Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2007

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


Red River Rebellion


North West Rebellions. The [purchase of the North West by Canada and the beginning of settlement in the territory] brought about two successive rebellions on the part of the Métis who were the [product] of the early fur-trade: the first in 1869-70, and the second in 1885. Attempts have been made to show that the first of these was not really a rebellion against the British crown, but was merely an assertion of the basic rights of British citizens; and there is much to be said for this point of view. But the term "rebellion" has long been applied to both episodes; and both had much in common. They were led by the same leader, Louis Riel; [as well, many argue that] they were brought about by similar causes; and they had equally unfortunate results. To call them both rebellions is not therefore a complete misnomer.

The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70.

Prior to 1869, the North West was under the government of the Hudson's Bay Company; but in that year the Hudson's Bay Company resigned its suzerainty over this territory to the crown, on condition that it retained certain small areas about its forts, a certain proportion of lands to be granted in the future, and the sum of £300,000 from the Canadian government. [As well, the Company had been freed of its obligations regarding the issue of native rights over the territory] It is sometimes said that Canada acquired the North West by purchase; but this is hardly an accurate statement of the facts. What actually happened was that the Hudson's Bay Company resigned its control of the North West to the crown, on condition that it received £300,000 as compensation; and that the crown then conveyed these territories to the Canadian government. Before the transfer was completed, Canada sent out a contractor to build a road from Red river to the lake of Woods, and surveyors to lay out the country in townships and sections for settlement. This greatly alarmed the Métis, across whose lands the surveyors ran their lines, and who feared that their lands and homesteads would be taken from them. The Canadian government made the mistake also of making arrangements for the government of the North West without even consulting the inhabitants; and these felt that they were being bought and sold like sheep in the market. [In a sense, the Métis who defined themselves as a nation – la nation métisse – wished to assert their right to decide on their fate; we would say today that they wished to assert their right to self determination. They did not refuse union with Canada, but would only accept it on their terms, and provided that their Petition of rights was heard]. When the Canadian government appointed William McDougall lieutenant-governor of Ruperts land and the North West Territories, the Métis decided to oppose his entrance into the new territory; and when he arrived, via St. Paul, at the border town of Pembina, he found an armed force of Métis behind a barricade blocking his progress. He foolishly published a proclamation announcing his appointment as lieutenant-governor, only to find that the Canadian government had refused to take over the North West until the troubles ceased; and he was then compelled to make an ignominious retreat to Ottawa.

Meanwhile, the Métis had taken matters into their own hands. The governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, William McTavish, was ill; and in any case he now lacked the necessary authority to take action. The [Métis] seized Fort Garry, and in November they set up here a provisional government. [First as secretary, and later as president,] of this provisional government they chose Louis Riel, a young French Métis of good education, but of unstable mind and character [as many believe later events were to show. Louis H. Thomas – his biographer at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography – writes that Riel was “ambitious, well-educated, bilingual, young and energetic, eloquent, deeply religious, and the bearer of a famous name”]. During the winter of 1869-70, and during the spring and summer of 1870, the Riel government remained in control at Fort Garry. A group of English loyalists under Major C. A. Boulton attempted to dislodge the rebels, but were defeated and captured. Donald A. Smith, afterwards Lord Strathcona was sent out by the Canadian governor as a commissioner to treat with the rebels; but, though he conducted himself with great sagacity, and did much to curb the rebels, he was little more than a prisoner. He was not able to prevent the “judicial murder” by Riel of a loyalist prisoner named Thomas Scott [who had agitated against the provisional government]; and the murder of Scott, who was an Orangeman, roused in English-speaking Canada the bitterest feelings.

In the spring of 1870 a military expedition was dispatched to the West under the command of Colonel (afterwards Field-Marshal) Wolseley; “the expedition had imperial troops as well as militia units, the latter were dominated by young Ontario Orangemen thirsting for Métis blood, Riel’s in particular“ writes Thomas, and after following the old route of the fur-traders, it arrived at Fort Garry on August 24. As it approached, Riel and his associates fled without fighting – [after all his mission had been accomplished and the Manitoba Act embodied the essence of the Métis Petition of Rights] – and took refuge in the United States.


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., "North West Rebellions", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. V., Toronto, University associates of Canada, 1948, 401p., pp. 19-20. Parts in brackets [...] were written by Claude Bélanger.


© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College