James McKay was an influential Métis guide, interpreter, trader and politician in western Canada in the second half of the 19th century. The son of a Scottish trader and an Indigenous mother, he was noted for his facility with Indigenous languages and for his thorough knowledge of the prairies. These skills enabled him to play a key role in cross-cultural encounters in the west. He was also well educated and advanced rapidly in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company between 1853 and 1860. He left the Company to engage on his own account in trading, freighting, mail transportation, and farming. In 1859 he married Margaret Rowand, a Métis woman, and established an impressive home at Deer Lodge. McKay was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia in 1868, and as president of the Whitehorse Plains District Court.

When disturbances broke out in the Red River settlement in 1869–70 he was prepared to accept the Canadian government’s plans for the administration of the west; but he refused to differ with his Métis friends, who opposed Canada’s annexation, and served on the Métis Provisional Government with them. McKay became a prominent figure in the politics of the new province of Manitoba: he was president of the Executive Council from 1871 to 1874; a member of the Manitoba Legislative Council from 1871 to 1876; and speaker from 1871 to 1874. From 1874 to 1878, McKay served as Minister of Agriculture in the provincial government of Robert Davis.

Because of his linguistic skills and cross-cultural adroitness, McKay was involved in negotiations for Treaties 1 (1871), 2 (1872) and 3 (1873), and served as a government commissioner for Treaty 5 (1875) and Treaty 6 (1876). In these last two sets of deliberations he acted both as an interpreter and negotiator, and on occasion crossed swords with those Indigenous leaders who were opposed to signing the treaties. However, he must also be given credit for including some of the exceptional provisions in Treaty 6, such as the medicine chest clause and the promise of assistance in time of need. McKay typified the role played by the Métis as brokers between the original Native people and the European newcomers during this period of rapid change in western Canada.

Michael Cottrell