One of the most dramatic scenes in Canadian history took place in Manitoba on October 11, 1869. Canada was in the process of taking over the huge Northwest Territory. The mixed heritage settlers, known as Métis, who had lived and hunted there for many years, were greatly disturbed because they did not know what would happen to their lands. They had no legal papers showing that they owned anything. They simply had “squatters rights.”
The Métis were led by twenty-five year old Louis Riel. His grandmother had been the first white child born in the Red River settlement, and his father had played a leading part in breaking the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly. Young Riel had been educated in Montreal, and was known to be brilliant, but vain and unstable.
When Sir John A. Macdonald‘s government decided to take over the territory, it moved quickly, for a number of reasons. Ottawa had received secret information that the United States was planning to take over the area and had agents working there (see my Sept. 28 post: They Will Become So American!). Although a number of local organizations had been formed to provide some control, the sooner Canada could take over, the better it would be.
The greatest difficulty was that the Métis and other settlers were badly informed. Practically no official information was given to the few newspapers. The Canadian Government had no intention of depriving the Métis of their holdings, but it was necessary to survey the area, so that fair shares could be allocated to all claimants. Public Works Minister William McDougall sent out survey parties to do the preparatory work, without explaining their purpose to the settlers.
On October 11, one of the survey crews began working on land claimed by André Nault, a cousin of Louis Riel. Nault tried to stop them, but they waved him away, so he saddled a horse and rode for help. In a short time he came back with sixteen Métis whose leader put a moccasined foot on the surveyors’ chain and said “You go no further.”
So, Louis Riel appeared on the stage of national affairs, and the part he played has not been forgotten, even today. It was the beginning of the Red River uprising, which still influences the political life of Canada.
To learn more about this, I highly suggest going to the Centre du patrimoine. And if you want to read even more, I would also recommend the Métis Nation of Ontario, and the Manitoba Historical Society, and finally the CBC – a People’s History.
“Whereas, it is admitted by all men, as a fundamental principle, that the public authority commands the obedience and respect of its subjects. It is also admitted that a people, when it has no Government in preference to another, to give or to refuse allegiance to that which is to refuse allegiance to that which is proposed.”
– Proclamation of the Provincial Government of the Northwest, Dec. 8, 1869, signed by John Bruce and Louis Riel
“If ever, in time to come, we should have the misfortune to become divided — as foreigners have sought before — that will be the signal for all disasters which we have until now so happily avoided. But let us hope that the lessons of the past will guide us in the future!
– Louis Riel, 1870