There are few historical events in our national story that solicit stronger opinions and create more debate than the disputes of 1870 and 1885 between the Métis in Western Canada and the Government of Canada. Various names refer to these two series of events, and their usage often reflects the loyalties, opinions and even biases of the user. Today, we see the application of such terms as rebellion, resistance, insurgency and disputes.
Arguably, the debate on the events of 1870 and 1885, Louis Riel, and the place of the Métis in our history and contemporary Canadian society has had an enduring effect on our national psyche. In March, 1885, an article published in The Globe of Toronto stated: “It is not given to every man to have caused two rebellions. In the history of the Dominion, Sir John Macdonald and his friend Riel alone have won that distinction.”
To put things into context, the 1870s saw the disappearance of the bison herds, pushing many First Nations peoples to near starvation. As for the Métis, the loss of the bison on which they also depended brought hardship that was further compounded by the end of the fur trade.
The Métis of the North-West Territories felt that the established North-West Council failed to represent their interests. They sought assurances from Ottawa that the titles to their river-lot homesteads and farms would be guaranteed in advance of any large-scale influx of settlers.
The Métis sent more than 70 petitions to Ottawa in an attempt to address these grievances, none of which were responded to. In the eyes of the Métis, the federal government was indifferent to any attempt to redress territorial grievances and protect occupant rights.
Frustrated white settlers newly arrived in the North-West Territories were also waiting for their property titles, as they were necessary for obtaining loans to improve their farms. At the same time, widespread dissatisfaction with the First Nations treaties and rampant poverty prompted Chief Big Bear, of the Plains Cree, to attempt to renegotiate the terms of the treaties. Hence, the First Nations issues and grievances were largely unrelated to those of the Métis and white settlers apart from their commonly held belief of a neglectful, distant and imperial Ottawa.
As a result, the Métis decided to resist any subsequent actions by the federal government. When Louis Riel organized an “illegal” provisional government, it incited Ottawa to assert its sovereignty in the North-West Territories.
The North-West Rebellion (or North-West Resistance) was a violent, five-month uprising against the Canadian government, fought mainly by Métis militants and their First Nations allies.
With the Métis defeat at the Battle of Batoche (in present-day Saskatchewan), the North-West Resistance had essentially ended. For many, including Louis Riel and Chief Big Bear, the consequences were swift and direct.
Métis and First Nations communities would suffer severe and lasting consequences from the events of 1885. In addition, relations between the French and the English and the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of Canada would be set back for years to come.