Saskatoon founder John Lake was a 'scallywag,' says U of S professor

John Lake is endearingly known as the founder of Saskatoon, but a University of Saskatchewan professor says he should be known more as a villain.

Prof. Keith Carlson says Lake should be disliked by First nations, Métis and settlers alike

Statue of Chief Whitecap and John Neilson Lake in Saskatoon. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

John Lake is endearingly known as the founder of Saskatoon, but a University of Saskatchewan professor says he should be known more as a villain.

History professor Keith Carlson is giving a talk Wednesday night at the Hose and Hydrant provocatively called, Saskatoon's Founder, Canadian Villain: John Lake.

"It turns out he was kind of a scallywag," Carlson said.

Research by Carlson and some of his students has led the professor to question whether we should be celebrating Lake.

"He was literally here twice and both times before settlement occurred. Before the Temperance Colony was set up, and that was it," Carlson said. "He didn't go out and murder people or anything like that, but he was certainly someone who was constantly looking out on how to make a buck and he didn't mind stepping on people to get there."

Lake was a Methodist minister who quit that calling under somewhat suspicious circumstances to become a real estate speculator, Carlson said.

According to City of Saskatoon archives, Lake was part of a group of temperance activists from Ontario who formed the Temperance Colonization Society (TCS) in 1881, with the idea of creating an alcohol-free agricultural colony on the prairies.

At the time the Canadian government was hoping to stimulate agricultural settlement on the prairies by offering huge blocks of land to colonization companies.

About 3,100 would-be colonists signed up.

Lake was appointed to lead the expedition in 1882 and "that's when things kind of become suspicious," Carlson said.

A portrait of John Lake. (Provided by City of Saskatoon Archives)

The meeting between Lake and Chief Whitecap, which is immortalized with a statue downtown, is often portrayed as warm and friendly.

Carlson said his research reveals Lake and Chief Whitecap only met briefly and had no real relationship. Basically Whitecap told Lake they have the best place on the river, but it would be nice to have settlers in the area and there is a place upriver that is easy to cross and has fertile land.

"That seems to be about the extent of it," Carlson said. "It wasn't like they became friends or had any kind of meaningful kind of relationship."

There were some colonists who did have a solid relationships with Whitecap, at least early on.

"There was one early settler, a man named John Willoughby, who actually gets to know Chief Whitecap very well. Chief Whitecap stays at John Willoughby's farm when he comes to town to buy or trade things with the local settlers," Carlson said.

Willoughby testified on Chief Whitecap's behalf when the chief was charged with treason following the 1885 resistance, according to Carlson.

"Part of what I'm really trying to get out to people is that we are kind of commemorating the wrong guy," Carlson said.

Carlson said Lake also had a hand in stopping Métis people in the area from occupying river lots that were rightfully theirs.

He said Lake went to Ottawa and made a deal with Prime Minister John A Macdonald to deny the Métis land. He said those actions contributed to what became the 1885 Resistance.

John Lake is considered the founding father of Saskatoon. (Provided by City of Saskatoon Archives)

Carlson said in the end Lake and some of his closest pals claimed for themselves the best lots around the areas where Broadway and the university now stand.

When the colonists finally arrive all the choice spots are taken. They were forced to take lots out where Rosewood and Stonebridge are today.

"They can't have land right on the river so they can have access to river boats and move supplies up and down the river," Carlson said. "John Lake is willing to sell those (choice) lots, but at a tidy profit.for himself."

Amy Jo Ehman, author of Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens and Saskatoon: A History, has a slightly different take on Lake.

"I believe he had honourable motives in creating a utopian temperance colony on the prairies, but he was also hoping to make gobs of money."

She said a federal colonization scheme offering land at $1 an acre, which Lake planned to sell to the settlers for $2 an acre, didn't pan out for him and the Toronto investors that backed the project.

Ehman said since homesteaders were able to get land for $10 a quarter section (160 acres), they didn't need to buy land from Lake.

Statue of Chief Whitecap and John Neilson Lake in Saskatoon at Riverlanding. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Back in Toronto, Lake was removed from the board of directors of the Temperance Colonization Society and sued by unhappy investors.

Ehman said Lake did leave his mark on Saskatoon in some good ways.

"He laid out the first streets in the original town, which was the Broadway area," she said. "We have Lake to thank for the wide avenues in Nutana, with their grassy boulevards and trees, and also the principle that the riverbanks should be public property to be enjoyed by all."

Ehman finds the idea of Lake as a villain an interesting proposal, but in her view, "he was more of a small time speculator who got bit in the butt by an ambitious scheme gone wrong."

Carlson said his research leads him to think Lake was in it for the money.

He said Lake later got get mixed up in other real estate scams in Ontario.

"Basically that is his life, looking for one opportunity to the next and not really caring who gets hurt along the way."

You can hear Carlson give his full account tonight at 6 p.m. at the Hose and Hydrant on 11th Street.

About the Author

Scott Larson works for CBC News in Saskatoon.


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