Hudson’s Bay Company

IT will have been noticed that in the earlier chapters dealing with the history of Canada very little mention has been made of the northern and the north-western parts. There is, in fact, very little history to tell of a kind which has any bearing on the evolution of the Canadian race. In the north and the north-west was savage, wooded country where the foot of man seldom trod, full of unchartered swamps and trackless forests, and, so far as the early dwellers could see, quite valueless from an agricultural point of view. There were, however, to be found wild animals with coveted skins, and in 1670 a company of merchant adventurers, brought together by Prince Rupert and seventeen noblemen and gentlemen, obtained a charter from the King to trade in furs and skins with the Indians of North America.

The governors of the Hudson’s Bay Company were ” made, created, and constituted, the absolute lords and proprietors” of Rupert’s Land, and held it ” as of our manor at East Greenwich in our county of Kent, in free common soccage, and not in capite, or by knights service, yielding and paying yearly to us, our heirs and successors, for the same two elks and two black beavers, whensoever and so often as we, our heirs and successors, shall happen to enter into the said country, territory, and regions, hereby granted.”

We see, therefore, that the company was invested with absolute ownership and right of traffic for the defined territory, which, under the name of Rupert’s Land comprised all the land discovered and undiscovered within the entrance of Hudson’s Strait. By the wording of the charter it was understood that this territory included, not only the territory around Hudson’s Bay, but also all the lands that drained into the Bay and the Strait.

For more than a century the traders had all their work to do to maintain themselves on the shores of the Strait, to beat off Indians and to secure themselves against the rigours of the climate, without indulging in exploration into the interior. The French of the St. Lawrence valley had no love for these English adventurers, and Lemoine D’Ibervile applied the torch to many of their trading posts, but the Hudson’s Bay Company, hardy pioneers as they were, were not to be dismayed. They retired to their forts, imported fresh goods, and armed their ships against the attackers ; and when Canada passed from France to England in 1763 the adventurers pushed out south and west to the unknown in search of fresh trade and fresh country.

It was about this time that French adventurers began to penetrate from the south, the region of the great lakes, and their discovery of the abundance of trade to be had in the north led, in 1783, to the formation of the North-West Company, a combine of merchants in furs. Served as it was by Englishmen and Scotchmen largely, the Hudson’s Bay Company resented the advent of the French Canadian explorer, and the two companies fought bitterly for trade, and at times for very life, during the ensuing forty years.

Two servants of each company have left their names on the map of Canada, for it was about this time that the Mackenzie River was discovered and explored to the Arctic Sea by Mackenzie of the North-West Company. Simon Fraser, again, explored the Fraser River, and David Thompson, of the North-West Company, discovered and named the Thompson River. Samuel Hearne, belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, discovered the Coppermine River, and later established on the Saskatchewan River the fort which is still known as Cumberland House.

In 1811 the company (the true and absolute lords of Rupert’s Land) ” granted, aliened, and feoffed, and con-firmed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Selkirk, his heirs and assigns,” an enormous tract of territory comprising over 100,000 square miles of country, with an important reservation in favour of the grantors, saving and reserving to the governors of the company and their successors all rights of jurisdiction whatsoever granted to the said company by their charter. For this reason the governors of Assiniboia received their commissions from the company, and not from Lord Selkirk. One tenth of this tract was to be set aside for the use of such servants as had been in the service of the company.

The Earl of Selkirk was an enterprising Scotch noble man, who at an earlier date had made a settlement in Prince Edward Island, and in 1812 he formed on the banks of the Red River a fresh settlement, composed mainly of Scotchmen with a few Irishmen amongst them. The North-West Company did not appreciate this parcelling out of hunting-grounds, nor did it approve of Lord Selkirk’s settlement. The settlement was growing, and the prospects of the earlier members of the community were so improved that they wrote to England inviting their friends to join them. In 1816, therefore, the employees of the North-West Company suddenly attacked Fort Douglas, and retreated after destroying the Fort and murdering Governor Semple, who was in charge.

Lord Selkirk gathered a band of mercenaries and came at full speed to the relief of his colony, and succeeded eventually in bringing to trial several of the employees of the North-West Company on charges of high treason, murder, robbery, conspiracy, and other capital offences.

At that time the powers of the judiciary were not entirely free from the charge of truckling to the great ones of the earth ; and the North West Company, which possessed an enormous influence in that part of the country, secured a verdict against Lord Selkirk for conspiring to ruin the trade of the company. For this the Lord Selkirk was fined heavily and retired dis-gusted to France, where he died two years later. The settlement had cost the unfortunate nobleman from first to last, says Ross, not less than £85,000, an amount the colony would not have realised had it been sold by auction within twenty years after it was founded.

By the year 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company had coalesced with the North West Company, and a combined organisation swept the country from the Arctic Ocean to the American border, and from Cape Breton to Vancouver. This was perhaps the most prosperous time in the life of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for they had absolute monopoly of trading, and would allow no rivals of any kind to interfere with their arrangements.

The Red River settlement became the headquarters of the combined company, and in 1835 a system of local government was established, with a president, a council, and a court of law at Fort Garry, a high stone structure with walls ten or twelve feet high, and defended by cannon and musketry.

In 1838 the Hudson’s Bay Company acquired the sole right of trading in furs for a period of twenty-one years, but at the end of that time its monopoly expired, and the fur trade was opened to all comers without let or hindrance. Though the loss of its monopoly was no doubt a blow to the Hudson’s Bay Company its organisation was so excellent that fresh comers had immense difficulties to contend with, and the loss to the company was more apparent than real for many years to come.

Whilst the Company no longer retained its monopoly of fur trading it had still a large grant of land which it had acquired in its early days. From time to time mutterings were to be heard among advanced thinkers at the enormous Territories held by this commercial company, but it was not until 1856 that the public mind became fully aroused to the desirability of dealing with the matter finally and decisively. It was then only that Canadians began to think about these vast spaces in the north-west, and the desirability of linking them up with the rest of the country. It was not an easy task to move the Hudson’s Bay Company, entrenched as it was in its fastnesses so far from the thoughts of the man in the street, and buttressed by quite a considerable section of the Canadian press, who for various motives desired the status quo to remain. It is only fair to add that whilst some of the opponents of change were in some way or another indebted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, another section believed honestly that the lands were valueless, or nearly so, and that they would be no more than a charge and a burden to the community, which could ill afford fresh handicaps to its prosperity.

In the light of our knowledge of today one can read with amazement tempered with surprise a quotation from the Montreal Transcript of the fifties ” that the climate of the North-West is altogether unfavourable to the growth of grain, and that the shortness of the summer made it difficult even to mature a small potato or a cabbage.” This of a country which produces its forty bushels to the acre today ! However, the balance of opinion was with the reformers, and the agitation was so well kept up that by the end of 1856 negotiations were opened up with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and early in the following year Chief Justice Draper was sent on a mission to England to represent the provinces in the negotiations which were then in progress. When the Houses of Parliament met in the following year the Speech from the Throne contained the announcement that Her Majesty’s Government had determined to submit to the consideration of a committee certain questions connected with the Territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The discussions pursued a slow and even course for the next few years, and it was not until the time of Confederation that the matter came up for final decision.

The rights of the company were carefully investigated, and on December the 4th, 1862, a series of resolutions were introduced into the House by Mr. McDougall, with the object of bringing under the control of the Dominion Government Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories.

In 1869 Sir George Cartier and Mr. McDougall, who had been sent to England to arrange for the surrender of the Hudson’s Bay Company, completed their negotiations, and the conditions of the surrender were that the company should receive from the Dominion Government the sum of L300,000, and that all rights of the Company, with certain reservations, should be the property of the Imperial Government, by whom they were to be transferred to the Dominion Government one month later. The reservations were considerable ; they included certain lands, amounting in all to about 50,000 acres, and in addition one-twentieth of all the land in the great belt south of the north branch of the Saskatchewan River. Truly a king’s ransom.

These terms being agreed upon they received the sanction of the Dominion Parliament, and an Act was passed providing a Territorial government for the country which was being ceded.

The enormous tract thus brought into the Dominion was named the North West Territories, and it was decided that its affairs should be administered by a Lieutenant-Governor appointed by the Governor- General in Council. Provision was made for the formation of a Council to assist him in the carrying out of his duties, and certain other temporary provisions bringing the code of the North West Territories into line with the rest of the Dominion.

All these were purely temporary measures, since it was understood that as soon as the population and importance of the new Territories demanded it, a permanent organisation for the new government was to be set up.

So, with the passing of the Act, faded from the pages of Canadian history a powerful force, which had exercised royal powers over quite a considerable section of the Dominion.

The Hudson’s Bay Company still remains a prosperous trading concern, run upon sound business principles, and reaping its harvest from the trackless north. True, it has other rivals in the fur trade, but it remains a fine example of private enterprise, and as such receives the respect of all Canadians.

The recent history of this honourable body is too well known to need recapitulation. The annual meeting of the shareholders in London, under the Presidency of its venerable Governor, Lord Strathcona, is one of the events of the commercial year. The Deputy-Governor is Mr. Thomas Skinner, and the Committee, six in number, are :—Mr. John Coles, Mr. L. D. Cunliffe, Mr. Vivian Hugh Smith, Mr. R. M. Kindersley, Mr. William Mackenzie, and Mr. Richard Burbidge. The affairs of the company in Canada are under the control, subject to the Governor, Deputy-Governor and Committee, of a Commissioner, Mr. C. C. Chipman, with headquarters at Winnipeg.