In the latter half of the 19th Century both America and Great Britain were engaged in a vast project to claim the west coast of the continent. Waves of settlers journeyed across the great plains of North America, and both powers invested considerable resources in trans-continental railroads.By 1885 Canada, which had become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire in 1867, embarked on its first big national project to claim the entire northern half of the North American continent. The federal government chose to lay a railroad between Nova Scotia in the east to the Pacific coast of the west, a total of 100,000 km of track. This was a massive project and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it borrowed from the Imperial government in London.
The Canadian Pacific Railroad was the single-greatest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Canada. It took 11 years and cost over $5 billion in today’s currency, as well as the lives of over 17,000 people, mostly Chinese and Irish.
The Canadian Pacific Railroad began construction in Ontario and the Maritimes in 1881, and by 1885 was progressing rapidly through Manitoba and into present-day Saskatchewan.
As the railroad pushed into the prairies, it began to displace the native p
opulations who had been living on those lands for thousands of years. Through Manitoba over 9,000 natives were driven off the lands near the railroad construction sites and pushed into government reservations. There were occasional revolts but small detachments of police were able to put them down.
Saskatchewan was different, however.
A century earlier French explorers had intermarried with the local native tribes, and their descendants of mixed blood, the Metis, had settled in the Manitoba/Saskatchewan area. They had lived for three generations in this area, completely independent and leading lives established in their own communities. As the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the government “resettlers” came through, the Metis rebelled.
The Metis were led by a young and charismatic leader, Louis Riel, who was both an idealist and uncompromising. The first sign of rebellion came near the Metis town of Red River where Riel and a handful of armed Metis arrested a group of railroad surveyors. Riel executed the leader of the group, Thomas Scott, and declared Saskatchewan an independent territory from the Dominion of Canada. He also passed a declaration that the Canadian Pacific Railroad could not enter Saskatchewan.
Louis Riel in 1884
Riel’s closest associate was the Cree leader, Big Bear. He and his Cree warriors joined Riel and the Metis in the Northwest Rebellion.
It wasn’t long before the government in Ottawa reacted, albeit at first with an eye to diplomacy. The government granted the Manitoba region provincehood and accepted it into Confederation, thus expanding the fledgling nation’s borders substantially. They also sent a military expedition to Manitoba to enforce the laws in the new province and to arrest Louis Riel for the murder of Thomas Scott. Riel fled to the United States.
After Riel left them, most of the Metis in Manitoba relocated to Saskatchewan rather than be imprisoned on reservations, and the Metis population there swelled. The railroad wasn’t far behind them, however, and a few years after the Red River Rebellion the CPR surveyors were arriving in Saskatchewan. In 1884 the Metis held a council and asked Louis Riel to return from exile. This he did and proclaimed the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. They chose the sizeable town of Batoche as their capital.
A rare photo of the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, with Louis Riel in the center.
By this point, things were different. The Northwest Mounted Police (forerunners of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) had been formed and were setting up stations across the prairies. Canada had also begun raising its own regular army units, some of which were stationed near Lake Superior, close to the railheads to the prairies.
On March 26, 1885, Louis Riel and his deputy, Chief Black Bear, ambushed and massacred a force of 90 Northwest Mounted Police officers at Duck Lake. This sent a wave of anger throughout eastern Canada, and within a fortnight Ottawa was sending 2,000 regular forces soldiers into Saskatchewan to deal with the Metis once and for all.
The Royal Canadian Army marches through Manitoba on the way to rebel-held Saskatchewan
Following the Duck Lake massacre Louis Riel and his Metis/Cree people had complete control over Saskatchewan. They embarked on a campaign to rid the area of white settlers. On April 2 Riel’s army surrounded the town of Frog Lake and rounded up all the men, women and children. They forced the citizens of Frog Lake into the local church, and then opened up on the church with rifles. 9 people were killed and 23 injured. Then Riel had the village burnt to the ground.
As the massacres of white settlers continued to grab headlines in the east, pressure mounted in Ottawa to do something about it. The contingent that had set out was augmented by 1,000 local militias from northern Ontario and Manitoba as they advanced into Saskatchewan. Finally, on April 24 1885 the new Royal Canadian Army met the Metis rebels for the first time.
It was a bad start for the Canadian Army’s first ever battle. Riel and 200 of his warriors managed to surround and defeat a superior force of 900. The surviving Canadians retreated in a disorganized mass, but Riel lacked the manpower to follow up with an advance. The Battle of Fish Creek marks the beginning of the Northwest Rebellion.
Riel won a second round at the Battle of Cut Knife 7 days later. This time the Canadian regulars had brought up a gatling gun, but Riel’s Metis and Cree utilized guerilla tactics to snipe away at the Canadian force until they were forced to retreat with heavy casualties.
The Canadian Army uses a gatling gun at the Battle of Cut Knife.
Riel had been engaging just one half of the army contingent sent out to stop him, however, and with few men and limited resources, he couldn’t stop the second half from skirting around his warriors and descending on the town of Batoche itself. Batoche was Louis Riel’s base of supply and communications, and Riel soon found himself cut off.
The Battle of Batoche lasted for 3 days. The Canadians used two gatling guns and four field cannons to blast the defenders down from the walls. On May 9 men from the Royal Rifles of Canada stood up from their positions and, without orders, charged down the grassy hills to the town with bayonets fixed. The Metis defenders, resorting to throwing rocks for lack of ammunition, threw down their weapons and ran. Batoche fell.
A rare photo of the Battle of Batoche, taken as the Royal Canadian Rifles were storming into the town.
Surrounded and with no base to retreat to, Louis Riel surrendered to the Northwest Mounted Police but his deputy, Big Bear, escaped with about 200 warriors and continued the fight. The Canadian Army met up with Big Bear at Frenchman’s Butte but the Cree warriors held and threw the Canadians back. Then Big Bear turned to face a new threat from his rear.
The Northwest Mounted Police detachment from Calgary, to the west of Saskatchewan, under the leadership of the famous mountie Sam Steel, had arrived to Big Bear’s rear. The Cree allies of Louis Riel now found themselves fighting the Royal Canadian Army to the east and the mounties to their west. Big Bear attempted to retreat but was eventually sandwiched at Loon Lake.
The Battle of Loon Lake saw most of the Cree defeated. Rather than be captured, most of them went down in a blaze of gunfire. Big Bear fled and was never seen again.
Loon Lake marks the end of the Northwest Rebellion. The Metis and Cree people were rounded up and placed onto reservations far to the north of the fertile prairie lands in the south. Louis Riel was brought to Ottawa where he stood trial for treason and for the murder of Thomas Scott. He was found guilty and hanged.
The Northwest Rebellion marked the end of resistance in the prairies and the “opening up” of the west. Following Louis Riel’s defiant stance, the authorities responsible for building the nation of Canada took every measure to ensure the native populations remained subdued, beginning with the notorious residential schools.
The Northwest Rebellion was the first major challenge the new nation of Canada had to face, and the first time Canada’s new army was used in combat. With the completion of the railroad in 1887, Canada had succesfully absorbed all the lands of the west north of the 60th parallel. Thus, the Northwest Rebellion stands as an important part of Canadian history.
Fish Creek today, abandoned but still battle scarred.