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When, in 1869, the Canadian government acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territories [see The Acquisition of Rupert’s Land], Métis residents of the Red River settlement, led by Louis RIEL, challenged the new dominion’s claim to the territory and demanded protection of their rights [see The Red River Rebellion and the Creation of Manitoba, 1869–70]. George-Étienne CARTIER, the advocate of a political nationality and defender of minority rights at the confederation conferences, was largely responsible for the negotiations that resolved the Red River uprising and ensured the passage of the Manitoba Act [see Relations with Native Peoples and the Métis]:

“It was Cartier who succeeded in negotiating a solution with Bishop Taché that satisfied most of the Métis’ requests, and that took concrete shape in May 1870 with the creation of a new province, Manitoba, which was given a political and administrative system analogous to that of Quebec (33 Vict., c.3). The Métis were guaranteed land; the rights of the two languages were recognized, and the schools of the religious minorities, whether they existed by virtue of law or of custom, were authorized.”

 

Fifteen years later, in the District of Saskatchewan, Riel led another challenge against the Canadian government [see The North-West Rebellion of 1885]. He was now joined by groups of aboriginals who were angry about the inadequate, indifferent response of the government to their near-starvation conditions [see Macdonald and Natives].

Taken prisoner in 1885, Riel was tried for high treason in Regina, sentenced to death, and executed. Responses to the sentence in Quebec and Ontario were drastically different and endangered the survival of the union. The situation is described in his biography:

“Riel’s fate had become a national issue that threatened to divide the cabinet, indeed the country, and a vast amount of editorial commentary was produced on the subject. Ontario newspapers favoured the execution and at least one, the Toronto News, went as far as to begin advocating polarization of politics on racial lines. On the other hand, Quebec journalists were highly critical of Macdonald and his cabinet, especially his French Canadian colleagues. Despite the immense pressure from mass meetings in Quebec, Chapleau, Hector-Louis Langevin*, and Caron did not resign, perhaps saving the country from further racial and religious conflict.”

 

For more on the challenge to national unity posed by the unrest in western Canada, see the biographies in the following lists.

The Red River Rebellion
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