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McVICAR, KATE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Challenge of Red River and the Manitoba Act

The integration of Rupert’s Land into the Canadian confederation became one of the dominion government’s biggest challenges [see Cartier's Relations with First Nations and the Métis].

Many people of the region, including Métis, aboriginals, and white settlers, were excluded from negotiations over its integration into Canada, and feared their rights would be dismissed. Conflict initially arose between Métis and survey crews from Ontario, who first arrived in Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in 1868 [see Simon James DAWSON; Charles MAIR; John Allan SNOW]. Sir John A. MACDONALD’s choice of William McDOUGALL as the first lieutenant governor of what would be known as the North-West Territories was also controversial:

“McDougall interpreted his task in basic terms, to ‘start the new machine’ that would liberate vast lands and their inhabitants from a dark period of ‘serfdom’ under HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] rule. He saw no possibility of granting political power to the new territories until ‘we get a settled Canadian population to work upon.’…

“Not surprisingly, the Métis population and others in the territories resisted in 1869 when a team of Canadian surveyors, led by McDougall’s former schoolmate John Stoughton Dennis*, superimposed a grid system upon traditional landholding patterns [see Louis Riel*].”

William MACTAVISH, the last governor of Assiniboia and Rupert’s Land, blamed the tensions on “designing demagogue[s]” within the territory, such as Dr John Christian SCHULTZ, and the ineptitude of the Canadian government:

“[In 1869, Mactavish] criticized the Canadian government for its refusal to consult the inhabitants of Rupert’s Land about the transfer and its apparent attempt to assert authority before the transfer had taken place. He suspected that William McDougall*, the federally appointed lieutenant governor of Rupert’s Land, with the Canadian government’s sanction, was encouraging political disturbance so as to precipitate the fall of the HBC government and weaken the company’s position in its attempt to obtain a £300,000 land settlement. Although the Canadian prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald*, claimed that Mactavish had ‘never intimated that he had even a suspicion of discontent existing,’ Mactavish had certainly informed his superiors in London of it, and when he stopped at Ottawa on his return from London in April 1869, he had an opportunity to warn the Canadian government of the difficulties as well, if Macdonald had been prepared to heed him.”

Macdonald, however, blamed the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had previously administered the region, for not explaining to its inhabitants that their rights would be preserved. Writing to George-Étienne CARTIER in 1869, Macdonald made this observation:

“‘All that those poor people know … is that Canada has bought the country ... & that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us; and they are told that they lose their lands…. Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that they should be dissatisfied, and should show their discontent.’”

Louis RIEL, a Métis leader in Red River, protested against the land survey:

“Late in August 1869, from the steps of the St Boniface cathedral, Riel declared the survey a menace. On 11 October a group of Métis, including Riel, stopped the survey….

“On 25 October Riel was summoned to appear before the Council of Assiniboia in Red River to explain his actions. He declared that the National Committee would prevent the entry of McDougall or any other governor unless the union with Canada was based on negotiations with the Métis and with the population in general.”

Riel, the Métis, and a number of English-speaking settlers replaced the council with a provisional government on 8 December.

In February members of the Canadian party, who had been trying to capture Riel and his allies, surrendered to Métis forces. Among them was Thomas SCOTT, an Orangeman agitator from Ontario, who repeatedly expressed contempt for his Métis guards and the provisional government:

“Though there was acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, among most of the inhabitants of Red River in allowing Riel and the incoming provisional government to negotiate entry into confederation with Ottawa, Riel’s leadership depended in the end on the continuing support of the armed Métis…. To ignore Scott’s challenge might be seen as weakness. There was a growing spirit among the Métis that Scott must be punished. A Métis court martial, an ad hoc tribunal employed frequently on the prairie, met on the evening of 3 March; its members included Ambroise-Dydime* and Jean-Baptiste Lépine*, André Nault*, and Elzéar Goulet. Scott was tried on the charge of insubordination. By majority vote the court martial convicted him and the death penalty was invoked. The following day he was shot by a Métis firing squad.”

The crisis was resolved, however, despite Scott’s execution [see Donald Alexander SMITH]. A number of Riel’s demands were enshrined in the Manitoba Act in May 1870. Yet, when the federal government consolidated its hold on the territories and deployed a military expedition commanded by Colonel Garnet Joseph WOLSELEY to Red River, Riel feared for his safety and fled to the United States:

“On 24 August Riel learned that the soldiers were planning to lynch him; he vacated Upper Fort Garry a few hours ahead of them. Accompanied by O’Donoghue and a few others, Riel crossed the Red River to Taché’s palace in St Boniface. He told the bishop he had been deceived, but added: ‘No matter what happens now, the rights of the métis are assured by the Manitoba Bill; it is what I wanted – My mission is finished.’”

Riel’s biographer offers the following explanation for Macdonald’s role in the crisis:

“Macdonald later admitted that under the circumstances the people of the community had had to form a government for the protection of life and property. Yet, in an alcoholic haze or because of urgent political problems in Canada, he did not, in fact, fully realize at the time the state of affairs in the settlement, and Canadians generally seemed unconcerned.”

A small part of Rupert’s Land surrounding the Red River settlement became Manitoba – Canada’s fifth province – with the passing of the Manitoba Act. The rest of Rupert’s Land became the North-West Territories.

For more information on the troubles at Red River in 1869–70, please consult our project on Red River and the following biographies.


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