Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2007

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


North-West Rebellion


[This article was published in 1948 by W. Stewart WALLACE. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Parts in brackets [...] were added to the original text by Claude Bélanger.]


The Rebellion of 1885.

The second North West Rebellion broke out in the valley of the North Saskatchewan . Here had settled a number of the [Métis] of the fur-trade, on oblong farms abutting on the river. Some of these were [...] from the Red river valley, who, after having been granted farms of 240 acres in the Red river district, had sold out, and moved west to the Saskatchewan. To all these native settlers the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the prairies brought a serious threat. They had enjoyed a monopoly of the transportation business on the western prairies; and of this the railway threatened to rob them. The buffalo, on which they had relied for a livelihood, had disappeared, and their farms had become their chief source of livelihood. The government surveyors, who had come out with the railway, had proceeded to run their lines with a mathematical precision which ignored the rights of the half-breed owners of oblong farms; and the [Métis] became fearful that they would be again dispossessed. Their cousins, the Indians, had recently been granted reserves on which they could settle; but no provision had been made for them. They saw white settlers coming into the country, and in some cases receiving title to parts of their farms; and they became [agitated and worried]. Representations were made on their behalf to the Canadian government; [there is disagreement among historians as to the appropriateness of the response of the Canadian government. Some hold that] with an obtuseness which it is difficult to understand, the government ignored these representations [while others, especially Thomas Flanagan, argue that the federal government was responding appropriately and in a timely manner].


In 1884 the Métis on the Saskatchewan sent a delegation to Louis Riel, who was teaching school in Montana, to come up and help them. He accepted their invitation; and for a time devoted himself to attempting to obtain the redress of the Métis' grievances by constitutional means. But gradually he became [more erratic and extreme]; and in the spring he set up a provisional government at Batoche, on the South Saskatchewan. A detachment of North West Mounted Police, sent to nip the rebellion in the bud, were defeated by the Métis under Gabriel Dumont; and the fat was in the fire. For a time there was danger of an Indian rising; and the Indians under Big Bear actually massacred most of the whites at the Hudson's Bay Company post of Frog Lake. The North West Mounted Police were forced to abandon first Fort Carlton and later Fort Pitt ; and the whites in the Saskatchewan valley were forced to take refuge within the stockades at Battleford.


The news of the Duck Lake disaster roused the Canadian government to action. A force of Canadian militia was organized, under General Middleton, the general officer commanding the Canadian militia; and between four and five thousand militiamen were rushed to the West by way of the newly-built Canadian Pacific Railway. General Middleton divided his force into three columns. The main force detrained at Qu'Appelle , and pushed north-west toward Batoche. A second column, under Colonel Otter, proceeded north from Swift Current to the relief of Battleford; and a third column, under General Strange, marched north from Calgary to Edmonton. Otter was the first to reach his objective. After being checked by a band of Crees under Poundmaker at Cutknife creek, he succeeded in relieving Battleford. Middleton was held up by the half-breeds at Fish creek, on the South Saskatchewan, but after a delay he resumed his march, and on May 12 he defeated the main body of Riel's [Métis] at Batoche. Meanwhile, General Strange had reached Edmonton, and was closing in on Big Bear and his Crees. Riel [gave himself up] a few days after Batoche, and later in that summer, on July 2, Big Bear surrendered. With his capture, the rebellion was over.


In the autumn of 1885, Riel and some of the other leaders of the rebellion were tried at Regina on charges of high treason, and were found guilty. Riel was hanged in the Police Barracks at Regina in November, 1885, though there were many who believed that he should properly have been confined instead to a lunatic asylum. Eight of the Indian ring-leaders in the rebellion were also hanged; though Poundmaker and Big Bear both escaped with prison sentences. The execution of Riel caused grave repercussions in Canadian politics, for his compatriots in French Canada were almost unanimous in demanding the remission of his sentence. But Sir John Macdonald was determined that he should pay the price for the mad folly of his second armed outbreak."He shall die," Macdonald exclaimed, with unwonted fierceness, "though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour."


[The hanging of Louis Riel had deep repercussions on Canada. In Quebec, it triggered a nationalist wave that brought Honoré Mercier to power. For decades afterwards, the hanging of Riel was interpreted in the province as the deep wounding of an entire people, as a supreme act of cruelty against one whose only sin was to have stood up for the rights of his people (i.e. the rights of French Catholics), as a symbol that Canada was not a land of equality between French and English Canadians but one where the French Canadians were a minority whose views and feelings could be disregarded. In truth, the Riel hanging was only the first in a series of events (school issues, imperialism, conscription, etc.) that eventually led Henri Bourassa to write that French Canadians were bound to come to think that Quebec was their only country since they had no rights anywhere else in Canada.]

[Both federally and provincially, the people of Quebec began to turn away from the Conservative Party, the party of Macdonald, the party of the "pendards" (the hangers). Increasingly they turned to the Liberal Party that chose Wilfrid Laurier, a French Canadian from Quebec, as its leader (1887). Essentially, for the next hundred years, consciously or unconsciously, the people of Quebec continued to punish the Conservative Party for the hanging of Riel. In the process, with little, if any, support from Quebec, the Conservative Party became "le parti des Anglais" (the party of the English), forever unattractive to the people of Quebec.]

[While it is clear that not all these consequences were fully grasped at the time, the contemporaries of Riel did appreciate the magnitude of the wound that had been inflicted on the national fabric of Canada. Yet, they largely underestimated the effect that the events of the North West has on Native Canadians. In 1885, Riel and his Indian allies, made the last stand of Native Canadians against the encroachements of White-European progress in the West. The defeat of Riel epitomized the last defeat of Natives in preserving their way of life in the West. Henceforth, increasingly as "wards" of the Canadian government, the Canadian Amerindians were subjected to assimilationist policies and stripped of their right to self-government.]

Bibliography. The story of the two rebellions has been told, in the light of the most recent research, in G. P. G. Stanley, The birth of the western provinces (London, 1936), and in A. L. Burt, The romance of the prairie provinces (Toronto, 1930). Two volumes by eyewitnesses of both rebellions are C. A. Boulton, Reminiscences of the North West rebellions (Toronto, 1886), and G. T. Denison, Soldiering in Canada (Toronto, 1900).


The traditional English view of the rebellion of 1869-70 is found in R. G. MacBeth, The making of the Canadian West (Toronto, 1898), and in the various histories of Manitoba . The point of view of the French-Canadian halfbreeds has been set forth in the Rev. A. G. Morice, A critical history of the Red River insurrection (Winnipeg, 1935), and in several papers by A. H. de Trémaudan, notably in Louis Riel's account of the capture of Fort Garry (Can. hist. rev., 1924), and The execution of Thomas Scott (Can. hist. rev., 1925).


An account of the rebellion of 1885 will be found in the blue paper entitled Report an the suppression of the rebellion in the North West (Ottawa, 1886), C. P. Mulvany, The history of the North West rebellion (Toronto, 1885), N. F. Black, History. of Saskatchewan and the North West Territories (2 vols., Regina, 1913), W. B. Cameron, The war trail of Big Bear (Toronto, 1926), and in the various histories of the Royal North West Mounted Police.

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. V, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 401p., pp. 19-22.


© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College