Red River Rebellion

Red River Rebellion

The Red River Rebellion or Red River Resistance are names given to the events surrounding the actions of a provisional government established by Métis leader Louis Riel in 1869 at the Red River Settlement in what is now the Canadian province of Manitoba.

The Rebellion was the first crisis the new government faced following Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Canadian government bought Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869 and appointed an English-speaking governor, William McDougall, who was opposed by the French-speaking inhabitants of the settlement. McDougall sent out surveyors before the land was officially transferred to Canada and had them arrange the land according to the square township system used in Ontario. The Métis, led by Riel, prevented McDougall from entering the territory. After McDougall declared that the Hudson's Bay Company was no longer in control of the territory and that Canada had asked for the transfer of sovereignty to be postponed, the Métis created a provisional government, and then reformed it by accepting an equal number of anglophone representatives. Riel undertook to negotiate directly with the Canadian government to establish Assiniboia as a province.

Meanwhile, Riel's men had arrested members of a pro-Canadian faction that had resisted the provisional government, including an Orangeman named Thomas Scott. Scott was put on trial and executed by firing squad for offences usually considered non-capital. Canada and the provisional government soon negotiated an agreement. In 1870, the Manitoba Act was passed, allowing the Red River settlement to enter Confederation as the province of Manitoba. The Act also incorporated some of Riel's demands, such as separate French schools for Métis children and protection of Catholicism.

After the agreement was settled, Canada sent a military expedition, now known as the Wolseley Expedition (or Red River Expedition), consisting of Canadian Militia and British regular soldiers led by Colonel Garnet Wolseley to Manitoba to enforce federal authority. As the expedition headed west, outrage grew in Ontario over Scott's execution, and many Ontarians demanded that Wolseley's expedition be used to arrest Riel and suppress what they considered to be rebellion. Although Riel fled before the expedition reached Fort Garry, the arrival of the expedition marked the end of the Rebellion.


During the late 1860s, the Red River Settlement was experiencing rapid change. The population had been historically composed mainly of Francophone (Michif-speaking) Métis, along with a minority of English-speaking mixed-bloods known as the "Country born" (Anglo-Metis), and a small number of Presbyterian Scottish settlers. However, the colony was seeing a rapid influx of Anglophone Protestants from Ontario. These new settlers were largely insensitive to Métis culture and hostile to Roman Catholicism, and many were advocates of Canadian expansionism. There was also an influx at this time of Americans in favour of annexation by the United States. Against this backdrop of religious, nationalistic, and racial tension, there existed significant political uncertainty. Largely to forestall American expansionism, the British and Canadian governments had been for some time negotiating the transfer of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada. This resulted in the Rupert's Land Act of 1868 authorizing the transfer, and the subsequent purchase by Canada in 1869. However, the terms under which political authority would be transferred remained unresolved.

In anticipation of the transfer, the minister of public works, William McDougall, who along with George-Étienne Cartier had been instrumental in securing Rupert's Land for Canada, ordered a survey party to the Red River Settlement. This was undertaken despite warnings to the John A. Macdonald government from Roman Catholic Bishop Taché, the Anglican bishop of Rupert's land Robert Machray, and the HBC governor of Assiniboia William Mactavish, that any such survey would precipitate unrest. In the event, the survey party, headed by Colonel John Stoughton Dennis arrived at Fort Garry on August 20, 1869. This aroused significant anxiety among the Métis, as many did not possess clear title to their land, which was in any case laid out according to the Seigneurial system with long, narrow lots fronting the river, rather than the square lots preferred by the English. The survey was an obvious harbinger of a coming wave of Canadian migration, and was correctly perceived as a threat to the Métis way of life — they feared they could lose their farms, and that their language and Roman Catholic religion would face increasing marginalisation and discrimination.

Riel emerges as a leader

The fears of the Métis were exacerbated when the Canadian government appointed the notoriously anti-French McDougall as the Lieutenant Governor-designate on 28 September 1869, in anticipation of a formal transfer to take effect on December 1. It was at this time that the educated Louis Riel began to emerge as a leader, beginning with his denunciation of the survey in a speech delivered in late August from the steps of the Saint-Boniface Cathedral. On October 11, 1869, the work of the survey was disrupted by a group of Métis including Riel. On October 16 this group organised itself as the "Métis National Committee", with Riel as secretary, John Bruce as president and two representatives from each parish, to represent Métis interests.

At this time, the Hudson's Bay Company's Council of Assiniboia still asserted authority over the area, and on October 25, Riel was summoned before them to explain the actions of the Committee. Riel declared that any attempt by McDougall to enter would be blocked unless the Canadians had first negotiated terms with the Métis and with the general population of the settlement.

On November 2, Métis under the command of Ambroise-Dydime Lépine turned back McDougall's party near the American border, forcing them to retreat to Pembina, North Dakota. The number of Riel's followers had grown rapidly, and on that same day a group of up to 400 Métis led by Riel seized Fort Garry without bloodshed.

Considerable differences remained at the Red River Settlement over how to negotiate with Canada, and in particular, no consensus had been reached between the French and English speaking inhabitants. In a conciliatory gesture, Riel on November 6 asked the anglophones to select delegates from each of their parishes to attend a convention alongside the Métis representatives. The first such meeting resulted in few accomplishments, and some of the anglophone delegates expressed displeasure at Riel's treatment of McDougall.

On November 16, the Council of Assiniboia made a final attempt to assert its authority when Governor Mactavish issued a proclamation demanding that the Métis lay down their arms. However the Métis had no reason to believe that the council would safeguard their interests. This prompted Riel on November 23 to propose the formation of a provisional government to enter direct negotiations with Canada, but this was not accepted by the anglophone delegates, who requested an adjournment to discuss matters.

On December 1, McDougall proclaimed that the Hudson's Bay Company was no longer in control of Rupert's Land, and that he was the new lieutenant-governor. This proclamation was to later prove problematic, as it effectively ended the authority of the Council, while failing to establish Canadian authority — unbeknownst to McDougall, the transfer had been postponed once news of the unrest reached Ottawa. On the same day, Riel presented to the convention a list of fourteen rights that were demanded as a condition of union. The demands included representation in parliament, a bilingual legislature, a bilingual chief justice, and recognition of certain land claims. While the convention did not then adopt the list, its demands were subsequently accepted as reasonable by the majority of anglophones once the contents became generally known.

Even while much of the settlement was coming to accept the Métis point of view, resistance was building among a passionately pro-Canadian minority, loosely organised as the Canadian Party, led by Dr. John Christian Schultz and Charles Mair, and supported by Colonel Dennis, and the more reticent Major Charles Boulton. The situation escalated when McDougall attempted to assert his authority by appointing Dennis to raise a contingent of armed men, which were to arrest the Métis occupying Upper Fort Garry. The anglophone settlers largely ignored this call to arms, and Dennis withdrew to Lower Fort Garry. Schultz, however, was emboldened to fortify his house and store, and attracted approximately fifty recruits. Riel took this threat seriously, and ordered Schultz's home surrounded. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Canadians surrendered on December 7 and were imprisoned in Fort Garry. Given the unrest and absence of a clear authority, The Métis National Committee had little choice but to declare a provisional government, and did so on December 8. Having finally received notification of the delay in transfer, McDougall and Dennis departed for Ontario on 18 December, and Major Boulton fled to Portage la Prairie.

Provisional government

Meanwhile in Ottawa, the Governor General Lord Lisgar had, at Macdonald's behest, proclaimed an amnesty on December 6 for all in Red River who would lay down their arms, and dispatched the Abbé Jean-Baptiste Thibault and Charles-René d’Irumberry de Salaberry on a mission of reconciliation. However these emissaries were not granted any special authority to negotiate on behalf of the Government. Macdonald also appointed Hudson's Bay representative Donald Alexander Smith as special commissioner with greater authority to negotiate.

On December 27, John Bruce resigned as president of the provisional government, and Riel was elected president. On this same day Donald Smith arrived in the settlement, followed shortly thereafter by de Salaberry, joining Thibault, who had arrived on Christmas day. An inconclusive meeting occurred on January 5, 1870 between Riel, de Salaberry, and Thibault, followed by another between Riel and Smith the following day. At this time Smith concluded that negotiation with the committee would be fruitless, and intrigued to present the Canadian position in the context of a public meeting. Meetings were held on January 19 and January 20, and with Riel acting as translator, Smith assured the large audiences of the Canadian government's goodwill, intention to grant representation, and willingness to extend concessions with respect to land claims. With the settlement now solidly behind him, Riel proposed the formation of a new convention of forty representatives, split evenly between French and English settlers, to consider Smith's instructions. This was accepted, and upon their recommendation a committee of six outlined a more comprehensive list of rights, which was accepted by the convention on February 3. Following meetings on February 7 wherein the new list of rights were presented to Thibault, de Salaberry, and Smith, Smith proposed that a delegation be sent to Ottawa to engage in direct negotiations with Canada, a suggestion eagerly accepted by Riel. At this time Riel also proposed that the provisional government should be reformed so as to be more inclusive of both language groups. A constitution enshrining these goals was accepted by the convention on February 10, leading to the establishment of an elected assembly consisting of twelve representatives from anglophone parishes and 12 representatives from francophone parishes.

Canadian resistance and the execution of Scott

Despite the apparent progress on the political front and the inclusion of Anglophones within the provisional government, the Canadian contingent was not yet silenced, for on January 9 there was a mass escape from the prison at Fort Garry. Charles Mair, Thomas Scott, and ten others escaped. This was followed on January 23 by the escape of John Schultz. In any case, Riel had by February 15 freed the remaining prisoners after obtaining assurances that they would refrain from engaging in political agitation. However, Schultz, Mair, and Scott had every intention of fomenting civil war, if necessary, to depose the Métis from power. Mair and Thomas proceeded to the Canadian settlements surrounding Portage la Prairie, where they met Boulton, while Schultz sought recruits in the Canadian parishes downstream. On February 12, Boulton led a party from Portage la Prairie that intended to rendezvous at Kildonan with Schultz's men for the express purpose of then overthrowing the provisional government. Boulton however had misgivings, and turned the party back. However, they were detected by Riel's forces, and on February 17 48 men including Boulton and Thomas Scott were apprehended near Fort Garry. On hearing this news, Schultz and Mair fled to Ontario.

Now acutely aware of the seriousness of the threat posed by this element, Riel demanded that an example be made of Boulton. He was tried and sentenced to death for his interference with the provisional government. Intercessions on his behalf by Donald Smith and others resulted in his pardon, but only after Riel obtained assurances from Smith that he would persuade the English parishes to elect provisional representatives. However, the prisoner Thomas Scott, an Orangeman, interpreted Boulton's pardon as weakness on the part of the Métis, whom he regarded with open contempt. After repeatedly quarrelling with his guards, they insisted that he be tried for insubordination. At his trial, which was overseen by Ambroise-Dydime Lépine, he was found guilty of insulting the president, defying the authority of the provisional government, and fighting with his guards. He was sentenced to death despite the fact that these were not considered capital crimes at the time. Donald Smith and Major Boulton were among those who asked Riel to commute the sentence, but Donald Smith reported that Riel responded to his pleas by saying :"I have done three good things since I have commenced; I have spared Boulton's life at your instance, I pardoned Gaddy, and now I shall shoot Scott." Riel may also have been told by Scott's jailers that they would kill Scott if the committee did not. Scott was executed by a firing squad on March 4, 1870. Riel's motivations for allowing the execution, described as his one great political blunder, have been the cause of much speculation. His own justification was that he felt it necessary to demonstrate to the Canadians that the Métis must be taken seriously.

Creation of Manitoba

Upon receiving news of the unrest, Bishop Taché was recalled from Rome. He arrived back in the colony on March 8, whereupon he conveyed to Riel his mistaken impression that the December amnesty would apply to both Riel and Lépine. On March 15 he read to the elected assembly a telegram from Joseph Howe indicating that the government found the demands in the list of rights to be "in the main satisfactory". Following the preparation of a final list of rights that included new demands such as a general amnesty for all members of the provisional government and provisions for separate francophone schools, delegates Abbé Joseph-Noël Ritchot, Judge John Black and Alfred Henry Scott departed for Ottawa on March 23 and 24.

Shortly after this, Mair and Schultz arrived in Toronto, Ontario, and with the assistance of George Taylor Denison III immediately set about inflaming anti-Métis and anti-Catholic sentiment over the execution of Scott in the editorial pages of the Ontario press. Nevertheless, Macdonald had decided before the provisional government was established that Canada must negotiate with the Métis. Although the delegates were arrested following their arrival in Ottawa on April 11 on charges of abetting murder, they were quickly released. They soon entered into direct talks with Macdonald and Cartier, wherein Ritchot emerged as an effective negotiator; an agreement enshrining many of the demands in the list of rights was soon reached. This formed the basis for the Manitoba Act of May 12, 1870, which admitted Manitoba into the Canadian confederation on July 15. Significantly however, Ritchot could not secure a clarification of the Governor General's amnesty — anger over Scott's execution was growing rapidly in Ontario, and any such guarantee was not politically expedient. The delegates returned to Manitoba with only a promise of a forthcoming amnesty.

The Wolseley expedition

As a means of exercising Canadian authority in the settlement and dissuading the Minnesota expansionists, a Canadian military expedition under Colonel Garnet Wolseley was dispatched to the Red River. Ontarians especially looked on the purpose of the Wolseley Expedition as the suppression of rebellion, although the government described it as an "errand of peace". Learning that Canadian militia elements in the expedition meant to lynch him, Riel fled as the expedition approached the Red River on August 24. The arrival of the expedition marked the effective end of the Red River Rebellion.


The Red River resistance was only given the description of a rebellion after sentiment grew in Ontario against the execution of Thomas Scott. Historian A.G. Morice suggests that the phrase "Red River Rebellion" owes its persistence to alliteration, a quality that made it attractive for publication in newspaper headlines (Critical History of The Red River Insurrection (1935)). The word "resistance", though decidedly less dramatic, retains the alliterative character of the earlier phrase and is generally preferred by the majority of contemporary academic historians as it more accurately describes the particulars of the political situation at the time.

In 1875, Riel was formally exiled from Canada for five years, but under pressure from Quebec the government of Sir John A. Macdonald took no more vigorous action. Riel was elected to the Canadian parliament three times while in exile, but never took his seat. He returned to Canada in 1885 to lead the North-West Rebellion or North-West Resistance.


*Boulton, Charles A. (1886) "Reminiscences of the North-West Rebellions". Toronto. [ Online text]
* Stanley, George F.G. (1989) "Toil & Trouble: Military Expeditions to Red River." ISBN 1-55002-059-5

See also

* North-West Rebellion
* Red River Settlement
* Métis people (Canada)
* Louis Riel
* Wolseley Expedition

External links

* [ Biography of Riel from the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online"]

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