John Semmens was born in 1850 in St. Hilary, Cornwall (England) and died in 1921 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was a Methodist missionary and school superintendent, Indian agent and inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs.1
He came to Upper Canada from England in 1860 with his mother and sister to join his father at the Bruce Mines. He was ordained in 1872 and started his missionary work at Norway House to help Reverend Egerton Ryerson Young in what is now northern Manitoba.2 In 1874, Semmens was sent to Nelson House to open a mission, and in 1876 he replaced Young at Norway House.3 For two years, Semmens visited outposts, led services and taught in the Berens River Methodist day school.4
Semmens continued his mission work in Manitoba and Ontario, while also working with a translator to transcribe literary works and hymns into Cree.5
Susan Gray sums up his remaining missionary career as follows:
“In 1894 the Methodist Board of Missions recommended Semmens to the Department of Indian Affairs for the principalship of the soon-to-open Brandon Industrial School. Accordingly, he secured staff and recruited 38 Cree and Ojibwa children from Brandon, Norway House, and neighbouring missions. He served as superintendent until 1900. He accepted the position of Indian agent for the Berens River agency in April 1901. In 1903 he was transferred to the Clandeboye agency and two years later he became inspector of Indian agencies and schools. In 1908 he was named scrip commissioner with authority to take adhesions to Treaty No.5.” 6
Semmens’ knowledge of the Cree language and experience as a Methodist missionary among Indigenous people made him a valuable asset to the Crown as a commissioner.
Gordon Goldsborough, writing for the Manitoba Historical Society, describes Semmens’ career after his retirement from the ministry. “In 1911, Semmens was Dominion Inspector of Indian Agencies, and Commissioner, based at Winnipeg. He was a Half Breed Scrip Commissioner. He procured the surrender of 133,000 square miles of Keewatin, and took ten different Adhesions to Treaty No. 5.” 7