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James McKay

“We have not come here to deceive you, we have not come here to rob you, we have to come here to take away anything that belongs to you, and we are not here to make peace as we would to hostile Indians, because you are the children of the Great Queen as we are, and there has never been anything but peace between us.”
- James McKay, Treaty Commissioner

“[This] remarkable man, the son of an Orkneyman by an Indian mother . . . possessed large influence over the Indian tribes, which he always used for the benefit and the advantage of the government.”
- Alexander Morris, Treaty Commissioner

The Honourable James McKay was born in 1828 at Fort Edmonton to a Métis mother and a Scotch father. A fur trader, politician, and a guide like his father, MacKay was a very popular figure in the Northwest. He was a muscular man, known for his great physical size, his resourcefulness, and his generosity.

McKay was educated at Red River, and worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1853-60. Because of his skill with Aboriginal languages McKay advanced rapidly; serving as clerk and postmaster and becoming the preferred guide by many distinguished travelers. For two and a half months in 1857, McKay acted as a guide for the Palliser expedition during its survey of the Northwest Territories. McKay left the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company — who tried unsuccessfully to keep him — and ventured into the trading, freighting, mail transportation, and supervision of road construction. He married Margaret Rowand in June 1859 and established a home at Deer Lodge. They informally adopted a girl named Augusta whose parents had been killed by the Dakota (Sioux) and had then lived with the Grey Nuns.

In 1868 McKay was appointed a member of the Council of Assiniboia, and president of the Whitehorse Plains District Court. When the Red River Resistance broke out in 1869, McKay was not prepared to a ctively oppose his Métis friends and decided to withdraw for a time to the United States. He later stopped a band of Dakota warriors from visiting the settlement, averting what might have provoked further hostilities in an already precarious situation. When the provisional government was formed, McKay was named an English councillors.

In 1871, MacKay was appointed to the first council of Lieutenant Governor Adams George Archibald’s government of the newly formed province of Manitoba. McKay’s addition to the two French and two English representatives, wrote Archibald, “would in no way disturb the delicate balance since his father was Scotch, his mother French Half-breed and though he himself [is] a Catholic he has two brothers Presbyterians.”

McKay occupied several important positions with the government of Manitoba. Throughout his political career, he was well-known for his: sound judgment, and faith in the advice of the clergy. McKay was a fair and cautious man, always willing to discuss public issues. He concerned himself with the problems affecting the First Nations population, including the regulation of the bison hunt and the control of the liquor trade.

McKay’s most important public contribution was in resolving Aboriginal protests and concerns. He had assisted at Treaties 1, 2, 3, and 5, and when the Treaty 6 negotiations began in 1876, he joined the Treaty Commission at Duck Lake and travelled with them to Fort Carlton. McKay’s ability to adopt the manners and behaviours of different cultures served him well, and he chose to camp apart from the rest of the Commission so as to be nearer to the Aboriginal people. As Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris pointed out, McKay “had the opportunity of meeting with them constantly, and learning their views which his familiarity with the Indian dialects enabled him to do.”

In many ways, the Honourable James McKay was the archetypal Métis plainsman; he lived through the transition from a nomadic way of life based on the bison hunt and fur trade, to a settled life based on agriculture. McKay retired in 1878 due to ill health, and passed away at his estate in 1879 at the age of 51.

Swan, Ruth. Review of Agnes Grant’s James McKay: a Métis Builder of Canada. Manitoba History. Winnipeg: Spring 1997, Issue 33, p. 39.
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