MAIR, CHARLES, businessman, author, and office holder; b. 21 Sept. 1838 in Lanark, Upper Canada, youngest child of James Mair and Margaret Holmes; m. 8 Sept. 1869 Elizabeth Louise McKenney in the Red River settlement (Man.), and they had five daughters and two sons; d. 7 July 1927 in Victoria.
Throughout his life, Charles Mair, the “warrior bard,” considered it his patriotic duty to crusade for Canada. He attributed this conviction to his origin in the Ottawa valley “in its primitive day.” His paternal grandfather had come to Lanark in 1824 at age 78 and established two general stores; in 1831 his son and daughter-in-law left Scotland to join him in the merchant and timber trade. In his memoirs Mair would recall the romance and drama of the trade: “I loved the river life, the great pineries in winter, where the timber was felled and squared.” He disliked the discipline of the schoolmaster in Lanark and his years at the Perth Grammar School, but he recalled the pastimes enjoyed by the villagers as idyllic: shinty on ice, games, trapping, making maple syrup, and visiting Indian encampments. This love of living close to the natural environment would remain with him, as would the anxiety of a second recollection: the conspicuous presence of disabled war pensioners, who conducted regular militia exercises for the young men in Lanark to guard against American invasion. Much of Mair’s career would unfold as a loyalist campaign for a strong dominion.
Though his father intended him to study medicine at Queen’s College in Kingston, Mair left after one year (1856–57) to help with the family’s troubled businesses in Lanark. He worked as a clerk for ten years, and began publishing poems in newspapers and journals. He returned to Queen’s in 1867, but, as he later recalled, “there is no such thing as free will; destiny rules.” During this year of study he completed the manuscript for his first book, Dreamland and other poems (Montreal, 1868). After the spring term in 1868 he went to Ottawa, where his publisher was having it printed. He mixed there with a civil servant and writer he had met in 1864, Henry James Morgan*, who introduced him to three young lawyers interested in the challenges facing the new dominion, George Taylor Denison, William Alexander Foster*, and Robert Grant Haliburton*. Together they organized the overtly nationalistic Canada First movement, which began as a small social group.
Through Morgan, Mair caught the attention of William McDougall*, the mp for Lanark North and minister of public works in the cabinet of Sir John A. Macdonald*. McDougall offered Mair a summer job as his research secretary to help the new Canadian government in its effort to annex the western territories controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Pleased with Mair’s work, he chose him as his secretary for the mission to London to negotiate the transfer, but when Mair’s sister in St Catharines fell ill, Mair went instead to visit her. At the point of leaving in October, McDougall appointed him paymaster for the construction of a road from Lake of the Woods to Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) [see John Allan Snow*]. Though Mair feared the job would interfere with his studies, he understood that McDougall was offering him the opportunity to “describe the country, a sealed book as yet to the Canadian people,” a chance that could involve the poet directly in the patriotic positioning of Canada First. Toronto Globe editor George Brown*, who shared McDougall’s transcontinental vision, hired Mair as a correspondent to inspire eastern interest in the northwest frontier.
Mair left just as Dreamland was published. It demonstrates a conventional colonial approach to poetry. Such poems as “August” succeed in their attention to natural detail: descriptions of the blueflies, the milkmaids, and the “ribby-lean” cattle in parched fields anticipate the mature nature poetry of Archibald Lampman*. But too often he wrote not of the timberlands he knew but of a dreamland weakly modelled upon the romantic flights of Keats. He would return throughout his career to variations of this dream of a heavenly realm that is sustained (as in “Dreamland”) until dashed by the corruption of “brawling mammonists.” Amidst reviewers of the book, many of whom lauded Mair for giving voice to a new land, there were two Canadian critics to whom he paid respectful attention. The first was the established poet Charles Sangster*, who referred to Canada’s sophisticated literary tradition as one that was habitually overlooked in the popular press, which naively greeted each new poet as the first songster to “view our songless shores.” The second was Mair’s fellow Canada First advocate R. G. Haliburton, who urged Mair to Canadianize his subject matter, to look to the prairie rather than Milton for inspiration. Mair would take this criticism to heart, but in November 1868 he shifted to prose for his contributions to the Globe. These columns, which begin with his trip to Upper Fort Garry, provide a romantic account of the grandeur of the prairie – its vistas, wildlife, idyllic settlements, and loamy fields that entice the Canadian pioneer to pursue “the path of empire and the garden of the world.” Mair includes equally vivid descriptions of the outrageous characters of the frontier, among them the spinners of tales, the corrupt bureaucrats from American bordertowns, and the back-biting “halfbreeds” at the Canadian outposts. By seeming to convey the impression that any enterprising immigrant could succeed amid these people, Mair’s columns caused a furore in Red River. The Métis wife of Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne* took exception to his account of the tension between mixed-blood and white wives at a dinner given by Alexander Begg*. As a result she slapped and whipped Mair in public. This incident would lead to the first roman-à-clef set in the west, Begg’s ‘Dot it down’ . . . (Toronto, 1871), which presents a caricature of Mair as a self-important Upper Canadian flirt who dots down his sneering observations about the west. Mair’s prose, and the reaction to it, obscured his road work, which drew more resentment. With bison scarce and crops levelled by grasshoppers in 1868, the Métis of Red River needed work on his crew, but the same Métis soon accused him of purchasing (from the Cree) land they had claimed.
Mair was also being drawn into conflict through his friendship with John Christian Schultz*, the businessman who angered both the Métis and the HBC with his advocacy of provincial status for the Red River settlement. Mair had fallen in love with Schultz’s 19-year-old niece, Eliza McKenney, who had adventured out from Amherstburg, Ont. They were married in September 1869 and, for their honeymoon, they rode south to Minnesota to meet William McDougall, then on his way to Red River as lieutenant governor designate of the North-West Territories.
Despite the growing unrest among the Métis, who blocked McDougall’s entry, the Mairs were determined to return to Red River, and were imprisoned for a time by the followers of Louis Riel*, some of whom Mair had employed. When the newly-weds were released and eventually reached Upper Fort Garry, they found it occupied and retreated to Schultz’s warehouse, where they held out until mid December, the same month that Riel proclaimed a provisional government. Jailed again, without his wife, Mair was sentenced to be executed. After escaping with Schultz, he met briefly with Eliza until, with a bounty on his head, he fled through blizzards to St Paul, Minn. When Mair and Schultz arrived at the railway station in Toronto in April 1870, they were greeted by a crowd of 5,000; at a reception in St Lawrence Hall they spoke about the Métis insurrection. Although Macdonald’s administration sought to play down the events, Mair and Schultz, with the help of Canada First advocate George Denison, campaigned for Riel’s ouster. Mair and Denison believed their efforts were responsible for Ottawa’s dispatch of troops under Garnet Joseph Wolseley*.
Eliza Mair’s ordeal had been no less dramatic. When the guards failed to track down her husband, Riel ordered her seized, but she was hidden by the wife of the Reverend Henry George. On 4 March, the day the Métis executed Thomas Scott*, Eliza, then five months pregnant, risked capture when she searched Schultz’s occupied house for the manuscripts of Charles’s poetry. Riel had sacked it, however, and the papers were lost. Mair had spent five years on “Zardust and Sélima,” a poem he believed would establish his reputation, and he did not feel he could reproduce it; the loss of his manuscripts, he lamented, “broke my literary heart.” Still separated from her exiled husband, Eliza gave birth to their first child in July in Winnipeg. Mair did not see them until October.
With a family to support and his manuscripts destroyed, he settled in Portage la Prairie, Man., to work as a general-store merchant and fur trader. During his seven years in what he considered the gateway to the frontier, he served as the Manitoba agent for the North West Emigration Aid Society, which he had established with his Canada First associates. In articles in 1875 for the Canadian Monthly and National Review (Toronto) [see Graeme Mercer Adam*], he articulated their vision of the west’s development within the British empire: the “boundless ocean of land . . . waiting with majestic patience for the flocks and the fields, the schools, the churches, the Christian faith and love of freedom of the coming men.” The rest of his articles comprise an aggressive statement of Anglo-Saxon ethnic nationalism in keeping with Canada First and other remarks made by Mair, who advocated a specifically Protestant immigration that would sweep aside the Roman Catholic Métis as well as the natives.
In 1877, with Portage la Prairie failing to develop commercially, the family moved to Prince Albert (Sask.). Here Mair built a store and continued to promote, in the Prince Albert Times and Saskatchewan Review, which he helped found, the need for immigrants to ensure that Canada would fulfil its imperial destiny. Such prominence kept him a target of Métis resentment. By mid 1882, fearing Riel’s return, he had taken his family to Windsor, Ont., but he maintained his business in Prince Albert by wintering there for the next two years. His summer work was of a different kind. Situated close to Eliza’s mother in Amherstburg, Windsor was also an ideal location for the research needed for his return to poetry, in the form of an inspirational national epic. For his subject he selected the Shawnee leader Tecumseh*, who had died in the War of 1812, which he viewed as “the turning point of Canada’s destiny.” Written as a blank-verse play, Tecumseh: a drama (Toronto, 1886) would be his greatest literary accomplishment. It would honour not only the heroic principles on which the dominion was founded, but also the Indians, the “sensible, intelligent” race he had known as a boy and in the northwest. He hoped his poem would help shape a different destiny, in Canada, for a people so “villainously wronged” by the Americans. In the summer of 1882 Mair had begun examining the sites in southwestern Ontario where Tecumseh had faced the American invaders – the quiet fields where Tecumseh had supposedly grown corn and the battlefields where stone tomahawks and the bones of warriors could still be found. After his “semi-savage life” in the northwest, Mair was now composing and sharing drafts within a community of literary sympathizers.
Mair had been writing full-time for more than a year when news of the North-West uprising interrupted his work in March 1885. Some of his friends were killed in the clash between the Métis and police at Duck Lake (Sask.) [see Lief Newry Fitzroy Crozier*], and he felt duty-bound to enlist in the militia against his nemesis, Riel. As quartermaster in Denison’s unit, the Governor General’s Body Guard, he was stationed at Humboldt, where the troops quietly guarded a telegraph station. Back in Windsor in July, after the rebellion had been suppressed, he was intent on completing his poem, but his campaign for Riel’s execution shattered his focus. Riel was hanged in November and Mair finished his poem by the end of December. On 12 Feb. 1886 he proudly sent a copy of Tecumseh to Eliza. When he and other members of the Governor General’s Body Guard were presented with North West Canada medals on 24 May in Toronto, by the wife of Lieutenant Governor John Beverley Robinson*, Mair was dubbed the “warrior bard.”
Tecumseh, which Mair introduces as the “high ideal” of a “United Empire,” contrasts the Canadian tradition of cooperative self-sacrifice for the good of the community with the American tradition of divisive self-interest. Mair identifies both Tecumseh and British general Sir Isaac Brock* as exemplars of self-sacrifice. A Shakespearean model is effective in his description of the northwest (which Tecumseh visits) as an ocean with shoreless prairies and waves of bison, and in his depiction of American ruffians whose slang draws on Thomas Chandler Haliburton*’s Yankee pedlar. Though Tecumseh was composed as a closet play, Mair confessed he entertained notions that it might be staged. It did receive many reviews. His representation of the native received gratifying endorsement by Mohawk poet Emily Pauline Johnson* in the Toronto World: “Mair avoids the usual commonplaces used in describing Indians by those who have never met or mixed with them.” The Globe praised the play with a lofty comparison: “As the play of Henry V was a song of triumph to the English of Shakespeare’s time, so is this a song of triumph for the Canadians of today.” However, Mair would overdo his nationalist intentions: in Tecumseh: a drama, and Canadian poems (Toronto, 1901) he tries to Canadianize his earliest pieces by replacing medieval knights with the warriors and heroines of 1812.
At the height of his literary career, Mair and his family moved back in the summer of 1886 to Prince Albert, where he became active as a storekeeper, rancher, postmaster, and real-estate agent. He planned to write an even more ambitious drama, on the British conquest of Canada, but managed only to publish occasional poems. One of them, “The last bison,” which appeared in Dominion Illustrated (Montreal) in 1888, identifies a concern Mair would pursue in prose. His impassioned essay on “The American bison . . . with reference to its threatened extinction and possible preservation,” published in 1890 in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, to which he had been elected the previous year, may have been a factor in the federal government’s attempts in 1898–99 to establish a herd in Rocky Mountains Park at Banff (Alta). In 1893 Mair left Prince Albert for St Paul. There he encouraged immigrants to move on to the northwest, and he visited Chicago to set up a Canadian exhibit at the Columbian exposition. He located next in Kelowna, B.C., where he opened a store, but he grew increasingly despondent until, in 1898, interior minister Clifford Sifton appointed him as a travelling immigration agent, based initially in Winnipeg. Helping immigrants settle on the frontier fitted Mair’s interests; he played some role, for instance, in the selection of land in the Swan River district (Sask.) by Doukhobor agents in late 1898. A four-month interruption of work in 1899 was another perfectly suited opportunity: he was granted leave to serve as English secretary of the commission established to deal with the land claims of the mixed-blood population of the northern region being transferred under Treaty No.8 [see James Andrew Joseph McKenna*]. His book on the commission’s expedition, published in Toronto in 1908 and his major work of prose, is introduced as an Arcadian narrative and a plea for Canada to protect the primitive customs and traditions of an innocent people from the corrupt civilization of HBC traders and Klondike gold seekers. He contextualizes his journey in the early exploration narratives of Sir Alexander Mackenzie* and Sir George Simpson*, and focuses on the changes that had occurred during the 19th century as his party passed the ruins of forts and followed old buffalo paths and wallows overgrown with strawberry vines and saskatoon clumps. Mair was surprised to encounter, instead of the picturesque “savage types” of old, groups of natives in “store-clothes.” Through the Mackenzie basin: a narrative of the Athabasca and Peace River treaty expedition of 1899 marks the culmination of his long campaign for a northern dominion as a bulwark against American expansion.
During his years as an immigration agent, Mair gathered material for a book about the Red River uprising of 1869–70, but the research was difficult after his transfer from Winnipeg to Lethbridge (Alta) in 1903 and subsequently to Coutts and then Fort Steele, B.C. His time in Lethbridge was especially hard: he lost his daughter Elizabeth to typhoid in 1904 and his beloved wife died from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1906 while visiting their daughter Maude Louise in Victoria. When his request for a transfer to the archives branch in Ottawa was denied, he abandoned the Red River project, though some of his recollections were published as interviews.
Mair retired from the immigration office at Fort Steele in 1921 at age 83. He lived with his daughter Fanny George in Calgary until he moved to a retirement home in Victoria. In 1924 he was awarded an lld by Queen’s University. Another honour, long in the works, was the volume of his poetry, prose, and memoirs edited by John William Garvin* and released in April 1927 as a tribute to the old warrior bard. After celebrating the diamond jubilee of Canada on Dominion Day by sending a telegram to the Canadian Authors Association, Mair died on 7 July. He was buried beside Eliza in Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria.
The extravagant claims by Garvin and Robert Winkworth Norwood* in the tribute volume that Mair was Canada’s greatest poet were ill founded, but his considerable achievements have since been neglected or disparaged. Though his role as a founding member of the Canada First movement and his campaign for frontier immigration led him into conflict with the Métis, Mair’s negative reputation for his imperialist stance might be measured against his later successes as an immigration agent and his well-meaning praise for the dignity of the native peoples. Mair’s part in promoting a sanctuary for bison places him among our first conservationists. A scholarly edition of his prose is needed to bring together his Red River correspondence, “The American bison,” and Through the Mackenzie basin for further scrutiny of his ideology. His Tecumseh is a major contribution to our 19th-century literary heritage, wherein the War of 1812 is the central event of Canadian history. Among the many literary treatments of this war, including works by Sangster, John Richardson*, and Sarah Anne Curzon [Vincent*], Tecumseh stands as the most accomplished.
Charles Mair’s papers are at QUA. Bibliographies of his writings are in Tecumseh: a drama, and Canadian poems; Dreamland and other poems; The American bison; Through the Mackenzie basin; Memoirs and reminiscences, ed. J. W. Garvin, intro. R. [W.] Norwood (Toronto, 1926), in Norman Shrive’s excellent biography, Charles Mair, literary nationalist (Toronto, 1965), and in Shrive’s The voice of the Burdash: Charles Mair and the divided mind in Canadian literature (London, Ont., 1995). Mair’s Red River articles in the Globe, some first published in the Perth Courier (Perth, Ont.), appeared on 14, 27 Dec. 1868; 4 Jan., 16 Feb., 28 May 1869. His two articles for the Canadian Monthly and National Rev. (Toronto) are “The new Canada: its natural features and climate,” 8 (July–December 1875): 1–8 and “The new Canada: its resources and productions,” 8: 156–64. “The last bison” was printed in Dominion Illustrated (Montreal), 1 (1888): 155 and “The American bison . . . with reference to its threatened extinction and possible preservation” was published in RSC, Trans., 1st ser., 8 (1890), sect.ii: 93–108. The reviews of Mair’s works by Sangster, Haliburton, and Johnson appeared respectively in the Times (Ottawa), 10 Feb. 1869, Evening Reporter and Tri-Weekly Times (Halifax), 13 July 1869, and World (Toronto), 22 March 1892. The Globe reviewed Tecumseh on 20 Feb. 1886.
Useful insight into Mair’s ideology, writings, and career may be found in C. C. Berger, The sense of power; studies in the ideas of Canadian imperialism, 1867–1914 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1970); Leslie Monkman, “Charles Mair,” in Profiles in Canadian literature, ed. J. M. Heath (6v., Toronto, 1980–91), 5: 49–56; Fred Cogswell, “Charles Mair,” in Canadian writers and their works, ed. Robert Lecker et al., intro. George Woodcock (24v. in 2 ser., Toronto, 1983–96), poetry ser., 1 (1988): 119–55; Leslie Monkman, A native heritage: images of the Indian in English-Canadian literature (Toronto, 1981); and the introduction by D. W. Leonard and Brian Calliou to Through the Mackenzie basin: an account of the signing of Treaty No.8 and the scrip commission, 1899 (Edmonton, 1999).
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Cite This Article
David Latham, “MAIR, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mair_charles_15E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David Latham|
|Title of Article:||MAIR, CHARLES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2005|
|Access Date:||March 29, 2023|