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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XI - A Lesson Lost: The Troubles of 1870


Bearing ox History of Saskatchewan1—Questionable Application of tiie Term Rebellion—Settlers and Hudson's Bay Company Employees Ignored in the Negotiation of Transfer—Consequent Fears and Misapprehensions—Canadian Surveys Antecedent to Transfer—McDougall Appointed Lieutenant-Governor by Canada prior to the Cession of the West—McDougall's Entrance Barred—McTavish Being Ill, Sanctions Establishment of Provisional Government—Bruce and Riel's "Declaration"—Attitude of English Settlers—Disastrous Follies of Colonel Dennis—Riel's Provisional Government-Comments on Inclusion of O'Dononue—Arrival of Canadian Commissioners—Public Assembly of January 25, 1870—Settlers Send Representatives to Negotiate Terms of New Constitution —Rising of Portage Loyalists—Execution of Thomas Scott— Arrangements for Military Expedition—Granville's Instructions—Riel and the Union Jack—The Manitoba Act—New Government Established—Services of Archbishop Tacue—Agitation for Punishment of Scott's Murderers—Dominion Authorities Pay Riel and Lepine to Leave the Country.

The story of the upheaval in the Red River Settlement in 1869 and 1870 belong especially to the history of Manitoba, but its bearing upon subsequent events in Saskatchewan makes it necessary for us to briefly review it. Whether from the point of law and equity the uprising should be called a rebellion is a matter in which there may be difference of opinion. Riel persistently claimed to be loyal to the British Crown, and it is hard to see how obstructions offered to the illegal encroachments of the Government of a sister colony could be defined as rebellion. In the report of a Committee of the Honourable the Privy Council, December 16, 1869, the Canadian Premier declared that the resistance of the Half-breeds "is evidently not against the sovereignty of Her Majesty or the government of the Hudson's Bay Company, but to the assumption of the government by Canada."

The essential fact remains, that by way of protest against the colossal folly and unpardonable bungling of the Imperial and Dominion Authorities, an extra-constitutional government held full sway for a period of about nine months. Had the manifest lessons involved in this unfortunate affair been duly taken to heart, the more serious and bloody uprising of 1885 in Saskatchewan would have been averted.

In negotiating for the annexation of Rupert's Land to Canada, the British and Canadian Authorities ignored (almost ostentatiously) the ten thousand white and Halfbreed settlers of the Red River district. The terms of the proposed transfer were never discussed with them or their representatives, and indeed reached the settlement only in vague and inaccurate rumors. While a considerable number of the belter informed colonists, consisting chiefly of recent immigrants from the East, were exceedingly anxious for the annexation, a large proportion were indifferent, and many others were bitterly opposed to it. The subordinate officials and traders of the Hudson's Bay Company believed that their interests were being ignored in the transfer, and the Halt-breeds, who, by virtue of their Indian blood, felt themselves to be, with the Indians, the natural possessors of the land, resented a surrender by which they believed that their birthright would be forfeited.

Moreover, the servants and retired employees believed that, as regards the lands assigned to them and their heirs under the terms of the Selkirk grant, but now tacitly included in the territory the Great Company assumed now to be surrendering Canada, the action of the Company was in law and equity invalid.

These misapprehensions might have been corrected before any serious mischief transpired had it not been for the action of the Dominion Government in sending surveyors into the country even before the terms of the transfer , had been agreed upon. Thus before the country was legally a part of Canada at all, its officials proceeded to lay out the land upon approved modern rectangular plans of survey, entirely ignoring the primitive system already in vogue among the settlers. The existing farms almost all took the form of river lots of narrow frontage and a couple of miles in depth. These could not be made to fit into the new system, and the settlers naturally concluded that they were to be robbed of their holdings. The domineering tone and supercilious arrogance of many of the officials employed in the survey seriously aggravated the indignation of the inhabitants.

As if follies enough had not already been committed, the Dominion Government, still prior to the acquirement of any legal title to the territory and without any consultation with the colonists, appointed as Lieutenant-Governor the Honorable William McDougall. whose subsequent humiliating experience gave him the unfortunate title of "Wandering Willie," and practically drove that energetic politician out of public life. The unlucky Governor was himself treated with scant courtesy by those who appointed him, and had every reason to resent the character of the support with which they seconded his ill-starred efforts to carry out their vague and foolish behests. Mr. McDougall journeyed westward via St. Paul, then the terminus of the railway system, and prepared there for his journey of four hundred miles across the
 prairies. His retinue was a considerable one, including Mr. Richards as Attorney-General and Premier. Mr. Provencher as Provincial Secretary, Captain Cameron, who was to command some future mounted constabulary and maintain the peace, together with various other officials and their families. All of these were complete strangers to the country and its people, and although Governor McDougall was to have authority to fill one-fourth of the places of the Council from among the residents of the settlement, the people were kept in ignorance of his plans in this connection.

For our present purposes it will be sufficient to outline the secptence of events very briefly.

Mr. McDougall reached Pembina and prepared to cuter his prospective domain. The excited half-breeds had determined, however, that no such entry should occur until negotiations between the Red River Settlers and the Federal Government had crystallized in a constitution satisfactory to the pioneers. Accordingly an armed force seized the highway between Fort Garry and the boundary to prevent McDougall's ingress, while the Half-breed leader, Louis Riel himself, took possession of Fort Garry, and Governor McTavish being incapacitated by sickness and really on his deathbed, Riel called a convention to establish a Provisional Government. The English delegates at this convention insisted on consulting Mr. McTavish and a Committee consisting of Messrs. Sutherland and Eraser interviewed him. Mr. McTavish said to them:

"Form a Government for God's sake and restore peace and order, in the settlement."

On December 8th Bruce, who till December 28th was nominally President of the Provisional Government, and Riel distributed among the Colonists what was called their "Declaration to the people of Rupert's Land and the North West." In it Riel declared, among other things, on behalf of himself and his associates, "that we refuse to recognize the authority of Canada, which pretends to have a right to coerce us and impose upon 11s a despotic form of government still more contrary to our rights and interests as British subjects than was that government to which we had subjected ourselves through necessity up to a certain date. . . . (We) shall continue to oppose with all our strength the establishment of a Canadian Authority in our country under the announced form. . . . Meanwhile we hold ourselves in readiness to enter into such negotiations with the Canadian Government as may be favourable for the good government and prosperity of this people."

The English settlers generally held aloof from the whole disturbance. In a subsequent report by Air. J. S. Dennis, on the attitude of the English-speaking portion of the colony, the following communication is quoted as fairly indicating the position taken by them: "We feel a disposition to extend a sincere welcome to the Honorable McDougall as a gentleman who has been selected for our future Governor. We regret sincerely that the good name of the colony should be prejudiced by any such action as that which we are told is contemplated by a portion of the French Half-breeds. We consider it a most outrageous proceeding on their part, and one that we would be glad to see put a stop to. At the same time, should an appeal to arms be necessary, we could hardly justify ourselves in engaging in a conflict which would be in our opinion one of nationalities and religions, and of which we could hardly at present foresee the termination. . . . We feel confidence in the future administration of the Government of this country; at the same time we have not been consulted in any way, as a people, in entering into the Dominion. The character of the Government has been settled in Canada. . . . We are prepared to accept it respectfully, to obey the laws and to become good subjects. But when you present 11s the issue of a conflict with the French party, with whom we have hitherto lived in friendship ... in which conflict the aid of the Indians would be invoked and perhaps obtained by that party, we feel disinclined to enter upon it, and think that the Dominion should accept the responsibility of establishing amongst us what it, and it alone, had decided upon,"

The dignified course for Air. McDongall and his party, on being refused admittance to the Colony, would have been to return to the East, but Sir John A. McDonald wrote to him: "I hope no consideration will induce you to leave your post,-—that is, to return to Canada just now." Accordingly the humiliated official remained through long weeks vainly knocking at the door of the Red River Settlement. Under date of the 1st of December, he issued a proclamation that he was the Lieutenant-Governor of the North West, which was not the case, and appointed Colonel Dennis his Lieutenant-Conservator of the Peace, with authority to rally loyal subjects for the dispersal and overthrow of the insurgent faction. This proclamation was posted in public places in the settlement during the night of the 13th of November. Dennis then enrolled volunteers, who succeeded only in getting themselves into trouble and strengthening the hands of Riel. Dennis himself fled the country, and numerous loyalists became prisoners at Fort Garry.

Early in January a formal provisional Government was definitely organized witli Riel as President, O'Donogline, an out-spoken Fenian, as Secretary-Treasurer, and Lepinc as Adjutant-General. Evidently Riel did not feel himself strong enough to exclude from his Council the Fenian element, but Archbishop Tache is authority for the statement that '"sums of money amounting to more than $4,000,000, men and arms had been offered" by Americans 011 condition that Riel would espouse annexation, but had been refused.1

Morice points out that one reason for the retention of O'Donogline in Riel's administration "may be found in the fact that the young Irishman had uncommon aptitudes in bookkeeping and all that pertains to the duties of an accountant. In an unpublished Memoir 011 the troubles of 1869 and 1870 Rev. Mr. L. Raymond Giroux, one of the Priests stationed at St. Boniface at the time, has the following: 'Mr. Riel, who had at heart the British connection, was one day complaining to me that O'Donogline was striving to give the movement an annexational complexion, but he said, "1 am in absolute need of him; he administers his department with ease and treats exceedingly well the halfbreeds, of whom he had become the idol."'

Meanwhile the Dominion Government was doing what it should have done long before. Commissioners were sent to explain the situation and to negotiate with the settlers. These were Vicar-General Thibault. Colonel De Salaberry and Donald A. Smith. His fellow commissioners arrived ahead of him and their credentials were seized by the insurgents, but Mr. Smith was more successful.

Prior to this, according to Begg, "the intentions of the Canadian Government were never made known to the people of the Settlement by Air. McDougall, or anyone else in his behalf." By the exercise of much common sense and shrewd diplomacy, Mr. Smith secured the privilege of presenting his papers before a mass-meeting of the settlers, which was held in the open air on 19th of January, with the thermometer at twenty degrees below zero. The Governor General's proclamation,- read by Mr. Smith, concluded as follows:—"And I do lastly inform you that in ease of your immediate and peaceable obedience and dispersion, I shall order that no legal procedure be taken against any parties implicated in these unfortunate breaches of the law."

On motion of Riel, a convention of twenty English and twenty French representatives was called for January 25th to consider Mr. Smith's mission. The chairman of this gathering was Judge Black, a prominent loyalist. A Bill of Rights was framed as a basis for legislation creating a provincial government, and protecting the landed interests of the retired servants of the Hudson's Cay Company, and Air. Smith invited the convention to appoint delegates to go to Ottawa and lay their wishes before the Government. Father Richot, Alfred Scott and Judge Black were thereupon selected to negotiate at the capital on behalf of the settlers.

At the close of this public meeting on January 25th at which Air. Smith presented his credentials and bis message from Canada, Riel spoke as follows:

"Before this Assembly breaks up, I cannot but express my feelings, however briefly. I came here with fear. We are not yet enemies, but we came very near being so. As soon as we understood each other we joined in demanding what our English fellow subjects in common with us believed to be our just rights. 1 am not afraid to say our rights; for we all have rights. We claim no half-rights, mind you. but all the rights we are entitled to. These rights will be set forth by our representatives and what is more, gentlemen, we will get them.''

The meeting then broke up with the utmost good feeling on all hands. On their arrival at Ottawa Father Richot and Air. Scott were, however, twice subjected to arrest, as rebels, but there being no case against them, they were finally set at liberty about the middle of April.

At Portage la Prairie, on February 14th. a large number of loyalists took up arms against the Provisional Government. Of this act of well-intentioned folly. Air. 1). A. Smith spoke as follows in his official report: "Had these men, properly armed and organized, been prepared to support the well effected French party when the latter took action about the middle of January, or even in the beginning of February during the sitting of the Convention, order might have been restored without the necessity of firing a single shot; but now the rising was not only rash but purposeless, as without its intervention the prisoners would unquestionably have been released. . . . Captain Poulton led the party and he and his friends at the Portage assured me that he exerted himself to the utmost to keep them from rising, and only joined them at the last moment when he saw they were determined to go forward." Poulton and a large number of his companions were captured on February 17th and Boulton was condemned to be shot. Various prominent citizens, including Air. Smith, interceded with Riel on Boulton's behalf. On the evening of the 19th, says Air. Smith: "I reasoned with him long and earnestly, until at length about 10 o'clock, lie yielded and addressing me apparently with much feeling, said, 'Hitherto I have been deaf to all entreaties and in now granting you this man's life,' (or words to that effect) 'may I ask you a favour'? 'Anything.' I replied, 'that in honour I can do.' He continued: 'Canada has disunited us; will you use your influence to unite us? You can do so, and without this it must be war—bloody civil war.' I answered that, as I had said on first coming to the country, 1 would now repeat that I would give my whole heart to effect a peaceable union of the country with Canada. 'We want only our just rights as British subjects,' he said. Then 1 remarked, 'I shall at once see them and induce them to go on with the election of delegates for that purpose.' "

Meantime the difficulties of Riel and his colleagues were increasing, and. on March 4th, Riel, to assert his waning authority, committed the unpardonable crime and blunder of executing, under circumstances of exceptional brutality, one of his prisoners, a hot headed, irrepressible and irresponsible loyalist and Orangeman, Thomas Scott.

The Canadian Government had already undertaken arrangements for sending a military force to restore and guarantee order in the West while the new government was being set afoot, and on the day following the execution of Scott, Earl Granville cabled the Governor-General in the following terms: 'Tier Majesty's Government will give proposed military assistance provided reasonable terms are granted Red River settlers, and provided your government enable Her Majesty's Government to proclaim the transfer simultaneously with the movement of the force." In a subsequent communication Earl Granville added the following pregnant warning: "Troops should not be employed in enforcing the sovereignty of Canada on the population, should they refuse to admit it."

On April 20 Riel ordered the Union Jack to be hoisted at Eort Garry in place of the emblem of the Provisional Government. This caused a violent altercation with O'Donogluie and his annexationists. Riel insisted, however, on keeping the British Hag floating from the centre flag staff at Fort Garry, but to please O'Donogluie he allowed the
 Provisional flag to be erected in front of Government House.

When the arrest, at Ottawa, of the two delegates of the provisional government was learned, O'Donogline wished to replace the British , flag by that of the United States, but Riel forbade this and placed Nault at the foot of the flagstaff with orders to fire on anyone who tried to touch it.

On May 2, 1S70. Sir John Macdonald introduced the Manitoba Act in the House of Commons. In its original form the bill so defined the boundaries of the new province that the important settlement of Portage la Prairie would have been left out. This feature was amended and a few other alterations were introduced in the first three days. The Government then forced the bill through, defeating every other proposed change. The measure was framed substantially in conformity to the Bill of Rights drawn up by Riel and his associates, except as regards clauses 1, 10 and 11 of the Western Manifesto. These provisions had been inserted to protect the claims of those believing themselves entitled to a share in that tenth of the Selkirk lands which had been intended for the ex-employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. However. the Act made provision for the equitable extinction of special halfbreed and Indian rights to the soil and for the immediate establishment of provincial autonomy. The bill became law on May ]2. On the
 preceding day the indemnity of three hundred thousand pounds was paid over to the Hudson's Bay Company.

Early in April Colonel Wolseley. who subsequently rose to high rank and dignity in the councils of the Empire and its military forces, had been appointed to command the Red River expedition. On the 2ist day of May he left Collingwood with part of his forces, and after a journey memorable for the stupendous difficulties overcome, he reached the Red River on August 23, marching in to Fort Garry the following day.

As Wolseley approached, Riel and his officers, realising that under existing circumstances their remaining at Fort Garry would intensely endanger the peace and their own lives, took to flight, retiring to the United States. 1 There is no reason to believe that at any time Riel had contemplated armed resistance to Wolseley, coming as the champion of a new constitution accepted by the authorised representatives of the people of the Red River. "I only wish to retain power until I can resign it to a proper government." said Riel to General Butler: "I have done everything for the sake of peace and to prevent bloodshed among the people of the land."

Wolseley thus found himself in peaceable possession, but in a position of very great difficulty, nevertheless. Rupert's Land was now a dependency of Canada, but the new Lieutenant-Governor, the Honourable Adams G. Archibald, did not arrive until September 2, and Wolseley himself had no civil authority. In the emergency he called upon Donald A. Smith to administer affairs pending the Lieutenant-Governor's arrival,—a task which he performed with characteristic efficiency.

An important influence operating to bring about this peaceable issue was that exercised by Bishop Tache. Fearing that the mission of Messrs. Smith, Thibault and Salaberry would prove unavailing, Sir John Macdonald took the precaution to request the Archbishop to return forthwith from a visit to Rome, to exercise his wonderful prestige for the avoidance of bloodshed. Upon this summons the Archbishop promptly acted, braving the hardships of a winter journey to the Red River district, where his exhortation and remonstrances bad an indubitable effect in restraining Riel and his companions. Prior to his arrival, however, the settlers had chosen their delegates and had consented to treat with the Canadian Government.

Scott's murder aroused, especially in Ontario, a wild outbreak of indignation, dangerously tinged with fanaticism. The situation was further complicated by an amnesty which the .Archbishop had believed himself authorised by the Canadian Government to proclaim, and by the fact that Lieutenant-Governor Archibald officially accepted, with promise of safe conduct, the armed support of Riel and Lepinc and a large number of their followers, to repel an expected Fenian invasion, October 7 and 8, 1871. Into the details of this episode we cannot here enter. The upshot of the matter was that the Dominion Authorities paid Riel and Lepinc, who had returned to Canada, again to leave the country, which they did. protected by a police escort. Lepine subsequently came back again, stood his trial and was condemned to death, but on the recommendation of Lord Dufferin the penalty was commuted to two years' imprisonment with forfeiture of political rights. The fate of Riel will be recorded in later chapters.

\Ye have now reached the end of the second century since the establishment of British interests in that vast region of North Western America of which the modern Province of Saskatchewan is the centre. We have briefly reviewed the feats and fends of rival explorers and traders, to the outcome of which we owe the fact that Saskatchewan is today British soil. We have endeavored to picture the character and manners of our aborigines, so often and so oppositely misrepresented and misjudged by the sickly sentimentalist and the hasty man of affairs. We have noted the small beginnings of the tide of settlement that has since swept over Western Canada, and have seen in what a crucible the early pioneers were tried. We have recorded the abdication of its territorial and administrative rights by the Great Company and the beginning in 1870 of the process of provincial organization, the last great step in which was the passing of the Saskatchewan Act twenty-five years later. Finally we have seen the French Halfbreeds already once in arms against the ignorant arrogance of Ottawa, thus initiating a movement to which many pages of any history of Saskatchewan must he devoted. Accordingly at this point in our labours we might write the words, "End of Part 1," for henceforth the main theatre of our history will be, not in the scene of earliest western settlement, hut in the Farther North West of which Saskatchewan is a part.


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