Winner of 2010-2011 Mathieu Da Costa Parks Canada Award
Canada is one nation built from many. It is a kaleidoscope of cultures, all unique and all distinctively Canadian. As a country and a culture we have been built through diversity. We are a country who is not only accepting of diversity, but where it is the foundation of our entire society. Our land started with the First Nations people, and then quickly progressed as the explorers started arriving. This then brought the French, the English and soon immigrants from all over the world. Cultures blended and changed until we arrived where we are today. The culture we now know, and that feeling that we are Canadian, has been built through the efforts of numerous people from various backgrounds. There have been many contributors that helped to build what has become “Our Canada”, and one of those people was Chief Poundmaker. Poundmaker was a hero who helped create Canada, but his actions are often lost among the storm caused by others in that same time period.
Poundmaker was a chief of one of the plains Cree tribes, and lived in the time of the Red River Rebellion. When the rebellion is spoken of, you often hear Louis Riel mentioned, but rarely of others who contributed to Canada around that time. Their contributions were not lesser than Riel’s, they were simply different. He did not gain the famous, or to some, the infamous reputation of Riel, but Poundmaker was a part of that time and impacted Canada greatly. He was a respected leader who had strong speaking skills and unshakeable morals. His father was a Stoney Shaman and his mother was Métis, however, neither one would live to see their son’s political impact. He was born near Battleford, Saskatchewan and was orphaned at a young age. When he was about thirty years old a Blackfoot chief named Crowfoot adopted him. Crowfoot had lost one of his own sons in battle, which was one of the reasons he adopted Poundmaker. He would become a person held in high regard by his people.
The respect the tribe felt for Poundmaker eventually progressed to a point where he found himself a part of the negotiations for Treaty Six. He contributed a lot of effort into ensuring the Famine Clause was in Treaty Six. The Famine Clause was a guarantee that if the First Nations were experiencing a famine, relief would be provided by the government. This clause and how it was carried out later aided in convincing many tribe members to side with the Métis and Louis Riel. The government’s actions towards the implementation of the Famine Clause would also impact Poundmaker’s actions.
Poundmaker’s involvement in dealing with the government about his people occurred as an effect from the government’s failure to supply his band as he believed fit. The actions made by the government were considered lacking because it was believed that the promises made in the treaties were not being fulfilled. This would create a great deal of unrest within the First Nations’ communities. These actions would lead to a change in the political power within Poundmaker’s tribe, and to a change in Poundmaker’s position in the tribe.
When a band puts up a war lodge, it signifies that there has been a change in power from the tribe’s political chief to the tribe’s war chief. Poundmaker’s tribe, under the rule of their war chief, would successfully defend themselves against an attack by the Canadian Army. This battle occurred at Cut Knife Hill and their victory over the Canadians would fuel tribe members’ desire to go join with Louis Riel and the Métis.
With the war chief in power, Poundmaker’s control over the situation was minimal, to say the least. He did, however, manage to delay the tribe’s departure by a significant margin and the tribe never managed to actually get to the Métis in time. The Métis were defeated before Poundmaker’s tribe even arrived. However, during the tribe’s journey towards the Métis there was still damage done and someone had to be held accountable.
Poundmaker turned himself in to the authorities even though if you followed Cree politics you knew he was not actually responsible. His crimes were listed as treason and he faced trial in Regina, Saskatchewan. The court’s proceedings lasted two days. He received a sentence of three years within the Stoney Mountain Penitentiary, which was situated in Manitoba. He did not serve his full sentence.
His stay in Stoney Mountain lasted only six months before his release due to ill health. Officials did not wish for him to die within the penitentiary so they gave him an early release. When released he proceeded to go see his people.
When he arrived he found their lives had become dramatically different than when he had left them. What he saw was a changed society in the power of the treaties. He later planned to go discuss the fate of his people with his father. Unfortunately close to a month was all the time he was able to spend with his father before Chief Poundmaker died. His descendants, however, are still around, and so too is Treaty Six.
Poundmaker is someone without whom many more lives would have been lost if he had not spoken out as he did. He took responsibility for the actions of his tribe, not because he was at fault and had instigated them, but because he had been unable to stop them.
The contributions that Poundmaker and others like him made to our culture are still felt today. We need to recognize those who have made contributions to the construction of this nation and the changes they have helped to implement. Without these people many of the crimes we were committing against others’ rights would not have ended because these actions were not seen as even being inappropriate. Poundmaker and all the other heroes of Canada are owed at least two important things, to be remembered and to be thanked.