Project Canterbury

Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

By the Rev. William Newton
Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan

London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Chapter XII. Riel's Rebellion

IN the years preceding the rebellion of 1885, there was much unrest in the Edmonton district; dissatisfaction with the Dominion Government was nearly universal; their agents were generally unpopular; settlers could get no attention to their complaints, and no one felt safe in any of his land transactions. A case arose in which a settler tried to defend some of his property from depredation, and he was fined by the stipendiary magistrate for attempting his own protection. There seemed no recognised law, except the decision of a magistrate, and no one could tell what this would be, or the code that might rule him. There was, in fact, no law, although there was supposed to be a Government.

We were not in Ontario, or Quebec, or Manitoba; we were in an undefined territory, subject to the man who happened to be in office, and he was a great distance from his superiors, and found no difficulty in shielding himself behind his own reports. If a man took a pair of stockings from the Hudson Bay store, he was quickly arrested and punished; but if he trespassed on land, and cut down timber of great worth to the settler who had fenced it and protected it from prairie fires, the settler was informed that he had no property in the soil or in the trees, and that he had no protection for the labour or expense that were invested in his claim or real estate. Blackstone teaches that men have natural rights to the lands which they use, so long as their rights do not infringe on the claims of others; and surely under the British flag these natural rights should be allowed. Yet in the Edmonton district these were denied, with the result that the lawless attempted to 'jump' the lands that were possessed by others--that is, to publicly steal them. Exhibitions were thus made of the greed of lawless human nature that were sad indeed to behold.

Outside the circle of Government men, a Committee of Public Safety was instituted, and it seemed necessary, if the commonest order was to be observed. Persons had become possessed of pieces of land where the town of Edmonton now stands; some had paid money for them, and others had put buildings on them, and claimed the right to do so. But it might be asked, Where were the Government during all this time? The answer is: At Ottawa, drawing their salaries, amongst other things, for governing the North-West. For a long time there were no authorized surveys, and confusion was rampant.

One day a court was held in order to try certain men, some of them being our most respected citizens.

A would-be thief of landed property had put a building en another man's lot, hoping thus to get possession of it for himself. The proper owner removed the building, and placed it so near the high banks of the Saskatchewan that it, by design or accident, rolled over, and the man was put to great trouble in recovering even a part of it. The lawless man sued the removers, and got judgment so far that the owner was fined for causing unnecessary damage in the removal of the house; the inference being that, if he had removed it and no damage to it had followed, the action would have been lawful. No distinct instructions, however, were given from the bench, and matters continued as unsettled as before. The lawless saw that there was very little to restrain them, and they acted accordingly.

But why was this allowed? Possibly in order that the Government men might have a free hand to do what they liked in the issue of patents, claiming the lands of the great North-West as purchased property, through their transactions with the Hudson Bay Company. According to their view, no one had any rights. All conditions of men were in the same position; half-breeds, and settlers, and even Indians who did not take the treaty, had no legal standing, save as British subjects. England was a long way off, and Canada lay between the two, and effectually hindered the cry for justice reaching the motherland.

If an able Commissioner from England had been sent to the Indians, half-races, and settlers of the North-West during the three years preceding the events of 1885, there would, in all probability, have been no outbreak. Millions of dollars and many valuable lives might have been saved. Order would have been preserved, based on respect for Governmental authority and its necessary institutions. The authority of the Ottawa Government is not strong enough in these territories, and it has not on all occasions the will to enforce obedience to its own orders. When, in 1891, it attempted to remove its land office across the Saskatchewan to the railway terminus, an armed crowd of men and boys successfully resisted the order, and that in the open daylight.

While these uncertainties were occurring, about the land claims of natives and settlers in the Edmonton district, land speculators were busy, and very successful, in their greed for spoils. A company was set going with a grand name, ostensibly patronized by the Ottawa Government supporters. It proposed to colonize, and bring both settlers and capital into the country. Large tracts of fine land were entrusted to the company, but they brought no settlers, and to-day their buildings are in ruins, and most of their lands are waste.

Meanwhile, honest settlers were compelled to go far into the wilderness for homesteads, and business and civilization were hindered in order that these speculators might make money by the labour and enterprise of neighbours who were cursed by their presence. A poor man is sharply looked after if he do not fulfil his engagements on his land claim, and his titles are cancelled. How is it, then, that fraudulent companies can hold their own, or, rather, the lands that should belong to other people? Governments in these days are, in theory, governments for the people by the people. As population increases here, some of these questions may receive stern answers.

While these things were occurring among settlers in every part of the North-West, the Indians also were becoming very restive. Most of them had their reservations, and the agents, as a rule, had dealt fairly by them. Often, however, these agents 'could not keep their word to the Indians, because of the distances over which supplies had to travel, or because of misunderstandings at Ottawa. Some of the Indians also misunderstood their treaties, or, at least, thought that they had been over-reached in their bargains. Possibly their intercourse with a low class of traders did not tend to increase their contentment, and from causes of this kind the rebellion of 1885 arose.

Unrest seemed to be in the air, as when a storm is brewing, and the clouds are preparing for a furious tempest, yet no one knew where the centre of the storm would be, or when it would burst. Mysterious rumours came to Edmonton of what would happen when the grass was green--that is, when Indian horses could travel and find pasture on the plains. Then came the news of the massacre of the Roman Catholic priests and Indian agents at Frog Lake.

Then of the fight at Duck Lake, where the mounted police and volunteers scarcely held their own.

Then Canada was aroused, and sent Middleton and troops, and the news came of the battles of Cut-knife Creek and Batoche on the South Saskatchewan. By this time the Indians were in a ferment everywhere, and at Battleford they were committing depredations which could not be resisted. Inspector Dickens also had abandoned Fort Pitt, and plunder was the order of the day. All over the plains the strangest rumours flew with the speed of lightning; they came to Edmonton from east, west, north, and south, and we could not tell what was about to happen. In all directions were Indians enough, if they were well led, to try the mettle of our sparse and scattered settlements, and our people were virtually without arms and ammunition. They were almost entirely unprepared to fight for their own lives, or for the honour of the Government. Centres were formed at St. Albert's Roman Catholic Mission, Fort Edmonton, and Fort Saskatchewan, and most of the settlers left their homes and took refuge in these places. They were prepared for defence as efficiently as circumstances allowed. Often, judging from rumours that arrived, our lives and homes were in peril. Repeatedly it was rumoured that bands of Indians, several hundreds strong, were close at hand, and were fording the river a few miles up the stream, on their way to attack Fort Edmonton.

The sudden rise and growth of rumours on these plains is beyond belief, and every new story is somehow or other believed, simply because there is no evidence to the contrary. Thus, one Sunday, at All Saints' Church, the story went round that the Indians were crossing the river at the miners' flat, seven miles off. When the service was ended, and the people had gone to the fort for refuge, I went to my residence, seven miles off, to see if I could hide some of my most valuable books before the Indians could scatter themselves, and proceed to burn up and destroy everything they came across. Two or three miles out I met a scout from the prairies, who confirmed the rumour, and said that the Indians were now probably near the fort and preparing to attack it. For a moment I thought of my books, but then I thought of the women and little children to whom I ministered, so I immediately returned, to find that the excitement was still very great, and that all things were in readiness for a flight to some solitude in which the women and children might be preserved. Happily, however, on this occasion the Indians did not appear.

The truth is, that the rumour had some foundation, for the Indians around had left their usual encampments, and had hidden themselves in places where they could be found by messengers from a distance, and they were undoubtedly only waiting for a general rising, and many of them were certainly ready enough to do any mischief that came in their way. If Riel had been victorious at Carlton, very few white men would have been left alive in the distant settlements. The entire Indian population would have been aflame with the passions of greed, and lust, and murder.

How far the half-races, especially the French half-breeds in the Edmonton district, were originally mixed up with the early stages of the rebellion, is a difficult and intricate question. Riel certainly had the sympathy of many of them. Dumont himself was from our neighbourhood, and had friends here. The mistake which Riel made in his tactics was the mistake of a man of very limited information and of great self-esteem. He did not know the outside world against which he arrayed himself; he did not realize that behind Canada was England. He posed as a liberator, as a kind of Garibaldi, or Arabian Mahdi. He wanted to be a prophet, the founder of a new religion--a Moses on a small scale, who would lead his people into their own possession, and drive out the nineteenth-century Canaanites. He did not disclaim the murder of the priests at Frog Lake, and he separated the men under his influence, as much as he could, from the Roman Catholic Church. By such a policy he could not possibly succeed; and he destroyed the sympathy of a powerful organization which might have been interested in any grievances which the Metis had, and have given them a certain protection. Moreover, his folly alienated his cause from the French province of Quebec, which could have afforded him powerful support, and given great trouble to the whole Dominion of Canada. As it was, the brave and skilful defence which Dumont made with his badly-armed band of five hundred undisciplined men produced a great impression; and it might easily have grown into a war of races, which would have challenged the sympathy and chivalrous feeling of ancient France. A little spark sets the prairies ablaze, and a few men speaking French, and conducting themselves bravely, and struggling with a real grievance against great odds, might have touched the honour of France and brought her back to America again. Riel's ineptness crushed the Metis and annihilated all external sympathy.

Thus, in the Edmonton district, while we had rumours and anxiety, we had no actual difficulties. Some Metis were sullen, and the Indians whom we met scowled, but no shot was fired in anger. Probably the Indians' friends did not think themselves strong enough to cope with the mounted police. A home guard had been enrolled, but outside assistance did not arrive until later. The citizens of Edmonton cleared the brush and trees from their streets, because an enemy could hide and fight in ambush behind them, and, calling a meeting, they sent a special messenger one hundred and ninety miles to Calgary, where the Lieutenant-Governor happened to be, urging immediate assistance before it was too late. The messenger, who was a native of the country, rode through the Indian reservations, exposing himself to much danger, and attracting attention by the speed at which he travelled. Sometimes he was followed, but, being well mounted, he distanced his pursuers, and, scarcely resting or changing horses, in less than two days he covered the one hundred and ninety miles, and told the story of the stern needs of Edmonton. Already Mr. Dewdney, the Lieutenant-Governor, had arranged with General Strange--a most capable officer who had seen service in India--to proceed north to Edmonton. The news of his coming kept the disaffected quiet, and probably saved the district from an Indian war. His column was made up as follows:

Strange's Rangers, 50; police, 67; 65th Battalion, 332; Winnipeg, 332; P. Battalion (92), 307.

Afterwards the 65th regiment of Montreal, under Colonel Oimet, was stationed at Edmonton, while General Strange went east after Big Bear, who made for Battleford, where General Middleton was, and gave himself up. Thus Indian and half-breed hopes of driving away the white man from the North-West Territories, and possessing the country for themselves, were crushed and destroyed for ever. Riel was hanged at Regina, N.W., on September 18, 1885.

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