Historical Overview

Brief Historical Background & Overview

The North-West Rebellion of 1885 had its inception with the fears of territorial losses nearly twenty years earlier. In 1869, the Dominion of Canada, which had been forged just two years earlier in 1867, purchased the vast territory of the western interior from the Hudson Bay Company. Within this newly acquired territory, the Metis, a people of European and native ancestry, had established and substantial settlements in the Red River region. The majority of Metis were of French and native ancestry and practiced Roman Catholicism, and they pursued agriculture and the buffalo hunt for their livelihoods. They were particularly anxious about their future as the Dominion of Canada entirely neglected them during the course of their discussions and dealings with the Hudson Bay Company. In the immediate wake of the purchase and assertion of Dominion control, the Metis of the Red River settlements especially feared that the newly appointed lieutenant-governor William McDougall, who was no fan of French Catholics, would infringe upon their rights and land. The Metis organized themselves under the leadership of the learned and deeply religious Louis Riel, and they sought negotiations with the Canadian government regarding the future of the territory within the Dominion. After the Canadian government rejected the Metis' request to negotiate, the Metis prevented Canadian surveyors from accessing their land and proclaimed that certain rights must be protected in order for the Metis to consider unification with the Canadian government. While repelling Dominion officials, the Metis proceeded to establish their own Provisional Government for the region through which they drafted and communicated their terms to Ottawa. Ultimately, the Canadian government became more open to the inclusion of the different demographics which comprised Canada and declared an amnesty on December 6 for all those involved in the rebellion, which by this time had witnessed several confrontations between Canadian troops and Metis, but the rebellion continued. After Louis Riel, the leader of the disaffected Metis, executed an Ontarian, the Canadian government wished to end the challenge to its authority and sent a military expedition into the Red River Settlement under Colonel Garnet Wolseley, which quelled the rebellion by August 24th 1870. While the Dominion would grant provincial status to Manitoba, core issues regarding Metis rights were not entirely resolved. Having gained few assurances of their land rights and pursuing the opportunities of the buffalo hunt, more and more Metis moved farther west to the Saskatchewan River, where in 1885 another rebellion by Metis under the leadership of Riel would occur.

Having quelled the Red River resistance and established Manitoba, the Dominion turned its attention to incorporating the rest of the vast interior. In order to facilitate the process, the Canadian government had to address the land claims of the large Native populations, including the Crees, that existed in the region. The Canadian government proceeded in a very deliberate and systematic manner with treaty negotiations in the 1870s. These treaties were simply designated by numbers, and each covered a particular chunk of Native land. In exchange for the land cessions agreed to by the Native treaty signatories, the government reserved lands for Native bands and promised to provision and guide the natives in their transition from a semi-nomadic hunting lifestyle to a sedentary agrarian one. The latter lifestyle and the promises of government assistance in obtaining it became more appealing to native leaders as the buffalo herds rapidly dwindled during this period due to spiraling market demands for their hides and more effective technologies for hunting them. Nonetheless, there were holdouts. For instance, some bands of Crees held out on Treaty Six which their fellow Crees had agreed to in 1876. The Plains Cree band leader Big Bear did not succumb to the terms of Treaty Six until late 1882 and even then he sought to secure a large, consolidated reserves for the Crees in order to maintain their strength in future dealings with the Dominion. The bid for such reserves was lost in large part due to the coercive tactics used by the government to undermine it. Indian Affairs Commissioner Edgar Dewdney froze the distribution of rations until the Crees conceded to smaller, scattered reserves. On the reserves, many Natives struggled as the Canadian government, in addition to using the assistance promised to the Natives in the treaties as leverage to bring them in line with administrative directives, generally neglected to provide adequate assistance for the difficult transition to the agrarian lifestyle. Such policies contributed to substantial grievances on many reservations.

Meanwhile, some fifteen years after the Red River Rebellion, the Metis, fearing the rapid westward expansion of settlers, once again feared that their land claims would not be honored. This, coupled with the added pressure of a sustained drought, compelled the Metis to send an envoy to Louis Riel, who had led the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and subsequently fled to Montana. After returning to Canada at the behest of the Metis, Riel, now a self-proclaimed prophet, sent several petitions to the Canadian government requesting assurances that the Metis' land claims would be honored, but after no action was taken by the Canadian government, Riel declared an autonomous provisional government in mid-March 1885. As the Metis proceeded to consolidate their position and make further demands, a contingent of North-West Mounted Police rode to the settlement of Duck Lake with the purpose of preventing its supplies from falling into the hands of the Metis. The Metis under the military leadership of Gabriel Dumont were ready for them. The Mounties and the Metis skirmished, and their armed confrontation left twelve Mounties and only five Metis dead—the so-called North-West Rebellion had begun.

Riel and the Metis hoped to attract Indians, particularly the Crees, to their resistance. Although some Cree Indians participated in the rebellion, much of their leadership still held substantial reservations concerning the course set upon by the Metis, but the younger warriors in some of the bands continued to propel them further into the conflict. Younger militants within Big Bear's band of Cree, including his own son Imasees, usurped Big Bear's diplomatic leadership and killed nine whites at Frog Lake in early April 1885. Elsewhere, some Cree and Assiniboine bands seized supplies and vented their frustrations with the system. Despite their legitimate grievances with the government's neglect of treaty promises and instances of Native violence during the North-West Resistance, it should be emphasized that many more Indians rejected all invitations and opportunities to participate in the rebellion than joined it.

The Dominion Government wasted little time in taking decisive action against the Metis and Native resistance. A major military force was mobilized under the leadership of Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton, who had a solid military resume based on his previous service in the British Empire. The nearly completed Canadian Pacific Railroad rapidly transported these forces to the western scene of action in early April 1885. Middleton organized the military push against the rebellious Metis and militant Natives into three major columns of advance. His column pushed northward from Qu'Appelle; another column commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter advanced northward from Swift Current; the last column commanded by General Thomas B. Strange pushed northward from Calgary to Edmonton and then was to mop up southeastward along the North Saskatchewan River. The Metis managed to delay but not repel Middleton's advance at the battle of Fish Creek which was located just south of the Metis center of operations in Batoche. But such initial success accomplished little more than providing a source of morale for Riel and the independence movement, while simultaneously giving the government all the more impetus to quell the rebellion quickly. Less than a month later, the Metis were defeated at Batoche by General Middleton who enjoyed overwhelming military advantages. Meanwhile, Otter's column attacked a group of Cree at Cut Knife Hill. While enjoying initial success due to his catching the Cree by surprise, Otter's column ultimately had to withdraw in order to check its mounting casualties. The Cree leader Poundmaker restrained his own warriors in order to facilitate Otter's withdrawal. To the northwest, General Strange's column engaged the militant warriors of Big Bear's band at Frenchman's Butte but could not defeat them. Big Bear's band took flight in the wake of this engagement. Nevertheless, relentlessly hounded by the Canadian forces, Big Bear and many other Crees would surrender themselves to Canadian authorities.

The Canadian government would try forty-six Metis, including Louis Riel, eighty-one Natives, including Big Bear and Poundmaker, and two whites in subsequent trials for treason. Riel would be convicted and hanged on November 16, 1885. The Canadian government would hang eight Natives. Despite their calls for restraint during the resistance, Big Bear and Poundmaker would receive three-year prison sentences.  

Sources, Suggested Readings, & Websites

Barron, F. Laurie. "Poundmaker. In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Edited by David Wishart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=HomePage&Params=A1.

Dickason, Olive Patricia. Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html?PHPSESSID=rfc71f6mcp881ih72gv6c0b645.

Dempsey, Hugh A. "Big Bear. In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Edited by David Wishart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. http://esask.uregina.ca/home.html.

Ens, Gerhard J. "Red River Resistance. In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Edited by David Wishart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

____________. "Metis. In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Edited by David Wishart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Francis, R. Douglas and Howard Palmer. The Prairie West: Historical Readings. Edmonton: Pica Pica Press, 1992.

Francis, R. Douglas, Richard Jones, and Donald B. Smith. Destinies: Canadian History since Confederation. 6th ed. Toronto: Nelson Education, 2007.

Francis, R. Douglas and Donald B. Smith. Readings in Canadian History Post-Confederation. 6th ed. Toronto: Nelson Thomson Learning, 2002.

Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Huel, Raymond J. A. "Louis Riel In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Edited by David Wishart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Macleod, R.C. "North-West Rebellion. In The Oxford Companion to Canadian History. Edited by Gerald Hallowell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Porsild, Charlene. "North-West Rebellion. In Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Edited by David Wishart. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Stonechild, Blair and Bill Waiser. Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion. Fifth House Ltd., 1997.

Thompson, John Herd. Forging the Prairie West. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.

University of Saskatchewan Libraries. The Northwest Resistance. http://library2.usask.ca/northwest/contents.html.

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