The Spirit of Resistance 12

The events of the Northwest Rebellion eventually led to the surrender, by Riel, against overwhelming odds. He felt this would save further blood shed and that the ensuing trial would provide a platform from which to air the grievances of the Metis people. He did not wish his actions to be known as those of a “madman”, the defense’s main tool. This did not help him. After pleading the case of the Metis for an hour, the judge finally lost patience and along with the jury, sentenced him to be “hanged by the neck until dead”. The arm of the law could not be seen as weak.

I often ponder the many aspects of the Riel situation. I think about my grandmother, Josephine Daigneault and how she must have heard the story many times as a child; perhaps there were still relatives living who were affected by the death of their relative.

I think about Riel’s situation;  how he was thrown into a situation he may not have been fully prepared for because he was educated and religious. His father was a man of strong opinion and ambition and probably gave him a strong sense of responsibility towards the community.

Talk of his sanity brings to my mind the religious raptures that the nun, Marie L’Incarnation experienced as she went through the trials of establishing a convent in the New World.  We are taught that we must put our faith in God when we are overwhelmed with fear. Belief can overcome.  That is what it would take to face the strong possibility of death.

I think Riel’s life is an example of being swept up by forces out of our control, about fighting against greed, deceit and inhumanity. Rest in Peace, cher cousin.

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


The Spirit of Resistance 9

When the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with the Northwest Company in 1821, the Metis began to feel increasingly frustrated and resentful. They were being governed by people who weren’t even resident there and therefore did not have the intrinsic right to control the fur market. Many continued to obtain furs directly from the Indians and bartered them to the Americans in St.Paul, Minnesota. A trading post had been set up in Pembina by the American Fur Company, where the price of furs was much more generous.

In 1845, unrest had grown to a point where petitions were sent first to the Governor and then to England with James Sinclair.  The documents were presented to the  British government by Alexander Isbister, a Scots Metis lawyer but to no avail.  HBC Governor, George Simpson attempted to stop “illicit” trading, even going so far as to search homes and impose an import duty on American products. Soon, the colony was placed under martial law.

In 1849 four men were charged with illegally trafficking furs, including Pierre Sayer. Jean-Louis Riel, father to Louis and a community activist, set up a committee to respond to the charges. He was joined by James Sinclair and Andrew McDermot two of the most prominent private traders in the settlement.  Several hundred armed Metis gathered on the grounds of St. Boniface Cathedral to listen to Riel’s rallying cry, afterwards crossing the river to congregate in front of the court-house. Some went into the courtroom and some into the jury box, all armed.

The trial proceeded in front of the Governor and Chief Factor of Fort Garry,  John Ballenden . The jury found Sayer guilty but recommended mercy since the Metis had been encouraged to trade along the border line but not specifically with whom. Since their was no direct evidence against Sayer and there was a huge armed gathering outside, Ballenden decided prudently, to drop the charges against the other three men as well as Sayer.

The declaration of free trade and liberty led to increased trade with the Americans at Pembina and St. Paul. Hundreds of carts carrying the products of the fur trade, pemmican, buffalo robes and hides, tallow saddles, embroidered coats and moccasins would make the 1000 kilometre trip each year until the buffalo died out.  Most of these were created by the labour of Metis women.

Once again we see the solidarity which helped form the identity of a people with their own culture and way of life.

Note: Said Louis Riel Sr. was married to Julie Lagimodiere, my 4th great-aunt and mother of Louis Riel, famed Metis martyr.  According to some, the Riel name had its origins in Ireland as Reilly and was transmuted to Riel after the “Flight of the Wild  Geese”. The Flight of the Wild Geese was the departure of an Irish Jacobite army under the command of Patrick Sarsfield from Ireland to France in 1691. There the army disbanded and Reilly joined the ranks of Louis XIV possibly calling himself Riel by then.

Riel came to Canada as part of the Carignan Salieres regiment and decided to stay in Quebec.  Eventually, the family wound its way to Saskatchewan where Riel Sr. was born and then to Manitoba where Louis Riel the son, was born . Through Julie, Louis was my 1st cousin 4X removed. It is still hard for me to imagine the great sorrow that the family endured at their loss. Of course, the Lagimodiere family has its own story too.

I do remember my mother telling me that one of my grandmother’s ancestors was the first white woman in the west. That would be Marie Anne Gaboury, Jean Baptist Lagimodiere’s wife. There is definitely an enduring pioneering attitude and history on both sides of my family, more on that later.



The Spirit of Resistance 8

The story of the Metis people is conjoined with the anti-monopolist policy western society identifies itself with. One wonders in whose eyes the actions of the Northwest Company against the Hudson’s Bay Company’s take over bid would appear mistaken.  A settlement is planted right across the trade route of a company. It causes a reaction, albeit a very extreme one. The leader of the group, Cuthbert Grant leads the revolt and  then somehow goes on to become a community leader.

The term “freeman” in many of the history books, generally refers to a Metis fur trader. He might have been a voyageur, a trapper, a trader, a fisherman or a trip man. In other words he did what he had to to survive. His character might have been a little questionable but his skills were not.

In 1841,  Governor George Simpson decided that he would send a party of colonists overland to Oregon under James Sinclair, a Scots Metis. This would keep a British presence there as well as reduce the population of the colony. That in turn, would reduce the illegal traffic in furs. Oregon at the time was much larger than today, including Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana.

James Sinclair Photo

Sinclair was one of the leading freighters and private traders in the settlement and a possible threat to the company. In June 1841, 23 families set out for Edmonton House, 1500 kilometres away.  Amoung them They would risk being swept away crossing the Saskatchewan River, a mile wide at some points. They would be travelling in “Indian Country” where the Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Piegan and Cree fought over the land.

The orders Simpson left at Edmonton House were ignored by Sinclair who decided to seek a little glory for himself by finding a different route. They traveled on to Banff and Canmore to cross the Bow River. Soon, they realized they would have to abandon their carts and form a mule train. The animals, not used to carrying loads, threw off their loads and the company had to repack.

Nine days later, the company passed through the Columbia River Valley and onto the Kootenay Plains. They were finally on the west side of the divide, in a land of glaciers. After passing through Canal Flats, they followed the Kootenay River southward. and through Idaho. A stop at Fort Colville and on to Fort Walla Walla ( Fort Nez Perce). Again, on their way to Fort Vancouver, they passed through hostile country. Finally, they arrived at Fort Vancouver where HBC Governor Simpson awaited with bad news.

Similarly to the arrival at Red River in 1812, Simpson could not meet his promises. Authorization from London had not come through. There would be no houses, cattle or plows. Chief Factor of Fort Vancouver and Head of the Columbia District, John McLoughlin, would be of no use, he had become convinced of the “Manifest Destiny” of the Americans after the wagon trains started pouring into the country.  Many of the settlers decided to leave for the Willamette Valley and their families remain there to this day.

During this time, the decision about where the border between Canada (Britain) and the United States would run was being argued.  It became known as the “Oregon Question”. The British argued that territorial law stated only lands that had been discovered and settled, conquered or ceded, could be acquired by a country. Still, Simpson did not see how the company could provide for and establish agricultural colonies in the land fast enough.

Canada being run from abroad by nobility who viewed it only as a colony and a source of profit in the face of the determination and quick action of the Americans was not a winning proposal. On June 14, 1846, Simpson walked away with a line running the 49th parallel and losing a huge and productive area. Once again, the Metis people showed their courage and resilience against an indifferent government.



The Spirit of Resistance 7

The aboriginal people of Canada have often been referred to as a “stone-age people” at the time of contact with the Europeans in the early seventeenth century. One might even perceive the buffalo hunt as being a demonstration of this, comparing it to the mammoth hunts of their ancestors.  Let us see how the hunt out of Selkirk went in July of 1840. The Métis and Scot half-breeds comprised nearly half the colony.  In spite of  their lack of property they “held themselves above all restraint”. One might assume they had inherited the aboriginal belief that the land could not be owned.

As soon as spring arrived, a type of mania took hold of the colony, with the hunters borrowing everything they would need for the hunt on the promise of payment after the hunt. This led to a system of  “long credit” which did not help the borrower or the lender. The hunt was much bigger than one would imagine, with some 1,630 “souls” travelling along with perhaps even a member of the British nobility, taking part in the “pleasures of the chase”.  Their was no distinction given them as they sat down to a dinner of fresh buffalo-steak.

Let us look at a list of supplies ( including employees)  purchased (again mostly on credit) by the hunters.
1210 carts
620 hunters ( for the two months they would be away)
620 women (again for the two month period)
360 boys and girls
740 guns
150 gallons of gunpowder
1300 pounds of trading balls
6240 gun flints
100 steel daggers
100 (skinning knives)
403 buffalo runners
655 cart horses
586 draught oxen
1210 sets of harness
403 riding saddles
403 bridles and whips
1240 scalping knives
448 half axes
Camp equipment ( tents, cooking equipment etc.)
Total-£24,000 (roughly $107,000 American in 1800)

Finally the entourage gathered on the open plain where a roll was called and rules for the journey were decided. Leaders for the trip were named as all the carts were placed side by side with the trams outward forming a circle. Within this circle, the tents were placed in double treble rows on one end and the animals were placed at the other end in front of the tents as protection against an attack by enemies, particularly the Sioux. They were followed by a  pack of 543 hungry dogs . The dogs were a necessity in the winter as sled dogs when the horses could not make it through the snow. The hunter would wrestle the dogs into their traces and then donning his wolf costume, throw himself on the sled to get among the herd where he would silently kill the buffalo with bow and arrow.

Once they were settled, 10 captains were chosen, one of them the head captain. Under these 10, were placed 10 soldiers and under these, 10 guides. The guides duties rotated by day and each carried the flag their day. It was raised every morning to signal the raising of camp. Half an hour was allowed to be ready to march but this could be delayed by circumstance. The guide controlled all that happened in camp by day but when the flag was lowered the captains and soldiers began their duties. Like clockwork, carts were guided into position.

By now, they had arrived at Pembina and were preparing to move further out onto the plain to find the buffalo. Rules were made for the hunt.

  1. No buffalo hunting on Sunday.
  2. No one was to separate from the expedition.
  3. No one was to start before the general order
  4. Every captain was to patrol and guard the camp.
  5. For the first trespass of these rules, the offender was to have his saddle and bridle cut up.
  6. For the second offence, the offender’s coat was to be taken and cut up.
  7. For the third offence, the offender was to be flogged (whipped).
  8. Any person convicted of theft of any kind, was to be brought to the middle of the camp and shamed by having his name called out followed by the word “Thief”.

Although the punishments seem a little mild, there were very few if any misdemeanors in the camp. A priest was always there to accompany the expedition.

A break to rest the animals might be taken during the day.  Again, the flag ruled. When it was raised you moved, when it was down you stopped. The general start and stop times would be half an hour, the distance traveled 20 miles in a day.  If anyone lagged behind, the captain and soldiers would chastise him but make sure his cart was in line quickly.

At the end of day the officials would gather somewhere away to discuss the days events and plan for the next day. Conversation would inevitably lead to politics at which point the men would exclaim against any type of control on their society. Were they not all great and free men, free to live the way they saw fit? The plains were their home. Later, wandering the camp, Ross came upon some of the families of these men and found them, to his great consternation bordering on destitution. He bemoaned the hunters lack of forethought, their “feast or famine” way of life.

There was no actual way of telling where the buffalo would be. The course would generally be to the southwest, where the sources of the rivers were. The party of 1840 would travel some 250 miles before they came within sight of the buffalo. In no time, 400 hunters were assembled and ready for the chase. Like an army charging, they would start at a trot but were soon racing towards the buffalo which did not notice them until they were four or five hundred yards away. By the time they took flight, the riders were among them, guns fired, the air was filled with clouds of dust. The earth quaked with the weight of the racing herd. The fattest cows were always the most desirable and only the fastest horses could get to them at the front of the herd. The hunter, his mouth full of  musket balls, loaded his gun as he road. The best horses were trained to jump aside after a shot to avoid tripping over the wounded animal.

The hunter wasted no time getting to the animal to skin and butcher it. Most were surprisingly able to identify their kill. He kept a vigilant eye out for the enemy, a lurking Sioux only too willing to take his scalp. If this did happen, men from the camp would pursue the culprits and bring them down. Many runners were gored by a bull. The day was short and this led to many carcasses being abandoned, a factor in the decimation of the bison. If it rained the meat would be ruined. When the men returned with the hides and meat the work of the women commenced and that work was very labor intensive. At this hunt, 2500 animals were killed but only the meat of 750 animals was processed.  The chase was the greater part of the attraction. Many continued to go hungry in spite of the large kill.

The group next traveled to Missouri where the Americans charged them more than double the Canadian price for whatever goods they fancied, including the whiskey forbidden for trade in Canada. Wherever the party stopped, they would continue drying the meat for the trip home and soon they were caught up in the animosities of the Sioux and Saulteaux. The Metis, by befriending the Saulteaux put themselves in danger but managed to get back to Pembina where the parties broke up for the trip home. Once they returned, the HBC took its agreed upon share and  the market for the farmers produce dropped . After he had paid a little to his debtors the hunter was content to live off of his own surplus until the next hunt.  I am going to venture and say that it is highly probable that many of my Daigneault and Cyr ancestors went out on the buffalo hunt.