The Spirit of Resistance 10

Shortly after the British North America Act had created Canada by uniting the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, a movement developed to annex Rupert’s Land to the new country.  There was little remaining arable land in Upper Canada and the northwest was seen as an opportunity to expand borders and increase trade with Asia on the Pacific. These men, primarily Anglo-Saxon protestants also wanted to expand the British culture westward under the pretext of uniting the country.

A campaign was embarked upon that would change the image of the North-West to one of plenty instead of a frozen wasteland. The government would be lobbied for a railway to the Pacific . Rupert’s Land would have to be annexed and the HBC attacked for being a backward thinking monopoly. The base for westward expansion would be the Red River Settlement. The fortunes of the aboriginal people could only be improved by this expansion and civilizing influence.

Like the American West, the expansion would increase the market for Canadian products. It would also halt American expansion into Canada and private land ownership would follow.  Soon after Confederation, the Canadian Government entered into negotiations with the British Colonial Office to acquire Rupert’s Land (which included the Red River Settlement) from the HBC. In July of 1868, the Rupert’s Land Act authorized the surrender of the HBC lands and privileges to Canada. In April 1869, the terms of transfer were settled. HBC was given a payment of £300,000 and extensive land grants.  No one thought to discuss the terms with the actual inhabitants of the West. As in America, they were an “invisible” people. All bowed before progress.

Land which had been purchased by the settlers, Metis and British, was included in the transfer to Canada. In August, 1869, William McDougall, Minister of the Interior, prematurely sent out Canadian surveyors to the Red River area. The system followed the American one of dividing lands into rectangular townships. The Metis system had the land running in long narrow strips back from the river which gave everyone access to water. The lots stretched several miles back to an area for grazing or hay privilege.

On October 1, 1869 survey lines crossed Andre Nault’s hay privilege . When the surveyors refused to leave, Nault called on Louis Riel who was bilingual.  An altercation took place during which Riel stepped on the surveyor’s chain. Passive resistance made the surveyors withdraw.

John MacDonald’s indifference to the plight of the settler’s led to the formation of the Metis National committee with Riel as secretary. William McDougall was to be made Lieutenant Governor at which the Metis protested. McDougall would not be permitted entry to the settlement until the Metis were conferred with as to the terms of the takeover. When McDougall tried to cross the American border he was forced back . Then Fort Garry, in the heart of the settlement was taken over.

The settlers began to meet, both Metis and English, until Riel put forward that they should form a provisional government to deal with Canada. On December 1, the day of the takeover, Riel tabled before the people a List of Rights which set out the terms which Riel and other delegates wanted Canada to accept. One of these was the right to self-government and control over the settlement’s affairs. Some of the other terms were a local legislature and elections, free homesteads, public lands for schools, use of French and English in the legislature and the courts, Indian treaties and Parliamentary representation.

Meanwhile, William McDougall sat over the border in Pembina, North Dakota. He did not know that MacDonald had postponed the takeover and took it upon himself to create his own set of official documents by which to proclaim himself Lieutenant Governor and the North-West a part of Canada. He then stepped over the border read it and returned to Pembina.  He had  missed a letter to him from MacDonald that proceeding would result in a “state of anarchy”. The HBC had already executed papers for the transfer of Rupert’s Land a week later on December 1st. McDougall’s premature proclamation left a gap in the government of Rupert’s Land which then gave the right to form a provisional government to keep control of the area.

A few days later, Riel found out about the fraudulent proclamation. McDougall ordered a call to arms  which was to be implemented by Colonel Stoughton Dennis and John Schultz, a known racist and the town’s newspaper publisher. Riel acted quickly, imprisoning Schultz and a number of Canadians who were planning an attack on Upper Fort Garry.  He formed a provisional government under the “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the NorthWest on December 8, 1869, insisting on their right to negotiate the terms of the transfer.

Donald Smith , then chief HBC official in Canada, was sent to the settlement to bribe some of the Metis away from Riel. He then addressed a large assembly, promising representation and title to land. Riel convened “the Convention of Forty” which was to be half French and half English to discuss Smith’s proposals. From this meeting a List of Rights was establlished. Riel met opposition from his own cousin Charles Nolin on his proposal for provincial status. A motion for a trip to Ottawa to discus entry into Confederation passed quickly.  There was agreement on the formation of a provisional government which was passed by William McTavish then Governor of Assiniboia.

While the provisional government was forming, the bigots, Schultz, Mair and Scott escaped. Thomas Scott was an “odious character” given to violence. They gathered an armed group of Englishmen against Riel and the government but were arrested and imprisoned.  Scott would not let up on his abuse of the guards until Riel ordered a court-martial. The death penalty was voted for and Scott was executed by firing squad, proof that there was an actual government in power. This however, turned out to be a huge political mistake for it raised the ire of the Protestants in Ontario.

A new list of rights was drawn up to be presented to MacDonald which included status as a province and provision for separate schools. The provision was taken to the Prime Minister and then Deputy Prime Minister Georges Cartier. Riel remained behind to guard the colony.

As a result of the meeting,

  • Manitoba gained entry into confederation as a province
  • A grant of 1,400,000 acres of land was allotted to the children of the Metis
  • Bilingualism in the legislature and courts was granted
  • Denominational schools were created


These were all part of the Manitoba Act which was based on the Provisional Government’s List of Rights.

On July 15th, 1870 Manitoba joined Confederation, Riel became the “Father of Confederation”. The request for amnesty of all persons involved in the resistance was not granted and would later have dire consequences for Riel.

Map of Transfer of R.L. and NWT to Canada July 15 1870


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