Canada A Yearly Journey: 1899

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We have finally reached the last year of the 19th century. After this, for 100 episodes, we will be exploring the 20th century.

So, what happened as the 19th century ended and Canada progressed into a new, and amazing century?

On Feb. 27, Charles Best was born in West Pembroke, Maine. After growing up in Maine, he moved to Toronto to study medicine in 1915. Unfortunately, his studies were interrupted by the war and he enlisted with the infantry, reaching the rank of acting Sergeant Major. Once his service was complete, he returned to the University of Toronto.

At the age of 22, he began to work as an assistant to Dr. Frederick Banting and with him helped co-discover insulin as a treatment for diabetes.

In 1923, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Banting and J.R.R. MacLeod the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of insulin, ignoring Best and MacLeod’s assistant James Collip. Banting gave half of his prize money to Best to reward him for his help. In 1972, the Nobel Foundation stated it was wrong in omitting Best for the Nobel Prize.

In 1929, Best became the Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto. Over the course of his life, he received many awards including the Order of Canada, Order of the British Empire and was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Three schools are named for him in Canada.

He passed away in Toronto on March 31, 1978.

On April 26, the worst fire in the history of Dawson City occurred when a saloon caught fire, destroying 117 buildings and causing $28 million in damages in today’s funds.

Throughout this year, the gold rush in the Klondike was starting to wind down. Skagway became a respectable place with much less crime, and the heady days of the gold rush seemed to be fading. By 1899, prospectors were leaving in droves. In a single week in August 1899, 8,000 left from Dawson alone.

The Boer War erupted this year, marking the first major overseas excursion for Canadian troops, but there was a great deal of debate over whether or not Canada should even send troops.

Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier agreed to defray the costs of transportation of Canadians who wished to fight for England in the Boer War. On the two sides of the issue were those who wanted to be loyal to the British Empire and those who saw that Canada was not being threatened in the war. He made this decision to arm and send 1,000 volunteers to South Africa without convening parliament. In the agreement to send troops, he told England that the troops were their responsibility when they arrived and in no way was it to be seen as a precedent for the future. Despite this compromise, many in French Canada were unhappy about any participation and one of his MPs, Henri Bourassa, would resign his seat.

One man who grew impatient over getting to South Africa was Sam Hughes, a man we will talk about a few times in the coming episodes.

The Governor General of Canada and Major General Edward Hutton put forward a secret plan to send 1,200 Canadian men to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. He saw Hughes as a possible commander for the force as he was the most outspoken Members of Parliament when it came to militia matters. Laurier, who was not in the know of what was going on, hesitated over sending troops to South Africa.

Hughes, growing impatient, put forward an offer that he would raise a regiment himself, at his own expense. Hutton saw this as upsetting his plans because Hughes raising his own regiment would allow Laurier to do nothing but not look like nothing was done. Hutton ordered Hughes to remain silent, and Hughes responded with an outburst stating that a British officer was trying to silence a Canadian Member of Parliament.

Hutton would then write to Lord Minto, quote:

“I regret that I must decline to recommend Colonel S. Hughes for employment with our troops in any capacity whatever. This officer’s want of judgement and insubordinate self-assertion would seriously compromise success of Canadians when acting with Imperial troops. His insubordinate and improper correspondence, official and unofficial, renders his appointment moreover impossible on military grounds.”

Hughes would leave with the troops on Oct. 31, 1899, sailing for Cape Town, South Africa. Hughes would go over as a civilian and was forbidden by Hutton to wear a uniform. Hughes decided to speak with some high-ranking British staff officers he knew and before he left, he was in uniform as a transport officer.

On July 18, John Tootoosis was born on the Poundmaker Reserve. His grandfather, Yellow Mud Blanket, was the brother of Chief Poundmaker.

As a child, he was taken from his family at the age of 13 and forced to attend the Thunderchild Residential School. He would remain there for four years before returning home. The experience at residential school would be traumatic for Tootoosis and it would lead him to criticize the system throughout his entire life. He was also harshly critical of the control the Roman Catholic Church had over the Indigenous.  

In 1920, at the age of only 21, Tootoosis was appointed as the chief of his band by those in his community. This leadership position was not recognized by the Department of Indian Affairs, which had put itself in charge of reserves and required chiefs to be 25 years of age and older. As a result of this, another chief was chosen by the department.

Throughout the 1930s, Tootoosis would travel to meet with other Indigenous leaders. This was forbidden by the Indian Act which did not allow gatherings for political purposes. As a result, it often resulted in Tootoosis being at odds with Indian Affairs officials, including once at the Cowessess First Nation where he was arrested and put on a train back home. To do the travels to meet with other Indigenous leaders, Tootoosis relied completely on donations to pay his way throughout Western Canada. He walked, rode a horse, hitched a train, anyway he could travel, he would. He would recall one ride in which he was perched on the hood of a car that was being towed by a horse.

During the Second World War, Tootoosis took up the cause of returning Indigenous soldiers, hoping they would not lose rights upon returning home. He would say quote:

“We want to make quite sure before they come back that they will not be neglected on their return.”

In 1946 at the Barry Hotel in Saskatoon, Tootoosis would become the president of the new Union of Saskatchewan Indians.

In 1951, Tootoosis was called to Ottawa to represent the Saskatchewan Union of Indians in discussions over the new Indian Act, Indian Bill 267. Tootoosis and his organization rejected many of the features of the new bill, especially with how it related to the enfranchisement of the Indigenous.

Tootoosis would say that the Saskatchewan Indigenous were not anxious to see changes to their present Bill of Rights, made by proclamation in 1763. At the time, to vote they would have to give up their treaty rights, something Tootoosis was not happy about. He would state quote:

“We do not want the right to vote. We wish to keep our treaty rights.”

In 1959, the Union of Saskatchewan Indians became the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and Tootoosis was named as its first president. He would remain as its president for 13 years.

Tootoosis would pass away on Feb. 2, 1989, due to complications from a heart attack.

Roland Crowe, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, would say quote:

“We thought of him as a statesman, not a politician. He always addressed the tough issues head on.”

Before his death, the Regina Leader-Post said of him quote:

“When the white people of Saskatchewan hear the name John, they automatically think of the late John Diefenbaker but to the Indian people of Saskatchewan, John is John Tootoosis. He’s an articulate and passionate speaker. His energy and work capacity would put to shame most men half his age. He’s tough and determined. His piercing, dark brown eyes reinforce the intensity of his tone.”

On July 24, 1899, Chief Dan George was born on the Burrard Indigenous Reserve. As a young man, he would work several different jobs to make ends meet including as a school bus driver, longshoreman and construction worker. While working as a longshoreman, he would suffer a terrible injury when he smashed his leg on a lumber scow.

He would also marry his wife Amy and they would remain married for 51 years, having six children together.

In 1951, he was elected as the band chief for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, serving in that role until 1963.

When he left the office of chief in 1963, but was able to retain the honorary title, it was the first time in six generations that a member of his family was not chief. He would say quote:

“I have been so busy on other things I have been neglecting my people.”

Around this time, he decided that he wanted to begin acting, thanks to encouragement from his son, who was acting in a CBC film and said that the producer was looking for someone to play a quote:

“old Indian.”

So, in 1960 at the age of 60, he took his first acting role for a CBC series called Cariboo Country as Ol’ Antoine. His role was very well received and would lead to the role of Rita Joe’s father in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

More roles would follow including on The Littlest Hobo and for the Walt Disney film Smith.

Throughout his acting career, George would work to promote better understanding of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people.

In 1967, he would attend the City of Vancouver’s celebration of the Canadian Centennial, performing his soliloquy Lament for Confederation, which was an indictment of the taking of Indigenous territory by Europeans.

The speech would greatly increase Indigenous activism in Canada and touched of a strong pro-Indigenous sentiment among non-Indigenous Canadians. I am going to play Lament for Confederation here, in its entirety because it is such a powerful and important work. It is just over six minutes long.

Following the speech, the Vancouver Sun would state quote:

“The man who took the boldest look into Canada’s future at her Empire Stadium birthday party Saturday was probably the person most tempted to look into the past.”

In 1971, George would gain his most famous role, acting in Little Big Man as Old Lodge Skin. The role would earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, making him the first Indigenous person to be nominated. At the time, he was 71 years old and had 36 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

As Old Lodge Skin, he would adopt Dustin Hoffman’s character as his grandson following Custer’s Last Stand. He would say of his role quote:

“If you think deeply on the relationship of the white boy and his Indian grandfather, it shows the worth of integration, which is what we’re doing today and what I’ve dedicated my life to, the integration of Indians with the white man.”

Following his nomination, many film critics state a shift began in Hollywood and its portrayal of the Indigenous, eventually leading to movies like Dances with Wolves, which featured another Oscar nomination for a Canadian actor, Graham Greene.

On March 11, 1971, Chief Dan George Day was proclaimed in Vancouver.

During many interviews for the movie, George would speak of Indigenous rights in Canada. At one point, talk show host Dick Cavett asked him if it was easier to be Indigenous in Canada, to which George replied with a firm “No.”

George was also presented with a lifetime membership in the Chiefs Executive Council.

While he did not win the Oscar, George won awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle.

After his Oscar-nominated role, George began to get several offers for various roles. He would act in the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, performing in Vancouver, Ottawa and Washington, D.C. He would also take on the recurring role of Chief Moses Charlie on the iconic Canadian show The Beachcombers. The role gave him the chance to act with his daughter, Charlene Aleck, who starred on the show for 18 years. He would play the role of Ancient Warrior in Kung Fu, and have roles in Alien Thunder, The Bears and I and Harry and Tonto. He was also scheduled to play the role of Shakespeare’s King Lear in 1973 but he had to cancel due to other commitments.

Throughout the 1970s, George would use his fame to help. In 1972, he was the national chairman of the International Brotherhood Week, and he was involved in the annual TB Christmas Seal drive. In 1972, it was announced that he would be the grand marshal for the Calgary Stampede Parade that year.

In the summer of 1980, George fell and injured his hip, an injury he would never fully recover from.

On Sept. 23, 1981, Chief Dan George would pass away at the age of 82 in Vancouver. In 1982, a collection of his poetry was released as My Spirit Soars.

On June 21, Treaty 8 was signed with the Indigenous of the Lesser Slave Lake area. The agreement covered 840,000 square kilometres and 39 Indigenous communities in northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern British Columbia. It is the largest of the numbered treaties in terms of area and was signed at Grouard, Alberta.

On Aug. 29, Catharine Parr Traill died. Born in England in 1802, she began writing children’s books in 1818 after the death of her father. Eventually, she moved to Canada where her sister, Susanna Moodie, was living with her husband. She kept a record of her time in Upper Canada, later collected into The Backwoods of Canada, written in 1836. This has become an important source of information about early Canada, the Indigenous people, the climate and more.

In 1851, she wrote Canadian Crusoes, and then The Female Emigrant’s Guide.

Eventually, she and her husband moved to Belleville, where she continued to write books until her death.

The Doukhobors first arrived this year as well. By the end of 1899, 7,500 Doukhobor immigrants, one-third of those found in Russia at the time, arrived in Canada. They had come over on cattle ships that were cleaned and fitted with bunks to handle the large number of passengers.

That journey was a time of celebration, as 11 marriages occurred during the voyage across the Atlantic.

Overall, they were welcomed by Canadians. At St. John, New Brunswick, thousands of people greeted them at the wharf.

The Manitoba Morning Free Press wrote,

“They came into port singing hymns and with heads bared. They received an enthusiastic welcome from the waiting crowds and responded there-to cordially, many even getting on their knees and touching the deck with their foreheads.”

The welcoming of the Doukhobors continued as they travelled across Canada. The Free Press Prairie Farmer reported on Feb. 2, 1899,

“The reception they received amply sufficed to remove any lingering suspicion that they might not, after all have bettered their condition in fleeing from their settlements in Southern Russia.”

On Nov. 10, Billy Boucher was born in Ottawa. He would play for the Montreal Canadiens, Hamilton Tigers, Boston Bruins and New York Americans from 1921 to 1928. In that time, he won the Stanley Cup in 1924. His brothers Frank and Georges also played hockey at the same time. In all, he had 131 points in 213 games. He died on Nov. 10, 1958 from a heart attack.

On Nov. 30, Edna Brower was born in Wawanesa, Manitoba. She worked as a school teacher before marrying John Diefenbaker in 1929. She began to devote herself to her husband’s political career, helping prepare him with information about the people he was speaking to. She edited his speeches, acted as his chauffeur and helped him overcome his shyness and develop his man of the people persona. She worked on behalf of her husband in Parliament and was always found in the House of Commons when John was speaking. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said that if he met Edna before John, he would have married her.

Unfortunately, she developed leukemia and died in 1951, six years before her husband became prime minister. In an unprecedented situation, MPs gave a non-MP a eulogy in the House of Commons following her death.

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