The Red River Rebellion (also known as the Red River Resistance) was an uprising in 1869–70 in the Red River Colony. The uprising was sparked by the transfer of the vast territory of Rupert’s Land to the new Dominion of Canada. The colony of farmers and hunters, many of them Métis, occupied a corner of Rupert’s Land and feared for their culture and land rights under Canadian control. The Métis mounted a resistance and declared a provisional government to negotiate terms for entering Confederation. The uprising led to the creation of the province of Manitoba, and the emergence of Métis leader Louis Riel — a hero to his people and many in Quebec, but an outlaw in the eyes of the Canadian government.
Red River Colony
The Red River Colony was founded in 1812 by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, and Scottish settlers. Located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (what is now downtown Winnipeg), the area had been a rendezvous location for the fur trade for many years before the North West Company arrived there to build Fort Gibraltar in 1809. The Hudson’s Bay Company had earlier established a small depot across the river, at what is now St. Boniface. The Assiniboine (Nakoda) people had previously controlled access to the area. By 1812, the area was also home to Ojibwe, Cree traders and Métis buffalo hunters (see Buffalo Hunt). Most Métis were the descendants of French and English voyageurs and coureurs des bois who had come west in the fur trade and settled among Indigenous communities.
Hudson’s Bay Company Leaves Red River
The Red River inhabitants were continually in conflict with the HBC, particularly over trading privileges (seePemmican Proclamation; Battle of Seven Oaks). By the 1850s, the company’s rule was under attack from Britain, Canada and the United States, and by the 1860s it had agreed to surrender its monopoly over Rupert’s Land and the North West, including the Red River settlement.
During the lengthy negotiations to transfer sovereignty to Canada, Protestant settlers from the East moved into the colony, and their obtrusive, aggressive ways led the Roman Catholic Métis to fear for the preservation of their religion, land rights and culture. Neither the British nor the Canadian government — with no appreciation of the Métis people — made any serious efforts to ease these fears, negotiating the transfer of Rupert’s Land as if no population existed there.
Louis Riel Steps Forward
In August 1869, Métis concerns were made worse. The Canadian government attempted to re-survey the settlement’s river-lot farms — typically long, narrow lots fronting the local rivers, which had been laid out according to the seigneurial system of New France. The government preferred square lots, which limited access to river water (see also Dominion Lands Act). Many Métis did not have clear title to their land, and although Ottawa intended to respect Métis occupancy rights, no assurances were given by the government that this would be the case. The Métis therefore feared the loss of their farms. The appointment of William McDougall — a well-known Canadian expansionist — as the territory’s first lieutenant-governor also fuelled tensions and Métis fears of English Canadian domination.
In early November 1869, Louis Riel emerged as Métis spokesman and the leader of the Métis National Committee of Red River who prevented McDougall, and the incoming Canadian land-survey party, from entering the colony. Riel gathered support from among both the francophone and anglophone Métis communities, aware that his people must work with the more reticent, less organized anglophones to satisfy their grievances.
While local HBC officials remained neutral, Métis opposition caused the Canadian government to refuse to assume control of the territory on 1 December 1869, as had been agreed. This encouraged the rebels who had seized Upper Fort Garry — the main HBC trading post at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine — and who planned to hold it until the Canadian government agreed to negotiate.
Representatives of the rebel colonists were summoned to an elected convention, which in December proclaimed a provisional government, soon headed by Riel. In January Riel gained the support of most of the anglophone community in a second convention, which agreed to form a representative provisional government to discuss terms of entry into Confederation.
Execution of Thomas Scott
Armed conflict persisted over the winter, but Riel seemed in control until he made the colossal blunder of permitting the court-martialling and execution of a prisoner, Thomas Scott, one of a group of English-speaking Ontario settlers who opposed the rebel government. Amid the turmoil, Scott and some fellow Ontarians had been captured and imprisoned at Upper Fort Garry.
Scott’s subsequent death by firing squad, despite outside pleas to Riel not to carry out the execution, inflamed passions among Protestants in Ontario. Although the Canadian authorities were still willing to negotiate with Riel, they refused to grant an unconditional amnesty to him and the other rebel leaders.
Birth of Manitoba
The provisional government organized the territory of Assiniboia in March 1870 and enacted a law code in April. Although the Canadian government recognized the “rights” of the people of Red River in negotiations that took place in Ottawa that spring, the victory was limited. On 12 May, a new, postage-sized province called Manitoba was created by the Manitoba Act, its territory severely limited in contrast to the vast North West, which would soon be acquired by the Canadian government. Even within Manitoba, public lands were controlled by the federal government. Métis land titles were guaranteed and 607,000 hectares were reserved for the children of Métis families, but these arrangements were mismanaged by subsequent federal governments.
The Métis nation did not flourish after 1870 in Manitoba. And Ottawa granted no amnesty for Louis Riel and his lieutenants, who fled into exile just before the arrival of a column of British and Canadian troops in August 1870.
Although the insurrection had ostensibly won its major objectives — a distinct province with land and cultural rights guaranteed — the victory was hollow. The Métis soon found themselves so disadvantaged in Manitoba that they moved farther west, where they would again attempt — more violently and tragically this time — to assert their nationality under Riel in the North-West Rebellion of 1885.
Rebellion or Resistance?
The Red River and North-West Rebellions are known by many names, including the “Riel Rebellions,” the “Manitoba Rebellion” and the “Saskatchewan Rebellion.” They are also known as the “Red River Resistance,” the “1885 Resistance” and the “Northwest Resistance.” The terms rebellion and resistance are synonyms, but depending on which one is used, the perspective from which historical events are understood changes.
According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, for example, rebellion is defined as an “organized and armed resistance to an established government,” while resistance means “resisting authority, especially in an occupied country.”
Indigenous studies scholars and many historians refer to the Métis and First Nations uprisings as resistances, meaning reactions against European colonization. This is because Métis and First Nations are understood to have established self-governance on their own land long before Rupert’s Land was transferred to the Dominion of Canada.