Opinion

Pioneering Ontario chief paid for white co-operation

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Jean-Baptiste Assiginack

Jean-Baptiste Assiginack

Blackbird, also known as Jean-Baptiste Assiginack, was one of the great intermediaries between First Nations and the Crown in Upper Canada.

This Ottawa chief fought for the British in the War of 1812 and continued working tirelessly for the rest of his life on behalf of the Crown and what he thought was best for his people.

Assiginack was born around 1768 and first came to the notice of historians as a member of the British force that captured Fort Michilimackinac in the early days of the War of 1812 — it was one of the first string of victories the British-Canadian forces enjoyed.

In 1813 he led his band, with Captain Matthew Elliott, down to the Niagara Peninsula, where they supported the British forces defending against the invading Americans at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

In 1814 he was in the force that captured what would become the Wisconsin fort at Prairies du Chien. He was awarded medals for his part in these battles and a silk flag with the British coat of arms.

Assiginack started working as an interpreter in the Indian Department at Drummond Island in 1815, and became good friends with the British agent, Captain Thomas Gummersall Anderson. Assiginack resigned in 1827 to help the Catholic mission at Arbre Croche in Michigan, but rejoined the department in 1830 after leading a group of Ottawas, who left Drummond Island when the new border was being drawn between Canada and the United States, to Penetanguishene.

He moved to Coldwater, where Anderson had taken over as superintendent of the new Indian Department headquarters, in 1832. Assiginack intended to set up his permanent residence nearby.

The Coldwater settlement was created under Lieutenant Governor John Colborne’s policy in 1830 to place First Nations in agricultural communities. But when he took over in 1836, Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head decided otherwise — First Nations were to be sent to the north, out of the way of white settlement.

That year, Manitoulin Island was set up as a large reserve where many of the province’s First Nations were to be settled. Assiginack, perhaps seeing a steamroller coming, tried to get his people out of its way by signing the treaty that implemented the plan to “settle” the First Nations people. He encouraged them to cooperate with the settlers and adopt their ways, moving away from hunting, fishing and trapping and toward agriculture.

When Anderson was moved to Manitowaning on the island, he and Assiginack became a powerful team — between the pair, two more treaties were signed. After Anderson retired in 1845, Assiginack continued to work with Anderson’s replacement, George Ironside, until his own retirement in 1849.

But the settlement at Manitoulin was not a success by the government’s standards — many First Nations ignored Crown entreaties to move there, and many people who did continued to live traditional lives.

Eventually, the government decided to open Manitoulin to white settlement. Assiginack supported this idea, but the First Nations majority — including one of Assiginack’s sons — did not. When the government sweetened the offer in 1862, a treaty was signed, but not by all First Nations on Manitoulin. The disagreements created lasting rifts between bands, and because of his efforts to encourage First Nations’ cooperation with the settlers — which he believed was in their best interests — some saw Assiginack as a traitor to his people.

Assiginack died in 1866 at the age of 98 and was buried at Wikwemikong on the island.

— Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@historylab.ca