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The North-West Rebellion of 1885
 

Fifteen years after the passage of the Manitoba Act, Sir John A. MACDONALD was again forced to deal with turmoil in the west. In Manitoba the demographic parity that had existed between Roman Catholics and Protestants in 1870 was evaporating; by 1891 Protestants had become the overwhelming majority. In other parts of the west, rapid expansion and settlement led to similar outcomes.

Many of the conditions that had led to the resistance from the Métis and their white allies in Red River in 1869–70 were never fully resolved, as seen in this excerpt of Louis RIEL’s biography:

“When Riel reached Batoche (Sask.) in the District of Lorne at the beginning of July 1884 he found an unhappy and angry population – white, Indian, and Métis. The relocation of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main line in the southern prairie region had produced a collapse of land values in nearby Prince Albert. Settlers did not hold clear title to their land despite the fact that many had lived for over three years in the district. For the more than 1,400 Métis in the area, the questions of unextinguished Indian rights to the land and the land surveys were the major issues. These Métis had been semi-nomadic hunters, living far west of the Red River, who had not participated in the events of 1869–70. With the disappearance of the buffalo and with the encouragement of the missionaries, they were now beginning to settle into farming communities. Those who had settled first obtained the traditional and much preferred river lots; but after a federal survey in 1882 Métis settlers were forced to occupy square lots, and the federal government was refusing to re-survey the area.”


Tenuous life on reserves was made worse by difficult environmental conditions, and natives such as Plains Cree chief PīTIKWAHANAPIWīYIN (Poundmaker) felt that the Canadian government, which had put them there, was indifferent, or even hostile, to their welfare [see Macdonald and Natives]:

“In 1883 as part of a government economy drive many Indian Department employees were dismissed and rations to the Indians reduced. Delays in delivering supplies caused rumours to spread that rations would be curtailed completely, and the Indians left to starve. Moreover, as complaints by the agents that the Indians were starving after the severe winter of 1883–84 went unheeded by officials in Ottawa, Poundmaker was unable to maintain peace among his followers, particularly the younger warriors.”


Isolated attacks on settlements soon turned into outright rebellion. The biography of KAPAPAMAHCHAKWEW, a Plains Cree war chief who was also known as Wandering Spirit, describes the atmosphere:

“For warriors such as Wandering Spirit the collapse of the Plains Cree way of life in the 1870s, resulting from the disappearance of the buffalo and the signing of the treaties, engendered particular bitterness and despair.… Resentful of Indian agent Thomas Trueman Quinn’s strict enforcement of the ‘no work, no ration’ policy, militants such as Wandering Spirit grew increasingly hostile. The band had, in fact, been exposed to the ideas of Louis Riel, whom they had met in Montana in the early 1880s when they had been following the remaining buffalo herds. Riel urged that through concerted action the Métis and the Indians could drive the Canadians from their country and regain their freedom and independence.”


In one of the violent incidents that took place in 1885, Wandering Spirit and other natives killed nine settlers at Frog Lake (Alta). Public opinion in Ontario had remained hostile towards the Métis since the events in Red River in 1869–70, and there was enormous pressure on Macdonald to crush the rebellion that had erupted in March. He assigned this task to Major-General Frederick Dobson MIDDLETON. There were setbacks:

“Middleton’s faith in his men and in easy victory faded. The troops, he told Caron, had behaved well ‘but I must confess … that it was very near being otherwise.’ To the Duke of Cambridge he wrote of his dismay at the losses of young men ‘who thought they were going out for a picnic.’

“[On 12 May], when the infantry moved out to reoccupy positions held on 9 May, officers and troops seethed with indignation and frustration. Williams’s men on the left flank cleared their ground and kept moving. Others followed suit. Soon several hundred militia poured down the hill, cheering and shooting. Middleton ran from his tent to organize support. Exhausted and out of ammunition, the Métis could do little. By nightfall they had scattered, the militia were looting Batoche, and Middleton alternately claimed the victory and condemned the folly that had cost 5 lives and 25 wounds that day.

“With the fall of Batoche and Riel’s surrender on 15 May, the Métis rebellion was over. Middleton loaned the shivering Riel his greatcoat and sent him south for trial.”


On 23 May, Métis leader Louis RIEL arrived in Regina (Sask.):

“It was clear from the start that the trial would be a political one, and there is indisputable evidence that Macdonald’s objective was to fix exclusive responsibility on Riel and to secure his conviction and execution as soon as possible. It was an understandable reaction to the inflamed opinion of Ontario, which cried for vengeance for the killing of Thomas Scott, the whites at Frog Lake, the men at Duck Lake, and the militiamen under Middleton’s command.” 


But Macdonald had to navigate between competing pressures. If the public in Ontario wanted Riel hanged, the response was notably different in Quebec, where sympathies for the Métis were rooted in cultural and linguistic connections. Macdonald hewed closely to the rule of law:

“Macdonald confessed to [James Robert Gowan] on 4 June 1885, two weeks after Riel was captured, that if Riel were convicted ‘he certainly will be executed but in the present natural excitement people grumble at his not being hanged off hand.’ When the question of clemency for Riel arose after his conviction in August, Gowan’s legal and political view was much the same as Macdonald’s. It would be, he told Macdonald in September, ‘a fatal blunder to interfere with the due course of law in his case. The only plea he could urge was urged for him at the trial and found against him.’ Macdonald’s correspondence on this touchy subject is thin, but Gowan’s letter to him of 18 November, two days after Riel was hanged, reveals Macdonald’s perception clearly enough: ‘From what you wrote me I did not doubt the result but I felt most uneasy to the last knowing how public men are often obliged to take a course they do not individually approve. The fact may affect you prejudicially with Lower Canada but looking at the subject with all anxiety to see the wisest course for you to take I felt it would have been an act of political insanity to yield, simply because the man was of French blood.’ Thus, although it is sometimes averred that Macdonald sacrificed Riel to Ontario opinion, that is the truth inside out. Riel was a victim of the law.”


Outrage in Quebec threatened to unseat the Macdonald government, as seen in the biography of the secretary of state, Joseph-Adolphe CHAPLEAU:

“The hanging of Louis Riel on 16 Nov. 1885 was a drama for the whole nation. French Canadians considered it ‘an affront to the race’; Ontarians, who had a long memory, finally saw the murder of Scott avenged. In Quebec, indignation led to a nationalist movement that gave rise to the Parti National. Mercier formed a union of his Liberals, some Conservatives, and some Castors. The Parti National demanded the resignation of the three French Canadian ministers in Ottawa, Langevin, Adolphe-Philippe Caron*, and Chapleau, as a sign of protest. Mercier indicated he was ready to hand leadership of the Parti National to Chapleau, provided he was willing to lead the battle against the Canadian government. The wily Macdonald declared that if his three colleagues decided to leave, he would form a government with no French Canadian representation. Chapleau hesitated a long time. Tarte relates that Chapleau called him in one evening, with Alexandre Lacoste* and his old friend Clément-Arthur Dansereau. He wanted ‘to weigh the pros and cons’ of the offer from the Parti National with them. The analysis went on till 4 a.m. and Chapleau spent the rest of the night reflecting alone. The next day, at breakfast, he announced to his advisers that he would not give up office. ‘We are in the lion’s den,’ was his conclusion.”


The surrender, trial, and execution of Louis Riel in 1885 split the country along religious and linguistic lines [see The North-West Rebellion of 1885]. In 1886 the Parti National won the subsequent provincial election in Quebec and Honoré MERCIER became premier. Before the 1887 federal election, Ontario politician and lawyer D’Alton McCARTHY, an active member of the Protestant Orange order, campaigned as a Conservative and stoked fears over expanding French Canadian political power:

“Many Reformers were uncomfortable with the Liberal policy of ‘wooing the French’ and others could not bring themselves to condemn the government’s hanging of Riel, which they deemed justified. At Barrie in early February, at the height of the federal campaign, McCarthy called upon Ontario to stand by the government. He once again voiced his conviction that ‘it is not religion which is at the bottom of this matter but … a race feeling…. Don’t we find the French today more French than when they were conquered by [James Wolfe*] on the Plains of Abraham? Do they mix with us, assimilate…. No, everything with them is conducted on the French model; … I say that they are the great danger to the Confederacy.’”


Though they received fewer votes in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes, the Conservatives won the 1887 election. They faced off against the Parti National in 1888 over the long-standing issue of reparations for confiscated Jesuit lands.

To learn more about Macdonald and the North-West rebellion, please consult the following biographies.

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