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We continue our look at each year through Canada’s history from Confederation to today with 1881.
On January 2, Frederick Varley is born. He will become one of Canada’s iconic Group of Seven artists after he immigrates to Canada in 1912. Known as one of Canada’s top war artists, he will paint Canadian troops in France and Belgium. In 1920, he will be a founding member of the Group of Seven and become known for painting landscapes in green, pink or purple. Due to his experience in the war, he often chose to paint landscapes that were damaged by the climate or fire. He would eventually become the Head of the Department of Drawing and Painting at the School of Decorative and Applied Arts in Vancouver, serving in the position from 1926 to 1933. In 1954, he would visit the Soviet Union in the first exchange of artists during the Cold War, and would pass away in 1969 in Toronto.
On February 16, the Canadian Pacific Railway is incorporated, in which the government gave 25 million acres of land, millions of dollars and a monopoly on the railroad in the country for over two decades. For many, it was not a popular arrangement. Although many supported it. Speaking on Feb. 18, 1881, regarding the land grant, Archibald Woodbury McLellan would state in the House of Commons, quote:
“If the syndicate does nothing more than settle the 25 million acres of land that we have intermixed with theirs they will confer an incalculable benefit upon this Dominion.”
The Opposition also stated they would have preferred the limiting of the land grant, while increasing the cash subsidy. This land was given to the syndicate in alternate sections of 640 acres each from a strip of 48 miles wide running from Winnipeg to Jasper House.
The Ottawa Free Press referred to the contract agreed to as, quote:
“A stupendous outrage. Nothing that ever entered the human mind can equal it. The terms are more like what would be imposed by a military conqueror after the country had been prostrated by an unsuccessful war.”
The Montreal Daily Witness would write, quote:
“One stands aghast before this Pacific Railway contract, so monstrous are its provisions and so monstrous its omissions. We take days to gather breath to discuss it and then we quail before the uselessness of the task.”
Newspapers looking to capitalize on the Pacific Scandal that was still fresh in the minds of many would call the contract the “Pacific Swindle” or the “Pacific Disgrace”
The contract from the government called for the commencement of construction by the syndicate in the east on July 1, 1881. The company quickly set up its construction headquarters at Winnipeg. The contract also stated that the syndicate would follow the proposed route that the government had chosen in October 1879, going west from Winnipeg to Edmonton, through the Yellow Head Pass, into British Columbia and to Kamloops. The syndicate instead chose to change the route and adopt a southerly route that would run through Calgary instead and the Kicking Horse Pass. For the syndicate, a more southerly route would prevent the Northern Pacific Railway from commanding the bulk of traffic on the southern prairies and British Columbia. It would also the syndicate to capture traffic from the south and the north, forcing people in both regions to use their railroad at some point along the journey.
On April 4, a census finds that Canada’s population stands at 4, 324,810 people.
The saga of Sitting Bull in Canada would end this year as well as the numbers of the Sioux began to decline in the country as they moved back to the United States. Eventually, Sioux began to return to the United States on the promise of rations. By 1880, the number of Sioux in Canada had fallen to 485 and by 1881, it was down to only 387.
On April 26, 1881, it was reported, quote:
“Despite Sitting Bull’s opposition, Legare took sixteen people to Fort Buford, but four of these were witnesses who returned with Legare to report as to how their people were treated.”
Sitting Bull would then journey to Fort Qu’Appelle to try and again convince the Canadian authorities to grant him a reserve, while Legare took a second group to Fort Buford, 32 people in all, to Fort Buford in present-day North Dakota. Included in this group was the eldest daughter of Sitting Bull.
On July 11, 1881, a third and final trip was conducted with Legare, taking eight Metis guides and 189 Sioux, including Sitting Bull, to Fort Buford.
In 1885, Sitting Bull began to tour with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show but then returned to lead his people. With the show, he would return to Canada briefly in August 1885 for shows in Toronto. He would continue to push against the US government over the taking of their traditional lands and in 1886 he encouraged the Crow, former enemies of his people, to oppose allotments for a reserve. In 1890, due to the growing popularity of the Ghost Dance movement, which foretold the return of the bison and the extinction of white people, the arrest of Sitting Bull was ordered. On Dec. 15, 1890 as agents with the government came to arrest Sitting Bull, a scuffle ensued that ended in a gunfight that killed Sitting Bull and 13 others.
It was this year that Major Albert Rogers would be hired to find a pass in the mountains for the railroad. Rogers would go through the reports of earlier surveyors and it was there he found a potential pass that had been described by Albert Perry, the assistant to Walter Moberly, who surveyed the area in 1865. Rogers got to work and began looking for the pass that was identified, hoping that it would be the pass that the railroad would use. The Canadian Pacific Railway also enticed him with an offer of $5,000 for finding a pass.
Rogers worked his men hard, and provided them with only the basic needs and meagre food supplies, while constantly pushing them to continue on. Needless to say, he was not well liked by his men.
Finally, on May 28, 1881, which happened to be his birthday, he found a pass through the mountains. Rogers did not approach the pass due to a lack of food supplies, but the following year on July 24, 1882, he was able to reach the pass he had seen the previous year.
In gratitude, the Canadian Pacific Railway named it Rogers Pass.
Rogers refused to cash the cheque he was given as he wanted to put it in a gold frame. It was not until Van Horne promised him a gold watch as a souvenir that he agreed to cash the cheque.
On May 24, the steamer Victoria capsizes after being overloaded with passengers and cargo. The steamer capsizes near London, Ontario, killing 182 people in total.
The atmosphere on the ship would be happy and joyous, and the ship would make several round trips along the river with no problem.
At 3:30 p.m., the ship would dock in London for a departure of 5 p.m. It was at this time that the captain saw that the Forest City had run aground on a sand shoal in the river. The Princess Louise was trying to pull the ship off the shoal with cables, which was not working. With those two ships occupied, the Victoria would take on the responsibility of transporting passengers between the ports on the river.
Captain Donald Rankin would decide to not wait for his scheduled departure time and would immediately return to the Byron port to pick up more passengers, although he attempted to convince the captain of the Princess Louise to ferry passengers back to London, to no success. Rankin instructed a six-man crew to, in his words, “walk about and tell people we are overcrowded. Tell them the captain will not sail away until many of them left the boat. There will be more trips coming and all of them will get rides to London if they wait.” Rankin and the crew also made attempts to tell passengers awaiting ferries that his ship was overcrowded but little concern was made by the passengers getting on the Victoria. By Rankin’s own estimates later, only 20 people obeyed the commands.
By this point, the ship had roughly 650 people on it but was designed to only hold roughly 400. With so many passengers, the ship was lower in the water and many passengers said they were not worried since the river was shallow.
The ship began to rock as it sailed, and one man, John Drennan commented about this and was told by a father who was with his two daughters that if the ship capsized, passengers could just walk ashore.
By Griffith’s Dam, the water on the lower deck was ankle deep and Captain Rankin knew he could not make London like this. He stopped the Victoria at Woodland Cemetery Wharf and would not allow any new passengers on. He also rejected passengers at Ward’s Hotel Wharf. The passengers still on the vessel were getting rowdy and loud, causing the vessel to rock. Rankin saw a sand bar ahead and attempted to drive the vessel onto it to stop the voyage at that point. As he decided to do this, two members of the London Rowing Club decided to race each other down the river. Passengers of the Victoria rushed to the railing of the starboard side to watch the race, which caused the ship to become unbalanced and it lurched to that side. The passengers then ran to the port side in an attempt to right the vessel but the steam boiler broke lose from its mounting on the lower deck, tumbling and killing passengers with scalding water as it fell. It then knocked out the support beams and the railings on the port side, and sent the upper deck of the Victoria down onto the lower deck, killing passengers.
Survivor William Soper would say, “I was standing on the north side of the upper deck when the crash came. I was hurled into the water with 500 others. I sank to the bottom but managed to climb up on the people, but in turn was climbed up on by others. I then exerted myself for a final struggle and got on top again and reached the shore. The screams which arose from the drowning mass were terrific.”
On the last voyage of the evening, the Victoria loaded passengers at the Byron dock, many of whom were eager to get home to London. After casting out of the dock, the Victoria was taking small amounts of water on the hull, which was washing over the lower deck. Several passengers, noting the rocking of the ship, dove into the river and swam to shore rather than staying on.
Many passengers fell into the riverbed and as the ship keeled over onto its port side, crushing passengers. With so many passengers falling into the water, the ship was now free of that weight and promptly righted itself and began to sink, with its upper promenade deck floating and covering those underneath it, drowning them.
Many of the female passengers, wearing Victorian-era dresses, became waterlogged and attempted to swim in the 12-foot deep water but could not. Many on the boat also did not know how to swim and would drown.
Will Skinner would see his sister pulled under the water by the grip of another drowning victim.
Those on the shore attempted to save the drowning passengers. Two nude swimmers attempted to help but would themselves die in the attempt.
Many people were able to save themselves and others by sheer willpower. John Fitzpatrick saved his wife, daughter and baby granddaughter by taking his wife and daughter in each arm, and holding the baby by its clothes in his teeth as he swam to shore. A girl, aged five, was saved by grabbing the long white beard of Thomas Atwood and being towed to shore.
By 6:30 p.m., people in London heard about the disaster and began to make their way to the disaster site to help. The Princess Louise arrived five minutes after the Victoria sank and immediately the captain grounded her ashore and disembarked all passengers. The ship was then turned into a temporary morgue. At 10 p.m. that night, the Princess Louise returned to London with 157 bodies.
Bodies would be pulled through the night, numbering 18, from the water and four more bodies were pulled to the surface on May 25. The London Field Battery also fired artillery at the wreck, in the belief the explosions would raise sunken bodies but this did not work.
With the disaster, people were less than eager to ride a riverboat. The Victoria was broken into pieces in the rescue attempt and the boiler would rest on the river bed and prove to be a popular place to jump into the river for young people.
On June 17, Tommy Burns is born in Hanover, Ontario. He would become the only Canadian-born World Heavy Weight Boxing Champion, when he took the title in 1906 and would hold the title for three years against 11 challengers. He was also the first Canadian boxer to travel the globe to defend his title. Unlike many white American boxers of the time, who did not fight African Americans, Burns had half a dozen fights with black boxers including a fight with the legendary Jack Johnson, which resulted in Johnson becoming the first black heavy-weight champion of the world. In 59 fights, Burns had 46 wins, 35 by knockout. He would pass away in Vancouver in 1955.
On Sept. 27, James Ralston is born in Nova Scotia. He will go on to attend law school and become the Liberal candidate for Cumberland in the 1908 federal election, which he was unsuccessful at. He would run again in 1911 in the provincial election and win, followed by another win in 1916. During the First World War, he would reach the rank of Lt. Col., and reach the rank of Colonel in 1924. From 1926 to 1945, he was a Member of Parliament and served as the Minister of National Defence during the Second World War from 1940 to 1944. He would pass away in Montreal in 1948.
On Oct. 23, Alfred Christie would be born in London, Ontario. He would began working in the movies in 1909 and started to put out the popular Mutt and Jeff comedy every week. Throughout the Silent Movie Era, he would make comedies that were noted for relying on humorous situations and embarrassing moments rather than slapstick.
Christie was born in London, Ontario in 1881 and began his movie career working with David Horsley’s Centaur Film Company in New Jersey in 1909. The next year, Christie began to put out single-reel Mutt and Jeff comedies every week. In 1911, he moved to the west coast of the United States and it was there, in what would become Hollywood, that he established the first permanent movie studio on Oct. 27, 1911. With his brother Charlies, he then formed the Christie Film Company in 1916.
The film company primarily made comedies and Christie and his studio would give a start to some of the most famous silent movie stars in history including Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle. The Christie Comedies were known for being fast-paced slapstick movies and proved to be very successful.
Macleans would write quote:
“Al Christie is now among the foremost of those men who have devoted their lives to the creation of laughter. While he is one of the most stolid citizens of the parish, commodore of the Los Angeles Yacht Club and regarded by his fellow citizens as one of them, Mr. Christie still regards the Ontario city as his home.”
The studio would continue to operate until 1933, during which time it debuted the first talkie featuring African American actors including Spencer Williams.
On Nov. 4, Hector Authier would be born in Quebec. He would serve in the Quebec Legislature from 1923 to 1936, followed by a stint in the House of Commons from 1940 to 1945. He would pass away on April 14, 1971 at the age of 89.
On Nov. 19, Robert James Manion would be born in Pembroke, Ontario. He would serve in the First World War as a medic and earn the Military Cross at Vimy Ridge. Once home, he served in the Houes of Commons as a Conservative beginning in 1917 and running until 1935, followed by another stint from 1938 to 1940. In that time, he would serve as the Leader of the Opposition from 1938 to 1940. He would pass a way at 61 in 1943.
On December 2, Joseph-Adolph Chapleau wins a Conservative majority in the Quebec election. Chapleau had served as premier of Quebec since 1879 and would continue for another year following this victory.
At the time when he became premier in 1879, he was only 39 and considered a young and dynamic leader for the party. As the new leader, Chapleau would begin to restore the party and bring back unity within it. In order to hold onto power in the Legislature, he would work to form a coalition with the right-wing members of the Liberal Party. While he would fail in these regards, his government was able to hold onto power without falling until 1881.
Overall, few people outside of the province followed much of the election. The Halifax Herald reported quote:
“The Quebec elections are exciting but little interest outside of Quebec itself. This is partly due to the fact that the result is almost a foregone conclusion and partly by the absence of any important principle dividing contestants. Both parties claim economy as the plank in their platform.”
In the Dec. 2, 1881 election, the Conservatives regained a huge majority with 49 seats won, a rise of 17 from the previous election. This was the party’s best election since the 1867 election when they won 52 seats.
The Liberals, who were fractured under their current leader Lotbiniere, would lose 16 seats to fall to only 15. They also lost nearly nine per cent of their public vote compared from the previous election.
The Halifax Herald reported quote:
“So far as heard from we have gained 15 seats and lost none. The result while not unexpected, is having a most depressing effect on our Grit friends.”
On Dec. 29, George Kennedy would be born in Montreal. He would become a sports promoter and owner of the Montreal Canadiens from 1910 to 1921. Known as a wrestler as well, he would eventually become a wrestling promoter after his wrestling career was done. He also created the Club Athletique Canadien, and promoted boxing, hockey and other sports. His Canadiens would win him the Stanley Cup in 1916, and Kendall was instrumental in forming the National Hockey League. He would contract the Spanish Flu during the pandemic and die from complications related to it in 1921. His widow would sell the Canadiens to a new group of owners for $11,000, or $139,900 today.
On Dec. 31, Florence Graham would be born in Ontario. She would go on to found the Elizabeth Arden Inc. company, which would turn into a cosmetic empire throughout the United States. By 1929, she would own 150 salons in the United States and Europe and her 1,000 products would sell in 22 countries around the world. At the peak of her career, as the sole owner of the company, she would be one of the wealthiest women in the world. She would pass away on Oct. 18, 1966 at the age of 84.
In 1881, the federal government attempted to end the land dispute at Oka by resettling Mohawk families in northern Ontario, moving 35 of the 120 families in the late fall of that year. The families were promised food for the winter and seeds for the spring. Instead, they were given food for two weeks and forced to live in tents the entire winter. Several Indigenous would die from disease and hunger.
In 1881, the Cochrane Ranch was established and named for Matthew Cochrane, who was a Canadian Senator and former livestock breeder who had lived in the area. Matthew Cochrane had established the ranch and when the Canadian Pacific Railway came through in 1885, the community was named in his honour.
The Cochrane Ranch was one of the most important ranches in the entire area for its time. It had been established when the Conservative government started a policy of granting large-scale grazing leases to bring in the ranching elite to what was then the North West Territories. Cochrane decided to take advantage of this and he would choose land that was along the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway route, where there was good land and a nice climate thanks to Chinooks. It also had access to cattle at nearby posts and various Indigenous reserves.
Unfortunately, the ranch suffered several losses in its first two years due to very difficult winters and poor herding practices. In 1883, the company decided to relocate its cattle and instead raised horses and sheep on the ranch. This did not work either and in 1888, the property was sold.
Also this year, the borders of Manitoba are extended north, east and west. The eastward expansion of Manitoba brings a dispute with Ontario over where the border should be. Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat was firmly against this and threatened to pull Ontario out of Confederation over it. Mowat would send police to the disputed area, with Manitoba doing the same. It was not until the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain issued several rulings over the border dispute that things died down and was resolved in 1889.