Sometimes, in this series, we come across years where a large number of fairly minor things were going on. On other occasions, we encounter years where there are one or two Big Stories. 1887 most certainly falls into the latter category.
Click on, for a looming election at home, a looming war in Europe, and quite a lot of snow!
Mid-January of 1887 found residents of Peterborough and the rest of the country looking forward to a federal election, expected to be called at any moment. While there were any number of potential political battlegrounds available, including the tricky business of protectionist trade policies, there was one in particular dominating discussion in Peterborough at this time.
It was clear that the aftermath of the 1885 North-West Rebellion was going to be a major issue in any upcoming vote. And so it should be no surprise, given their opposing partisan affiliations, that the the two main Peterborough newspapers engaged in a bit of an editorial slap-fight over the performance of the federal Department of Indian Affairs. The Peterborough Examiner, fierce opponents of the Conservative government, was first off the mark, with a scathing article on January 11th. Declaring that “cheating and robbing the Indians has been reduced to a science,” and that “no fouler blot is to be found on the good name of Canada,” the paper went on to criticize the character of Indian Affairs officials:
“Instead of men of high moral standing, truthfulness and honesty being chosen… the government selected from a swarm of camp followers those who were unfit for positions of respectability in the older Provinces, and who have since proved themselves to be dishonest, untruthful, and grossly immoral.”
Among the Examiner‘s detailed complaints, were accusations that Indian Affairs had supplied the Natives with spoiled food, and, even worse, that “young Indian girls… are sold to white men at from $10 to $20 each.”
Given that its founder, Thomas White, was a member of Sir John A. MacDonald’s government, there was no way that the Peterborough Daily Evening Review could be expected to let that sort of commentary slide. On January 14th came the paper’s rebuttal, in which the editors claimed that the only grounds for criticizing Indian Affairs officials was for being “too generous.” The staunchly Tory newspaper went on:
“It is a most gratifying feature of the case to find that these good results are largely due to the much maligned Indian officials, who with zeal, discretion, perserverance and kindly sympathy carried out the wise and just policy they were entrusted to administer.”
The claims of rotten food supplies were dismissed on the grounds that feeding the Natives was not the Department’s responsibility under the treaties, and thus that any efforts at all in that direction were to be considered a bonus. As for the sale of young Native girls, the Review would only comment, obliquely, that “[o]n the fringe of civilization there are unfortunately always undesirable specimens…” It was, it must be said, unconvincing at best, especially given what had happened in 1885.
At the local level, nomination efforts were underway for candidates to compete for the riding of Peterborough West, which included the town itself. Both major parties were looking to men who had been, or were, Mayor of Peterborough. The Conservatives were expected to nominate current office-holder James Stevenson, while his predecessor in the Mayoral chair, George Cox, was the favourite of the Liberals. Both men did indeed win their respective nomination contests.
The coming election was certainly big news, but there was also a great deal of attention being paid to events overseas. In January of 1887, Europe came perilously close to hosting the First World War thirty years early, and the Peterborough papers were full of dire accounts of military preparation. A New York World correspondent, quoted in the January 11th Examiner, opined that “the intense hostility which exists between the Russian and German population renders an early war inevitable.” But it was not just Russia and Germany involved — Turkey was amassing troops in the Balkans, expecting a conflict with the Russians, who themselves were facing a third potential enemy in Austria. The Germans, meanwhile, were looking at the possibility of the two-front war in Europe, as relations between them and France were extremely fraught (the French were reported to have put aside a vast sum of money for the purchase of repeater rifles, which the German army already had). The Vatican, fearing that Italy would be drawn into war if it broke out, had drawn up a contingency plan to move the Papal Court to Monaco. And on the other side of the world, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Germany and Spain were involved in a dangerous dispute over the Caroline Islands, lending a global aspect to the whole thing. It was all very complicated, not to mention very unsettling.
As far as Canada, and the inhabitants of Peterborough, were concerned, all eyes were on Britain, as her entry into a European war would necessarily bring Canada in as well. Here too, the portents were not good. The January 10th Review reported that British officers on leave were being told “to hold themselves in readiness to report for duty,” and that “[t]he activity of the Admiralty is still more ominous.”
However, as the week went along, hopeful signs emerged. The major parties were meeting in Washington, and the dreadful scope of the potential war began to turn minds towards solving things diplomatically. As a member of the Austrian delegation, quoted in the January 11th Review, put it:
“Why, just think what a general European war at the present time would mean. Austria has 1,200,000 men ready to be put into the field; Germany has 1,400,000; France has 1,500,000, and Russia has over 1,000,000 already. The responsibility of sending these great bodies of men into motion against each other would involve a more awful responsibility than any statesman in Europe could at present be induced to bear.”
And so it transpired. While the crisis would flare up on a couple of occasions as 1887 moved spring-ward, diplomacy eventually prevailed, and the imminent war never quite broke out. However, the events of early 1887 represent yet another in the long line of steps and mis-steps that eventually led to commencement of hostilities in 1914.
Back to Peterborough, then! As if the looming election at home, and the war drums overseas, were not enough, a major winter storm visited the town on the evening of January 13th. The next day’s Examiner described it as “the most violent of the season,” and said that “[t]he snow fell fast, and, driven by a violent gale, formed immense drifts.” Many of the country roads were completely blocked, and the rail links between Peterborough and Toronto were cut off. The train from Belleville made it through, as it got behind a snowplow for most of the run, but it took an hour for it to cross the river from Ashburnham to Peterborough itself (the snowplow by this time had turned off to clear the line to Lakefield).
However, there were some signs that Spring would eventually arrive. The January 14th Review reported on the annual meeting of the Peterborough Horticultural Society, at which plans for 1887’s gardening season were discussed. Among the major projects being undertaken by the Society at that time was the grooming and arranging of Victoria Park, in front of the County Courthouse. Sadly, that great horticulturalist whom we have discussed many times in previous editions of this series, Sheriff James Hall, was no longer part of the Peterborough gardening scene — he had passed away in 1882.
A final note: The expected federal election was called on Monday, January 17th, and voting took place on the 22nd of February. When all was said and done, it was the Review‘s editors who were celebrating. Sir John A. MacDonald’s Conservatives were elected to another majority government, albeit a slightly slimmer one than they’d had before, and James Stevenson won them the riding of Peterborough West (Peterborough East went to an Independent Liberal, John Lang). Stevenson would continue to serve both as Mayor of Peterborough and as Member of Parliament for several years. Furthermore, in what must have been a very bitter blow to the Peterborough Examiner, the aforementioned Thomas White, founder of the Review, received a prestigious post in MacDonald’s new cabinet; on October 3rd, 1887, he was named Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs.
Thanks for reading, and do join us next time when we look at mid-January of 1888!