top of page

The Canadian Mosaic, Archival Silences, and an Indigenous Presence in Banff

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

Daniel R. Meister, PhD

Lillian Agnes Jones Fellow (2019-20)

Back to The Cairn

In 1907, a Scottish employee of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) visited western Canada for the first time. The country, and the Rockies in particular, captivated him.

When I got back to London, I asked my European Manager to let me go out each summer on educational trips to Canada. I felt I must learn to know the Canadian way of life. Also, from what I had seen at Banff and Lake Louise, I felt I must learn to ride on a western saddle.[1]

His wish came true, as by 1909 he found himself back in Canada, on a three-day trail ride to the Yoho Valley region, guided by Tom Wilson. But three days only served to whet his appetite. So, in 1913, when he was offered the chance to take a position in Canada, he seized it. That man was John Murray Gibbon (1875-1952), who would go on to become one of Canada’s most ardent promoters.

[John Murray Gibbon – Head of C.P.R. publicity], Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,

Jean A. Hembroff McDonald fonds (V797/I/PA-29)

Gibbon worked as a General Publicity Agent and was based at the CPR offices in Montreal. His position gave him an unparalleled freedom to travel and he took ample advantage of this, riding the rails extensively throughout Canada and into the United States. But the Rockies were still in his heart and he traveled west as frequently as possible to go trail riding, eventually constructing a summer residence in Invermere. [2] His love of the region and of trail riding led him to create a number of organizations and festivals that mobilized the resources of the CPR to elevate his passions into instruments of publicity for the railroad. Some prominent examples include the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies, an organization he founded in 1923 that exists to this day; the Sky Line Hikers of the Canadian Rockies; and the Highland Gathering and Scottish Music Festival held at the Banff Springs Hotel (typically scheduled for late September, the event was held annually from 1927 through 1931).

Highland Games – dancing and pipers, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,

George Noble fonds (V469/I/1488)

[Sky Line Hike/1938/Yoho Lake – Yoho Pass], Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,

Allan E. Crawford fonds (V131/I/PD1/9/1)

Trail Ride along skree, 1926, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,

Mary Dover fonds (V769/lc-10)

Gibbon felt that something unique was happening on the Canadian prairies, which he described as “Europe transplanted,” and he would later popularize one of the most enduring metaphors used to describe the country and its diversity. The term “mosaic” had been used before, in the early 1920s, but it was Gibbon who brought it to the public’s attention with his “Canadian Mosaic: Songs of Many Races,” a radio series broadcast over the CBC in early 1938. An expanded version of the series was published that December as a book entitled Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation, which went on to win a Governor General’s Literary Award. “I advise you all to win one of these medals,” Gibbon later joked to the Canadian Authors Association (an organization he helped found), “because, if you do, people will read your books.”[3]

Gibbon was one of three central figures I examined in my PhD dissertation, which traced the intellectual origins of Canadian multiculturalism.[4] Yet I wanted to know more about Gibbon’s relationships with Indigenous Peoples and their place in his thought. So, when the opportunity arose to study the question further at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies on a Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship, I eagerly accepted. I was particularly interested in understanding the seeming conflict between his knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and their cultures and his exclusion of them from his famous mosaic. Indeed, Canadian Mosaic seems to foreclose the possibility of their inclusion, with Gibbon writing that the “Canadian race of the future is being superimposed on the original native Indian races…” But Gibbon had long been guided on his trail rides by local Nakoda guides, and had even been made an honorary chief in 1944, with the title “Man-of-Many-Sides.” So what was the nature of Gibbon’s relationship with Nakoda Peoples? This is the question I set out to answer.

John Murray Gibbon becomes honorary Stoney, Morley, Alberta,

Glenbow Library and Archives: PA-1599-336j-1

I quickly learned about what theorists of archives refer to as “archival silences.” The term comes from an influential article by Rodney Carter, in which he discusses how archives have the power to allow voices to be heard but also have the power to exclude or silence others. Carter’s focus was primarily on State archives, which often reflect the former or ongoing marginalization and suppression of certain groups.[5] In private archives, silences are often a reflection of what was deemed important by the historical figures whose materials make up the bulk of the records preserved (though this cannot be disentangled from the larger process of settler colonialism). So it was that I found it very difficult to find out even basic information, such as the role that Nakoda Peoples played in the Trail Riders’ organization.

T. R. Indian [sic] Guides,1944, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,

Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies fonds (V635/III/NA-22)

This photo, later published in the Trail Riders of the Canadian Rockies Bulletin, identifies the figures as (left to right): “Johnny Bearspaw, Tom Simmion [sic], Horace Holloway, Peter Wesley, Lizra [sic] Wesley, and Nelson Rabbit.”[6]


With the help of the fantastic staff at the Archives – particular thanks are owed to Lindsay Stokalko – I did find sufficient materials to answer, to some degree, the central question that I was posing. I intend to present these findings at an academic conference, when such events resume, and ultimately to publish them as a journal article. However, I ended up having to cast a wide net and, in the process, I ended up learning a lot about the broader history of Banff. I was particularly struck by the parallels between the past and present, as manifested in the Archive and in the town.

Many Indigenous Peoples had connections to the area that became Banff National Park, including the Nakoda. Though Treaty 7, signed in 1877, was part of a larger attempt to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into a sedentary, agriculturalist way of life, Nakoda signers rightly understood that the Treaty would enable them to continue hunting and fishing as they had before. However, the Treaty also stipulated that these activities were subject to government regulation, and that certain tracts of land could later be exempted from these rights “from time to time,” for any purpose.

As such, soon after the park that is now known as Banff was created, Indigenous Peoples were forbidden to hunt within its borders. As the park’s first superintendent declared, in his first annual report: ‘it is of great importance that if possible the Indians [sic] should be excluded from the Park.’ These sentiments were rooted in concerns about maintaining game within the Park’s borders. Historians Ted Binnema and Melanie Niemi explain: “There is little doubt that the construction of the CPR, fires set by railway locomotives, and the activities of non-native peoples caused much of the game depletion in the Rocky Mountains. But observers and government officials placed most of the blame on [Indigenous] people.”

The land selected for the reserve at Morley was poor for the purposes of agriculture. This, combined with the dwindling number of game, meant that Nakoda communities found it increasingly difficult to obtain sufficient food, a condition that was made worse by the 1902 decision to greatly expand the Park, “to the point that it abutted the Stoney [Nakoda] reserve and included much of their hunting grounds.” In short, the combination of decreased game, hunting regulations, reduced territory, and the pass system (a policy whereby Indigenous Peoples were prohibited from leaving their reserves without the written permission of an “Indian Agent”)[7] meant that they were effectively barred from the Park.[8]

Except, of course, on special occasions. Owing especially to the efforts of Norman and Georgina Luxton, Indigenous Peoples were regularly invited to Banff to participate in such events as the Winter Carnival and “Indian Days” (though the latter predated the Luxtons’ involvement).

[Banff Winter Carnival – people around ice castle – crowd in foreground], 1926,

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Mary Dover fonds (V769/lC-29)

Of course, present-day scholars have raised a number of questions about the way Indigenous Peoples were employed, treated, and positioned during these events. Nevertheless, given this was a time when the Canadian federal government, through its Department of Indian Affairs, was actively attempting to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into Canadian settler society and eliminate their cultural practices, events like “Indian Days” represented something truly remarkable. But the tensions created by the contractual nature of the Nakoda’s invitation to Banff for “Indian Days” and decreased financial support for the event led to its demise, and it was held in Banff for the last time in 1978.[9]