Chapter 14. The 1860s: Confederation and Its Discontents

14.6 Canada and the West

George Brown entered into a coalition government with John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier with a grocery-list of conditions. One of these was that Canada — in whatever form it was to take — would annex Rupert’s Land. There was no talk in 1867 — no serious talk at least — about adding the newly unified colony of British Columbia to the mix. After all, as the crow flies, Victoria was as remote from Toronto as British Honduras; a sea voyage to New Westminster from Halifax could take months. The West, however, had been a part of the Canadian economy since the days of New France. The HBC’s comprehensive monopoly since 1821 had developed something of an administrative structure so that in the mid-19th century Rupert’s Land was conceptually more than a drainage basin: it was a badly underdeveloped political unit. Ontario land was becoming scarce, and the same was true in the Dominion’s other three founding colonies. Adding on the West would mean free land for generations. Ontarians in particular were anxious about this because of trends toward migration out of Canada and into the United States.

Without question, there were long-term Canadian interests in the West. Competition between the NWC and HBC mirrored conflicts between New France and Britain that stretched back to the late 17th century. The principal players, however, changed to such an extent that they were almost unrecognizable. The diversity of nationalities and syncretic cultures arising from fur trade society influenced life in the Canadas. In Montreal, in the parlour rooms of the leading capitalists and merchants in leafy Mount Royal, one regularly found women and men who were themselves of Indigenous birth or, more often by the mid-19th century, descendants of the Cree, Anihšināpē/Anishinaabe, Nakoda Oyadebi (Assiniboine), and Dené/Dënesųlįné (Chipewyan). Rich and influential, some of these figures would become vocal supporters for annexation of the West. Keeping in mind the profound connection they had with the lands beyond Lake Superior, it probably looked to them less like annexation and more like reunion or even retention.

In 1857 the British government sent out an exploratory party to perform a reconnaissance of the Prairie West. It was led by John Palliser (1817-1877), an Irish-English aristocrat whose love of travel at the fringes of European influence was matched only by his enthusiasm for shooting things. In the words of his biographer, “The ruling preoccupation of Palliser, and most of his brothers and friends, seems to have been travel ‘in search of adventure and heavy game.’”[1] Palliser had hunted bison on the Plains in 1847-48, returned to Britain, became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and began gently lobbying for greater British interest in the West. The society took forward the proposal to the Colonial Office, which provided Palliser with a shopping list of goals, one of which was to determine the agricultural potential of the region. To his credit Palliser was clear on one thing: southern Alberta and Saskatchewan suffered from a want of rain and an oversupply of dust. This was the region that would famously carry his name, Palliser’s Triangle.[2]

The Canadians were not to be outdone. They organized their own expedition under the leadership of Henry Youle Hind (1823-1908) in 1857 and 1858 that took in the Red, Assiniboine, and South Saskatchewan River Valleys.[3] Hind’s published report was widely circulated and, combined with his fervour for the idea of Confederation, it played a role in developing the Canadian expansionist agenda. Also, the people of French-Catholic Canada had been told for years by Catholic missionaries that the region was a challenging and even frightening place in which to settle.[4] Hind (without the warnings provided by Palliser) countered that view. Through the 1860s, Anglo-Canadian expansionist ambitions, then, would inform relations between the West and Canada. At the Charlottetown Conference and again at the Quebec Conference, the prospect of an expansive and clearly imperialist Canada dominating the West was touted. This was clearly a position that Westminster accepted.

Canadian political culture came with its own agenda, mostly distinct from that of the West. Friction between Protestants and Catholics, anglophones and francophones, existed in every colony. The desire of francophobes like Brown to encircle and overwhelm Quebec with Anglo-Protestant populations was no secret. Toronto-based advocates agitated for annexation of the West, many of them with an outspoken assimilationist agenda. Canadiens weren’t opposed to annexation, but they feared that Anglo-Protestants would interfere in what should be a reunion between two branches of the Franco-Catholic family.

Change was upon the Westerners, whether they wanted it or not. London was preparing in 1867 to relieve the HBC of its trade monopoly and administrative role in Rupert’s Land. The Americans were a wild card: they wished to see the territory fall into their own lap and would back whichever side seemed most likely to see that happen and no one could rule out a forced annexation, not after the U.S. Civil War, the American purchase of Russian Alaska in 1867, and the U.S. Cavalry’s running war against Indigenous resistance in the lands just south of the 49th parallel.

Westerners responded to these plans with skepticism if not hostility. Their future may not be under the rule of the HBC, but in the late 1860s few were satisfied that joining the “Dominion of Canada” — a small cobbled-together country made up of four colonies that struggled to pay its own bills — was worth considering.

Red River on the Eve of Confederation

Despite Métis qualms about a post-NWC West after 1821, and regardless of the activities of Métis free-traders, the settlement at Red River continued to grow under the management of the HBC’s Council of Assiniboia. The community became increasingly Europeanized, at least outwardly. Churches sprang up and all the principal denominations were represented. Schools appeared as well. There was a growing middle class that included lawyers and journalists, people whose livelihood depended on their ability to speak for others. To the west of the colony the landscape became a cultural checkerboard of Franco-Catholic Métis holdings and Anglo-Protestant country-born properties. Much of the Métis farming occurred on strips of land running perpendicular to the course of the rivers, a pattern that echoed the seigneurial strips of New France. These were lands vulnerable to annual floods.

Historical accounts of relations between the Métis and the country born are sometimes contradictory, no doubt because every attempt to draw a composite picture is complicated by the existence of numerous and compelling exceptions. Sectarian boundaries were probably more critical in the mid-19th century than language, and persistent Scottish-French sympathies complicated things further. Broadly speaking, however, Westerners of Anglo-Protestant heritage viewed themselves as politically on the ascendant, mainly because of increased Anglo-Canadian interest in the region. This led to significant divisions among the métis communities of the Red River. Other historical interpretations have the two communities recognizing more fully their shared interests, being increasingly subject to the rising racist feeling out of Canada West. Certainly this was the dawn of modern racism: increasingly, what Anglo-Canadians saw when they looked at the country born were inferior “half-breeds” rather than co-religionists or champions of Anglo-Celtic culture. As for the the Métis in these years, the Anglo-Canadians had only more contempt for them.

The community would, in 1869, resist Canadian annexation and demand provincial status. Red River was, in some respects, daring. It had grown dramatically in the 1860s but only to about 12,000 people (about one-eighth the size of Prince Edward Island). The majority was still Métis, followed by Scots and country born, but many of their neighbours were Ontarian Anglo-Protestants drawn by the promise of cheap land and the prospect of being pioneers in the colonization of the West by English Canada.

The Ross Family of Red River

One family’s story illustrates an example of the difficulties facing the country born and of the relative unity of the entire West in this period. Alexander Ross entered the fur trade via the Pacific Fur Company and established Fort Okanogan in the Columbia District (in what is now Washington State). He married a Syilx (Okanagan) woman, Sally. The Rosses moved to Red River in the 1820s where they produced a large number of children, many of whom died early in adulthood.

Raised as strict Presbyterians, the daughters mostly married White men.  Of the sons, James was the best educated and the most Canadianized. He spent years in Toronto as a student, a graduate student, a bright and promising young lawyer, and a journalist with George Brown’s Globe. In 1868 James was asked by his employer to return to the West and play a leading role in the annexation process. Like his sister, Jemima (who married the local Presbyterian minister and had to endure taunts from White settlers that her racial inheritance was a moral drag on her husband), James was extremely sensitive to racism.

Historian of fur trade society Sylvia Van Kirk has shown how James’s response to racial discrimination was to be better than his critics and certainly better than their stereotypes. A supporter of Canadian ambitions in the West, he found himself drawn to the side of Louis Riel precisely because he felt more solidarity with the métis peoples of which he was one, than with the Canadians. “At first the ardent champion of the Canadian cause, he ended up as Chief Justice of Riel’s provisional government. Ross was won over by Riel’s appeal to racial unity; the métis were fighting not solely for their own rights, but also for the rights of all the indigenous people of Red River.  […] Nothing was worth a civil war against ‘brothers and kindred’.”[5]

Louis Riel and the Western Resistance

There are two events in the history of the West with which Louis Riel (1844-1885) was associated. The first began in 1869 at the Forks, the heart of the old Red River Colony;  the second began in 1885 across a broader canvas — the whole of modern Saskatchewan. Both are referred to as Métis uprisings, rebellions, and even wars; sometimes called the First and Second Riel Rebellions. While it is true that Riel played a pivotal role in both incidents, there is much more to the story than one individual.

The context of Canada’s annexation of Rupert’s Land tells a tale in its own right. Red River was a community in a period of severe and traumatic adjustment. The loss of the bison herds had impacted the Métis and had weakened their power on the Plains; Indigenous peoples were struggling to adapt to an economy without the fur trade; everyone was brutalized by the cascade of epidemics witnessed since the 1830s; a plague of grasshoppers in 1867-68 had pushed the colony to the edge of famine.

The British proposed to buy out the HBC’s monopoly for the sum of £300,000. Given that the Sayer Trial of 1849 (see section 8.10) had shot the monopoly full of holes, it can be argued that Britain got nothing for their money. In any event, this enabled the Crown to hand over responsibility for the territory to the new Confederation. The Canadians promptly made four critical errors. The first was appointing a lieutenant-governor, William McDougall (1822-1905), a former Grit who served in Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservative Cabinet, before the deal was closed. The second was McDougall’s precipitate decision to send in land surveyors in July 1869, six months before Canada had any authority in the region. (Even the outgoing HBC governor of Assiniboia, William Mactavish (1815-1870), was offended.) Attempts to redraw the land-use maps of Assiniboia into blocks of 160-acre sections threatened to chop up the old seigneurial-style lots of the Métis in particular. Although the HBC had done much to administer British common law after 1821, formal land title was something that had been ignored. The Métis and the country born, along with many of their other neighbours, thus regarded the Canadian surveyors as the advance guard of a civilization antithetical to their own interests, and in August 1869 began chasing them off the land. The third was a failure to address British requirements for treaties with the Indigenous population on the Plains. Fourth and finally, the Canadians did not consult with any of the colony’s residents. When McDougall’s party showed up on the 49th parallel south of Fort Garry (he had to cut through American territory to reach Red River) they were met by representatives of the Métis National Committee and turned back.

The Canadians’ actions inflamed feeling in the colony. Initially the Métis, anglophone, and country born communities were suspicious of one another’s agendas. Louis Riel — a 25-year-old who more or less fell into a leadership role among the Métis — made several demonstrations of the Métis community’s resolve (such as seizing Upper Fort Garry) and in November called a convention of the colony that included 12 Métis and the same number of anglophones/country-born. Three weeks later, after suppressing a possible anti-Métis rising among the Canadian settlers in the colony, a provisional government was declared; John Bruce was named its first president and Louis Riel its secretary. The provisional government had a mandate to negotiate terms of entry into Confederation.

Insofar as the Canadians could not claim to have truly annexed the territory yet, the provisional government did not constitute a rebellion per se. There was nothing to rebel against other than an incomplete hostile takeover by a foreign country hardly different from, say, the United States. Negotiations began soon after and, as Riel’s position in the provisional government changed from secretary to president, the Red River team’s goals became progressively larger. They were no longer bargaining just for Red River: they wanted provincial status for the whole of the northwest, which would include — as with the four charter provinces — control over resource revenues.

The greatest challenge facing the provisional government was the Canadian population. Led by Dr. John Schultz (a physician who ran a prosperous, if ill-regarded, trading and land-sale business), Charles Mair (paymaster to the survey crews and married to Schultz’s niece), and Thomas Scott (a 27-year-old road labourer from Northern Ireland), they were able to mobilize a significant number of newcomers from Ontario. Schultz and Scott had in common a connection to the Orange Lodge: Schultz founded the Lodge in Red River and Scott was rabidly anti-Catholic. Efforts to whip up a confrontation between Canadians and the provisional government mobilized a small but easily defeated force. Schultz fled and Scott, with others, found himself jailed at Upper Fort Garry. Riel’s administration issued pardons to one Canadian after the next, but Scott’s malignant and inflammatory attitude toward the Métis landed him in front of a court martial in 1870. He was subsequently executed by order of a tribunal. Riel might have stayed his sentence but by this time the provisional government felt sufficiently harassed by the Canadian settlers that a message, it was thought, needed to be sent.

The execution of Scott was to prove Riel’s undoing. Orange Lodges across British North America howled for Riel’s capture. In the spring and summer of 1870 the provisional government and Ottawa were able to hammer out the Manitoba Act (1870), legislation that created the new province and provided for bilingualism and a publicly funded system of separate schools (Catholic and Protestant). What Manitoba did not receive was full control over resource revenues, which placed the province at a serious disadvantage. Nor did the provisional government receive full amnesty for its leadership. Riel fled the colony only days ahead of an Ontarian militia, which had in mind lynching him.

Throughout, Riel maintained his loyalty to the Crown, although the threat of seeking annexation to the United States was a card that everyone knew he could and might play. But, taking him at his word, his goal was the negotiated entry of Red River into a union with the new country. Riel, we need to remember, was a man only in his twenties, playing the role of the prodigal son and peacemaker in a community known for its faultlines and engaging in diplomacy with seasoned Canadian scrappers like Brown and Macdonald.

Louis Riel

Louis Riel’s personal history is instructive. The son of a Franco-Métis lawyer and leader and Julie Lagimonière, the White daughter of a French-Canadian couple who had settled at Red River, Riel was born and raised in the parish of St. Boniface. His education for the priesthood in Montreal was abandoned shortly after the death of his father in 1864. Riel has been described as a young man of much talent and intellectual brilliance and as a charming personality; he is also described as melancholic, possibly manic-depressive. Certainly he seems to have suffered from depression on several occasions and, at the time of his father’s death, he was still reeling from a failed marriage engagement to a Canadienne whose parents withheld their blessing (most likely because of Riel’s mixed background). After a couple of years in the American Midwest, Riel returned to Red River where he did not fully fit into the bison-hunting culture of his Métis neighbours. His ability with languages and his intellectual capital, however, made him an obvious figure to play an important role in the National Committee.[6]

Key Points

  • Canadian interest in the West involved an imperialist urge to annex territory for farmland and a Canadien desire to formalize the centuries-old connections between the St. Lawrence and the people beyond the Great Lakes.
  • The context of this transaction includes tensions between the Catholic Métis and the Orange Lodge.  It also includes a growing racist sentiment.
  • Canadian efforts to rush along the annexation led to provocative steps that led to Métis/country-born/Red River resistance and the establishment of a popular provisional government.

  1. Irene M. Spry, “PALLISER, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed August 13, 2014, .
  2. Irene M. Spry, The Palliser Expedition (Calgary: Fifth House, 1995).
  3. I.S. MacLaren, “Aesthetic Mappings Of The West By The 
Palliser And Hind Survey Expeditions, 1857-1859,” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, vol.10, no.1 (1985).
  4. Donald Swainson, "Canada Annexes the West: Colonial Status Confirmed," in Riel to Reform: A History of Protest in Western Canada, ed. George Melnyk (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1992), 66.
  5. Sylvia Van Kirk, "'What if Mama is an Indian': The cultural ambivalence of the Alexander Ross family," in The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1985), 207-14.
  6. For a survey of the ways in which Riel has been depicted by historians and used as a symbol by successive generations, see Douglas Owram, “The Myth of Louis Riel,” Louis Riel: Selected Readings, Hartwell Bowsfield, ed. (Mississauga: Copp Clark Pitman, 1988), 11-29.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book