The conditions of life for the Métis and for the local aboriginal tribes of the North-West suffered badly in the years since the Red River Rebellion. This was due to the perpetual problem faced by indigenous people; the federal government's inattention to indigenous land claims because of its attention to Canadian political and economic development. In 1884, with poverty and poor agricultural prospects facing many indigenous people, their land claims uncertain and the presence of Canadian military forces in the form of the North West Mounted Police all pointing toward a lack of concern if not a threat from the Canadian government, the movement began towards another rebellion. In contrast the Red River case, the North West Rebellion itself was less telling of how the politics of this time and region reflects and influences the politics of indigenous people in Canada generally and to this day. This is so for two reasons. First, the rebellion was a violent failure, with many indigenous people and a lesser number of North-West Mounted Police losing their lives. Secondly, as a result of this failure and his surrender Louis Riel's fate became the focal point of the nation's political discourse. As such, it would be the fate of Riel and not the North West Rebellion, per se
, that would prove the more telling indicator of indigenous politics and Canadian politics generally.
Years before the North West Rebellion, Riel had moved to America and naturalized. As the economic conditions of the local tribes like the Cree and Assiniboine worsened and the political claims of the local Métis went unheeded, indigenous leaders and local white settlers journeyed to Montana to appeal for Riel's return. Upon returning to the North West in July 1884 to lead this new movement, Riel saw and heard first hand the basis for the grievances of the local indigenous tribes, Métis and white settlers.
In December 1884, following the political pattern set out at Red River, Riel and his colleagues submitted a ‘Petition of Rights' to the Canadian government. The list of seventeen grievances attests to the diversity of the constituency Riel represented. The first item on the list addressed the concerns not of the Métis but of the tribes residing on reserves in the region: "the Indians are so reduced that the settlers in many localities are compelled to furnish them with food, partly to prevent them from dying at their door, partly to preserve the peace of the Territory." Next came the matter of claims of Métis claims: "the Half-breeds of the Territory have not received 240 acres of land, each, as did the Manitoba Half-breeds . . . [and] the Half-breeds who are in possession of tracts of land have not received patents therefor." As many as eight of the grievances cited the complaints of the ‘old' or ‘bona fide' ‘settlers,' which refers to both long time or legitimately situated white settlers as well as Métis land claimants. A sample of the grievances includes the charge that "old settlers . . . have not receive[d] the same treatment as old settlers of Manitoba," "on canceled claims are limited to eighty acres Homestead and eighty acres of preemption," "are charged more than one dollar per acre for their preemptions," "are charged duties on timber, rails and firewood" and "are exposed to coercion at elections, owing to the fact that votes are not taken by ballot."(1)
In the end, the Riel-led petitioners asserted that the:
shortest and most effectual methods of remedying these grievances would be to grant the N.W.T responsible government with control of its own resources and just representation in the Federal Parliament and Cabinet. . . . the complete organization of the District of Saskatchewan as a province . . . entry into confederation, with the constitution of a free province. (2)
Although the charges listed ran the range from those specifically relevant to indigenous tribes on reserves, ‘half-breeds' and settlers of all sorts, the political prescription for resolving the claims of this diverse group mirrors that of the Red River petitioners; local self-government and entry into Confederation. One significant way in which this list of rights did not mirror the Red River experience, however, was that the North West petitioners never seriously sought to secure the status of either the French language or the Catholic church in the region. Rather, the distinction defining this particular conflict would not be between French and English but between indigenous and non-indigenous. This difference between the Red River and North West Rebellions is reflected not only in the charges and demands produced by leaders such as Riel, but also in the very blunt words and actions of Canadian political leaders.
In responding to North West insurgents' demands and their first direct action on March 19, 1885 - when they seized government stores in Batoche, held prisoners therein and declared a provisional government - Prime Minister John A. Macdonald focussed his attention on the political identity of the Rebellion's leading group, the Métis:
As a whole the half-breeds have been told that if they desire to be considered Indians there are most liberal reserves that they could go to with the others; but that if they desired to be considered white men they would get 160 acres of land as homesteads. (3)
In contrast to the political discourse during Red River resistance, which within the general Canadian polity transformed into a debate about how Métis political identity was framed amidst and between the French and English identities, for Macdonald the North West Rebellion served to illustrate the liminal positioning of the Métis between indigenous and white political identity. As a political identity articulated against Canadian nation and state formation, liminality (an in-between positioning) was inherently threatening because it challenged by blurring the boundary between the inside and outside of Canadian political space. Thus, Macdonald here wants the Métis to decide; either they are ‘Indians' to be placed ‘on reserves' outside standard Canadian political space, or they are ‘white men' who should claim their homesteading land inside Canada.
This choice - white or Indian, inside or outside, private property or communal reserves - did not mark out the polarities of Métis' ‘desires.' To the contrary, Riel saw Métis political identity as the force for shaping and guiding the politics of English settlers and ‘Indians' as well. Riel wrote about the plight of "all classes of the North West peoples," noting first how Canadian officials "deprive their own emigrants of their franchises, of their liberties not only political, but even civil and as they respect no right, we are justified before God and men to arm ourselves, to try and defend our existence rather [than] see it crushed." He deftly frames the abuse of the rights of Canadian emigrants by their own government as justifying the need for all groups to arm themselves against this government. He then addresses the "bad management of indian affairs by the canadian government," which has not erupted into an "Out break . . . due only to the Half-breeds who have up to this time persuaded the Indians to keep quiet." The corollary of this purported ability to "control the indians," according to Riel, is that "we will also have them weigh on our side in the balance" in resisting Canadian expansion. Thus, the apparently teeming ire of the local tribes can be shaped and funneled away from strictly indigenous concerns to those that reflect the more hybrid cause of the Métis. It is this hybridity, drawing on issues that effect settlers and indigenous people in their own particular ways as well as in matters that affect all, which makes Macdonald's identity ‘options' inimical to Métis political identity. In reality, then, the ‘white or Indian' choice actually reflects the desire of Canadian federal officials, in particular Macdonald, to affirmatively mark out Canada's western boundary and solidify the scope of Canadian sovereignty.
For Macdonald, these nation-building imperatives were most starkly and tangibly represented in his effort to keep the Canadian Pacific Railway moving westward, as both the symbolic and material carrier of his vision of a Canada ‘stretching from coast to coast.' As historian Maggie Siggins notes, before the rebellion Macdonald's own cabinet "refused to grant the Canadian Pacific Railway any more money." (5) To this end, the North West Rebellion provided Macdonald with the opportunity to revive the flagging railway by justifying its importance for securing the nation's sovereignty over territory and expanding its territorial claims.
Siggins concurs with historian D.N. Sprague's assessment that Macdonald's plan "envisioned" his troops on a "sudden dash to the Prairies, a mysterious ‘escape' of Riel back to the United States, conciliatory gestures to the surrendering Métis, and aid for the railway after it played such a key role in breaking up the ‘outbreak' so ‘speedily and gallantly.'" (6) What we see here, then, is how Canadian political development was spurred on by the federal government's effort to defeat the North West Rebellion, which required putting greater resources into railway expansion to move over 8,000 troops and the requisite supplies to the North West. Thus, the very element that made the North West Rebellion less significant and successful than the Red River Rebellion, that being the massive military force brought against the Métis and their allies, served to fortify Canada's political and economic infrastructure by compelling the federal government to expend the necessary resources to defeat this resistance. As such, the military expedition accomplished a major state-building task for Macdonald, justifying the expansion of the railway, reviving the western economy, and inspiring the general movement west. Furthermore, the expedition also managed to gain the surrender of the Canadian government's perennial gadfly, Louis Riel.
The North West Rebellion, from the point when it declared a provisional government and began armed resistance against Canada, lasted less than two months. On May 12, in the Battle of Batoche, the overwhelming number of government troops and militia sent westward by Macdonald were victorious over a much smaller Métis and tribal contingent. Three days after this defeat, Riel surrendered and was placed on trial for high treason against Canada. The trial of Louis Riel, which occurred in Regina, the capital of the North-West Territory, would draw out the implicit and explicit layers of political identity constituting and confusing Canadian politics. Ironically, the explicit identity conflicts articulated before, during and after the trial and execution of Riel drew more from the discourse and tensions of the Red River Rebellion than that of the North-West. However, implicit within the trial determining the literal fate of Riel at this time, and within Canadian history determining his symbolic legacy over time, are the hybrid issues that defined the North West Rebellion, including a much more assertive presence of specifically indigenous concerns. Thus, one must map the tensions unique to the Red River Rebellion on to those of the North West Rebellion in order to get the fullest picture not only of the interests in and interpretations of Riel=s trial and execution, but also of the triangulated politics defining indigenous and Canadian political life. This task will be pursued in the next edition of Whose Riel?, which will look at the state trial and execution of Louis Riel.
Kevin Bruyneel is not about the music. Not any more.
(1) Petition To His Excellency the Governor General, of Canada, in Council. [St. Laurent] 12/16/1884, The Collected Writings of Louis Riel. Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel: Volume 2, #003 . Edited by Gilles Martel and George F.G. Stanley. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, l985., p. 6. (Henceforth, CW) pp. 41-43
(2) "Petition. . ." 12/16/1884, CW 3-026, p. 45.
(3) John A. Macdonald. House of Commons Debates, March 26, 1885. In Bowsfield (1969), p. 125.
(4) "Letter To The English Half Breed of St. Andrew's and St. Catherine." St. Anthony. March 23, 1885, CW 3-035, p. 60.
(5) Maggie Siggins. Riel: A Life of Revolution. (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 392.
(6) D.N. Sprague. Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885. (Waterloo: Sir Wilfred Laurier Press, 1988), p. 175.