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Riel critic Johnny Grant led adventurous life

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A Son of the Fur Trade

The Memoirs of Johnny Grant

Edited by Gerhard J. Ens

University of Alberta Press, 405 pages, $35


JOHNNY Grant was many things: the son of a Hudson Bay fur trader, a Métis businessman, and an adventurer who roamed from Trois-Rivières in Quebec, across the Montana frontier to west of the Rockies, and back east to Manitoba in time for its birth as a province in 1870.

He made legions of friends along the way, among rich and poor, aboriginal braves and chiefs (he learned to speak native languages), and Métis like himself.

But the one person he met that he couldn't stand was Louis Riel.

"Riel was too conceited," Grant says in his recently exhumed memoir. "His air of contempt ruffled my temper," he says elsewhere. "It seemed to me he was looking for trouble," he says later.

Readers have Gerhard Ens, a former Manitoban and now associate professor of history at University of Alberta, to thank for finding this buried treasure.

Riel would ultimately order Grant arrested from his farm near Carman and hold him prisoner for eight days.

Grant was never charged, but the reason for the arrest seems obvious to him and the reader: He didn't agree with Riel, and Riel was extremely paranoid.

Grant also has some interesting revelations about campaigning for Donald A. Smith, member of Parliament for the newly minted province of Manitoba, including bearing financial offers from Smith to entice opposing candidates to drop out.

This memoir, which Grant dictated to his wife before he died in 1907, is really two books. The first is a story packed with adventures of the early West.

They start with his raucous relation with his father, a Hudson's Bay Company trader in Idaho, which comes to a head when his father holds his son at gunpoint.

The men would reconcile but the incident set Grant on a course of living as a trapper among aboriginals and other mixed bloods like himself.

He meets and gets to know so many tribes, like the Digger Indians along Salmon River, and their diet of roots, ants, crickets, wild sunflower and rye grass seed. A repeating story throughout his memoir is the regular thefts of horses by the native people, and the oafishly brutal response by American troops.

Grant would father at least 28 children with at least six different women, five of them native (although he doesn't go into detail about this part of his life, other than his devotion to his Shoshone wife, Quagga). This allowed Grant to cement trade relations with various tribes.

Meanwhile, tales like the one of Grant hauling saddlebags of gold powder by public stagecoach across the plains are the stuff of TV and movie westerns.

Grant became one of the largest ranchers of cattle and horses in the Montana territory. His businesses prospered in part because being Métis allowed him to act as go-between with Indian and European people.

But the rise of European-imported capitalism with its banks and lawyers signalled the end of Métis businessmen like Grant. Grant was illiterate, and ignorant of fine-print capitalism, and was frequently victimized by some swindle or other. This is the second book.

Not that Grant was totally innocent. He was part of the land speculation boom in Manitoba in the 1880s, and proof that Métis were indeed buyers as well as sellers of land and scrip. At one point, Grant held 13,000 acres of land in Manitoba.

Grant's enmity towards Riel came at least partly from his uncle James McKay, a successful Métis businessman and part of the economic and political establishment of the Red River settlement. Ironically, Grant's trying to work with that establishment eventually cost him his entire fortune.

Ens is meticulous. Rich footnoting fills gaps in the memoir and provides biographies of everyone from bit players to historic figures Grant encounters.


Bill Redekop is a Free Press reporter.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 13, 2009 B8

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