A Life Worth Remembering

Doctor, archeologist, band chief and much, much more

Peter Edmund Jones, the first status Indian in Canada to obtain a medical degree, inhabited a fractious borderland both metaphorical and physical. Allan Sherwin’s Bridging Two Peoples: Chief Peter E. Jones, 1843–1909 describes a man of relative privilege with enormous motivation, energy and intelligence, one who engaged in prodigious struggles on behalf of aboriginal people in Upper Canada, although he was ultimately worn down by the very forces that shaped him.

His grandfather was a Welsh-American surveyor; his grandmother, Tuhbenahneequay, was the daughter of a Mississauga chief. Jones’s father, a Methodist minister, was the first aboriginal ordained in British North America. He raised funds in England to build a vocational school for aboriginal people, which became, unfortunately, one of the first of the infamous residential schools in Canada. He also succeeded in marrying into a well-to-do English family, a feat accomplished, in part, by means of a letter of introduction to the family from Egerton Ryerson, the famous Upper Canadian educator.

The couple had four sons, including Peter Edmund, the subject of this biography: “a thorough Indian!!!” said his English grandmother, with perhaps less than full-throated approval. At his birth in 1843, he received his father’s Mississauga name, Kahkewaquonaby, “the waving plume.”

Jones contracted polio as a child, and was never in robust health after that. Home schooled at first, he briefly attended the aboriginal vocational school that his father had established, then a grammar school in Brantford and, from there, he entered the Toronto School of Medicine. Completing his studies at Queen’s University, which included a now-lost thesis entitled “The Indian Medicine Man,” he received his licence to practise medicine in 1866.

Despite his social connections, life for Jones was always arduous. Unable to attract patients in Brantford, he moved to what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, then to New York City and, finally, to Hagersville, just outside the New Credit reserve, 45 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, where the Mississauga band had relocated after being evicted from its previous reserve in 1847. (In one of the book’s maddening lacunae, we learn next to nothing about this, other than Jones’s Herculean efforts over many years to obtain payment for the land that had been taken.)

Jones was an expert chess player, an amateur archeologist who was consulted as an expert by the Smithsonian, a public health innovator who managed to keep the Mississauga band free of smallpox and the maternal death rate almost non–existent, and a highly capable administrator presiding over his model farming community with its school, bridges, roads and fences. He was a natural leader, becoming both chief and appointed physician to his band, and securing a place on the regional Grand Council, which represented a number of bands from different First Nations. He always identified as a status Indian, refusing so-called “enfranchisement,” which would have involved giving up his treaty rights for voting rights as a British subject.

As an aboriginal leader, Jones struggled valiantly with the stifling Indian Affairs department—which, through its Indian agents, controlled every facet of Indian life. As a true-blue Conservative activist and organizer, he was able, at least to some degree, to influence Sir John A. Macdonald, who saw in him a person worth courting for his organizational abilities. Macdonald passed an order-in-council, for example, compensating the Mississauga band for the seizure of its lands. (That money, however, was seized later on, with accrued interest, cutting the band’s operating capital in half. Jones fought this claim anew until his death.) Macdonald also passed the Electoral Franchise Act in 1885, which gave male status Indians with a property qualification the vote without losing treaty rights. That measure was repealed by the Liberals in 1898.

Throughout this intense period of activism Jones farmed, practised medicine, became an Indian agent, ran a store, published the first aboriginal newspaper, The Indian—all the while struggling to make ends meet. His newspaper venture was doomed almost from the start. It was never clear, at least from Sherwin’s account, who the audience was intended to be. The recipes in it were for English food. It was written in Victorian English prose, hardly accessible to his own people. (Sherwin notes the massive illiteracy of aboriginal people at the time.) It hewed faithfully to the Conservative party line, contained paid government advertisements for jobs that Indians could not apply for and went under after a year, leaving Jones heavily in debt.

There is continual tension in the book between the author’s overly optimistic assumptions and the facts that he brings forward. Sherwin uses the bridge metaphor repeatedly, for example, but that implies two-way traffic. Jones was an articulate leader, well equipped to meet the political establishment on its own ground; but he was largely unsuccessful in advancing aboriginal aspirations in those encounters. A mover and shaker among aboriginals, he was treated with paternalistic indulgence bordering on contempt by Sir John A. Macdonald and the Indian Affairs department.

Asked to prepare reports on suggested changes to the Indian Act by Macdonald, Jones undertook a wide program of consultation and prepared two reports after a vast expenditure of time and energy, which were simply brushed off. When Jones, in straitened circumstances, wanted some payment for his work, Macdonald asked a subordinate, “Will you see what Jones has done for the Dept. He made a report or two, but not I think of much virtue?” No payment was forthcoming. Three thousand people attended the opening of Jones’s new council house on the New Credit reserve, an event even covered by the Detroit Free Press, but the deliberations of the Grand Council on the Indian Act, and its suggestions for changes, were ignored. “I do not know if their meetings are any good, but it seems to please some of them,” said one senior official.

The inspector of Indian agencies, James A. Macrae, however, observed the council in action in 1896 and took a contrary view:

Proper rules of debate were adhered to and the utmost decorum prevailed. Speeches were not only intelligent and occasionally eloquent but were well marked by moderation. Speakers made it evident that they had given attention to what they spoke of and that much good sense and truth lay in their remarks. The utmost courtesy was invariably displayed between those holding opposite views and rulings from the chair were unquestionably accepted.

Macrae’s report was ignored, like Jones’s two earlier reports.

Eventually, Jones began to drink heavily. He lost his position as band physician in 1885, and his job as Indian agent in 1897. He and his wife separated. Trying briefly to make a go of things in Washington DC, he lived by selling some of his precious collection of artifacts to the Smithsonian. Eventually he returned to Hagersville, where he maintained his farm and a small medical practice, and practised taxidermy as a hobby. He died, painfully, of cancer of the tongue in 1909.

Let the reader beware: this account of a remarkable life, obviously a labour of love, is not well organized, threatens at times to sink under the weight of extraneous detail, contains gaps and contradictions and unwarranted assumptions, is frequently repetitive, and overall lacks focus. A vast amount of research has been carried out, but the temptation to wander away from the central figure and his story into numerous byways and side trails is too seldom resisted, especially when it comes to medical history.

Nevertheless, a person who today might receive an Order of Canada for a lifetime of substantial achievements in so many areas simply faded from view until Sherwin undertook his project. We are given a substantial outline, at least, of a heroic, accomplished and yet tragic individual whom the author has managed to exhume from layers of historical silt. And our sense of Canada, then and now, is enriched thereby.