FOOD AND FRAUD IN UPPER CANADA
History is the portrayal of crimes and misfortunes.
Among the many problems facing Governor Simcoe in Upper Canada two hundred years ago, one in particular was insistent and insidious: the Victualling Office. This government agency was responsible for feeding the troops in Upper Canada and occasionally supplying much-needed assistance to Native peoples and impoverished pioneers during sparce periods. In military storehouses around the province, produce such as flour, peas and pork were stockpiled, essentials comprising the dietary mainstay of many of the colony's residents.
The quantities and prices of these goods fluctuated considerably depending on the quality of the crops and the condition of the roads on which they were shipped. Often either a feast or a famine faced the pioneer settlements for boom or bust harvests succeeded each other with frustrating regularity. Mother Nature was not alone,
however, in determining the cost of these basics for merchants also played a part in their pricing. It was the latter who often angered Simcoe and caused him a good deal of trouble.
Contracts to supply government needs were always lucrative, highly prized and eagerly pursued by merchants and others involved in this trade. Sometimes merchants endeavoured to improve upon their prices by manipulating the markets to control not only what was supplied, but when it was supplied. To all intents and purposes these merchants monopolized the provision of supplies and this not only gave the them huge profits for their products, it also gave them considerable power and a disproportionate influence in the tiny communities. Abuses by merchants in the province gave all businessmen a bad name.
Simcoe was well aware of the schemes of the major merchants in the province and he pressed Lord Dorchester in Quebec to approve the appointment of an agent in Upper Canada who would buy all the supplies required for the King's service. He would be expected to do so in a fair, open and impartial manner, buying only from those who offered the best possible terms. By making purchases from a number of the small suppliers, Simcoe hoped to free the colony from the malicious manipulation of the major merchants. He was particularly disturbed by the high price of flour at Niagara and Detroit. He hoped it would be possible to fill these magazines with flour and peas and in so doing make the colony less dependent on the whims and wishes of unscrupulous suppliers.
There were some very vocal critics of Simcoe's plan and they caught the attention of Simcoe's
superior in Lower Canada, Lord Dorchester. One such individual was John McGill of Montreal who used his close personal relationship with Dorchester to corner the contract on supplying flour for the Great Lakes military posts. Dorchester insisted that all decisions pertaining to the supply of the commissaries be made in Lower Canada. Simcoe was quick to note that neither Nova Scotia nor New Brunswick was subject to this distant direction and he wondered why Upper Canada was.
The "mischief of monopolists" was not the only dilemma Simcoe faced in victualling the troops and the tribes. Lord Dorchester charged that there was "defalcation of stores" at Niagara and Kingston and ordered Simcoe to investigate and take whatever measures were required to bring the offenders to justice. One fraudulent practice, in particular, was widespread. When suppliers brought flour to government stores each was given a certificate by the assistant commissary which certified the amount they had delivered. These certificates were later exchanged for cash. In a number of instances it was discovered that the assistant commissary was certifying delivery of flour that was never received. Recipients of this fraudulent treatment later cashed in their certificates and compensated the culprit commissary in some appropriate manner.
An investigative report of the Commissary General disclosed a good many discrepancies. An unexplained shortage of flour was confirmed when it was discovered that the quantities shipped from Niagara to Detroit fell far short of what was expected. A board of inquiry confirmed criminal practices.
The assistant commissary at Niagara, James Farquharson, confessed that quantities of flour and peas were not received into the King's Stores even though certificates had been passed by him for payment. Farquharson was dispatched to Quebec where he was tried and convicted by general court martial for having misapplied and embezzled stores entrusted to his care.
Civil lawsuits were instituted against several offending farmers to recover the produce that was owing from them. When others were convicted for their crimes the offending farmers suddenly saw the error of their ways and hastened to make good upon their late deliveries.
This white collar crime was not confined solely to subordinates. No less a personage than Colonel John Butler, Deputy Superintendent of Indians at Niagara, endeavoured to recoup family fortunes by supplying trade goods illegally to the Indian department through his son and his nephew. The latter, Walter Butler Sheehan, was also involved in the defalcation of goods at Niagara. Meanwhile John Craigie, Commissary General at Quebec, the man who counselled Dorchester to disregard Simcoe's proposals pertaining to government purchases, was endeavouring to make his own fortune by stealing funds belonging to the army. When this was discovered he was dismissed and ordered to repay the money but died before he did.
Lord Dorchester was critical of Simcoe's handling of the defalcation of stores and ordered him to be more vigilant and attentive to the state of the King's commissaries. He also directed that Simcoe cease and desist using flour, pork and peas from the King's stores for any except the military establishment. Should the settlers need food, declared Dorchester, "Let it be sought from other sources." So much for Simcoe's safety net.
As he did on a number of other occasions, Simcoe simply disregarded his superior's warning and in instances of extreme situations continued to provide supplies from the King's stores for needy citizens then quietly replaced the stores without Dorchester learning what he had done.
Copyright © 2013 Website Administrator