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The PLEA: Revolution

The PLEA: Revolution

Métis Resistance and Revolution

Canada has never experienced an all-out revolution. However, at least twice in our history we have been on the brink of revolution.

Canada’s best-known resistance movements are the 1869 Red River Resistance and the 1885 North West Resistance. Both movements were put down before all-out revolutions took root.

The Red River Resistance was a reaction to the Canadian government’s take-over of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Métis and their allies had settlements in the area, but the government proceeded as if the land was empty. The government surveyed the land for redistribution, leading residents to fear that their land would be taken away. Unable to secure title to their land, resistors under the leadership of Louis Riel seized Fort Garry and declared a provisional government. The provisional government was able to secure land and cultural rights in the Manitoba Act, the law that created the province of Manitoba.

Unfortunately, Canada failed to keep many of its promises. Rights written into the Manitoba Act were not fully respected, residents lost land that they had rightfully settled, and Riel was not given amnesty. As a result, many Métis simply moved further west and Riel went into exile.

Riel spent his years in exile planning a takeover of the North West. He even went so far as to ask American politicians for help. His end-goal was a new province or country that was religious in nature and loyal to the British Crown.

As Canada expanded further westward, it continued to trample the rights of Indigenous, white, and Métis people living in the North West. The people in and around St. Laurent (near Duck Lake) were particularly neglected and mistreated by the Canadian government. So they invited Riel to lead a new resistance movement. Riel first attempted political negotiations, but the Canadian government continued with its obstinance. Riel determined that the only path forward was to set up another provisional government. A Revolutionary Bill of Rights was written, and armed forces under the military leadership of Gabriel Dumont seized the church in Batoche. The goal was to take the whole Saskatchewan River Valley and force the Canadian government to negotiate in good faith.

Dumont’s strong military leadership sometimes conflicted with Riel’s insistence that the fight be as bloodless as possible. As well, despite support from leaders such as Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear)—the Cree chief who like Riel preferred restraint over violence—the Métis were largely left to fight military battles on their own. Many Indigenous people, and almost all settlers, and even some Métis did not support the provisional government. Ultimately, the resistance was outnumbered and out-firepowered by the Canadian soldiers.

Riel surrendered on May 15th, 1885. In a trial that is still a source of controversy, Riel was found guilty of treason. He was executed on November 16th, 1885.

Wikimedia Commons.

Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker). “The Peacemaker” Cree chief resisted taking up arms during the North West Resistance despite attacks by Canadian soldiers.

Wikimedia Commons.

Gabriel Dumont, commander of the provisional government’s armed force.

Wikimedia Commons.

Louis Riel, leader of the Red River and North West Resistance.

Riel’s Revolutionary Bill of Rights

The North West Provisional Government’s Revolutionary Bill of Rights was likely written by William Jackson. He was a labour activist and Riel’s secretary.

  1. That the half-breeds of the Northwest Territories be given grants similar to those accorded to the half-breeds of Manitoba by the Act of 1870.
  2. That patents be issued to all half-breed and white settlers who have fairly earned the right of possession of their farms.
  3. That provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan be forthwith organised with legislatures of their own, so that the people may be no longer subjected to the despotism of Mr. Dewdney.
  4. That in these new provincial legislatures, while representation according to population shall be the supreme principle, the Métis shall have a fair and reasonable share of representation.
  5. That the offices of trust throughout these provinces be given to the residents of the country, as far as practicable, and that we denounce the appointment of disreputable outsiders and repudiate their authority.
  6. That this region be administered for the benefit of the actual settler, and not for the advantage of the alien speculator.
  7. That better provision be made for the Indians, the parliamentary grant to be increased and lands set apart as an endowment for the establishment of hospitals and schools for the use of whites, half-breeds, and Indians, at such places as the provincial legislatures may determine.
  8. That all lawful customs and usages which obtain among the Métis be respected.
  9. That the Land Department of the Dominion Government be administered as far as practicable from Winnipeg, so that the settlers may not be compelled as heretofore to go to Ottawa for the settlement of questions in dispute between them and the land commissioner.
  10. That the timber regulations be made more liberal, and that the settlers be treated as having rights in this country.

Source: Maggie Siggins, Riel: A Life of Revolution, p. 452.

Think

  1. If a revolt, uprising, or resistance movement gains critical acceptance from the great mass of people, it can become a full-scale revolution. Review the concept of revolution on pages 3, 4, and 5, and the Revolutionary Bill of Rights. Was Riel attempting a full-scale revolution?
  2. Recall that successful revolutions must have a “general ideological appeal that will bring the revolutionary party the support of the people.”
    1. Does the Revolutionary Bill of Rights have general ideological appeal?
    2. Not everyone in the North West—including most settlers and many Indigenous people—supported the provisional government. Why do you think this is?
  3. Historian Margaret MacMillan says that “We don’t like ambiguity—we want people to be either thoroughly bad or thoroughly good. We want heroes... but I think you have to look at a person’s whole record.”
    1. Discuss this statement.
    2. The story of Louis Riel is complex. Opinions on him vary. Look more deeply into Riel and his life’s work. How would you assess his whole record?

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