The year 1885 will never be forgotten in Canadian history. In a period of nine short months, between March and November, a series of climatic events brought together all parties inhabiting the Canadian west- Indians and Whites, French Catholics and English Protestants, builders and bureaucrats, and the Metis, mixed-blood sons of the fur traders and the voyageurs. Before the nine months were over, Canada would see a half-breed rebellion, an Indian uprising, a victorious army, and the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel.
This year saw Canada entering the age of the iron horse, as the last spike of a transcontinental railway was driven in a spur in the Rocky Mountains. As civilization rolled westward, confrontation was inevitable. Many Indians and Whites believed, at first, that they could share the land as brothers. Treaties were signed, with one speaker at an 1884 Tribal Council stating, "Governor Morris comes and tells the Indian we are not coming to buy your land. We come here to borrow the country to keep it for you. The Indians therefore understand that the country is only borrowed, not bought".
After years of slaughter, the buffalo, on which the Indian had depended for food, clothing, shelter and fuel, was nearly extinct. The Indians were assured that the government would feed them, but by 1883, when the exchequer was low, one of the first things cut back was the Indian rations. An Indian agent wrote the government in the winter of 1884, stating "The Indians are starving very badly. I fear that many of these people will not see spring". The condition of the mixed-blood Metis was even more troubling, and dangerous, than that of the pure-blood Indians. Those who had remained in Manitoba, following an earlier rebellion, found themselves overwhelmed by the flood of immigration from the east. Those who had fled west, seeking sanctuary and a resumption of their old ways on the Saskatchewan River were now feeling pressure from the land speculators and homesteaders.
The main cause of the rising Metis anger was the fear of losing lands they regarded as their patrimony, their natural inheritance from Indian ancestors. When the Canadian government purchased the Western wilderness from the Hudson's Bay Company, it took the position that all lands not specifically granted to individuals belonged to the British Crown. By this reasoning, the Metis were squatters on land they had farmed for generations. Under the new homestead law, they had to register their holdings as if they were brand new settlers, and wait for three years before being granted deeds.
Eventually, Ottawa acknowledged that the Metis had a natural title to the land that they worked. But the government was slow to survey their holdings, and slower still to issue deeds. Worse, government surveyors insisted on charting square lots instead of the long, narrow ones the Metis had laid our to intersect rivers and streams. The Metis petitioned Ottawa for sensible surveys, prompt ownership patents, and a voice in their own affairs. These appeals were repeatedly ignored, and in desperation, the Metis turned to Louis Riel, the man who had led the Red River rebellion 15 years previous. He had won concessions from the government, only to find himself forced into exile.
Since his banishment from Canada, Riel had wandered throughout the United States, living largely on the charity of French-Canadian sympathizers. By 1884, he had become an American citizen, was living in Montana, and married a half-breed woman, where he earned a living teaching Indian children at a mission school. At forty years of age, Riel was only one-eighth Indian, and was unable to shoot, ride or hunt as skillfully as most of the half-breeds. His gift, however, was that he could articulate the deepest fears, resentments and longings of his people, with many seeing him as a prophet, or even a saint.
Riel become obsessed with the idea that he was God's chosen instrument for accomplishing the deliverance of the Metis. He recounted a vision that had come to him some years earlier: "The same spirit who showed himself to Moses in the midst of fire and cloud appeared to me in the same manner. I was stupefied: I was confused. He said to me 'Rise up, Louis David Riel. You have a mission to fulfill'. Stretching out my arms and bending my head, I received this heavenly messenger".
On a Sunday morning in June of 1884, Riel was in church at St. Peter's Mission, when four horsemen approached. They were led by Gabriel Dumont, renowned as a horseman, sharpshooter and chief of the buffalo hunt, known to his admirers as "the prince of the prairies". The 47 Dumont, who spoke no English, believed that Riel alone could unite the Metis against the Canadian government. He and his companions had ridden 700 miles from the Saskatchewan Valley to plead with Riel to take up the old cause, and to assure him that French, English and Indians alike would rally to his side.
Riel packed his family and belongings in a wagon, and commenced the journey north. At Fort Benton, Riel stopped to ask the blessing of a Jesuit priest. The priest pleaded with Riel not to precipitate a conflict the Metis could not possibly win, despite assurances from Riel that he went in peace. Riel himself confided to the Jesuit father that he had a vision of a gallows at the top of a hill, and in the vision, saw himself hanging from the same gallows.
By July, Riel and his family had arrived at Batoche, the major Metis settlement on the South Saskatchewan River. A crowd of horsemen galloped to meet them, cheering wildly and firing their buffalo guns into the air. The Riel family was escorted to the home of a cousin, Charles Nolin. Using the Nolin home as his headquarters, Riel spent the next few months addressing meetings of the half-breed and White settlers in nearby communities, calling on them to defend their interests by firm, yet peaceful means.
In December, a fresh bill of rights was drafted, and sent to Ottawa. It demanded deeds to existing riverfront farms, scrip entitling original settlers to additional land, local government with representation in the Dominion Parliament, reduction of tariffs, more liberal settlement of Indian claims, and a new railroad to link the Saskatchewan region to ports in Hudson Bay.
Ottawa acknowledged receipt of the petition, but Prime Minister John A. Macdonald took no official action. He did, however, send a secret message to Donald Smith, of the Hudson's Bay Company, asking for the loan of the company buildings at Fort Carlton, 20 miles west of Batoche, as an emergency quarters for additional police.
Northwest Mounted Police garrison at Fort Pitt, 1884
Throughout the winter, Riel's agitation gathered momentum. In February, Father Alexis Andre, a priest who disliked Riel and had been spying on him for the government, sent a message to Ottawa that the Metis "great indignation might easily lead them to extreme acts". By this point, Riel was convinced that constitutional appeals were useless. On March 5, he and Gabriel Dumont announced: "We are going to take up arms for the glory of God, the honour of religion, and for the salvation of our souls". To strengthen the resolve of his followers, Riel employed a bit of sorcery. On March 15, he assured a gathering that he had heaven's blessing. As a sign of devine approval, he predicted that "God will draw His hand over the face of the sun". Shortly after he spoke, the sky darkened. Riel had consulted an almanac and knew he could count on an eclipse, but to his followers, it appeared to be a powerful omen.
A few days later, Riel formed the "Provisional Government of Saskatchewan", with Dumont as commander of the army, organizing 400 Metis into squadrons of cavalry. The guerrillas went into action immediately, cutting telegraph lines at Batoche, ransacking government stores, and taking several people, including an Indian agent, hostage. Next, Riel issued an ultimatum to Leif Crozier, leader of 50 policemen stationed at Fort Carlton. He offered the police safe conduct if they surrendered. If they refused, however, he swore to "commence without delay a war of extermination upon all those who have shown themselves hostile to our rights".
Crozier decided to move swiftly against Riel, choosing a trading post at Duck Lake as the site for their confrontation. The post had been occupied by Dumont and a number of Metis and Indians. On March 26, Crozier lead 55 policemen, along with 43 volunteers, a cannon and some horse drawn sleighs, from Fort Carlson. However, because of the deep spring snow, Crozier and his men had to march in file along a hard packed trail. As the column approached Duck Lake, the policemen noticed they were being slowly encircled by Metis, slipping through the woods on snowshoes. One policeman later noted they "were in a wretched position, lying in an exposed hollow, and surrounded on three sides".
Using the sleds across the path as a barricade, Crozier and his Scottish half-breed interpreter approached the Metis under a flag of parley. Crozier, however, believed that the Metis were stalling for time, in order to move more of their men up on his flanks and rear. As one of the Indians grabbed for the interpreter's rifle, Crozier gave his men the order to fire. Among the first casualties was Dumont's brother, Isidore.