Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mystique of the North-West Rebellion, Part 1

The Mystique of the North-West Rebellion, Part 1

By Furano Yukihira
The Daily Magi
December 10, 2059


The North-West Rebellion (or the North-West Resistance, Saskatchewan Rebellion, Northwest Uprising, or Second Riel Rebellion) of 1885 was a brief and unsuccessful uprising by the Métis people of the District of Saskatchewan under Louis Riel against the government of Canada. During a time of great social change in Western Canada, the Métis believed that the Canadians had failed to address the protection of their rights, their land and their survival as a distinct people. Despite some notable early victories at Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Cut Knife, the rebellion effectively ended for the Métis with their defeat at the siege of Batoche, Saskatchewan, the eventual scattering of their allied Aboriginal forces elsewhere, and the trial and hanging of Louis Riel. Tensions between French Canada and English Canada increased for some time. Due to the role that the Canadian Pacific Railway played in transporting troops, political support increased and Parliament authorized funds to complete the country's first transcontinental railway.

After the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870, many of the Métis moved from Manitoba to the Fort Carlton region of the Northwest Territories, where they founded the Southbranch settlements of Fish Creek, Batoche, St. Laurent, St. Louis and Duck Lake on or near the South Saskatchewan River. In 1882 surveyors began dividing the land of the newly formed District of Saskatchewan in the square concession system. The Métis lands were laid out in the seigneurial system of strips reaching back from a river which the Métis were familiar with in their French-Canadian culture. A year after the survey the 36 families of the parish of St. Louis found that their land and village site that included a church and a school (in Tsp 45 Rge 7 W2 of the Dominion Land Survey) had been sold by the Government of Canada to the Prince Albert Colonization Company. Not having clear title the Métis feared losing their land which, now that the buffalo herds were gone, was their primary source of sustenance.

In 1884 the Métis (including the Anglo-Métis) asked Louis Riel to return from the United States, where he had fled after the Red River Rebellion, to appeal to the government on their behalf. The government gave a vague response. In March 1885, Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Honoré Jackson (a.k.a. Will Jackson), and others set up the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, believing that they could influence the federal government in the same way as they had in 1869.

The role of aboriginal peoples prior to — and during — the outbreak of the rebellion is often misunderstood. A number of factors have created the misconception that the Cree and Métis were acting in unison. By the end of the 1870s the stage was set for discontent among the aboriginal people of the prairies: the bison population was in serious decline (creating enormous economic difficulties) and, in an attempt to assert control over aboriginal settlement, the federal government often violated the terms of the treaties it had signed during the latter part of the decade. Thus, widespread dissatisfaction with the treaties and rampant poverty spurred Big Bear, a Cree chief, to embark on a diplomatic campaign to renegotiate the terms of the treaties (the timing of this campaign happened to coincide with an increased sense of frustration among the Métis). When the Cree initiated violence in the spring of 1885, it was almost certainly unrelated to the revolt of Riel and the Métis (which was already underway). In both the Frog Lake Massacre and the Siege of Fort Battleford, small dissident groups of Cree men revolted against the authority of Big Bear and Poundmaker. Although he quietly signalled to Ottawa that these two incidents were the result of desperate and starving people and were, as such, unrelated to the rebellion, Edgar Dewdney, the lieutenant-governor of the territories, publicly claimed that the Cree and the Métis had joined forces.

For Riel and the Métis, several factors had changed since the Red River Rebellion. The railway had been completed across the prairies in 1883, though sections were still under construction north of Lake Superior, making it easier for the government to get troops into the area. In addition, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) had been created, developing an armed local force. Riel lacked support from English settlers of the area as well as many of the non-Métis natives. Riel's belief that God had sent him back to Canada as a prophet caused the Catholic Church to withdraw its support for his actions. The Catholic priest, Albert Lacombe, worked to obtain assurances from Crowfoot that his Blackfoot warriors would not participate in a rebellion.

Demoralized, defenceless, and with no hope of relief after the surrender of the Métis and Poundmaker, most of the Cree surrendered over the next few weeks. Big Bear was captured near Fort Carlton on an island in the Saskatchewan River about July 1 by the North-West Mounted Police. The government was able to pacify the Cree and Assiniboine by sending them food and other supplies. Poundmaker and Big Bear were sentenced to prison, and eight other Aboriginal leaders were hanged. Riel was tried and hanged as well, sparking a national controversy between French and British Canada.

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) played a key role in the government's response to the Rebellion, as it was able to transport federal troops to the area quickly. While it had taken three months to get troops to the Red River Rebellion, the government was able to move forces in nine days by train in response to events in the North-West Territories. The successful operation increased political support for the floundering and incomplete railway, which had been close to financial collapse. The government authorized enough funds to finish the line. Thus Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was able to realize his National Dream of linking Canada across the continent.

In what is now Saskatchewan, shortly after the fighting, the first modern-style election took place in the North-West Territories election of 1885. The Scrip Commission was dispatched to the District of Saskatchewan to address the issue of Métis land claims.

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