Rebellion Background


In researching this subject several sources of information were consulted. It is hoped that the main points are relatively accurate. No bias is intended toward any group mentioned.

To understand the situation that existed we must look at the many aspects of it. The roles and problems of the government, the Indians, the Metis (French-speaking half- breeds) the English-speaking halfbreeds and the whites must be seen in their relationship to each other.

Before 1860 the charter that gave the monopoly for trade in Rupert's Land to the Hudson Bay Company was still in effect. But, fur traders had about half as much trade as the company. Buffalo herds were failing and hunters had to go farther and farther afield. The price of hides brought increased slaughter. Meat was wasted so the price of pemmican went up. As a direct result land values rose because of the potential value for producing food. The Metis feared a land rush. The Indians of Assiniboia said even their rights weren't settled yet. In addition to all this 1868 brought the worst drought in living memory.

At Confederation on July 1st, 1867 the Dominion of Canada consisted of what had been Upper and Lower Canada. It was made up of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. At that time the population of whites and halfbreeds at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers numbered a few hundred over twelve thousand.

The Metis have been described as a peculiar or singular people - conscious of a distinctive, corporate identity and styling themselves as the "New Nation". They were expert horsemen and hunters, reluctant to farm and known for direct and violent action. A semi-military organization had been set up among them.

Annexation to the U.S., particularly Minnesota, may have been considered. There were at least three good reasons for doing so. Annexation would eliminate the four percent custom duty on U.S. goods, a railway would be built from St. Paul, Minnesota and protection would be given by U.S. troops. The uprising has been described by some as a protest against the usurping of Metis land rights. Their champion was Louis Riel, a man of action and a very able speaker on their behalf. A grandson of Jean and Marie Lajimodiere he had received some training for the priesthood in the East.

The Metis challenged the right of the Hudson Bay Company to transfer land to Canada without consulting the people. The area including Alberta and Saskatchewan, then called Rupert's Land, was ceded to the Canadian government for three hundred thousand pounds or one million, three hundred and fifty thousand dollars and was given the name Northwest Territories. The Company was also given a grant of one-twentieth of the western "Fertile Belt."

When surveyors came to prepare that transfer the birthright of both Metis and Indian seemed endangered. William McDougall would become Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest once the transfer was completed. The Metis formed a National Committee with military backing of boatmen and buffalo hunters.

McDougall, to acquaint himself with the area, set out from Pembina to Assiniboia. Because the transfer had not been completed the Metis felt he had no legal right to be there and forced him to turn back. They seized Fort Garry, the Hudson Bay post on Red River and proclaimed a provisional government for the region. Under the eye of armed guards Company business went on as usual. They also took over the newspaper 'Nor Wester" and named it the "New Nation."

McDougall then drew up a proclamation of his own and headed north from Pembina. A force was trained at Lower Fort Garry to support him. John Christian Schultz had previously operated the "Nor Wester" agitating for democratic government in Assiniboia and union with Canada. He put a supply of food for the force under guard in his house but the Metis seized it and took him prisoner. McDougall was again forced to return to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Prime Minister Macdonald believed the resistance must be put down at once. A commission, including Donald Smith (later known as Lord Strathcona), met with French and English delegates. Riel promised to release the prisoners but the Schultz group who had escaped, decided to march to Fort Garry and secure the prisoners' release themselves. After hearing that Riel had kept his word they set about to return to Portage La Prairie. Again Riel's men took them prisoner.

Among the recaptured prisoners was one Thomas Scott. At a court-martial he was tried for hitting his guards and condemned to be shot. After his death, sympathy for the Metis cause seemed to dwindle. Bishop Tache, at the Canadian government's request, arrived to act as peacemaker. Riel was quieted and the Portage prisoners released.

The Bishop promised amnesty to all who took part in the uprising. However, the Wolseley expeditionary force of twelve hundred men was on its way from Canada. Riel left Fort Garry for St. Boniface and then the U.S. border in August.

After Donald Smith's visit the provisional government representatives had gone to Ottawa to present their demands. Instead of provincehood for the whole West a small area about Assiniboia's size and an area around Portage La Prairie was to form the new province. The remainder was to be governed by Ottawa from Fort Garry. The new province, Manitoba (Lake of the Prairies), was established in 1870. In 1881 the province's boundaries were increased to almost its present size, except for northward.

The Assiniboines were guaranteed land titles. Nearly one and a half million acres were allotted in reserves to halfbreed families. But the new governor, Archibald, still had trouble with confrontations between the Metis and the Wolseley expedition.

The province was divided into electoral districts with the first election in December, 1870. The legislature was modelled on Quebec's; there were two official languages and separate schools.

Riel was elected to be the legislature in 1874 but never took his seat. One source tells that, because he was in "Absentia", he was smuggled secretly into Ottawa to sign his name on the House of Commons register. After a trial in connection with Lepine, one of his assistants, amnesty had been granted to everyone except Riel, Lepine and O'Donaghue. They were banished for five years.

In 1872-73 Canadian syndicates were competing for the Pacific railway charter. The "Pacific Scandal" destroyed Sir Hugh Allen's Canadian Pacific Railway Company and forced the resignation of the Conservative government in November of 1873.

Under Alexander Mackenzie the railway was to be built piecemeal because a world depression had set in. British Columbia had become a province in 1871 after the Canadian government had promised to take over the colony's debt, to provide a federal subsidy much larger than the population should have warranted, and to begin a railway in two years that was to be finished in ten. Now the province was threatening succession. A section of railway line from Winnipeg to Pembina and the U.S. border would connect with American railways to St. Paul, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois.

Macdonald was back as head of government in 1878. A new railway charter was negotiated with George Stephen, president of the Bank of Montreal, and Donald Smith, Chief Commissioner of the Hudson Bay Company, who had been envoy to the Red River previously. Smith already had control of an American line having a feeder line to Winnipeg. With the two men's finances and railway knowledge it was back to the old plan of "a railway from coast to coast."

Quebec viewed the West as poverty-stricken. She encouraged charity but discouraged emigration. Manitoba was far away and memories of the 1869-70 Red River events remained. Ontario, though, seemed enthusiastic about the West.

The Manitoba Act of 1870 had granted Scottish and French halfbreeds a share of the Indian title to land - one million, four hundred thousand acres. It also confirmed the existing titles to river farm lots along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Half-breed heads of families were given one hundred and sixty dollars in land scrip toward the purchase of additional Dominion land. Children, in general, had not received scrip; but, some claims were so long being settled that certain children were old enough to be then classed as heads of families.

The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 was a homestead act. There was no free government land on even-numbered sections. Sections 11 and 29 in each township were set aside for school land. Sections 8 and three-quarters of sections 26 were Hudson Bay land (part of that 1869 agreement where the company acquired one-twentieth of the land in the "Fertile Belt").

In the 1869 survey of the West, the Winnipeg Meridian was taken as the base line. A section, of 640 acres, was to be the basic unit. After the act of 1872 a settler could lay claim to a quarter section by paying a small registration fee. He could acquire title in three years if settlement duties had been fulfilled. He could also obtain pre-emption rights to a neighbouring quarter-section. The purchase price for that would be two dollars and fifty cents an acre.

In the 1870's there were about 145,000 Indians in Canada. Seven treaties were negotiated between 1871 and 1896. Treaty Number One was signed at Fort Garry on July 25, 1871, and the next month Number Two was signed at Manitoba Post. Numbers Three, Four, and Five were signed at North-West Angle, Qu'Appelle, and Lake Winnipeg in 1873, 1874, and 1875, respectively. Number

Six was signed at Fort Carlton in August, 1876 with the Plains and Woods Cree, Number Seven at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877 with the Blood, Piegan, Sarcee and Stoney tribes. Treaty No. 8 was not to be signed until 1899 in the North.

Payments were twelve dollars per head and five dollars yearly thereafter. Chiefs and councillors received twenty- five and fifteen dollars yearly. Land allotted to reserves amounted to approximately one section per family of five. Some agricultural implements were supplied. The government agreed to prohibit all liquor on reserves, and the Indians agreed to respect the Queen's peace.

The 1870's were critical times for the Indian and Metis. The Winchester repeater had depleted the buffalo. In 1876 the House of Commons was warned that danger would come from people needing food. 1878 to 1880, the starvation years, were probably the worst years in Indian history. Edward Dewdney had been Indian Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, and in December, 1881 became Lieutenant-Governor. The capital was re-established at Pile of Bones - later named Regina, after Queen Victoria Regina.

In 1873 the North West Mounted Police had been formed, and the next year the force arrived in the West. Their plans to establish authority and Canadian law was termed "a wildly impossible undertaking." That year of 1874 the American government officially recognized the 49th Parallel as the international border, but American traders were still in the southern parts of what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan. Four years before the government had issued a proclamation against the selling of alcohol to Indians; it was being brought in along the Carlton Trail. The 1873 Act gave a Justice of the Peace power to destroy liquor in the Northwest Territories without a warrant, but there was no enforcement.

The N.W.M.P., to present a civilian (not military) front, had the names of ranks changed. Instead of Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant, and Sergeant, the ranks of Commissioner, Superintendent, Inspector, Sub-Inspector, and Constable were to be used. The force was not subject to the Queen's Regulations and Articles of War. Senior officers could hear, determine, and sentence theft and assault charges without a jury.

The force had formidable powers. The men, because they were Easterners, were virtually unprejudiced in regard to Indians. Once in the West they needed supplies, information and assistance. The famous half-breed guide, Jerry Potts, remained with the force until his death.

The first session of the Northwest Council, in March 1873, passed three ordinances. No word was received from Ottawa. The proceedings were mislaid in Prime Minister Macdonald's office for six months. The Council learned in October that only one ordinance had been approved.

The new council was smaller with representatives elected on the basis of one member per 1,000 voters per 1,000 square miles. It could pass ordinances without prior authority from Ottawa, but it had no power to levy taxes. School districts depended entirely on local support. The capital of the Territories at that time had moved from Winnipeg to Battleford, which was linked by telegraph to both Edmonton and Winnipeg. The Lieutenant-Governorships of Manitoba and the Territories were separated. The Territories' first Lieutenant-Governor was David Laird (1876-1881).