In 1670 Charles II of England granted a royal charter to the Company of Associates trading into Hudson’s Bay. Instead of the British Monarch governing the territory conferred, the charter gave the Company the rights of governance. There were some restrictions: any laws the Company might devise had to accord with the laws of England (as laid out at the time of the charter); after 1763, capital cases were to be tried in courts in the Canadas (afterwards United Canada/ the Province of Canada).
Although there was a governor installed at the Red River Colony beginning 1812, who appointed an advisory council of a few men, and a sheriff (including John Spencer, who married into a Métis family), the wider region of Assiniboia operated virtually devoid of organized, formal government until the 1830s. Decisions were made and problems settled on an ad hoc basis, by whomever seemed to be in charge. Often settlers resolved disputes among themselves (this state of affairs was characterized by settler Alexander Ross as a “smoothing system”).
From 1830 to 1834, the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America, George Simpson, who was resident at Lower Fort Garry, was superior officer at Red River and ‘highest court’ of appeal. On departing the settlement to relocate his office to Lachine, Lower Canada, Simpson left a more organized Governor and Council of Assiniboia in place — at least to the extent that records were kept and duties were more clearly defined. “Safety” was given as the principal justification for restructuring the Council. The HBC Council of Assiniboia’s area of authority was set at a radius of 50 miles from Fort Garry. It was to make laws, to appoint magistrates and justices of the peace in a local court system (in which the Council figured as the ‘supreme court’), and to organize constables for the maintenance of order. It could set taxes/ duties and fund public projects (principally roads and bridges). There would be no elections, all positions were appointed — not by the Crown, but by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s London Committee, on the recommendation of Simpson.
The first meeting of this newly structured Council of Assiniboia took place on 12 February 1835. It resolved to levy an import tax of 7.5% and build a court house and a gaol/ jail next to Upper Fort Garry. It would meet quarterly as the high court with a Recorder (also appointed by Simpson) on hand to advise on interpreting the law. By 1839, provisions were in place for a jury (selected from among landowners) to hear evidence and recommend sentencing. Community functioning still relied principally on the good will and good sense of the people.[i]
The fact that the Council of Assiniboia, operating as a civil government, was responsible to (meaning ‘hired and fired’ by) the Council of Rupert’s Land (created by Simpson with himself at the head), which was a corporate government, did not sit well with the inhabitants of Red River.
By 1849, as the Sayer Trial demonstrated, the Council of Assiniboia had lost much of its relevance. Settlers at Red River had been in the habit of freely trading in furs, since at least 1821, as was customary among Aboriginal peoples. This was despite HBC protest that the Company alone had the right of commercial trade. In an attempt to curtail competitive practices, the HBC had Guillaume Sayer (Métis), arrested for illegally trading in furs. He was brought before the Court of Assiniboia, “in a case designed to test the legality of the monopoly claimed by the HBC.” Sayer’s case was argued by James Sinclair (Métis), and supported by Louis Riel Sr. (Métis), who organized additional Métis settlers “to protest against both the monopoly and the inadequate representation of the Métis on the Council of Assiniboia.” Sayer’s defence was that, although he had traded furs, “he had been exchanging presents with relatives,” which the Métis, as Aboriginal people, believed they had every right to do. Although the jury found Sayer guilty, it recommended mercy. The Court accepted the jury’s recommendation and Sayer was freed. Riel Sr. and the Métis who were assembled outside the court-house responded to Sayer’s release with cries of “Le commerce est libre!” The HBC made no further attempt to enforce a monopoly over trade.[ii]
In an attempt to uphold some authority, the HBC began appointing, to the Council of Assiniboia, members who were ‘more representative’ of the settler population — meaning settlers respected as leaders within their community who were not immediately employed by the Company itself. People of Red River, however, still had no official elected representation.[iii]
In 1863, the HBC was purchased by Edward William Watkin and the International Financial Society. Watkin re-organized the HBC, so as to assure maximum profitability. He was, therefore, the man ultimately responsible for the system of governance that was in place in Rupert`s Land and the North-West as of 1869. Watkin had little to do with day-to-day governing of HBC territory, however. He oversaw the appointments of the HBC Governor and Committee in London, led by Sir Edmund Walker Head, to carry out that duty. When Head died in 1868, Sir Stafford Northcote held the position of HBC Governor of the London Committee. William Mactavish was appointed by the London Committee as the HBC Governor of Assiniboia, charged with overseeing the direct governance of Red River Settlement.
Additional Sources online:
- Governors (and First Ladies) of Assiniboia 1812–1869, Provisional Government of Assiniboia site, with a chart showing levels of HBC Governors.
- Definition: Proprietary Government, Provisional Government of Assiniboia site, which includes a list of settlers appointed to the HBC Council of Assiniboia.