The North west resistance - 1885
The Background to Rebellion

In 1867, four British colonial territories had united to create the Dominion of Canada: Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

In 1869 the new Canadian Government in Ottawa bought "Rupertsland", the vast northern and western territories of Canada, from the Hudson's Bay Company (even though the Indians and Métis said the lands belonged to them, not to the Hudson's Bay Company).

The Government of Canada decided to exert its power over the people living in those areas: the Métis (a mix of French traders and Indians), and the Indians.

These two groups, long united through marriage, now joined forces to stand up for their rights and to protect their age-old way of life against an aggressive and distant Anglo-Saxon government and its local colonizing agents.

The Canadian Government sent land surveyors to re divide up the land the Métis had held by common agreement, for generations.

The first conflict of culture - the Rebellion of 1870, in the Red River Colony at Fort Garry (today's Winnipeg, Manitoba) - had quickly fizzled when the new Dominion of Canada's army was sent out under Colonel Wolseley.

Below Fort Garry as it was in 1869 when the Métis seized it and set up their governing council inside.

François Lucie
Painter - Paul Kane 1846

A typical Métis of the Canadian prairies during the 19th century.


If the Métis people had an original spiritual home, the best candidate might be Upper Fort Garry, whose interior was painted
by HA Strong in the 1870s. In the building behind the flag post Louis Riel and the Métis council planned their strategy
for resisting the aggression of the Government of Canada against their traditional land ownership in the area.

All that remains of Fort Garry today, the North Gate
situated just behind the building above where the Métis council met.

But the Métis resistance had done its work. The demands of their council were embodied in the Manitoba Act which admitted Manitoba as the 5th province in the Dominion of Canada in 1870.

In the 1870s, new white settlers poured into Manitoba from the east, often pushing Métis and Native People off their lands or simply occupied their lands while they were off hunting on the southern plains over the US border.

The Métis were harassed, and many gradually lost title to their land. The authorities refused to help the Métis regain their lands.

New legislation became so convoluted, that many Métis, especially those who were illiterate, were cheated out of their land by speculators.

The Métis and Indians chafed under the aggressive advance of the "civilizing power" of the agents of the Anglo-Saxon government in Ottawa.

Many gave up and moved away. It is estimated that, of the 6000 people of mixed blood who lived in Manitoba, over two thirds of them left.

Many Métis and Indians moved west to Saskatchewan, further than the arm of the Government in Ottawa could reach - they thought - while Métis leaders fled to the US.

Many Métis settled on the South Saskatchewan River where they founded Batoche and Duck Lake.. Others moved to settlements near Fort Edmonton further west.

Many Métis in their Red River carts simply moved west to escape
the aggressive tide of white settlement, hoping to find freedom
for their way of life in the wilds of Saskatchewan.

If the Métis have an existing spiritual home, it is the church at Batoche, where they founded a settlement after leaving Manitoba.
They were to be left in peace here only for 15 years. Then the Canadian army would rout them from home and hearth once more. The sound of Métis song and prayer was replace by the moans of Canadian militiamen, wounded as they fired on Métis homes in the village in the valley below.

Below the church, in the distance the white specs of where the village of Batoche once stood.
From here Métis men, women, and children fled for their lives, many into exile in the United States.

1871, British Columbia joined Confederation on condition that Ottawa build a railway across the west within ten years. Ottawa rushed to gain clear title to western lands so that the railway could be built.

During the 1870s, the Canadian government pressured the Indians to sign treaties (known as the "numbered treaties") which turned over rights to almost the entire western plains to the Government of Canada. In return for signing over their lands, the Canadian government promised food, education, medical help, and other kinds of support.But the government failed to honour its treaty promises to the Indians.

The Indians were confined to reserves, a concept that they did not understand. In fact, they did not understand or recognize the concept of individual land ownership.

The Métis sought clear title to the lands they had been occupying and farming along the Saskatchewan River. But the Canadian government ignored the Métis during the treaty process. In 1880, Lt. Governor Alexander Morris recommended that their claims be recognized, and that Métis still depending on the buffalo hunt and old ways, have land assigned to them, since the buffalo were fast disappearing. But the Ottawa government ignored Métis concerns.

By the early 1880s, the buffalo, which were the main source of food for the Indians and Métis, had disappeared almost entirely because of over-hunting and encroachment on their habitat.

The western tribes, denied by treaty and loss of the buffalo, from being able to look after themselves in the traditional way, now were forced to sit and face slow starvation as winter approached.

Desperate pleas for help from Indian and Métis representatives were ignored by Ottawa.

The Plains Cree were starving, and smallpox was rampant in the west.  They needed food & medicine. First Nations people confined to their reserves were even worse off than when they signed the treaties to try to preserve their future. Big Bear and his followers were the last holdouts, but they were finally forced to sign a treaty. 

Instead of helping, the government cut back on rations to the Indians on the recommendation of Lieutenant Governor Dewdney, who was getting rich on shady land deals.

The Métis who had moved west to Saskatchewan were facing the same situation they had faced in Manitoba. Settlers were pouring into the northwest. Métis rights were no longer being respected, their lands were threatened, and the government was not listening

The Dominion land surveyors had arrived, and were laying out the eastern grid system of survey and ignoring the Métis linear lots along the river.  Land speculation companies were buying up huge tracts of land in anticipation on the coming of the railway

The Indians, denied by treaty and loss of the buffalo, from being able to look after themselves in the traditional way, now were forced to sit and face slow starvation as winter approached.

Desperate pleas for help, Indian and Métis representatives were ignored by Ottawa.

By 1885, the Canadian Pacific transcontinental railway was nearly completed, allowing quick train travel from Ontario across the entire west.

Chief Crowfoot
Painter - John S Perry 1920

Petocahhanewawin - Chief Poundmaker
Painter - Edmund Morris 1910

Two chiefs; two solutions. Chief Crowfoot urged his people to sign the treaties because he trusted the white man and what he promised.

Chief Poundmaker resisted, urging people not to sign papers giving away their birthright because he did not trust the white man.

Ultimately both men lost because white men in government and private business used every opportunity to cheat uneducated Indians out of their land and escape their legal obiigations.

So while white men prospered off Indian land, Indians sank further and further into poverty.

The Return of Louis Riel  

In June, 1884, Louis Riel was living in Montana. He had become an American citizen. A delegation of Métis, led by Gabriel Dumont, came to ask Riel to lead the Métis once again.

After an absence of fifteen years, Louis Riel returned to Canada with his wife and two children. He addressed the Métis at Batoche, but  his moderate plan appealed to the Indians and the white settlers as well.

Riel proposed drawing up a list of demands to be sent to Ottawa. Riel was invited to address many groups in the area.

All the groups felt the government was ignoring them. The white farmers were angry at having to pay 40% more for farm machinery than eastern farmers paid. They also wanted a better price for their crops. The new Farmers' Union decided to support the Métis plan.

On December 16, 1884, a petition was dispatched from Saskatchewan to Ottawa. It demanded that the settlers be given title to the lands they then occupied, that the districts of Saskatchewan, Assiniboia and Alberta, be granted provincial status, that laws be passed to encourage the nomadic Indians and Métis to settle on the land and that the Indians be better treated.

The federal government promised to appoint a commission to look into the issues.

But they were in no hurry. First they would take a census of the Métis in the North-West Territories. The lack of government concern angered the Métis.

Louis Riel felt there was no more he could do, and prepared to leave.

In March, 1885, the Métis heard that a contingent of 500 North-West Mounted Police was heading west.

Gabriel Dumont and his men seized all the guns and ammunition they could find in Batoche stores.

The Métis declared a new government with Pierre Parenteau as President and Gabriel Dumont as adjutant-general.

Louis Riel was not a member. The federal government decided to send in the army.

Louis Riel

Gabriel Dumont


Angry discussions in Indian tents and Métis log homes burst into the open at Duck Lake on Mar. 26, when 100 Mounted Police, under Superintendent Crozier, confronted, then opened fire on a larger group of Métis, and some Cree Indians, under Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. The police were forced to retreat, after losing 17 (12) killed. Riel lost 6 (5).

What became known as the Riel or the North West Rebellion, had begun.

Days later, on April 2, a group of overheated young Indian braves massacred nine white civilians at Frog Lake.

When the shooting started, the Government in Ottawa sent British General Middleton - the head of the Canadian Army (Militia) in Canada - west with 3,000, mostly Canadian volunteer militiamen.

In 1870 it had taken months for troops to get to the west. This time, with travel on the nearly completed railway, the trip took only a few short weeks.

Leaving the railway in the south, the volunteers marched north to confront the Métis and Indians in their camps and settlements. Three key battles would decide events.

Superintendent Crozier

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