Canada Day: What’s to celebrate?

reconciliation noun /ˌrekənsɪliˈeɪʃn / an end to a disagreement or conflict with somebody and the start of a good relationship again

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries
St Peters, c1921 (from Red River North Heritage,

The recent news of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves at the former Kamloops Residential School and Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, among others, has prompted the cancellation of many Canada Day celebrations across the country. For me, the lead up to this first of July has churned up memories of a Sunday ride in 2012.

While I was still living in Winnipeg, fellow HG member Wayne Ferguson and I shared a Canada Day ritual of sorts: cycling the same number of kilometres as the years since Confederation. In 2012, that worked out to 145 kilometres. Looping to Selkirk and back was a favourite loop of ours and, consulting a map, I discovered that cycling a little further to Old St. Peter’s Church and back would add up to close to 145 km from my front door. Sounded like a perfect Canada Day ride.

If you know nothing about St. Peter’s—as was the case for me—you may be surprised to learn that it was built in 1853 on the site of the first Peguis Reserve. Its cemetery is believed to hold at least 3,000 to 5,000 unmarked graves. 

St. Peter’s Reserve

Peguis Monument, erected 1924

Though many Canadians marked 2012 as the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812, few Manitobans also recognised it as 200 years since Chief Peguis (born about 1774) welcomed the first Red River settlers. Often known as “Chief Cut-Nose” because his nose had been bitten off in a fight around 1802, Peguis is credited with aiding and defending the new arrivals during their first difficult years. He guided them to hunt buffalo in 1814, and helped to bury their dead after the Seven Oaks Massacre in 1816. He is even credited with having rescued Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first white woman in the West and future grandmother of Louis Riel. In 1817, Peguis was a signatory to The Selkirk Treaty that granted settlers use of Red River lands that included the future settlements of Selkirk, Lockport, and Winnipeg.

Peguis had been persuaded in 1832 to settle at what would become known as St. Peter’s Indian Reserve, the first successful Indian agricultural settlement in Western Canada.  When Peguis converted to Christianity in 1840, he adopted the name William King and gave his children the last name of Prince. The names of many of the original settlers, including some of the Princes, can still be read on headstones in the cemetery. The largest is the monument marking the grave of Chief Peguis himself, who died only three years before confederation in 1864.

Peguis’s Legacy

Image courtesy of The Archives of Manitoba

Cycling back home, I stopped at the “Stone Fort” of Lower Fort Garry just beyond the town of Selkirk. Here, on August 3, 1871, Peguis’s youngest son, Henry (Red Eagle/Mis-koo-kenew) Prince, signed Treaty No. 1 with the new country of Canada, formally transferring lands that are now part of modern Manitoba

Coincidentally, 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of its signing. Recent discoveries are sure to cast a shadow on this summer’s planned Treaty No. 1 150 Commemoration.

Henry Prince died on 7 June 1899 at the age of 75. He was buried the following day in St. Peter’s cemetery. His grave too is unmarked.

Tommy Prince (1915-1977)

And then there’s Peguis’s great-great-grandson, Sgt. Tommy Prince of the Devil’s Brigade, Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal war veteran. Though a hero in the mold of his great-great-grandfather, like too many of our First Nations brothers and sisters he died penniless in a homeless shelter and is virtually as forgotten as Peguis himself.

It has been 209 years since that first contact with Peguis, friend of the settlers. All that is left of the first Peguis Reserve is a dirt road leading to the old stone church and cemetery where he is buried, surrounded by crumbling headstones, a few forgotten monuments, and thousands of unmarked graves. Successive waves of settlers and the new government of Canada eventually succeeded in pushing the Peguis band off this prime agricultural land, then considered “too good for Indians”, onto reserves farther north.

In need of steady friends

A poignant 2016 Free Press article chronicled the quiet reburial at St. Peter’s of remains from other unmarked grave that had been exposed by the Red River. I encourage you to read it. Nearly two centuries ago, elders had buried an indigenous man with honour, facing east and overlooking the Red, with his stone pipe, a clay pottery bowl, and beadwork tucked inside a birchbark shroud. Officers who had examined the site and realized its significance, placed a private call for an indigenous elder to come out and hold a ceremonial smudge. Following the reinterment, Ojibwa elder Harry Bone and former grand chief Dennis White Bird both commended the RCMP on the way they conducted the investigation; the smudge had been a surprisingly touching gesture.

“We know this is going to happen, there’s going to be other things found,” Bone said.

Yes, there are those who call for abandoning Canada Day celebrations in light of recent discoveries—I hesitate to even call them discoveries; exposés would be more appropriate. But the truth is, Canadians do have much to celebrate. We live in a country that is more prepared than ever, I believe, to confront its past. And though we must acknowledge that some of us are still hurting—I too have indigenous ancestors lying in unmarked graves somewhere—I see more value in building up than tearing down, in building bridges over erecting walls.

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk
Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk

Peguis has been a steady friend of the settlement ever since its establishment and has never deserted its cause in it greatest reverses.

Lord Selkirk 1817.

Non-indigenous Canadians must work towards repaying their debt by restoring the good relations modeled by Chief Peguis so long ago. But the tables have been turned. It is our First Nations, after so many great reverses, that are in need of steady friends.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it is no longer an option. Canada Day 2021 may mark a new awakening and, I can only hope, a stronger resolve to build a better place for all of us.

Categories: All, General Interest

4 replies »

  1. Thanks for an illuminating article Guy.
    Years ago, I was exploring on my motorcycle, and went east from Hwy 8 (or was it 9 ) into Petersfield area, but soon came to a rather muddy halt before the Red River delta marshes. Then I spotted a trail going north, which I followed for miles. At one point I think I saw that St Peters Church along the trail but gave it no more thought. Eventually, The trail came out through a gate in a Winnipeg Beach mobile trailer court.
    Years later, I built a cottage in the Hnausa district and there stayed for thirty some years.
    The point of all this is that living there, we came to appreciate that Icelandic settlers’ region, and also some of the history of how the indigenous people aided them on their arrival in October of 1875. Your article is so timely of course, but for me it also ties in to the earlier help that Chief Peguis and his people offered to the earlier settlers to the surrounding regions.
    Being ex-RCAF radio/navigator, as a trainee I had to learn air force history and that was my first knowledge of Sgt. Tommy Prince. Your article nicely connects him and his GGgrandfather Chief Peguis. Thanks for a great history lesson.

  2. Great article Guy. Thanks for that. I felt sad reading it and hopeful at the same time that things can and must change.

  3. Thanks very much for crafting this message Guy .
    It is informative , thoughtful and moving .


  4. I really enjoyed reading your article and agree with the sentiments expressed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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