By Jim Harding

On welcoming a New Year we customarily review the previous year for perspective. This one-year-at-a-time approach can be deceptive. For example, to gain reliable perspective on what’s happening to our country we’d need to go back to 2006, well before the Senate scandal, to the election of the Harper government. We probably should go back further to 2000 when the Chretien government started its mammoth tax cuts.

But in our frantic, consumer-oriented times we aren’t disposed to think historically. Our society is highly conditioned to look forward individualistically, not backward with a collective lens. The frontier notion of “progress” has led us to believe that things must continue to get better: we are next year country. There is little to learn from the past and those who want us to look back do so to reinforce a highly selective nostalgic view. Neither view is very helpful; we need to look honestly at the past and see what we can glean to make things better.


Sometimes it takes longer than a lifetime to learn from past events. It is 170 years since Louis Riel was born and nearly 130 since he was executed. And yet as a society we still have much more to learn from what happened to Riel.  Manitobans probably understand Riel’s significance better than we do. Riel is rightly considered the Father of Manitoba for it was the 1869 Métis-led Red River insurrection that forced the Dominion government to negotiate the new province. This brought responsible and representative government to the North West and lay the ground for Saskatchewan.  Riel held widespread cross-cultural support after Manitoba was created in 1870. He was elected as MP for three terms even though he was in exile.


Riel along with Dumont led the 1885 North West insurrection and this played a major role in shaping our province’s history. With the continuing Manitoba land grab many Métis families were forced to move west. With the demise of the buffalo many Métis, Plains Cree and Blackfoot faced starvation.  Grievances against the Dominion were growing over failed treaty obligations and reserve resettlement practices. Métis and settlers alike had grievances over land tenure and the land grab by the powerful railways.

By 1884 an alliance was forming here between Métis and settlers. It was after a May 6th joint Settler’s Union meeting that Dumont headed a delegation to Montana to encourage Riel to return from years of exile. A devout Christian, Riel believed that he was chosen to lead his people out of oppression. He returned to Saskatchewan in June 1884. Settlers produced a manifesto of their grievances on July 28th and continuing meetings with Métis led to a joint petition sent to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald on December 16, 1884. Riel also met with Chief Poundmaker and Big Bear to find common ground which was difficult with indigenous communities being isolated on reserves as wards of the colonial state.

Macdonald denied he received the petition but in February 1885 Lieutenant Governor and Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney indicated that the government would investigate Métis land claims and titles.  Meanwhile, in March Dewdney was preparing for military action and troops were reinforced at the Battleford garrison. Riel did what he had done in 1869 and declared a provisional government at Batoche. Fifteen Métis were appointed to what was called the Exovedate. They took hostages and supplies but no killing occurred as happened in Manitoba fifteen years before. Aware that Middleton’s troops were advancing, Riel tried to strengthen the resolve of the Métis through prayer and fasting.


The conflict escalated and it became clear that Macdonald would only negotiate with the  gun. Riel’s diary shows he was not expecting the March 26th military encounter with the Mounted Police at Duck Lake. It shows he didn’t want to “do anything rash” and was trying to keep his ideas “well-balanced”. Dumont surprised everyone and defeated Superintendent Crozier; ten police and five Métis died in that battle.

The struggle against eastern colonial rule expanded. On April 1st Big Bear’s warriors rebelled against the government’s oppressive “work-for-rations” policy and nine settlers were killed at Frog Lake. Middleton’s troops were transported quickly by train to Qu’Appelle and on April 6th they began their overland trek towards Batoche. The rebellion of First Nations continued and on April 15th Inspector Dickens abandoned Fort Pitt and Big Bear’s band took several settlers prisoner.

On April 25th Middleton had his first engagement with Dumont at Fish Creek. Middleton’s forces were superior but they didn’t defeat Dumont; nevertheless the Métis lost 55 horses. Riel’s diary shows his religiosity was influencing his judgment for he saw this as punishment for “the sinful attachment you have to your horses”, apparently referring to the Métis practice of gambling on horse racing. On April 25th Colonel Otter also arrived at Battleford after a week-long siege by Poundmaker’s band. In early May Otter’s troops located Poundmaker’s camp at Cut Knife but they were repelled back to Battleford.


After a four-day siege of Batoche from May 9th to 12th, Middleton defeated Dumont. Riel and Dumont escaped but on May 15th Riel surrendered. After hearing of the defeat, Poundmaker also surrendered near Battleford. Big Bear’s band continued to fight and on May 27th they engaged with Middleton near Frenchman Butte. It was a standoff but on July 2nd Big Bear was captured near Fort Carlton.

The Métis weren’t prepared for the lengthy siege of Batoche and by the end they were using stones and nails as rifle ammunition.  In the end military superiority and not the justice of the struggle determined the outcome. Things had clearly changed since the 1869 Red River insurrection; this time Middleton’s superior troops could be quickly transported west by rail.

Riel’s trial started on July 20th, he was convicted on August 1st and hung in Regina on November 16th. There was no judicial independence; Judge Richardson was the legal adviser to Governor Dewdney. Serving at the will of the government and as an Orangeman who wanted revenge for what happened in Manitoba, the judge was motivated by political and religious bias. Centralized colonial authority had quickly quashed Riel.


From his diary we know that Riel was concerned for all those oppressed by colonial rule. He wrote “…how great were the Indian rights of possession to the land of the North West. Yes the depth of the Indian rights; the greatness of the Indian cause are by far above all other interests. They say the Indian is standing on the edge of a precipice. It is not he who is on the edge of a precipice: his claims are not false. They are just.”

What might have happened had there been an effective alliance with indigenous communities? Southern bands never joined the rebellion, in part because Dewdney got a guarantee from Chief Piapot to not join the uprising.  And the Métis were defeated before Poundmaker or Big Bear could get to Batoche. Divide and rule had worked as it had elsewhere in the British Empire.

It was only six months between Riel’s return to Canada and his execution. The swift hand of colonial law also occurred with First Nations: eight Indians, six from Big Bear’s band involved in Frog Lake, were publicly hung on November 27th at Battleford. Poundmaker and Big Bear were sent to jail. Then came the residential schools authorized under changes to the Indian Act in 1884. The merciless repression silenced many Métis and First Nations, especially until the 1960s when the U.S. civil rights and the South African anti-apartheid movements helped put indigenous rights on the global agenda.

Our 1982 Charter of Rights establishes indigenous peoples as founding partners to the country. But we haven’t caught up with the new reality. Prime Minister Harper continues to systematically undermine treaty land rights and settler environmental rights.  Perhaps it’s time for a new alliance, something like the Settler’s Union of 1884 to work with grass-roots groups like Idle No More. We may need something like this to protect our common watersheds. Learning lessons from history can help us in these urgent times.

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