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The period immediately following Confederation was a particularly volatile
one on the Canadian Prairies, particularly in the old Red River Settlement region
that would soon come to be known as Manitoba. The leader of two major rebellions
in the Canadian West was a Métis
named Louis Riel, who encouraged
his fellow mixed-bloods to stand up for their rights through armed conflict. His
tactics would work during one rebellion, but fail miserably in another - leading
to both his downfall and, indirectly, the downfall of Aboriginal leaders who sided
Red River Rebellion, 1869 - 1870
Red River Rebellion, 1869 - 1870
Many Ontarians wanted to push settlement
west after Confederation and began to pressure the federal government to take
the steps to make that possible. The first step, the purchase of the Hudson's
Bay Company territories in 1868, raised many hopes. Often, the most vocal
for this settlement were members of the Orange
Order and the Canada First movement, anti-Catholic groups that cared little
for the mainly French-speaking population of Métis or the Aboriginals who
lived on the land already. Combined, there were almost 100,000 who lived in the
Alarmed by the possibility that they might be pushed off their
land along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the Métis (led by Riel) prevented
the appointed Canadian governor from entering the territory in 1869 and seized
Fort Garry. Prime Minister Sir
John A. Macdonald realized that a military response was impossible for several
The distances to be covered by any military force
were enormous, and there was as yet no rail service west.
the middle of winter, making such an action even more improbable.
The British had not yet ratified
the transfer of the territories to Canada, so the Métis had not, in fact,
broken any Canadian laws.
After negotiations, the province
of Manitoba was created in 1870, with several controversial provisions included:
The land already occupied would not be taken from the Métis,
and a large section of land was reserved for them.
There was a
provision for denominational
French was to be a language of debate.
However, the Métis would imprison a number of Canadians at Fort
Garry during its seizure in 1869. Under Riel's command, they executed an Ontario
Orangeman named Thomas Scott after he escaped from jail and tried to start a counter-rebellion
amongst Scottish settlers.
The federal government sent troops during the
summer of 1870 to show support for Adams
Archibald, Manitoba's new lieutenant-governor, and to appease Ontarians who
were upset at Scott's execution.
Riel fled to the United States briefly
fearing arrest, but he returned to Canada by 1871. He was granted an amnesty for
his involvement in 1875, provided that he live in exile for five years. He spent
some of this time in various mental institutions in Québec.
In July 1884, Riel settled in Batoche, which is now
in Saskatchewan. This community was the major Métis farming settlement
in the unorganized part of the West known at the time as the North-West Territories.
Riel had been asked a month earlier by these Métis to help them petition
Ottawa in regards to various grievances they had at the time.
1884, the federal government acknowledged its receipt of the petition and promised
By early 1885, Riel, believing that he was on a mission
from God, decided to make a grand gesture to prove his points and win support.
He seized the parish church in Batouche in March 1885 with an armed group of Métis.
They used the church to form a provisional government, and demanded the surrender
of nearby Fort Carlton.
However, the conditions in 1885 no longer favoured
the Métis as they had in 1869:
Louis Riel's mental
state had deteriorated, affecting his leadership and decisions.
North-West Mounted Police had become a well-established presence in the West by
The Canadian Pacific Railway - which could quickly
bring in new military supplies and fresh personnel, if needed - was almost complete.
between the police and the Métis lasted barely two months before Riel was
forced to surrender. He was charged with treason in June 1885, and, despite strong
opposition from Québec and doubts about his sanity, he was hanged in November
Unfortunately, this incident also cost the lives of Aboriginal
leaders Big Bear and Poundmaker,
who were implicated with Riel in the rebellion. Various militant Aboriginals in
their nations participated in skirmishes with police and military forces, so these
leaders were found guilty of treason despite the fact that they often tried to
quell militant factions during battle.
While both Big Bear and Poundmaker were not executed,
they were sentenced to short, but harsh, jail terms. In prison, their spirits
were broken and they contracted diseases. Though they were released early, they
would both die from disease soon after leaving jail.
The Canadian government
also hanged eight lesser-known Aboriginals for treason because of their involvement
in the rebellion. The message from the federal government was clear: it simply
would not tolerate what it considered to be acts of treachery.