As the offspring of Aboriginal women and white fur traders, the Métis were for centuries Canada’s most marginalized group. Recognized neither as Canadians nor Aboriginals, they were denied rights and often forced to wander the country in poverty with nowhere to settle. The 1869–70 Red River rebellion in Manitoba, led by Louis Riel, won significant concessions from the Canadian government but failed to protect the Métis’ way of life against the effects of increasing white settlement. Consequently, many Métis moved west to farm the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, where the men acted as intermediaries between aboriginals and the whites. Yet when government surveyors arrived in 1878 the Métis realized – as they had on the Red River twenty years before – their claim to the land they farmed was far from secure.
Beginning with the Métis, a general sense of instability spread across the region in the early 1880s, fuelled by the increasingly restless and hungry Cree peoples, as well as by the discontent of white settlers angry at the high freight charges levied on their produce. The leaders of the Métis decided to act and in June 1884 they sent a delegation to Montana, where Riel was in exile. Convinced the Métis were chosen by God to purify the human race – and he their Messiah – Riel was easily persuaded to return.
In March 1885, Riel declared a provisional government at Batoche and demanded the surrender of Fort Carlton, the nearest Mountie outpost, 35km to their west on the North Saskatchewan River. The police superintendent refused and the force he dispatched to re-establish order was badly mauled at Duck Lake. When news of the uprising reached the Cree, some 300km away, they attacked the local Hudson’s Bay Company store, killing its nine occupants in the so-called Frog Lake Massacre. Within two weeks, three columns of militia were converging on Big Bear’s Cree and the meagre Métis forces at Batoche. The total number of casualties – about fifty – does not indicate the full significance of the engagement, which marked the end of brief Métis independence. Riel’s execution in Regina on November 16, 1885, was bitterly denounced in Québec and remains a symbol of the divide between English- and French-speaking Canada.
For more information on the events and sights relating to 1885, look at the excellent website w trailsof1885.com.