Saskatchewan River: Last Stand
The Northwest Rebellion ends Métis autonomy
As European immigrants began pouring into the Prairies, the more Métis and aboriginal
groups became frustrated with the Canadian government's treatment of them. Their festering
anger exploded in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
Aboriginals — especially the Cree — believed that the federal government had broken its
treaty promises to provide food in times of scarcity. The aboriginal people also had little
say in what lands would be set aside as reserves for them.
Many Métis had moved west after the Red River uprising of 1869 and the government's
refusal to recognize their claims to land in Manitoba. Both Métis and aboriginal leaders
worried, with reason, that the influx of Europeans threatened their ways of life.
The Métis called on Louis Riel, their proven hero who had led their uprising in Manitoba,
to lead them in yet another campaign of resistance against the government in Ottawa. But
Louis Riel was now a changed person, and perhaps mentally unwell.
At first, Riel and his followers peacefully petitioned Ottawa to express their grievances.
But the government did not respond to their entreaties and the Métis and their aboriginal
allies prepared for war.
Gabriel Dumont, Riel's second in command, defeated the North-West Mounted Police at Duck
Lake. Chief Poundmaker and his Cree warriors surrounded Battleford. But conditions on the
Prairies were very different from those of the Red River in 1869. Thousands of European settlers
lived in the region and, most important, a new railway linked central Canada to the West.
Ottawa rushed 3,000 troops and 2,000 volunteer militia to the Saskatchewan River by train
in order to join the North-West Mounted Police. A number of skirmishes culminated in a decisive
battle at Batoche.
Riel's fighters ran out of ammunition after three days and retreated. Louis Riel surrendered
while his adjutant-general, Gabriel Dumont, and others fled to the United States.
The federal government prosecuted the rebels severely. Some Native leaders were hanged publicly
in Canada's largest mass execution. Chief Poundmaker of the Cree and Big Bear were both imprisoned.
Some people argued that Louis Riel was not sane enough to be legally tried. Nonetheless,
he was convicted of treason and hanged in Regina in 1885. The trial aroused fierce passions
and split the country along French and English lines.
In death, Louis Riel became an even greater hero to many Métis and French Canadians
than he was in life.
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