McKAY, JAMES, fur-trader, guide, and politician; b. 1828 at Edmonton House, North-West Territories (present-day Alberta), son of the furtrader James McKay; d. at St James, Man., 2 Dec. 1879.
James McKay was educated at Red River. In the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1853–60, he advanced rapidly, serving as clerk and postmaster, principally in the Swan River district, and establishing posts on the Sheyenne and Buffalo rivers in American territory in 1859. His facility in Indian languages, which he may have acquired through his mother who was either Métis or Indian, and his thorough knowledge of the prairies combined to make him a notable guide whose services were sought by distinguished travellers. He was responsible for meeting Sir George Simpson* on several of the trips made by the HBC governor from eastern Canada via the Mississippi en route to Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg). “Jeemie McKay was proud of the fact that, always on the tenth day of their start from Crow Wing [Minn.] at the stroke of noon from the Fort Garry bell, he landed Sir George at the steps of the Chief Factor’s House. Relays of horses enabled him to do this, rain or shine; and the slightest stoppage in muskeg or stream found McKay wading in to bring Sir George on his broad shoulders to dry land.” In 1857 McKay guided the British expedition headed by Captain John Palliser* [see Bourgeaux] from Fort Ellice (St Lazare, Man.) through the Saskatchewan plains to its winter quarters at Fort Carlton (Sask.). In 1859 when the Earl of Southesk [Carnegie], on a western hunting trip, was in Simpson’s party from Crow Wing to Upper Fort Garry, he described McKay: “Immensely broad-chested and muscular, though not tall, he weighed eighteen stone; yet in spite of his stoutness he was exceedingly hardy and active, and a wonderful horseman. His face – somewhat Assyrian in type – is very handsome: short, delicate, aquiline nose; piercing dark grey eyes; long dark-brown hair, beard, and moustaches; white, small, regular teeth; skin tanned to red bronze from exposure to weather. He was dressed in Red River style – a blue cloth ‘capot’ (hooded frock-coat) with brass buttons; red-and-black flannel shirt, which served also for waistcoat; black belt round the waist; buff leather moccasins on his feet; trowsers of brown and white striped home-made woollen stuff.”
McKay left the service of the HBC – Simpson tried unsuccessfully to keep him – to engage on his own account in trading, freighting, mail transportation, and supervision of road construction. He had married Margaret Rowand in June 1859 and established a fine home at Deer Lodge. A son died in infancy; McKay had informally adopted a girl named Augusta whose parents had been killed by Sioux and who lived with the Grey Nuns.
McKay was appointed a member of the Council of Assiniboia in 1868, and president of the Whitehorse Plains District Court. When disturbances broke out in the Red River Settlement in 1869–70, McKay was prepared to accept the plans of the Canadian government for administration of the newly acquired territory, but he would not actively oppose his Métis friends and withdrew for a time to the United States. Subsequently, he averted a visit to the settlement by an armed band of Sioux Indians which might have provoked hostilities in the delicate situation. He was named one of the English councillors in the provisional government.
When, after the formation of the province of Manitoba, Lieutenant Governor Adams George Archibald* appointed his first council, on 10 Jan. 1871, he included McKay. McKay’s addition to the two French and two English representatives, wrote Archibald, “would in no way disturb the delicate balance since his father was Scotch, his mother French Half-breed and though he himself [is] a Catholic he has two brothers Presbyterians.” McKay occupied several important positions in the government of Manitoba until he was forced by ill health to retire in 1878. He was president of the Executive Council, 1871–74. He was a member of the Manitoba Legislative Council throughout its existence, 1871–76, and its speaker until 1874.
McKay was minister of agriculture in the Robert Atkinson Davis* government, 1874–78. The programme of the Bureau of Agriculture and Statistics over which he presided was confined, as were those of other departments of the Manitoba government of that period, by inadequate funds. However, the bureau did undertake the compilation of information for the advancement of agriculture and the encouragement of immigration, and supported the establishment of agricultural societies. McKay represented Lake Manitoba in the Legislative Assembly, 1877–78. Throughout his political performance, he was described by a contemporary as “cautious, of excellent judgment in some instances; but had implicit faith in the advice of the clergy and [was] not likely to oppose the views of the Archbishop [Alexandre-Antonin Taché* ]. I must say in fairness he considered those opposed to him, and was at all times willing to discuss public questions with his opponent, with a degree of justice, and at times wonderful adroitness.”
From 1873 to 1875 McKay had also been a member of the Council of the North-West Territories in which he concerned himself with problems affecting the native population, including the regulation of the buffalo hunt and the control of the liquor traffic. It was in the settlement of Indian claims that McKay made his most significant public contribution. He had assisted in the negotiation of Indian Treaties No 1 (Lower Fort Garry) and No 2 (Manitoba Post on Lake Manitoba) in 1871, and No 3 (North West Angle of Lake of the Woods) in 1873. He was one of the commissioners for Treaty No 5 (Winnipeg) in 1875 and for Treaty No 6, concluded at Forts Carlton and Pitt (near present-day Lloydminster) in 1876. As Alexander Morris*, lieutenant governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, pointed out, McKay on these occasions “had the opportunity of meeting with them [the Indians] constantly, and learning their views which his familiarity with the Indian dialects enabled him to do.” He was both negotiator and interpreter. At Fort Carlton, in 1876, he said to the Indians: “I hope you will not leave until you have thoroughly understood the meaning of every word that comes from us. We have not come here to deceive you, we have not come here to rob you, we have not come here to take away anything that belongs to you, and we are not here to make peace as we would to hostile Indians, because you are the children of the Great Queen as we are, and there has never been anything but peace between us.” Morris’ observation that this “remarkable man, the son of an Orkneyman by an Indian mother . . . possessed large influence over the Indian tribes, which he always used for the benefit and the advantage of the government” must be coupled with other statements attesting to his generosity in treating with the Indians. He was associated with his fellow commissioners in Treaty No 6 in according additional benefits to the Indians, including provision for medical supplies and for assistance in times of epidemic and general famine, and during the initial period of establishment on reserves.
James McKay died at his estate in the parish of St James. “His career spanned the transition from a way of life based on the nomadic buffalo hunt and fur trade to one based on agriculture and settlement.”
Archives des sœurs grises (Saint-Boniface, Man.), Chroniques de la Rivière-Rouge, 10 avril 1863, 10 août 1866; Registre des orphelines, 1846–1904, p.11, no.63. PAC, MG 26, A (Macdonald papers), correspondence with Adams George Archibald, 1870–72, and Alexander Morris, 1872–73 (copies in SAB). PAM, Alexander Morris, Lieutenant-Governor’s collection, correspondence and papers, 1872–77; Alexander Morris, Ketcheson collection, 1869–77 (copies in SAB). SAB, Saskatchewan Historical Society, 37. Canada, Sessional papers, III (1870), PT.5, no.12, 93–95. Canadian North-West (Oliver), I, 71, 85, 125–26; II, 1011–75. Morris, Treaties of Canada with Indians, 195. Palliser papers (Spry). Southesk, Earl of [James Carnegie], Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: a diary and narrative of travel, sport, and adventure, during a journey through the Hudson’s bay company’s territories, in 1859 and 1860 (Edinburgh, 1875). Manitoba, Statutes, 1873–78. Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg), 3 Dec. 1879. Can. parl. comp., 1874, 481, 483; 1875; 1877, 363, 371. Donnelly, Government of Manitoba, 3–25. Margaret McWilliams, Manitoba milestones (Toronto and London, ), 106–12. Morton, Manitoba, a history. J. H. O’Donnell, Manitoba as I saw it from 1869 to date, with flash-lights on the first Riel Rebellion (Winnipeg and Toronto, 1909), 53–54. I. M. Spry, The Palliser expedition; an account of John Palliser’s British North America expedition 1857–1860 (Toronto, 1963). L. H. Thomas, The struggle for responsible government in the North-West Territories, 1870–1897 (Toronto, 1956), 56, 64, 83. F. A. Milligan, “The establishment of Manitoba’s first provincial government,” HSSM, Papers, 3rd ser., no.5 (1948–49), 5–18. R. T. F. Thompson, “Deer Lodge through the century,” HSSM, Papers, 3rd ser., no.22 (1965–66), 95–98.