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Oh Canada!

July 11, 2012

Fellow Rebel Rider Wayne Ferguson started me a few years ago on what has become a Canada Day ritual of sorts (some would say insanity): a patriotic fitness ride totaling the same number of kilometers as the years since Confederation. Old St. Peter’s Church just over the bridge north of Selkirk is about 70 km from my front door, so I figured that a few short detours along the way would make it the perfect 145 km round trip. Unfortunately, with Wayne out of town, my 2012 patriotic ride would be a solo cycle. Bare spots suitably coated in sunscreen (forecasted high was 31 degrees), my 7:30 start was relatively cool, but I had not expected to be barreling through so many patriotic flying insects. My Badger SPF 30+ cream turned me into human fly-paper on wheels.

It turned out to be a perfect Canada Day route. I made pretty good time, reaching St. Peter’s around 10 am. Leaning my bike against a tree, I explored the large cemetery surrounding the church on the banks of the Red. Fascinating! I had not realized that the stone church, built in 1853, was on the site of the first Peguis Reserve. Ever wondered after whom the Chief Peguis Trail was named? Then read on. My Canada Day cycle was about to transport me back 200 years to the very foundations of Winnipeg and Manitoba.

St. Peter's Reserve.

St. Peter’s Reserve.

I’ve been hearing a lot this year about the war of 1812, but nothing about the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first Red River settlers. And I certainly knew next to nothing about Chief Peguis (born about 1774) who had settled with his band near Netley Creek in the 1790s. Often known as “Chief Cut-Nose” because his nose had been bitten off in a fight around 1802, Peguis welcomed the first Red River settlers in 1812, exactly 200 years ago, and is credited with aiding and defending them during their first difficult years. He guided them to hunt buffalo in 1814, helped bury their dead after the Seven Oaks Massacre in 1816, and even rescued Marie-Anne Gaboury, the first white woman in the West and future grandmother of Louis Riel. And it was a treaty through Peguis on July 20th, 1817, that granted Lord Selkirk’s settlers use of Red River lands that included the future settlements of Selkirk, Lockport, and Winnipeg.

And here I was, right in the middle of what would become known as St. Peter’s Indian Reserve, the first successful Indian agricultural settlement in Western Canada. Peguis had been persuaded in 1832 to settle here, just north of present day Selkirk. When Peguis converted to Christianity in 1840, giving up three of his four wives in the process, he adopted the name William King and gave his children the last name of Prince. The names of many of the original settlers, including some of the Princes, can still be read on headstones in the cemetery. The largest is the monument over the grave of Peguis himself, who died only three years before confederation in 1864.

On my cycle back through the town of Selkirk I stopped at the Marine Museum of Manitoba, then St. Clement’s Anglican Church (1861) with its large cemetery containing the graves of many of the founding families of Selkirk. Being Sunday morning, there was a service going on and, to my surprise, I hit the churchyard just as the choir broke in to O Canada! Next stop was the “Stone Fort” of Lower Fort Garry where, on August 3, 1871, Peguis’s youngest son, Henry “Red Eagle” Prince, signed Treaty No. 1 with the new country of Canada, formally transferring lands that are now part of modern Manitoba. On the road again and passing the Lockport Inn at midday struck me as a most appropriate time to stop for a nice cold Molson Canadian! I am after all neither a mad dog nor an Englishman. Well revived and my water-bottle refilled, I continued on to Winnipeg, back over the Chief Peguis Trail, the Raleigh Greenway, and the Louise Bridge (first bridge in Winnipeg and the one over which the first Canadian Pacific through passenger train crossed on July 1, 1886!), under a Canadian National train crossing the CN bridge over the Stephen Juba Park trail, a short stop at the Forks to gawk at the Canada Day crowd and some obliging Canada geese, and a final 20 km home. Whew! A lot of history for one day!

As I soaked in a nice hot tub some eight sweaty hours after my Badger coated launch, I couldn’t help but wonder where the wheels had fallen off in the 200 years since first contact with Peguis, friend of the settlers. All that is left of the first Peguis Reserve is a dirt road leading to the old stone church where he is buried, surrounded by crumbling headstones and a few forgotten monuments. Successive waves of settlers and the new government of Canada pushed the Peguis band off prime agricultural land that was considered too good for Indians and onto reserves farther north. You may have heard of Peguis’s great-great-grandson, Sgt. Tommy Prince, Canada’s most decorated Aboriginal war veteran. Though a hero in the mold of his great-great-grandfather, like too many of our First Nations brothers and sisters he died penniless in a homeless shelter and is virtually as forgotten as Peguis himself.

Yes, we have a lot to be thankful for, but my 2012 Canada Day memory will be of Peguis and his legacy, and of a province and country sorely in need of a wellness plan. I am afraid that for too many of us ignorance is bliss.

Tommy Prince (1915-1977)

Tommy Prince (1915-1977)

Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk

Maritime Museum