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The Peoples, Their Places

Mair's Diary: Through the Mackenzie Basin

Through The Mackenzie Basin Original Edition When Through the Mackenzie Basin was published in 1908, it marked the culmination of the literary career of one of Canada's most passionately nationalist writers, Charles Mair. Then an official with the federal immigration service, Mair had accompanied the Treaty 8 Commission and the Half-Breed Scrip Commission throughout what is now Northern Alberta as one of its official secretaries during the summer of 1899. Notes compiled while on this excursion were used as the basis of his subsequent account, which is a lively and detailed description of the people, events and scenery witnessed at the time. The work is presented from the perspective of a lover of the wilderness and a strong apologist for the British Empire, whose reputation and expressed world view could warrant his designation as the Rudyard Kipling of Canada.

As a documentary source Mair's book was special. It was written by a first-hand witness to some of the most significant events in the history of Northwest Canada, namely the signing of Treaty 8 at Lesser Slave Lake, and certain other adhesions that followed. Mair was also a direct participant in the details of the initial distribution of scrip in the region that summer. In addition to the official documents, his account has come to constitute the most detailed published source for the interpretation of these events, although obviously written by a decided government apologist.

At the time of publication the full ramifications of the Treaty signing and scrip allotment were not readily apparent, for the land in the Unorganized District of Athabasca remained largely unsettled. The Klondike Gold Rush had petered out, mineral resources along the lower Athabasca River had yet to be tapped, and the Peace River Country was still awaiting the settlement rush long predicted for it. Reserves had been surveyed for several of the native bands who had taken Treaty, including certain parcels in severalty. A number of holdings had also been marked out for those who had preferred settlement by land scrip. Most of those who had opted for money scrip had chosen to sell their entitlement, but were living off the land anyway. In 1908, most northerners lived pretty much as they had prior to the time of the settlement, either within or outside their assigned holdings. The most pronounced change in the region was in the economy, where, by now, cash had replaced barter as the standard of exchange.

Through the Mackenzie Basin contains no prognosis of any future conflict or misinterpretation of the events of 1899. Throughout the narrative, Mair's tone is decidedly one of optimism. The settlement process was seen as peaceful, with the natives basically satisfied having resisted certain disruptive elements bent on scuttling the negotiations, described by Mair as "half-breeds.from Edmonton, who had been vitiated by contact with a low class of white man there." That Mair should have presented such a picture is not surprising. He was a passionate Canadian and an advocate of the benevolence of the British Empire. His poems and other writings also reveal a strong affinity for the wilderness and an empathy for the plight of the North American Indian.

Reprinted from Through the Mackenzie Basin: An Account of the Signing of Treaty No. 8 and the Scrip Commission, 1899, by Charles Mair.