Friday, February 10, 2012

Father Lacombe's C.P.R Presidency

Father Albert Lacombe looms large in the early history of the Canadian West. Born in St. Sulpiche, Lower Canada, he left for the West in 1850, when he took a posting in Pembina, joining the Metis on the buffalo hunt the following year.  In 1853, Lacombe was sent far into the North West Territories, to assume a position at Lac St. Anne, and set up an "Indian Mission" several years later, in direct competition with the Methodist McDougalls at Pakan (Victoria Settlement).  Lacombe's involvement with the railway may have begun in 1880 as the CPR pushed west from Winnipeg.  As Raymond Huel notes, "he assumed responsibility for ministering to railway workers along a section of the transcontinental line being built east of Winnipeg, and in the camps he found that blasphemy, drunkenness, and immorality were rife. “My God, send me back to my old Indian mission,” he wrote in his diary."
File number: NA-4209-2
Title: Father Albert Lacombe en route to Calgary from Blackfoot reserve, Alberta.
Date: Autumn 188
 Lacombe's role as moderator for the railway was evidenced in 1883.  As surveyors plotted the location of the railway near Blackfoot Crossing, Lacombe negotiated with the Blackfoot chiefs, giving them gifts of sugar, tobacco, tea, and flour, and noting that Lt. Gov. Edward Dewdney would hear their protests personally.

Pierre Berton's popular history The Last Spike recalls that the directors of the CPR were so pleased with Lacombe's negotiations with the Natives that they made the priest president of the CPR for an hour.  Lacombe decided to immediately vote himself two lifetime passes on the railroad, and free transport of goods for Oblate missions.  Not stopping there he also guaranteed himself free use of the telegraph for life.  The directors were pleased to grant him the priveledges.

Lacombe was said to loan his passes out rather frequently, and one incident recorded by Berton is worth relating:
"On one occasion the two passes, which became familiar along the line, were presented by two nuns, newly arrived in the west.  'May I ask,' the conductor politely inquired, 'which one of you is Father Lacombe?' He let the blushing sisters go on their way."
"Blackfeet at Earnscliffe." 1886  "Front row", left to right: North Axe, Peigan Chief, One Spot, Blood sub-chief. "Middle row", left to right: Three Bulls, half brother of Crowfoot, Crowfoot, Blackfoot Chief, Red Cloud, Blood Chief. "Back row", left to right: Father Lacombe, John L'Heureux, interpreter. Credit: Canada. Dept. of the Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-045666

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