Canada – The Selkirk Settlers of Winnipeg – Part Six

Over the past few weeks, I’ve blogged about the Scots in Canada. Early in our journey, we met up with some wonderful folk from the St Andrews Society of Winnipeg, Tim and Nancy Flook, and  Ed Bethune, editor of the Society’s newsletter, The Saltire. Over the course of a day, they shared many insights, as we explored the fascinating places associated with the Selkirk settlers.

A monument, an exact copy of one in Sutherland, brought to Winnipeg at great cost by the society, stands as a poignant, mute reminder of the heart break of these settlers, torn from their lands.

Here is the tale of those early courageous Scots.

Cast your minds back to the Scottish clearances when families in the highlands were forced from their ancestral lands in their thousands to make way for new farming practices. Those who resisted had their homes burnt whilst they watched in despair and horror. Imagine the devastation of those families, wondering how they might survive such hardship and provide for their children. Some wandered the country seeking new ways of living. Many were encouraged to board ships for new lands.

One lord, Sir Thomas Douglas, the  Fifth Lord  of Selkirk, was more progressive than most. He purchased great tracts of land from the Hudson Bay Company in central Canada and hoped to set up the first agricultural  settlement. Emigrants were offered the promise of a new life and the prospect of owning their own land. Hope bloomed once more. Families set forth with their worldly possessions – few by our standards but each a precious reminder of home. 

What does it mean to be displaced – to never again set foot upon the soil upon which your ancestors’ feet had trod, to never again see the sun rise or set upon your land? And what must it have been like to cross the Atlantic and sail into Hudson Bay and then down through the lakes and rivers?. By 1812, they disembarked at the Red River Settlement at the forks of the Red and Assiboine Rivers. Throughout this journey, starvation and cold were everpresent dangers and it was only through the efforts of an Indian chief that the group survived at all. Chief Peguis is honored today. He lies buried in the peaceful grounds of a church by the Red River, having become a Christian during the early days of the settlement.

The settlers brought with them a bushel and a half of Scottsh grain which they planted but it was late in the season. The Indians fed them and guided them to safety. It was tough going for many years as civil unrest followed between the HBC and the North West Company. The Meti, those of mixed French and Indian blood,  supported the North West Company and a massacre took place when twenty of the HBC men were killed at Seven Oaks. By 1822, these two companies had resolved their enmity and amalgamated. It was around this time that Lord Selkirk died. He is honored today by the people of Winnipeg for his immense role in the city’s early development.

The settlers survived the unrest though the Meti continued to fight for their place in society throughout the century.

Ancestors of those early Scots survive to this day and the St Andrews Society of Winnipeg which was established in the 1870s reflects this proud history. We were honored by the warm welcome and the generosity of our new friends in sharing their story with us.