The Red River Rebellion, sometimes referred to as the Red River Resistance, was an uprising of the Métis people of the Red River Colony, a settlement in what is now the province of Manitoba. It began in 1869, two years after Canada gained independence from Great Britain, and was largely precipitated by the contentious transfer of Rupert's Land from the control of the Hudson's Bay Company to the Canadian federal government. The central figure in the Red River Rebellion was Louis Riel (1844-1885), an ethnic Métis who believed the rights of his people were not being recognized and emboldened them to stand up and fight against perceived injustices.
The Red River Colony was located in an administrative region known as Rupert's Land, which included large areas of the Hudson's Bay watershed in present-day Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Rupert's Land was controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company, by virtue of a 1670 royal decree issued by King Charles II (1630-1685)of Great Britain. After decades of conflict with the region's residents, largely stemming from the company's monopoly over local trade, officials from the Hudson's Bay Company entered into negotiations to transfer Rupert's Land to the Canadian government.
Most of the Red River Colony's population were Métis, or people of mixed European and aboriginal ancestry. The Métis were not consulted or informed at any point during the negotiations between the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian government. Instead, government surveyors arrived in the Red River region to begin dividing the land into agricultural tracts, even before the transfer was officially complete. During these surveys, it became clear that the Canadian government intended to annex control of land that was used for traditional Métis activities, including hunting and fishing. Settlers were also pushing west from Ontario and north from the United States into the Red River area, compounding the Métis' fears that their cultural heritage and land rights would be lost. Those fears would soon find a voice in Louis Riel.
Louis Riel was a twenty-five-year-old bilingual Métis who had studied law in Montreal. As the Métis people of the Red River Colony gathered to decide upon a course of action in the face of the Canadian government's impending annexation of their land, they concluded that self-governance was the only acceptable outcome to the dispute. Riel was installed as the Métis leader. Under Riel's leadership, the Métis people assembled a provisional government, through which they issued a list of conditions under which they would accept the Canadian government's authority in the Red River Colony.
The Events of the Rebellion
In 1869, unsatisfied that Métis demands would be met, Riel led a group to Fort Garry, near present-day Winnipeg, to prevent the newly appointed regional lieutenant-governor, William McGarry, from entering the territory. Though the move was an act of aggression, Canadian prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) declined to engage Riel and his Métis insurgents in a military conflict, for two reasons. First, the Canadian Pacific Railway had not yet been built, and no practical way to deploy troops to the area existed, particularly as the events took place during the height of winter. Second, because British ratification of the Rupert's Land transfer to Canada was still pending, the area was technically under control of the Hudson's Bay Company, meaning that no Canadian laws had yet been violated.
On December 1, 1869, the Canadian government was due to take control of Rupert's Land, but they declined to do so, in large part because of the Métis insurrection. Emboldened by his early successes, Riel negotiated with Macdonald and succeeded in establishing the conditions under which Manitoba would join Canada as a province in 1870. Among these conditions were three contentious stipulations: a large Métis land reservation would be established and its boundaries honoured, denominational schools would be established, and French would be an official language in the province. A sizeable number of the estimated one hundred thousand Métis people living in the Red River Colony area were francophone, and Riel considered their language rights to be of paramount importance.
From the Métis point of view, the Red River Rebellion was proceeding well until the winter of 1870, when a counterinsurgency led primarily by Anglophone Canadians was snuffed out by Riel and his underlings. The counterinsurgents sought to undermine Métis control of the Red River region, as they wanted to claim ownership over its fertile farmlands. Seeking to send a message, Riel court-martialled one of the insurgents, a young Ontario man named Thomas Scott (c. 1842-1870) After a short trial in a Métis courtroom, Scott was found guilty of crimes against the Métis provisional government and executed.
The move proved damaging to Riel's credibility. Scott quickly became a martyr for anti-Métis sentiment in the region, and by the summer of 1870, Prime Minister Macdonald had deployed troops to Red River. By this time, Manitoba had joined Canadian Confederation, effectively ending the Red River Rebellion, and the federal government believed it was vitally important for law and order to prevail in the fledgling province. Riel fled to the United States before troops arrived, believing his life and liberty were endangered because of Scott's execution.
Effects and Aftermath
Despite Riel's efforts, the Métis people were essentially forced out of Red River when settlers from Ontario and the United States flooded into Manitoba after the new province joined Confederation. The Métis were forced farther west, eventually settling in what is now Saskatchewan. The cultural protections they had negotiated during the Red River Rebellion did not apply to the region where they settled, and over time, the same grievances they had sought to resolve with their uprising recurred in their new home.
In 1871 Riel returned to Canada. While he was seen as a fugitive from justice in the province of Ontario, he was a folk hero in Quebec; anxious to prevent tensions between Ontario and Quebec from deepening, Macdonald unsuccessfully tried to convince Riel to return to the United States. However, Macdonald's efforts were unsuccessful, and Riel ran for and won a seat in the House of Commons, from which he was later expelled. In 1875 Riel and Ambroise Lépine (1840-1923), who had participated in Scott's court-martialling and execution, were granted amnesty from prosecution provided they both go into exile for a period of five years.
After a nervous breakdown landed him in a Quebec mental institution, Riel eventually rejoined the Métis people in their new home, and led them in a new rebellion. Launched in 1885, this insurgency was known as the North-West Rebellion, but it would not be nearly as successful as the Red River Rebellion. The well-established presence of the North-West Mounted Police prevented the rebels from making strategic gains, and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway allowed the federal government to quickly deploy troops to quash the uprising. After just two months, the North-West Rebellion was snuffed out. Despite doubts as to his mental health, and in the face of strong objections from politicians in Quebec, Riel was convicted of treason and executed in November of 1885.