Law and Order: West of Rocky Mountains: Guest Editorial

When the country west of the Rockies opened up to European expansion starting in 1793, law and order as we know it was non-existent.

  • Dec. 14, 2016 12:00 p.m.

Al Geernaert

Fort St. James

When the country west of the Rockies opened up to European expansion starting in 1793, law and order as we know it was non-existent.

In 1793, Alexander McKenzie of the Northwest Company made his voyage of discovery to the Pacific.

It took another thirteen years and another explorer, Simon Fraser, before the lands west of the Rockies finally started to be settled, first with the trading post at Fort MacLeod in 1805 and then with a post at Fort St. James in 1806.

Into the next few years, posts were opened at Fort Fraser, Fort George and so on down the Fraser River system and onto the Pacific coast.

With Trade and commerce going full swing, it became necessary to have a means of enforcing the law and the policies of the North West Company for the fur trade business to be conducted in an orderly manner.

Simon Fraser had foreseen this problem and he appointed one of his top men to fill this position.

The man he appointed was a young French-Cree by the name of Jean Baptist Boucher who was hired on for this voyage of discovery as a guide and interpreter.

As they made their way across the mountains and onto the interior plateau, it became quite clear that Boucher was a man who stood well out from the other voyagers.

He had a clear sense of responsibility and tireless devotion to duty, taking in stride whatever hardships were involved.

His new responsibilities at all Forts were established and they were to interpret and supervise both the building and much of the trading enterprises that were taking place.

He had a clear mandate to enforce company policy or track down and punish individuals for criminal actions or indebtedness towards the company.

In the 1820’s, the North West Company was taken over by the Hudson Bay Company and in this take-over, all the posts, equipment and employees also became the property of HBC.

Jean Baptiste Boucher also had another name that he was known as, “Waccan” or “Waccan the Terrible”.

I was able to learn where this name comes from. I made inquiries as to the meaning of his name from the French, Carrier and Cree people and found it to be from the Cree language.

I have been led to understand that it means very fierce or terrible, leaning toward a near mythical fear or terror.

Waccan enforced the law west of the Rockies until his death in 1859. From the journals kept by the traders, it is possible to follow his career for these fifty-three years.

In all of these journals, there was never a negative comment made of him. The closest to a negative comment was that he was considered to be somewhat rash and “ more guts than brains”. He was the type of man that went to the source of the problem and dealt with it directly.

His duties included: enforcing the law and dealing with the native peoples that were involved with the fur trade.

Credit would be extended to these peoples and it would be the job of Waccan to ensure that these debts were paid in full to the company.

This involved encouragement and lots of “behind” kicking from time to time. This firm and no nonsense manner from Waccan, proved invaluable to the company dealing with the native people.

Another one of his duties was to ensure the employees lived up to the terms of their contract. For example, the company would hire a clerk and give him a two-year contract. If the clerk was to desert his post he would find Waccan on his trail. He always got his man too. He would track him down in the bush, apprehend him and then teach him the error of his ways.

After this attitude adjustment, the employee of the company could not wait to get back to work and live up to the terms of his contract.

At times, he dealt with some very serious matters. He tracked down killers and brought them back to trial and he also had the responsibility of hanging them when necessary.

One example of his determination stands out from the rest.

He arranged for his half-brother, Duncan Livingstone to work for the company as an interpreter. Duncan was killed by a native man from Babine. Taking this personally, Waccan took a bit of time off work and tracked down the man, confronting him in front of dozens of his henchmen and killed him on the spot.

Actions such as this make for a strong statement both in family matters and company matters alike.

Waccan served the company until age forced him to slow down a bit. Even in his seventies, he put down an uprising near Quesnel as he still retained a strong influence over the native population and was thus considered the best man for the task.

Jean Baptiste Boucher (Waccan) died in 1859 after contracting the measles during an epidemic that nearly decimated the native population.

It is said that there were so many deaths from this epidemic in the winter of 1859 that there was not enough people left alive to bury the dead so they placed them outside to freeze and in the spring, it is said that the grouse were drumming on the breasts of dead men when the snow finally melted.

Law and order was taken over by the B.C. Provincial Police after confederation but up until this time, there was only the law of the Hudson Bay Company and before that, the North West Company.

The few good men that enforced these company policies and the law of the land have never been recognized and I feel that it is a big part of Canada’s early history.

It must be mentioned.