Canada's Negotiator With Riel

by George Siamandas

Donald A Smith is the man that came out to Fort Garry to help quell the Riel rebellion. He is also the famous distingushed man in the beard driving the last spike. Donald A Smith died in England on January 20, 1914. Smith was a fur trader, rail road financier and a diplomat. He was born in 1820 at Forres Scotland. The son of a tradesman, he joined the HBC at age 18 as an apprentice clerk by 1871 was the HBC's chief commissioner in Canada. He eventually became its largest shareholder and in 1889 became governor of the HBC.

Smith had been sent by Macdonald's federal government as their commissioner to quell the Riel rebellion. He arrived at the Fort Garry Gate at Red River at 5:00 pm on December 27, 1869. Smith had left his papers behind at the border at Pembina but was met by Riel. Riel asked Smith to recognize his provisional government which Smith refused to so. He agreed no to take action against Riel and was allowed to stay at Fort Garry. Riel was not sure if Smith had any authority to negotiate for the federal government. Smith tried to assure Riel and others at Red River that the federal government's objectives were pure. He was head of what had been the government in Red River that is the Hudson Bay Co.

Smith spent three months in Manitoba. He convinced Riel to hold a meeting on January 19 at which he could address the crowd. One thousand people gathered at Fort Garry to hear Smith. People shivered on that sunny, windy day with at a temperature of -20 F. Smith took no notice of the weather and spoke for five hours. Louis Riel was elected interpreter.

It became dark and the meeting was continued the next day. On the second day welcoming remarks were translated not only into French but also into Salteaux. Smith explained that there would be respect and protection for different religions, guarantees of property titles, and for the French language. He was able to convince the English mixed bloods to meet the French in a convention to choose 40 delegates to meet Canada. Smith had brought along bribery money and was able to convince several Metis to not support Riel's cause. And it is not as if the Metis were united in the first place.

It is generally thought that he was sent out to generate opposition to Riel, but in fact Smith became a genuine diplomat and helped in finding a solution to the crisis. If Louis Riel can be thought of as the "Father of Manitoba" then Donald A Smith must be at least Manitoba's uncle. After the crisis was over, it was also Smith that gave the money that helped Riel to flee Manitoba.

Smith's trip to Fort Garry was a success and in 1870 he began a political career by becoming the member for St John in the new Manitoba legislature. Later he represented Selkirk in the House of Commons. Still later he represented a riding in Montreal.

Business and politics seem to have always gone hand in hand. Smith political and financial support for the Canadian Pacific railway saw him rewarded with the honour of driving the last spike in 1885. A man of substantial influence, Smith was also a senior principal of the Bank of Montreal. Smith became a very successful businessman and was considered one of the richest men in Canada at the time. Smith founded the Royal Victoria College for Women in 1896.

He became Lord Strathcona in 1897. Smith died in London England on Jan 20 1914.


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