Life

Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

A man who did much to keep Canada together grew up on a farm just outside of Barrie and later honed his skills as a negotiator and religious leader in northern Simcoe County – especially in the area of Rama and Orillia.

George Millward McDougall was born in Kingston in September 1821. His parents were Highland Scots – his father a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Navy, stationed in Kingston for the War of 1812. George followed in the martial footsteps of his father, serving with the Foresters on the side of the Loyalists in the 1837 Rebellion.

In Simcoe County, George received a typical country-boy education – heavy on farming, horse and livestock management, building and maintaining shelter and rudiments of reading, writing and basic math, with – possibly – some Latin and homesteader medicine.

At the age of 21, he married Elizabeth Chantler, a daughter of Quakers; they had eight children.

George converted to Methodism and became a lay preacher. He had found his calling and attended Victoria College in Cobourg.

Soon he was back in Simcoe County, holding mass in private dwellings around Orillia and Rama.

He was sent west in 1860 to Hudson’s Bay Company land at the very northeast tip of Lake Winnipeg. This journey started with him travelling across Simcoe County to Collingwood, where he boarded a steamer that took him to Milwaukee, where he boarded a train that took him to a steamer on the Mississippi River heading north. He was back on a train and then on a series of vessels ranging from canoes to large rowboats to York boats and mule trains. He crossed Lake Winnipeg in an oar-propelled barge.

He was soon made church chairman of an area stretching from just west of Lake Superior on Rainy Lake to the Rocky Mountains and north to Norway House on Lake Winnipeg.

George decided he should check out his domain, and he set out in 1862, wandering the valley of the Saskatchewan River. He announced he would establish his residency in this region after negotiations with the Cree and the missionaries who worked with them. Next year, 1863, he arrived with a flotilla of HBC York boats carrying his belongings and family and necessaries for bringing his Methodist church to the Prairies. His arrival was also seen as just the first rivulet in a soon-to-come river of Ontario immigrants.

And so it was. Soon George was followed by hundreds of Ontarians seeking a better life in what would become Saskatchewan and Alberta.

He put his Simcoe County farming skills to work, helping local First Nations adapt to an agricultural way of life, by teaching them how to farm the fertile land and encouraging them to settle around his mission. George roamed the area, visiting remote clusters to preach and help the inhabitants, and promoting health and education for First Nations people.

His son, John, who would later rub shoulders with Tom Wilson, another Simcoe County native famous for a number of discoveries in the Rocky Mountains, like Lake Louise, helped his father set up a mission near Pigeon Lake, located halfway to Rocky Mountain House and Edmonton, serving the Stoney and Blackfoot nations.

In 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company handed over a huge chunk of land (much of Manitoba, northern Ontario and parts of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories) to the new dominion of Canada. This preceded a period during which First Nations rapidly surrendered territory under treaties (which later sparked the North-West Rebellion of 1885 and led to the creation of the RCMP precursor, the North-West Mounted Police).

And if man-made problems weren’t enough, a series of natural disasters took place at almost the same time, including massive crop failures and a change in migration patterns of the buffalo – a major resource for the First Nations.

George came into his own at this point, helped in part by having a new mission base in Winnipeg take one some of his administrative work. He worked with First Nations to bring their concerns to the federal government, pushed agriculture to offset the loss of game for food and worked on creating infrastructure to improve health.

When the Red River Rebellion broke out in 1870, it coincided with an outbreak of smallpox. Because of the rebellion, it was next to impossible to get medical supplies through, not to mention food and anything else that had to be transported in.

Everyone in George’s own family but his wife was sick with the disease, and three of his daughters died from it. But George responded by relying on the modicum of medical education he received as a member of a self-reliant farm family in Simcoe County, going so far as to build the first hospital in Alberta, at his mission. George was asked to sit on the board of health during the epidemic, which killed more than 3,500 people including a third of the First Nations population.

In 1871, George moved his operations to Edmonton House, which had grown in importance as a transportation and trading hub, partially motivated by his church’s wish to counter the influence of the Roman Catholic mission that had grown quite powerful in the area.

George and son John established a mission to the south in the Bow Valley at Morley, about two-thirds of the way to Canmore from Calgary, mostly dealing with the Stoney and Blackfoot in the area.

One of the pressing matters they faced was illegal liquor being sold to the First Nations. George worked with First Nations leaders to demand the government ban the sale of alcohol in the territory. In exchange, he supported the Canadian government, which was a new thing in Alberta at the time. This was a bit of a deal, because the First Nations were deeply concerned about the immigration of Europeans into the First Nations territory.

George also acted as a middleman between the federal government and First Nations, encouraging them not to follow the example of Louis Riel in the Red River area.

He took a leave of absence in 1874; when he returned a year later, he was immediately requested by the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba to be posted there, to continue his work. George travelled through most, if not all, of the First Nations camps from Prince Albert west to the Rocky Mountains, offering to hear any complaints. It resulted in two huge treaty signings by Prairie First Nations.

George died in a blizzard in 1876 hunting for buffalo for food for his mission at Morley, near what would become Calgary.

He was lauded by both provincial and federal governments, as well as the First Nations he worked with, for his energy and his promotion of education, agriculture and health – the things he learned as a boy in Simcoe County.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.