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The Peoples, Their Places

James A. McKenna


Civil Servant, member of Treaty 8 Commission.



L-R: The Honourable James Ross, Inspector A. E. Snyder, and James A. McKenna.

Born and raised in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, James McKenna was the son of a local merchant and his wife, James and Rose McKenna. Prior to taking a position in Ottawa as third-class clerk in the Privy Council Office he held a position with the Prince Edward Island Railway and dabbled from time to time in local journalism.

While in Ottawa his talent for politics and steadfast work ethic quickly paid off as he was assigned to the Department of Indian Affairs. After only a year, he became private secretary to the superintendent general, Sir John A. Macdonald - a position he held for over a decade. During his tenure as private secretary, McKenna also began to study law, an endeavour that would be important in his future with the Canadian government. In July 1888 McKenna was promoted to second-class clerk and in 1897 was selected to be Clifford Sifton's private secretary. At the time Sifton was just beginning his tenure as superintendent general, and had deliberately chosen McKenna as his aide to help in the federal government's initiative to obtain a settlement with the British Columbia government regarding the administration of the Railway Belt and the Peace River Block - lands that the province had transmitted to Ottawa in order to assist the construction of a transcontinental railway.

By 1899 McKenna had been promoted to first-class clerk and was preparing himself to join Indian Commissioner David Laird and James Hamilton Ross of the Northwest Territorial government in negotiating Treaty 8 with the Indians in the District of Athabasca and northeastern corner of British Columbia - an area that had been disturbed by an influx of gold seekers en route to the Klondike. The terms of the Treaty were to be similar to those of the previous seven treaties signed with the native populations of Canada except that, on McKenna's suggestion, the option of taking land in severalty, rather than in reserves, was provided. McKenna also proposed that the Indians be given a lump sum in lieu of annuities, which was rejected by Sifton on David Laird's advice. The treaty itself was negotiated over the summer, with each commissioner following an exhausting itinerary. McKenna visited Fort St. John, in British Columbia, and Fort Dunvegan, Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray in Alberta, to secure adhesions to the agreement by various bands, enduring long meetings and negotiations that, at times, did get quite intense.

Separate commissioners known as Scrip Commissioners dealt with Land claims from the mixed-blood population of the region. These Scrip Commissioners worked in conjunction with the Treaty 8 party. However, the process of enacting such a huge settlement was more arduous than anticipated. By 1900 many claims went unsettled throughout much of the Northwest Territories, so two new commissions were established to handle that region. James McKenna and Major James Walker undertook the one for the districts of Assiniboia and Alberta. In 1901, recognizing McKenna's talent for his job, the federal government appointed James McKenna to assistant Indian Commissioner and Chief Inspector of Agencies for Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Meanwhile McKenna continued his work in Assiniboia and Alberta until 1904. After Alberta and Saskatchewan gained official provincial status in 1905 McKenna was appointed both treaty and scrip commissioner for Treaty 10, which was intended to formalize agreements with those Indians throughout the new provinces who were not yet under any treaty.

In 1909 the federal government closed the Commissioner's office, moving David Laird back to Ottawa and leaving James McKenna, Laird's heir apparent, without an official position. However, it was arranged for McKenna to remain in Winnipeg as the department's inspector of Roman Catholic schools for the prairies where, although reportedly being the department's highest paid officer in the region, he was quite unhappy with his work. As a result, in 1912 McKenna was made the dominion's representative in negotiations with British Columbia regarding a number of native grievances. In this position James McKenna joined the premier of British Columbia, Richard McBride, in negotiating what would become known as the McKenna-McBride agreement that allowed for a royal commission to examine reserves and adjust their size, with Indian consent.

McKenna retired from his office in 1917 and spent his retirement years in Victoria, British Columbia, where he died in 1919. An adept government official, James A. McKenna was also a shrewd and conservative bureaucrat and staunch championship of his department's repressive policies, including the institution of residential schooling and the harsh measures taken against traditional dancing and Indian appearances at exhibitions throughout much of the early twentieth century. However, McKenna was an important political figure who was linked to many significant events in the west that helped shape the western provinces, and in particular those members nations of Treaty 8, into what they have become today.