures will be taken as will prevent him from taking a seat in the Parliament of the Dominion, and to bring him speedily to account for the murder of Thomas Scott in Manitoba, and that a copy of this resolution be sent to the Secretary of State and the Governor General of the Dominion of Canada.

The words being used by the various authors are strong: “murderer,” “utterly distasteful,” “foul crime,” and “disgrace to our country.” According to the Reformer, the local Orange Society was one of many around the country holding such meetings, wanting to see justice against Riel “if he attempts to enter the Province.”

Without providing additional historical and contemporary context to Riel, presenting these articles, as written, are not giving the full picture of the happenings of the Red River Rebellion or of Riel himself, whom we know today to be a complex historical figure, far more complex than the villain he is painted to be by many of his colonial contemporaries.

According to his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry, Louis Riel is “one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history,” with the Métis  people regarding him a hero, the French Canadians sympathizing with this “victim of Ontario religious and racial bigotry,” and while those in the mid-1800s in the Canadian east painted him the villain, many today regard him as one of the Father of Confederation, a founder of the province of Manitoba.

Carte-de-Visite Portrait of Louis Riel
Notman Studio. Library and Archives Canada, e003895129
Carte-de-visite portrait of Louis Riel taken in Ottawa after his election as MP for Provencher, Manitoba, 1873.
Image from the Canadian Encyclopedia

Riel was born on October 22, 1844 in Saint-Boniface, Red River Settlement (modern Manitoba).  He was regarded as very well spoken, and he gained notoriety in the late 1860s, standing up for Métis culture, way of life, and rights.

A purchase of land by the government from the Hudson’s Bay Company and subsequent land surveys resulted in the organization the Métis National Committee. They denied the surveyor entrance to the lands, Upper Fort Garry was seized from the HBC, and the Red River Colony, under the leadership of Riel, was formed.  In December 1869, the “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North-West,” was issued, rejecting “Canada’s authority to govern the Northwest and propos[ing] a negotiated settlement between Canada and the new provisional government” (Canadian Encyclopedia). Canadian delegates were sent, and negotiations resulted in the Manitoba Act, creating the fifth province to enter Confederation.  It was agreed that 1.4 million acres were to be reserved for Métis descendants, and it was also promised that Manitoba would officially be bilingual.

Meanwhile, a small group of Canadians appeared unpleased with the provisional Métis government.  They proceeded to Portage la Prairie, armed, and surprising the Métis who in turn imprisoned them.  A young Orangeman, Thomas Scott, was sentenced to death by a court martial convened by the Métis, a sentence that was not commuted by Riel; Scott was executed on March 4, 1870.  Protestants and Orange Lodge members in Ontario placed the blame for Scott’s death (or murder, as described later in Oshawa papers) upon Riel, who fled into exile after the Rebellion.

Clearly, the situation surrounding the death of Thomas Scott is layered and cannot be simplified into the black and white. It fits well into the modern narratives of land rights, reconciliation, colonization, and repatriation. The Métis peoples appeared to be defending the lands where they had lived for decades and upon which their Indigenous ancestors had lived for millennia. Riel, representing the Red River Colony, was defending his people and their culture.  To simply present the 1873 ‘English/Orange’ narrative of Riel as murderer without the additional context, is an unfair representation, furthering the mistakes of history and repeating the 19th century detrimental biases.  The editors of the Ontario Reformer, in their wording of ‘so-called Provisional Government,’ made it clear how they felt about Riel’s and the Métis’ actions in late 1869/early 1870.

After his election in 1873, Riel took the oath but never took his seat in the House of Commons, fearing assassination or arrest. In the 1880s, Riel led a second, unsuccessful, rebellion for which he was sentenced to death, which was carried out on November 16, 1885 in Regina.

It is difficult to fully present the Red River Rebellion and founding of Manitoba in a blog post.  In writing this post, content from the Metis Nation of Ontario, the Canadian Encyclopedia, and Dictionary of Canadian Biography was used, and it is highly encouraged that they are examined for further reading.

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/riel_louis_1844_85_11E.html

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/louis-riel

http://www.metisnation.org/culture-heritage/louis-riel/

Newsworthy Affairs

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

One of our regular series on the blog is The Month That Was. The OM started the MTW feature at least a decade ago when we used ‘Facebook Notes’ to share these newspaper stories, and when the blog got off the ground in 2013, the series migrated to this forum.

I am very grateful when our high school co-op students have helped compile the posts for various months, because this series can take quite a bit of time between reading, transcribing, finding images, and scheduling the posts. A few students especially enjoyed this task when it meant using the microfilm reader in the archives, dusting off this technology relic, and yet still a mainstay.

Every so often, when tasked with writing the MTW, I get lost in the articles. My interest piques when I see a familiar name or read about a well known historical event. Last month, I couldn’t help but share with my colleagues when I read a marriage announcement:

Married

At the residence of the bride’s father by Rev. T. Henry, on Saturday evening, the 7th inst, Mr. Albert N. Henry and Miss Harriett T. Guy, both of Port Oshawa.

Oshawa Vindicator, June 11, 1862

Sadly, Harriett died in 1866 due to a typhoid epidemic in the community.

And while I thoroughly the catchy songs in the movie musical The Greatest Showman, we know in real life, PT Barnum was not the sympathetic hero he was portrayed as by Hugh Jackman. This was remarked on in 1865:

Barnum’s expressed design of exhibiting Tom Thumb in France, has called forth a good witticism from Ledru Rollin.  “Tom Thumb should exhibit Barnum,” said he, “for the latter is the greater curiosity.”

Oshawa Vindicator, December 6, 1865

Often, I laugh at what the newspaper deems worthy to print, giggling as I type it out for others to read. For example, in 1872, the Ontario Reformer had an article devoted to the calendar make up, as follows:

The year 1872 contains 52 Sundays. September and December each begins on a Sunday; January, April and July on Monday. October is the only month beginning on a Tuesday. February begins and ends on Thursday; consequently we have five Thursdays, which will not occur again until the year 1900.  In the year 1880, February will have five Sundays which will not occur again until the year 1920.  The year 1871 began on Sunday and ended on Sunday.

Ontario Reformer, January 19, 1872

And in our latest entry for the MTW, in the Oshawa-on-the-Lake column, the following was reported:

The lake water [can] get very cold, nevertheless, a number of campers take a regular morning dip. The first lady bather of the season is Mrs. Sparks of Toronto, who is visiting with the Misses King. She ventured out alone on Wednesday afternoon.

Ontario Reformer, July 11, 1902

There are, unfortunately, gaps in Oshawa’s newspaper history, and we are very fortunate when hard copies exist and are donated to the archives. Because of this, we have sometimes looked to surrounding community’s newspapers for news items about Oshawa.

Pupils of Mae Marsh Delight Big Audience at Masonic Temple

Parents and friends strained the capacity of the Masonic Temple, Oshawa, on Saturday afternoon, to see the dance recital presented by the Lillian Mae Marsh School of Dancing.  Picturesque costumes that would have qualified for a Broadway show and a smartly paced program held the interest of the audience.

Canadian Statesman, April 4, 1952

Perhaps the MTW that looked the farthest afield was April 1937. This was the month of the strike that saw the recognition of the auto workers union, and the strike itself made headlines in Canada and the US. As reported in Indiana,

Premier Hurls New Threat in Oshawa Strike
Oshawa, Ont., April 13 (AP) – A move by Canada’s minister of labor to mediate the Oshawa strike pivoted today upon consent by General Motors of Canada, Ltd.

Meanwhile, other developments added fuel to the already heated controversy of international scope: Hugh Thompson, John L. Lewis’s right-hand man in the Oshawa strike, asserted the US supreme court decision on the Wagner act would cast the United Automobile Workers’ union in the role of sole bargaining agent for the General Motors workers here and the in the United States.

Premier Mitchell Hepburn of Ontario accused Lewis of trying to become “economic and political dictator” of both the United States and Canada and declared that, if he came to Canada and sponsored any overt act, or if any of his aids should do so, they would be jailed “for a good, long time and there wouldn’t be any bail.”

Lafayette Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), 13 April 1937

When I randomly chose the Month That Was December 1872, I was highly interested to learn that it was during this month that a great fire affected downtown Oshawa, the paper remarking Oshawa had been ‘Chicagoed’ likening this disaster to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I’d recommend reading this month in its entirety, HERE.

Be sure to watch our blog on the first of every month for the latest edition of The Month That Was, and I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy researching and writing them!

The Gales of November

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist; this was originally written for the Oshawa Express in 2013

November 2013 was the 100th anniversary of one of the deadliest storms to ever hit Lake Ontario. Early November 1913 saw a storm like no other storm hit the entire Great Lakes area.  Known as the White Hurricane, the storm lasted four days and brought with it deadly snow, ice and freezing temperatures.  When the storm finally ended, approximately 250 people had lost their lives and ships that were supposed to be “unsinkable” had sunk.

Untitled
A985.41.18

William Percy Judge, a resident of Oshawa, wrote about this storm in his memoirs.  The following is Judge’s description of how the White Hurricane affected Oshawa.

I recall the impact of the great storm of November 1913 on Oshawa’s lakefront.  The storm changed the shoreline, ripped up the pier, tore out the bridge where the creek entered the lake, wrecked the boathouse and dock, tore down the Ocean Wave (and) destroyed the sandy bottom and the beach, left gravel in place of sand, tore down most of the trees in the picnic grounds, wrecked tables and benches and broke many windows in the pavilion.  Some waves were as high as the pavilion and water ran across the car tracks and road and into the cat-tail swamp.  I had heard of the storm from the telegraph operator at the Grand Trunk Station.  Before the storm was over, thirteen large ships had been sunk and more than two hundred people had lost their lives.

The morning of the storm, November 7, gave no indication of the terrible weather to come.  It was apparently, a beautiful warm, in fact unusually warm, and windy day.  However, an Arctic blast of extremely cold air was about to collide with the warmth of the Great Lakes.  In his memoirs, Judge provides an explanation for the terrible turn in the weather.

Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes but is very deep.  In the center (sic), the bottom is almost five hundred feet below sea level and because of this, much of the same water could remain near the bottom of the lake.  The current carries the water on top over it like a river.  Because of its depth, it takes a longer time and really big blow to cause Lake Ontario to go mad.  The conditions were right – so, mad she got.

The storm that so battered the Great Lakes concluded with blue skies and temperatures so warm that all of the snow melted by the end of the week.

The Month That Was – March 1863

All articles originally appeared in The Oshawa Vindicator

March 11, 1863
The Oshawa Volunteers
Yesterday being a holiday, the Oshawa Volunteer Force was out for exercise.  This branch of the service consists of two companies- one of Rifles, under command of Capt. John Warren and the other of Infantry, under command of Major S.B. Fairbanks. It must be admitted that the members of these companies, though under drill but a short time, began to assume the all manner and bearing of real soldiers. They have recently provided themselves at their own expense, with neat capes, which add very much to the effect of their uniform.

 

Mare Astray
Came into the premises of the subscriber, Lot No. 8, 3rd Con. of East Whitby, about the 1st of January last, A BROWN MARE rising three. The owner is requested to prove property, pay charges and take her away. James Ross, East Whitby, March 3rd, 1863. 390-w

 

Mar 63 1

March 18, 1863
Oshawa Grammar School
We are glad to learn that this Institution is now FULL of pupils, every desk being fully occupied. This speaks well for ability and test of Professor Lumsden to whose zeal and preservation the possession of a Grammar School by our village is almost wholly attributable.

 

B.C.S.S Anniversary
We are happy to learn that the second anniversary of the Bible Christian Sabbath School.

Oshawa was a complete success in every respect. The attendance was very large, the preparations and performance were good, and the income, after paying the expenses, something like $50. The provision of eatables was abundant, so much that notwithstanding the large company fed, a considerable quantity was disposed of by auction at the close of the proceedings. This will no doubt prove a welcome addition of the funds of the school, and evinces on the part of the members with which the school is connected, a lively interest in the welfare of their “nursery”—one worthy of imitation elsewhere.

Mar 63 2

March 25, 1863
Save Your Teeth – How to do it
Mr. Beccher, who is something of a physiologist, as well as a theologist, farmer, editor, author, lecturer and reformer generally, says, “Our teeth decay. Hence unseemly mouths, bad breath, imperfect mastication. Everybody regrets it. What is the cause? It is a want of cleanliness. A clean tooth never decays. The mouth is a warm place—98 degrees. Particles of meat between the teeth decompose. Gums and teeth must suffer. Cleanliness will preserve the teeth to old age….

Sugar, acids, salertus are nothing compared to food left in the teeth. Mercury may loosen the teeth, use may wear them out, but keep them clean and they will never decay. This advice is worth more than a thousand dollars to each boy and girl. Books have been written on this subject. This brief article contains all that is essential.

 

LOST
In Oshawa, on Friday the 27th, a BLACK WOOL VEIL with lilac flowers on it. Any person leaving the same at the Vindicator office, will confer a favor upon the owner. March 4th, 1863.

 

“Shall I Learn to Dance?”
Certainly, by all means. Commence with the ‘quickstep’ out of bed in the morning and keep it up until the ‘chores’ are all finished. The boys of course will have a ‘cow drill’, while the girls are engaged in a ‘country dance’, in the kitchen. After this, all hands ‘change’, and ‘promenade’ to school, keeping step to the music of merry laughter. Repeat the same of the way home at night, with an occasional variation by ‘tripping the toe’, and having a ‘break down’ in the snow bank. A ‘reel’ now and then will be quite in place for the girls who have learned to spin, but the boys should never think of it. If these and kindred dances are thoroughly [practiced] they will leave little time and no necessity for the polkas, schottisches, rnd (sic) other immodest fooleries of the ball-room.

OM Blog Rewind: “To My Valentine…” A history of Valentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day Cards

This post was originally posted on February 13, 2015.


The history of Valentine’s Day in surrounded by legends and is not a certainty. One common thing among these legends is Saint Valentine, the person after whom the date is named.

One legend is that Saint Valentine was a priest, and when Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those who are married, he outlawed marriage of young men. Saint Valentine defied this law, wedding young men in secret; he was then put to death when his actions were found out.  In another legend, Valentine was imprisoned and sent his first valentine to a young girl, maybe the daughter of his jailer. The last letter he wrote to her before his death was signed “Your Valentine.”

Valentine’s Day is celebrated in February; some believe that it is the day he was buried or put to death, while other believe that the Christian Church moved it to this date in an effort to “Christianize” Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival and fertility rite, typically observed on February 15. The Christian Church under the Pope Gelasius I, in 494 CE, appropriated the form of the rite as the Feast of Purification.

Around the 17th century in Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated. In the middle of the 18th century, all social classes were exchanging hand written notes. In the 19th century, printed cards replaced written letters thanks to the improvement of the printing press. In America, Esther A. Howland sold mass-produced valentines in the 1840s; these postcards had paper lace, real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures.   Esther A. Howland is often known as the “Mother of Valentine.” The Greeting Card Association estimated that 1 billion Valentine’s Day cars are sent each year, and approximately 85% of Valentine’s Day cards are bought by women. In the United States $14.7 billion are generated by Valentine’s Day.

The Oshawa Community Archives has a number of Valentine’s Day postcards in their holdings, and what follows are a selection from their collection.