Western Canadian History


The Metis Rebellions

written by Hugh Bibbs


There were two rebellions in the Canadian West shortly after Confederation. Both of these were instigated by dispossessed Metis settlers. The first Metis rebellion of 1869, at Red River Colony, in what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba, at first succeeded in achieving virtually all of its objectives. The second Metis rebellion of 1885, at Batoche, in what is now Saskatchewan, failed completely.

The two rebellions must therefore have been different in some important ways, so very different that the results appear to have been opposite. This essay is an examination of those telling differences, and an assessment of their worth. To begin with, however, it must be admitted that these two events were also similar, both in context and in intent. In fact, the instigators of the second rebellion may have been trying to repeat the first exactly, albeit without success.

The similarities between the two rebellions are summarized as follows:

* The language and cultural difficulty of having english speaking government for french speaking citizens.

* The two rebellions are viewed as protests against the same injustice, namely, the theft of Metis homes and farmlands by Upper Canadians.

* The leadership of the two rebellions are sometimes credited to the same man, Louis Riel. He had a role in guiding both of the Metis rebellions to a conclusion.

* Both rebellions are seen as having begun something which remains unfinished business even today, namely, the effort to secure either the return of Metis lands taken or the full compensation for their loss.

The differences between the two rebellions may be summarized as follows, and will be discussed in this order:

* While the causes of discontent were similar for the Metis of the Saskatchewan in 1885 to those which had stirred the Metis of Red River in 1869, they were not exactly the same. The second rebellion was more desperate, because the Metis knew exactly how the Canadians intended to cheat them out of their land, having recently suffered complete loss from that injustice in Manitoba.

* In the first rebellion, the Metis were an armed majority on the ground, and so formed an irresistable armed force in the Canadian West. During the later rebellion, the Metis were a minority in the West, having been overwhelmed by immigrants, a Canadian police force, and a Canadian military expedition.

* It appears that the leadership of the two rebellions was, actually, quite different. While the educated and legally trained Louis Riel was the guiding hand of the first, successful, armed uprising by the Metis at Red River in 1869, he was not the guiding hand of the later fiasco at Batoche. The credit for the rebellion of 1885 must lie squarely on the shoulders of Gabriel Dumont, a man of intemperate character, not particularly bright, nor educated, whose own account explains how forcefully he opposed the new Canadian laws and how he led the people around him into taking actions which suited his own particularly ill-advised agenda. He was possibly one of a handful of great living fighters, man to man. Fighting bureaucracy, he was lost.

* During the first rebellion in 1869, the Hudson Bay Company gave up control of the Territories, while the Canadian government still had no manpower in the west to direct events as the Canadians wished to have them directed. John A. MacDonald could not control the outcome of the conflict in Red River.

However, in 1885, the Canadian government in Ottawa was able to use its own manpower along the Saskatchewan River to control events to some extent, and to reinforce that manpower quickly with armed forces from the east. MacDonald was in control of the outcome.


"We may here inquire for what reason Judge Thom became so obnoxious to all our subjects of French extraction? ...any other judge without a knowledge of the French language must prove as objectionable here as Mr. Thom has been. ...Above all, a knowledge of the French tongue is indispensable." - Alexander Ross, Red River Settlement, 1856 (Ross 1972: p.378)

By 1869, the Red River settlement had been established for generations. French speaking Metis families held the distinction of being the first pioneer settlers in an uncultivated wilderness. But, having been invited and encouraged to settle there by the Hudson Bay Company which employed so many of them, they suddenly became unwelcome tenants when Canada bought the rights to the Northwest from the HBC. Those Metis whose land was suddenly taken away from them by the secret deals cut between the Hudson Bay Company, the British Foreign Office, and the Canadian Cabinet, had only a brief window of opportunity in 1869 in which to act decisively to forestall, and hopefully to prevent, an unjust expropriation.

The reasons for Canada's takeover of Rupert's Land were several, but the foremost was the British need to prevent American expansion into the Northwest Territories by citizens of the United States who were already filling up the American mid-west, and trickling into the Hudson Bay lands to their north. In 1867, American spokesmen were arguing that "the voluntary annexation of British America is nearer than we have supposed (Stanley 1963: p.41)". The legislature of Minnesota, one year later, adopted a resolution declaring that "the legislature of Minnesota would rejoice to be assured that the accession of North-West British America to the United States, accompanied by the construction of the Northern Pacific railroad, are regarded by Great Britain and Canada as satisfactory provisions of a treaty which shall remove all grounds of controversy between the respective countries. (Stanley 1963: p.42)" In reaction to this persistent expansionism, Upper Canadians worked with British interests to create a firmly British nation from Atlantic to Pacific, by including Rupert's Land and British Columbia in the Canadian confederation. Upper Canadian farmers who had seen the Northwest Territory were impressed enough. The newcomer to Red River, Charles Mair, expressed his opinion that "Minnesota is sand compared to this...The cake is 700 miles long and 400 miles wide with plenty of elbow room. (Stanley 1963: p.52)" The owner of the Nor'Wester, Red River's only newspaper, was John Shultz of Upper Canada, who relentlessly lobbied on behalf of Canadian interests in the West. What the newcomers brought with them from Canada was more than just a different language, english, and a different political perspective, Britain's. They also brought the protestant Orangemen's hatred for all things Roman Catholic.

Since the Metis who built the Red River parishes were hated for their religion, as well as for their language and manners, there was not much co-operation possible between the french-catholic Metis and the new Canadian settlers, when important matters of land and power were being decided. In fact, Shultz wrote to the brother of the man who was expected to become the first Lieutenant-Governor of the proposed new Canadian territory of Red River, warning him that "the greatest danger from the Hudson Bay influence (the Metis) will be in giving the franchise to our people at once. Theoretically fair and even necessary it is fraught with very great dangers till our people feel the change and we get an immigration of Canadians on Canadian principles. Our people will be satisfied with simply the local town and country self-government and to have No Elective Choice Whatever Over the Necessary Officers for these Positions. (Stanley 1963: p.55)"

It was the arrival of surveyors from Canada which caused such anger among the locals that a provisional government was set up to negotiate terms of entry with Canada directly on behalf of the locals. All twenty four parishes along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers participated in the provisional government, by electing members to its legislative assembly. In 1869, the first man to openly advocate the seizure of Hudson Bay property in Red River was William Dease (Stanley 1963: p.56), an advocate of dividing the Hudson Bay purse from the sale of the Territory with its inhabitants. However, at the July 29 meeting when Dease proposed this, he was opposed by Louis Riel and others who were not ready to take such measures.

As the summer progressed, the man who emerged as the leader of the Metis meetings was Louis Riel. In the fall, he proposed an Assembly for the first time, to "consider the state of the country and see if there were not some means at least of making a clear protest against the injustice and injuries dome the country by Canada. (Stanley 1963: p. 58)"

Meanwhile, they kept an eye on the surveyors, and chased them off land owned by the Metis farmers. When the surveyors at last returned to the Assiniboine to resume work, they were confronted in the parish of St. Vital by Riel and his men who declared that "the territory south of the Assiniboine belonged to the people of Red River and not to Canada. (Stanley 9163: p.59)" The survey could not go on. For the next eight months, Riel argued with Canadian authorities that the surveys could not proceed without the permission and the supervision of the people of the Red River settlement.

On October 21st, the Metis formed the National Committee of the Metis of Red River, and banned the new Canadian governor from entering the territory. This was backed up with force. On the 25th, Riel presented himself to the Assiniboia Council of the Hudson Bay Company, and presented them with the terms of the Metis National Committee respecting entry into Canada. These were as follows:

1. They were satisfied with the existing government and wanted no other.

2. They do not accept that Canada could impose a new regime without consulting them.

3. They would not grant entry to the new governor unless delegates were sent to negotiate terms.

4. That although they were unschooled, they understood well enough the threat to their possession of their lands which for the present belonged only to them.

5. That their poverty made the ill-treatment they received all the more shameful.

6. That nobody had considered either their existence or their wishes.

7. That the english speaking population of the area would in all likelihood support the new governor once he had established himself.

8. That the Metis did not want him, and would prevent him from entering the country.

9. That they acted mindful of the interests of the entire settlement.

10. That they were certainly not infringing on any laws, and were only defending their own freedoms.

11. That they entreated their english speaking neighbours to join with them to preserve all of their common rights.

12. That they expected opposition from the Canadian elements already present in Red River, but were prepared for this. (Tremaudan 1982: p.63)

From December 1st, when the Hudson Bay Company abdicated its ownership and rule over the Northwest, until August 25th, when Louis Riel abdicated his own government of the new province of Manitoba, which he had created, the provisional government of the Metis was the only government of the Northwest Territories. On August 25th, 1870, as the soldiers of Wolseley's brigade entered Fort Garry by one gate, Riel evacuated by the other. Since Wolseley's troops were full of revenge, talking of slaughtering Riel and his Metis friends, the better part of valour was discretion. In a final visit to Monseignor Tache, the Bishop asked Riel, "What will you do?"

Riel replied, "Get on a horse and go, with the grace of God. It doesn't matter what will happen now. The rights of the Metis, their religion and language are assured by the Manitoba Act. That's what I wanted. My mission is ended." (Tremaudan 1982: p.99)

In 1869, the Metis were in actual possession of the land under question, and they were not about to give it up without a fight However, the real enemy was not even there to fight them for it. They were being cheated by people who exercised no personal interest in the Red River Valley, nor in any of the Canadian West. Their would-be landlords were not in the West. In light of that situation, the Metis of the Red River settlements elected themselves a democratic and legally constituted provisional government in the form of a legislative assembly, and declared themselves in control of their own homeland. It was a classic example of self-determination by a people who make of themselves a nation.

When the Manitoba Act was settled, and the various extra-legal amendments were carried through, there were enough greedy men involved to completely alter the outcome for the Metis. Tough brutes, accustomed to bullying their way through business dealings with small landholders and weak bureaucrats, the land speculators who took control of the Metis land settlements process were determined liars working in the pay of ruthless lawyers and bankers from Upper Canada with relationships to the Canadian government. Most of the beneficiaries of the great fraud were companies whose directors and shareholders included members of the government and senate. (McLean: p.86)

So, when the time came for the Metis to register their land with the Canadian titles office, according to the Manitoba Act, they were simply not allowed to do it. Firstly, they were told to accept land surveys which carved up their existing holding into unrecognizable and useless shapes. As the process dragged on, and the easterners became more inventive in their fraud, the Metis were informed that only their children could have title to settlement land, and only in the form of promissory notes, transferrable bearer bonds and cash scrip. Finally, the scrip was released to them in the presence of cartels of speculators whose purpose was to obtain possession of the scrip itself, and who easily did so by persuading the Metis just how useless the scrip was to them. Bought in lots, and even stolen in lots, the scrip was converted by land companies and banks into legal titles to the very land upon which the Metis families lived and farmed. So it was that the hard men of the Upper Canadian elite were able to remove the Metis of Manitoba from their land. The legal titles were sold to immigrant farmers, who built up successful new farming communities in the old parishes of the Metis. The Metis were evicted at first, then made so very uncomfortable by the frightening hatred of the newcomers for the french-catholic halfbreeds that they "voluntarily" quit the country, and headed west into the Saskatchewan territory (Giraud 1986: p.375-80).

They may have thought that they were thereby escaping the clutches of Upper Canada. In fact, the agents of the federal government along the Saskatchewan were regularly informing Ottawa of the ideas expressed and the actions taken by the Metis in the far west.

The Red River Metis may have been established for generations, but fifteen years later, having emigrated to the Saskatchewan, the Metis were new settlers, who had to compete for raw landholdings with other settlers coming into the country since the 1870's. By 1885, the Metis were a minority on the Canadian prairies, as anticipated by John Shultz. The legal edifice of Canada had also arrived, along with the settlers and the new railroad. There was a new way to get along, even if you were poor. It was the Canadian way.

However, Gabriel Dumont and his fellow Metis had a prairie culture which was consistent enough, and persistent enough, for them to continue to live without regard for the new legal structures of land usage and land tenure, of taxation and regulation. Only when they found themselves once again dispossessed of their own rights of custom and land usage did they realize that, once again, the new law of the land was not making room for them. Instead, the new law was established largely without regard for the old customary structures of land usage and land tenure, of community and rights of custom held by the Metis. The way of life in all of the Metis settlements was similar, following as well as possible the tradition of making great use of the available hunting and fishing economy, while relying upon cultivated agricultural production only as a secondary economic activity (Giraud 1986: p.399).

While the french-catholic Metis were having so much trouble getting along with the Canadian bureaucracy, it does appear that the english speaking, protestant halfbreeds were being genuinely invited into the new Canadian West by the conciliatory actions of the surveyors and the department of the Interior, who were able to survey and grant legal titles to the pre-existing riverlots along the north shore of the Saskatchewan in Prince Albert. But, the official surveyor, Pierce, didn't even speak with the french Metis on the south shore. Pierce did not speak french, and would not pay a translator. The existing Metis farms along the south shore were officially ignored.

As the land filled with immigrant settlers around them, the french Metis knew for a fact that they were going to lose their lands in the Saskatchewan, just as they had lost them in Manitoba. They appealed to Ottawa repeatedly for security.


No time or place in history has produced such a carefree and independent minded type of man as did the North American frontiers in the nineteenth century. The combination of lawlessness in the unorganized territories, marriage in the fashion of the country where a man's indian wife and children were entirely taken care of by the wife's family, and the financial independence afforded by the cash economy of the fur trade in which they participated, enabled men to inhabit vast territories as freemen at large, entirely without responsibility, accountable to no authority or community, dependent upon nobody.

On account of their usage of the unorganized territories, and their lifelong habits disconnected from the populated world, the freemen of the frontier saw themselves as entitled to, and in true possession of, the lands they used. In fact, they were poor, guileless souls, without great communities to build a future upon. Insignificant individuals, they were about to be overwhelmed by the flood of legally organized humanity migrating out of the East with their lawyers and governments, policemen and priests, schoolmarms and tax collectors. Millions of potential settlers were gathering themselves, one at a time, eager to enclose the western territories with the fences of law and barbed wire which would end the illusions of the mountain men and freemen of the west.

One such free man was Gabriel Dumont, of Batoche, in the Saskatchewan territory. Gabriel Dumont was born the son of a fur trader in 1848. He was one of those hard boys who march to their own drummer, and set their own laws. His was the law of personal pride. A born scrapper, mean tempered and strong, he could not resist physical competition. Accepting any challenge with relish, he was ready and able to take on all comers. He fired his first shot in anger during a battle with the Sioux, at the age of twelve.

As a young man he spent a summer near the Cree encampment on the western prairies. He wanted the Cree to respect him, and needed to prove himself to them. One day a lone Blackfoot youth played a game of daring with the Cree camp. The Blackfoot made a mock mounted charge on the Cree, but broke off at the last, and fled. Dumont chased him down on horseback and when he was within point blank range, raised his rifle and murdered him. "I had to show the Cree that I was the best and that they should respect me." (p. 32, Barnholden) At one time, he boasted in a Blackfoot camp of having killed twelve of them. In 1870, Gabriel settled himself in Cree territory on the South Saskatchewan River, near his father at Batoche.

Like his kindred, Gabriel believed there was a natural law of possession, a kind of squatter's right, which bestowed the rights of land title upon the man who inhabited it. But, in most of the world such men were considered illegal tenants, subject to removal.

The Metis at Red River finally quit Manitoba after 1873, in the face of Canadian immigration, having lost their farmlands to fraudulent expropriation by the Upper Canadian bureaucrats. Adding to this defeat, recent annual overharvesting of the Buffalo had decimated the herds and so their great reliance upon the Buffalo had become a thing of the past.

They moved westward into the Saskatchewan territory and resumed their customary lifestyle as best they could, and some of them settled close by Gabriel Dumont, at Batoche.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Dumont was taking a dim view of encroaching civilization. "Around 1880 or 1881, the Metis of Batoche and St. Laurent got very tired of having to pay for wood they cut for planks and firewood. I led the discontent. I could not understand why this was happening, since it was still wild country... I told them again how the government had become the master of our country..."We cannot let this happen! The government has made its first move against us and if we let them get away with it, there will be more laws coming.'...Around this same time we also saw that the Metis of Edmonton were being pushed off their land by new settlers...The Metis were the first to live there, and claimed squatters rights...We did not want to have to fight for our rights which had been won in the rebellion of 1870. But we were resolved to demand our rights from the government." (p.37-40, Barnholden)

From a reading of his own words, two things become clear. Firstly, Dumont was certainly no friend of law and order, Canadian style. He hated rules and taxes. Secondly, the Metis clearly misunderstood the exact accord which the government of Canada had with them, as far as the Manitoba Act and subsequent undertakings were concerned. He goes on to explain: "We petitioned the government but never got an answer. The last meeting in this period was held at the home of my father, Isidore Dumont. He had become discouraged, and only wanted to know how we could quickly and easily obtain our rights. An English Metis named Andrew Spence answered, 'there is only one man who can help us now: Riel.' Everyone agreed."

The fact is that Louis Riel had suffered terribly as a result of his exertions during, and since, the Red River rebellion. His predisposition to nervous exhaustion, combined with a very personal official persecution of him, had caused him several nervous breakdowns in the ensuing years. Finally, after fifteen lost years in the prime of life, he had begun to make a home for himself with a lovely young wife. He had a job in a growing Western American community, and he had children. Yet, it was to this poor man that Gabriel Dumont came knocking, like a relentless nightmare out of the north, to badger Louis' family out of its nest, to play out roles he had cast for them in an ill-fated Canadian passion play.

So, Dumont and his brother-in-law, with their two friends, uprooted the nervous Riel from his new home in the United States and escorted him back into Canada, where he was officially still a wanted criminal.

Once back at Batoche, Riel saw how the Metis were roused against the government. He spoke to them, "...useless to be so troubled. If we go at things honestly, methodically and persistently, it is impossible for the Government to refuse to see the justice of your claims and grant you satisfaction. The best way to get the results you desire is by patience, calm and the use of all the constitutional means at your disposal. That is the way we proceeded at Red River. Keep on with your petitions." (Tremaudan 1982: p. 118)

From the first, he strove to calm them, and attempted to open reasoned negotiations with the government. Petition followed petition, all in vain. In the fall of 1884, the Metis adopted a List of Rights for the Metis of the North-West. It contained the following seven demands:

1. Subdivision of the North-West Territories into Provinces.

2. Concessions of land and other such benefits as had been secured in Manitoba.

3. Immediate distribution of letters patent to the settlers in possession.

4. Sale of a half-million acres of Crown land for the foundation of schools, hospitals and other institutions of this kind in Metis settlements, and to buy grain and farm implements for Metis in poverty.

5. The setting aside of one hundred townships of marshy land to be distrubuted to Metis children during the next 120 years.

6. An allotment of one thousand dollars for the maintenance of a religious institution in each Metis settlement.

7. Arrangements for the welfare of Indians. (Tremaudan 1982: p. 119)

Given the fact that the government of Canada was, at this time, both bankrupt and impatient with obstructions, this list of demands for public welfare on a grand scale for the benefit of a few very obstinate Metis settlers was bound to provoke scorn, if not worse. From private notes being written at this time by Riel, it is possible that he was already suffering a nervous collapse. If his judgement was failing him, this is reflected in the unreasonable list of demands which he presented with the Bishop's blessing. Some of the Metis thought that Louis' behavior was a little odd, even for a very pious eccentric (Stanley 1965: p.300). Adding to his internal conflict with many difficult decisions, he was now breaking ranks philosophically and spiritually from the lifelong anchor of his mind's conversation, the Catholic Church. He spoke of moving the papacy to Canada. "I am a prophet of the new world" he remarked, famously (Stanley 1965: p.301). He rebuked a priest who refused the sacraments to rebels, "You have transformed the pulpit of truth into the pulpit of falsehood, politics, and discord..." (Stanley 1965: p.303). At times, Riel thought he was creating a religious utopia for his people, and this utopian thinking was reflected in the grandiose quality of the List of Rights. It was quite unlike the modest set of demands he presented fifteen years before to the Council of Assiniboia. Of course, the hard pressed MacDonald government ignored the List of Rights altogether. But, it would have been wiser to respond immediately to at least articles three and seven.

Poverty in the west, even among the landholders, was deepening with an economic depression, which had resulted from collapsing land values and an end to land speculation along the northern route, after the CPR moved the route far to the south to avoid the high land costs. That move south also resulted in a complete loss of jobs in the north.

Even the local representative of the Indian administration, Dewdney, stated in private correspondence with MacDonald, "In any negotiations you have with the Manitoba and North Western (Railway) an effort might be made to induce them to do some work from the South Branch south; this would give plenty of work to the Half Breeds." They were very anxious to work, he wrote, and "In the north it would circulate a little money among them & the want of it is the secret of their uneasiness...If the Half-breed question is arranged this winter, it will settle the whole business; if not, a good force in the North will be necessary." (Thomas 1956: p.129)

By the springtime of 1885, nothing had been heard back from Ottawa, and the Metis were still sending petitions for a redress of grievances. Then, like a thunderbolt, on March 18th, at Batoche, the alarming news of a force of eighty (Tremaudan says five hundred were reported) mounted police riding out from Fort Carlton to arrest Riel and Dumont was reported by a Hudson Bay factor, Mr. Clarke, which at last spurred all the local Metis to turn outlaw.

By Dumont's own account...

"I continued:'... All in favour of taking up arms raise your hands.' "Instead of only raising one hand, the whole crowd rose as one. There were cries of joy and they yelled, 'If we are to die for our country, we will die together.'

"I was frozen. Even though I was the most enthusiastic one there and capable of any heroism in the face of danger, I tried to remain calm and take judgment into account. I can see that you have made your decision, but I wonder if you will become tired and discouraged. Me -- I will never give up, but how many will be there with me? Two or three?'

" 'We will all be with you, right to the end!' answered the whole crowd. " 'Good then,' I said. 'This is good, if you really want to take up arms, I will lead you as I always have.'

" 'Good then. If you will lead us, that is good -- to arms, to arms.' "It was done. The armed rebellion had begun... It was Clarke who put fire to the powder by reporting the news. The news was false." (p. 47-48, Barnholden)

With that final remark, Dumont passes the buck (to Clarke) for all the bloodshed that followed and for the subsequent destruction of his own Metis community.

Riel was greatly disappointed in the turn of events, and saw that he had been unhelpful after all. He saw that nobody would be worse off if he just returned to Montana with his family. When he informed Dumont and the others of his decision, they refused to let him go. This angered him, since armed resistance was never his weapon of choice. In armed rebellion he could see only danger to his own family and person. He said to Dumont and his men, "I did not think you would go as far as that. Give me some men and escort me, with my wife and children, to the other side of the border."

They replied, "We went to get you. You will stay."

"Well," he said, "I will desert."

At this point, apparently, Dumont followed Riel's lead, and agreed to desert with him. For some reason, Riel then had a change of mood, which inspired impulsive enthusiasm for the fight ahead. He asked the crowd, "How many of you are ready to march?" When they all stood as one, he fatally committed himself. "Well, I will be your leader." (Tremaudan 1982: p.120) He may have led them, but he confounded some of Dumont's military strategies, and merely held a crucifix up to the sky during the first battle.

When the only response they got from having petitioned Ottawa all year was news of the arrival of a small army, apparently sent to attack them, they had panicked. The call to arms was finally a viable option for them.

Believing themselves under imminent attack, the Metis conducted pre-emptive raids under the authority of an Insurrectional Government. Hostages were taken, and ultimatums issued to the Mounted Police. After an assault on unarmed surveyors at Duck Lake, Dumont and his men stumbled upon an ambush set up by Mounted Police. They escaped, but Major Crozier with his detachment of 177 men followed after Dumont and attacked the small Metis force at Duck Lake. During the opening parley, the Police opened fire and killed both the Metis spokesmen. This began the bloodletting. Dumont's thirty men routed Crozier's eight score and cannon. The very next day, MacDonald deployed the Canadian armed forces. Within four weeks, it was all over.

Initially, the Metis took actions which may be described as merely forceful, such as the taking of hostages, and the taking up of arms against the local constabulary. But, the occasion of violence between Metis and Mounted Policemen precipitated official panic over the lingering civil unrest. Poundmaker and Big Bear's killing sprees did not help. Perhaps because of the additional violence of the Cree, the government in Ottawa acted quickly to kill as many rebels as necessary, using the Army to end the civil insurrections.

In the end, the able Metis soldiers lost to the Canadians' overwhelming superiority in numbers and ordinance. Riel was arrested and Dumont escaped to the United States. Major-General Middleton fired off a dismissive memo to Poundmaker, a very smug memo from a very British policeman. Sounding exactly like an old schoolmaster rebuking a petty thief, he wrote: "I have utterly defeated the half breeds and Indians and have made prisoners of Riel and most of his Council. I have made no terms with them, neither will I make terms with you. I have men enough to whip you and your people, or at least drive you away to starve, and will do so unless you bring in the teams you took yourself..." (Barnett 1976: p.47)


What were John A. MacDonald's motives in his dealings with Riel, and with the Metis? In Canada, the expansion of the British Empire was due to the impulses and the forcefulness of its mercantile class. With official protection, economic and military, British merchants were able to subdue the docile regimes of the pre-industrial world overseas. "Far more important to the shaping of British Imperial policy than the secretaries and undersecretaries of state often credited with its formulation were hundreds of men in the commercial community, most of them unknown to history, who created the conditions upon which that policy was based." (Galbraith 1957: p.3) Enacting British policy in Canada, MacDonald gave way to big business.

MacDonald's actions reveal a leader who got behind official British policy, and got behind his own most powerful constituents, the merchant-bankers of Canada, while yet getting out pretty far ahead of popular opinion. He was absolutely a leader, and a creator of change. While he shaped the new Canada, he encouraged the evolving British development of the Canadian-Pacific landscape. Yet, he was certainly only just able to keep up with the difficulties he helped to create. It was hardly possible for him to even keep up with the events of the 1870's in the Canadian capital, and it seems he was just reacting to the unexpected events, such as the provisional government of the Red River colony. His handling of the Red River rebellion was reactive, pragmatic, nonviolent, and conciliatory. It is entirely possible that, at the time, he supposed his Manitoba Act of 1870 was sufficient to pacify all of his constituents. However, his government fell shortly afterwards.

So, in 1885, when Gabriel Dumont started the uprising at Batoche, John A. MacDonald was not again taken by surprise. Since the great national railway was being completed that year across the prairies, Ottawa had thousands of its own employees in the west. All talk and action in Ottawa revolved around the success of the railway and the settlements in the west. As Ottawa had such an unlimited interest in the west that year, and all was at stake in the successful completion of the railway, it is certain that the federal government had anticipated, and formulated some military strategies to crush, any rebellion. This is evidenced by the eventual speedy deployment of large numbers of troops at pre-arranged points of departure all across the West, and the successful overland forays towards the military objectives in the north. Ottawa must have expected trouble. Throughout the 1870's smallpox decimated the aboriginal populations. Commercial overharvesting of the buffalo herds accelerated during those years (Giraud 1986: p.411-6). The natives in the west had begun starving after the smallpox destroyed their functioning communities just as the buffalo herds upon which they depended were wiped out to feed tens of thousands of railway workers spread out across the western United States and Canada. Having eaten their dogs and horses out of hunger, the destitute Indians were systematically being lured into concentration camps on isolated Indian land reserves with the promise of food supplies (Adams 1975: p.64-75) Councillor Fine Day of the Battleford Reserve said "most Indians had come into reserves by 1882, but it was very much against their wishes. It was either come in, or starve to death...The government's policy could be summed up in six words: feed one day, starve the next." (Adams 1975: p.83) In addition to the discontent of the surviving plains Indians, the Metis were known to be malcontent. Their unending petitions and demands for special considerations were making their way into the capitol regularly enough.

By December, 1884, Riel had forwarded the Metis' Bill of Rights to MacDonald's government, and Ottawa forwarded it to the Colonial Department of the British Foreign Office. However, just prior to the rebellion the next spring, MacDonald denied having ever gotten it. It has been suggested that the Metis were provoked into rebellion by the federal government on purpose, so that the new railway could be used to save the country by transporting the army to quickly crush the rebels and restore law and order, and thus justify its own expense. The fact that the railway project was utterly bankrupt at that time plays into the conspiracy theory. It is supposed that in order to get support enough to use more government loan guarantees to finance the private railway's completion, MacDonald played the patriotic militarism card, which he had not the use of fifteen years earlier. Indeed, the value of a military action in rousing public opinion cannot be underestimated in the second half of the Victorian period. British patriotic sentiment was possibly an even more effective tool in manipulating public opinion then, than is American patriotic sentiment in our own time. There was no easier way to rally British public opinion, nor to garner political solidarity in parliament, than to go to war, and Upper Canada was thoroughly British.

The evidence for the conspiracy theory turns upon the denials given by MacDonald and his government of any foreknowledge that the Metis were delivering ultimatums prior to the rebellion. Clearly, the many communications with the North-West Council in which Ottawa refuses to deal with problems in the west prove that Ottawa was well aware of growing Metis desperation (McLean: p.81). Indeed, apprised of the possibility of cutting a deal with Riel, MacDonald was curiously unwilling to pay Riel off. If the poor man had really offered to quit the country in return for some income, a simpler solution to insurrection was never offered any government. But, it was probably not really offered to this one either. By all eyewitness accounts, the demand for cash which Riel actually made through Bishop Tache, and only on the Bishop's instigation, was for the money still owed him by the government for his own Manitoba settlement, and for his years in public office. Riel openly discussed the use to which this money could be put, settling upon the idea of financing a Metis newspaper to promote their cause, but nothing ever came of Tache's money idea, anyway. (Tremaudan 1982: p.188) Offered a government job on the North West Council, Riel replied, "You want to corrupt me and separate me from my people; well, you won't succeed." (Adams 1975: p.135)

Without direct evidence, it is impossible to prove that MacDonald deliberately forced Dumont into armed conflict with the authorities just so the new railroad could get more government loan guarantees.

One result of the second, failed Metis rebellion, which came at such a great cost to the country, was the establishment of a royal commission of inquiry into the whole business of the scrip frauds, by which means the first, successful Metis rebellion was undone. When all of the evidence, written documentation and testimony, had been gathered together in one place, it was put into a sealed boxcar in Winnipeg, and sent to Ottawa. However, before the boxcar reached the capitol, it somehow burst into flames on a siding and continued to burn until all the solidly packed stacks of amassed paper evidence were destroyed. (The firemen must have tried to put out the fire using only iron pokers.) The new regime was proving irresistable as well as grasping.

Even Charles Mair of Red River's Canadian faction was complaining by the late 1880's, "To pass from the old state of things to the present is like going from warmth into chill air. We find ourselves in the heart of a rich country, yet, through no fault of our own, confronted by a material outlook which bristles with difficulties...not through our own supineness, not through indolence or lack of industry, but through circumstances over which we have had no control and which we have fought in vain...(we) came here through public maps, through public declarations, and through public charters, every one of which we have lived to see cut down." (Melnyk 1992: p.89) If the old Upper Canadians could not help losing out within the new regime, how were the Metis to cope with it all?

When the second Metis rebellion was all over, and Riel hung, Ottawa attempted to treat the Metis with generosity. Unfortunately for the Metis, the same fraud which ruined the Manitoba settlement came into play again, and the whole business was repeated. Speculators formed a cartel which travelled with the land claims commissioners and literally swiped the land scrip out of the hands of the Metis even as it was dealt to them by the commission. More lawyers and bankers got even richer. Even more Metis were dispossessed and left vagrant. In this way, the two rebellions tied the same knot.


In conclusion, whatever differences there were in the outcomes of the two rebellions, for Riel and for Canada, it seems that for the Metis themselves there were no differences in the outcomes. Neither the successful rebellion which created the "postage stamp" sized province of Manitoba for them, nor the unsuccessful rebellion which allowed the hanging death of Manitoba's founding father, were able to change the over-riding tide in the affairs of these men: the tide of foreign immigration which overwhelmed and dispossessed the aboriginal populations of the Northwest Territories of British America. Neither rebellion stopped it all from happening.

Total assimilation with the Imperial nation was the only way to participate in it. By not assimilating, by not losing their traditions and cultures, aboriginal minorities became the distrusted "foreign element" in their own homeland, becoming outsiders even while remaining inside. The differences between the two great rebellions are worth little in the scales of history. It is in the eventual outcomes that both rebellions weigh in as having yet achieved nothing for the Metis.


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