The cover of the April 14, 1888 edition of the Toronto-based satirical magazine Grip displays “Christian Statesmanship” – a political cartoon of John A. Macdonald starving Indigenous People on the Prairies. The cartoon has been reproduced in many papers and books – including James Daschuk’s classic Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (2013) – typically to refute claims that Macdonald’s contemporaries never accused him of using starvation against Indigenous People. Despite its historical significance, the specific origins of “Christian Statesmanship” have been unclear to us. Our research has revealed a stunning eyewitness account of Indigenous leaders confronting government officials over their cruelty and betrayal. Even in translation, the words of Chiefs Alexander Arcand Michel Callihoo stand as vivid, powerful, and honourable retorts to the bland, mealy, and shameful equivocations of Macdonald’s apologists.
“Comments on the Cartoons”
We didn’t need to look far for a hint to get us started on our research. Page 2 of this Grip offers this commentary:
“CHRISTIAN STATESMANSHIP. – The accounts recently published of the interviews with the Indians in the vicinity of Edmonton bring up once again the question of the treatment which these unhappy creatures are receiving at the hands of our alleged Christian Government. The record is one at which we may well blush, as a people, but just how far our blushes will go to prevent Indians who have nothing to eat from starvation is something worthy of consideration. It appears that our rascally officials, from the top to the bottom, either neglect their duties, which they are paid to perform, or deliberately swindle the poor Indians out of the supplies of food and raiment which the country provides. Under all the circumstances the moderation and forbearance of the suffering are remarkable. On many a reservation they have seen their women and children die of cold and starvation, and no deed of vengeance has in a single case followed. Where are the white men who would exhibit such patience? And why is it that they are called upon to endure such tortures? Where it is not ‘cold and callous neglect’ it is something worse – infernal greed. Dewdney’s contractors must be kept fat and sleek, and the Government is more concerned in filling their pockets with boodle than in performing the offices which one would think the instincts of common humanity would render it a pleasure to perform. It is the people of this Dominion who are guilty of these cruel murders, however. Our officials are our servants, not our masters.”
Grip’s attribution helped us identify this article in the March 10, 1888 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin as the likely source for “Christian Statesmanship”:
“A public interview between the assistant Indian commissioner and the chiefs Alexandre and Michel, with their councillors, was held at the police barracks, Edmonton, on Thursday afternoon. Major de Balinhard, Indian agent, Supt. Grienbach, Insp. Casey, H. S. Yonner, of the H. B. Co., Rev. Pere Blanchet, D. Maloney and others were present. John Rowland of St. Albert interpreted for the Indians and Mr. Reed employed his own interpreter.
“Mr. Reed said he had come in pursuance of his promise of the day before to hear what the Indians had to say.
“Alexandre said he spoke as it might be for God and said for the government on behalf of the poor people who could not speak for themselves. ‘I don’t depend on what you are doing here – both of you (Messrs. Reed and de Balinhard). Everything has been going badly since you two came here. We consider that you have acted against the law. It is you who have caused the government cattle to be killed. You knew last fall that game and fish had failed in this country. You have come from far and you have seen no track of anything to kill and eat. You see how miserable the Indians are here, and when you go back you will tell them all is well.’
“Mr. Reed – You told me all this when I saw you before, and I gave you your answer then. The government is pretty well aware of the facts of the case. My business here is to report the facts to the government, which I will do.
“Alexandre – What I say is truth, as everyone who is here knows. Because it is true I sent the telegram to Sir John. I have waited for an answer, but have got none. I am not as wise as you. I look like a dog before you, but I have a mind to think of these things. I follow the track of the law and am not ashamed. White men would do as we have done. We killed our cattle from hunger. Hunger might make us kill each other. It is as you were pushing us to do evil. That we have eaten our horses and the cattle that the government gave us should be blamed on you. What the poor people are saying every day rings in my ears. We do not depend on you.
“Mr. Reed – Does he mean that the promises I made him yesterday won’t be kept?
“Alexandre – I am talking not of what is ahead but of what is behind, since last fall. It is since then we have eaten the cattle.
“Michel – When we were forced with hunger we went to the agent here. He spoke well to us but that did not fill us. When matters did not improve we said, Let us see how it is farther away. We got no answer from the telegram we sent. We see that nothing is going right from Regina. You knew that it was a hard year with us. If you wanted to save us why did you not send the food while the roads were good. The Indians had asked for only 500 sacks of flour this winter. He head that only 300 sacks had been sent. ‘Perhaps Sir John does not know we are starving.’
“Replying to Mr. Reed Michel said that before sending the telegram they had gone to the agent and asked for food. They knew that next day was ration day, but they did not wait to see what would be given them on that day.
“Mr. Reed said that the total number of sacks of flour asked for was 500, but the department were using their judgment about the time for delivery.
“Mr. de Balinhard said that was the trouble; 200 were not to be delivered till June.
“Mr. Reed – The object of the government in not sending the flour sooner was to assist the farmers of the country by buying as much as possible from them. It was not until late in the fall that the department found they could not get enough flour here. It had to be brought all the way from Winnipeg. The contractor met with many accidents and did not get in when agreed. The government would have delivered the flour sooner if they could.
“Replying to Mr. Reed Michel said that he had two cattle of his own and had had five pigs, but they had starved to death. He had earned money by freighting but had not yet received it. His son had earned some and had received it.
“Rev. Father Blanchet, at Michel’s request, conversed with Mr. Reed in French.
“Ma-me-na-wa-te [?], of Stoney Plain, said, ‘I have been called a coward for not killing cattle. It is true. I am a coward and have killed none. I am glad to see you here, and am surprised that you have come now when everything is scarce. This one and that one is naked. The wives are freezing for lack of clothing. Why is the clothing now lying in the store on the reserve not distributed? When you go those you leave behind will not do as you promise. They seem to be above you. If your promises are not carried out after you leave I will kill cattle as others do. The only way to get anything from the agent you sent us is to flatter him. I have always wanted you to look favorably on me. You put an egg – the law – into my hand. I did not break it and neither have these others. We are trying to gain what the Queen promised us. What we gain we like to have in our hands. We want these promises fulfilled now.’
“Sknee kue blamed the Regina officials and accused them of misusing the money placed in their hands by government for the benefit of the Indians. He said, ‘You do not expend as much this year as before. When we could help ourselves you helped us more, this year we cannot help ourselves and you help us less. Do you promises to give us three meals a day until the ice is gone, or is this increase of food to be only for one day? When we see that you will help us we will thank you.’
“Mr. Reed – I am here on behalf of the government to see whether the Indians are able to provide for themselves or not. After making enquiries I find that they require more rations. Consequently I increased them, and will allow them a reasonable quantity until such time as those who are able go off to hunt. The government does not wish any one to suffer from lack of food. But though the government aids the Indians, and in most cases very liberally, the Indians are expected to aid themselves by every means in their power. Some Indians receive a great deal of provisions, others only a little and others none at all, according to circumstances. As I told you, my promises are being kept and both flour and meat are being sent out to you so that you will not want. A few Indians are out hunting, and are doing remarkably well. Alexandre himself has killed thirty deer this winter and two other whom I met have killed 90. I know it is hard to get out and hunt, the snow is so deep, but some can help themselves. Michel said a day or two ago on his reserve, ‘If these promises are fulfilled we are happy.’ They are being fulfilled.
“Alexandre said he had killed thirty deer but he was the best hunter in this part of the country. Others could not do as he had done. There were not more than twenty deer left in this vicinity. ‘You know it is deep snow and a hard season. You knew these things before. If you had opened your eyes before things would not be as they are. But you did not want to see; you want to do nothing but gather money. Your name is neither good with Indians or whites – neither of you.’
“Mr. Reed – We know many things, but we did not know whether or not there was going to be fish or game.
“A young man said he had lost his wife and two children by hunger, and as he was now alone he could manage to support himself.
“Mr. Reed said if the government thought he could earn his living it would not help him at all.
“Alexandre said he understood that the government said, if you help yourselves we will help you; not, if you help yourselves we will leave you off.
“Another councillor said, I am a coward but when I hear my children cry from hunger I kill cattle. I think of you as the cold; you want to kill all on the reserves.
“Alexandre – You were sent word last spring about sickness on the reserves. On my own reserve many have died of sickness and hunger. Medicine is no use without food. Thirty have died on my own reserve, and fifteen besides. Five of my own children have died, most of them grown up. I sent word every day but you would do nothing for me. You think what I say of the sickness is not true. I tell you in your ears you lie when you say you take the part of the sick children.
“Mr. Jim had been used to working for the whites. This winter he could get no work. There was no game and no fish, and he had nearly starved to death depending on the Indian department. He did not go to the whites to sell his country. They came to him to buy it, and now they would not pay the price.
“Mr. Reed ordered dinner to be provided for the Indians, and assured them that they would receive the increase of rations promised.”
I hope someone more familiar with the history of this time and place will properly annotate and analyze this article. To assist, I’ve located these other articles in the Edmonton Bulletin that provide additional background and follow-up interviews to the March 10, 1888 article, as well as responses from the Indian Department, government contractors, and other newspaper publishers:
December 31, 1887 – LOCAL. Reported that Pakan, the Indian chief of Whitefish lake whose loyalty during the rebellion was so marked, is now becoming restive under the able management of the I. D.
February 4, 1888 – INDIANS. S. Cunningham, M. N. W. C., for St. Albert, who returned recently from a trip to Lac la Biche, reports the condition of many of the Indians in the Victoria agency as deplorable. …
February 18, 1888 – LOCAL. Enquiries made respecting the amount of provisions and supplies furnished the Lake St. Ann Indians by the department shows that although it was agreed in the fall that …
February 25, 1888 – INDIANS. Chiefs Alexandre of the Riviere Qui Barre Stonies, Michel of the Riviere Qui Barre Crees, and Alexis of the Lake St. Ann Stonies with three of their councillors, accompanied by Messrs. S. Cunningham and D. Maloney, the former acting as interpreter, called upon the Bulletin on Thursday to secure the publication of a statement regarding their present condition which they desired to make….
March 31, 1888 – VICTORIA. Hayter Reed, assistant Indian commissioner arrived from his tour to Lac la Biche on Saturday, March 17th….
April 7, 1888 – TELEGRAPHIC…. A correspondent of the Winnipeg Call writes from Edmonton: “The Indians who recently spoke so saucily to Reed now confess they were prompted to do so by white mean and did not speak their own minds, and now regret it….
April 14, 1888 – LOCAL. Hayter Reed, assistant Indian commissioner, had a very satisfactory talk with Sampson’s band of Indians at Bears’ hill on his way out of Calgary, but some of the contrary kind with Ermine Skin’s band, who were loud in their complaints….The Calgary Tribune reports Assistant Commissioner Hayter Reed as saying on his return from the north that press reports concerning the condition of the starving Indians had greatly exaggerated the true state of affairs…. Hayter Reed, assistant Indian commissioner, told the Calgary Herald after his recent visit to the Indian reserves in this vicinity that “The Indians appear to have learned that there is more to be gained by trusting in the government than by raid and murder.”
May 5, 1888 – THE EDMONTON INDIANS – The following letter appears in a late issue of the Winnipeg Call: To the Editor, – You have of late no doubt seen articles published in the Edmonton Bulletin as to starving Indians and the faulty conduct of the officials of the Indian department….
May 5, 1888 – THOSE INDIANS – The Bulletin begs to acknowledge its indebtedness to the Regina Leader, Winnipeg Call, Calgary Herald and Mr. Donald McLeod for a considerable amount of free advertising lately in connection with the reports of Indian destitution in this locality….