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The Métis - A People and Their Rebellion

The Métis – A People and their Rebellion

Canada's Constitution Act of 1982 names the Aboriginal peoples of Canada as being Indian, Inuit and Métis. The present discourse is a focus on the Métis.

Who are the Métis? The definition given by the Métis National Council is that of “a person who self-identifies as Métis, is distinct from other Aboriginal Peoples, is of historic Métis Nation ancestry and who is accepted by the Métis Nation.” The Métis National Council defines the Métis homeland as the three prairie provinces, and parts of Ontario, B.C., the Northwest Territories and northern United States. Members of Métis Nation have a common culture, ancestral language (Michif), history and political tradition, and are connected through an extensive network of kin relations.

The development of the Métis people was set in motion with the intrusion of the Europeans on the continent. In this case, the “métisser” or crossing of breeds would be that of the French and the indigenous people. When Champlain in 1608 established the settlement at Quebec he encouraged the likes of Étienne Brulé to go to live among the natives to make contact and develop communications. The rising interest in the fur trade with the natives led to many adventurous French “coureurs de bois” (runners in the woods) exploring and living farther and farther westward in the “new” land. Many of these men developed relationships with the natives and took native wives in the fashion of the country. By 1696 the government of New France, alarmed at the glut of furs, tried to revoke licences and recall these men. Most of these men had established themselves in the wild life in the various areas and had no desire to return to the less exciting and less interesting life to be had in New France dominated by French authorities and the clergy. Amnesty was granted in the early 1700's but many Métis lines were already established. Families of French men with women of the Cree, Obijway, and other native groups inhabited settlement points along many of the rivers. After the conquest in 1759 much of the fur trade fell into the hands of Scottish adventurers and in 1779 the North West Company was formed; but the French/Métis were well established in the “field” as a result of numerous generations.

The formation in 1670 of the Company of Adventurers of England also known as the Hudson's Bay Company also became a factor in the lives and history of the Métis. Curiously, the famous French explorer/fur traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groseilliers, played an initiating role. Having run afoul of authorities in New France due to improper fur licencing, and even being penalized, they turned elsewhere to find support for their ambitious aspirations. At Boston in 1665 they met Sir George Cartwright who told them to travel to England. In England they encountered Prince Rupert, the adventurous and flamboyant cavalier cousin to King Charles II, who was fond of wearing beaver felt hats. Rupert's enthusiasm and resources led to the formation of the Hudson's Bay Company with a monopoly over trade in all the lands in the Hudson Bay watershed (Rupert's Land). Rupert served as governor of the Hudson's Bay Company for twelve years. The company had thus received extensive autonomy over nearly forty percent of modern-day Canada, allowing it to build forts and employ military personnel to defend the vast territory. Company officials had full authority to administrate law and dispense justice in the region.

Let's look a bit more closely into the activities and characteristics of the lively and colorful Métis, who liked to display themselves in blue capotes with fine colored “ceintures fléches ”, though material possessions were not of much emphasis in their nomadic lifestyles. Big wedding parties, gaiety, drink, fiddles and dance were common along with generosity and hospitality. They were proud of fine horses and their marksmanship, very useful for such adept hunters who lived off the land. Bishop Taché described them as being intelligent and very honest and physically well-made. Relations with the native Indians were mostly good. Most Métis were at least bilingual ; and Gabriel Dumont, their most admirable leader during an approximate twenty-year period of time up to the 1885 Saskatchewan Rebellion, spoke six Indian languages besides French.

Alexander Ross, who had spent some time as a teacher in Glengarry before going west, describes the procedures of the 1840 Métis buffalo hunt in “The Red River Settlement”. The hunters were accompanied by their families, since the women and children took part in the work of drying the buffalo meat and turning it into pemmican. Some 1,630 people in a procession of 1,210 carts drawn by horses and oxen assembled at Pembina to elect their officers and lay down the rules for the expedition (procedures which had already acquired the weight of tradition). Ross tells us that ten captains for the hunt were chosen and one was named the head or chief of the camp. Each captain had under his orders ten soldiers and also ten guides, each with their duties. Punishment or sanctions for breaking the rules tended to be rather mild, and, for the most part, reliance seems to have been placed on the moral effect of public ridicule among a proud people. The sense of community at the end of each day of travel or hunting among the captains and elders as they held council in discussion of the past day's happenings and the plans for the morrow were, according to Ross, interesting and agreeable. The Métis showed themselves to be members of an egalitarian community influenced by a kind of primitive and direct democracy which seemed to exist among the great Indian tribes of the plains, where the authority of the chief depended upon the revocable consent of his braves. Ross tells that “ like the American peasantry, these people are all politicians , but of a peculiar creed, favoring a barbarous state of society and self-will; for they cordially detest all the laws and restraints of civilized life …….they cherish freedom as they cherish life.” Other observers also agree on the splendid organization of he buffalo hunt, which was achieved by voluntarily agreeing on a set of rules. The degree of mutual aid which was shown during the hunt is also remarkable, for most of the best hunters would give away much of the meat they killed to the poor or incapacitated who accompanied every expedition. Each evening the captains and soldiers would arrange the camp moving the Red River carts into a defensive circle.

The method of the buffalo hunters was to ride simultaneously through the herd, shooting the beasts and thus demanded the greatest co-ordination in starting the hunt. Some 400 huntsmen on the best horses anxiously waited for the captain to issue the order to start. Then wild gallop, shooting, dust, hurry, excitement, and danger, for horses were often gored by the bulls or injured from falls. In that day's run no less than 1,375 buffalo were killed. Ross reports that after two months on August 17, the expedition returned to the Red river with about 500 tons of dried meat.

The Métis, numbering around 10,000 by the early 1800's, thrived over a wide landscape extending farther and farther westward living as free hunters. Paul Kane reports on the extraordinary size of the buffalo herds in 1847, when travelling toward Fort Edmonton, they saw “nothing but huge herds of buffalo during three days of travel”. The Métis served traders and travellers by being providers of pemmican. Buffalo skins and robes were useful. Their Red River carts, entirely made of wood, usefully served to move goods and supplies. The natural contact and trade with the native Indians allowed them to act as interpreters. The Hudson's Bay Company and their rival the Northwest Company and American ambitions became players in westerly part of the continent.

Red River Settlement Tensions

Lord Thomas Douglas Selkirk's arrival in the Red River region in 1812 would prove to precipitate changes to cause concern. Selkirk received a grant of 300,000 square kilometers of land from the Hudson's Bay Company in view of establishing a settlement with likely agricultural development. Some of the Métis had already settled on long riverfront lots and names such as St Boniface, St Vital, St Norbert, and St Agathe had begun to spring up. When Selkirk's lieutenant, Miles Macdonell, in 1814 issued a command to prohibit the sale and export of pemmican outside the Red River colony and to end the Metis buffalo hunt there was natural resistance from a people who relied on these activities as their livelihood. The rivalry between the two fur companies came into play. The Northwesters encouraged and promoted the pride and the cause of the besieged Métis and their native right to the land. At a gathering at Qu'Appelle arranged by the Northwesters, Cuthbert Grant, son of a North West Company employee and a Cree mother, was appointed “Captain General of all the Half-Breeds”. A Métis flag was devised. Talk of a New Nation and a notion of a kind of potential army for the Northwesters seemed to be in the wind. Alexander Macdonell, a prominent North West Company partner, declared “The New Nation under their leaders are coming forward to clear their native soil of intruders and assassins”.

Several conflicts ensued the most significant of which was the 1816 Battle of Seven Oaks where the Métis led by Cuthbert Grant encountered Governor Semple who was killed along with twenty-one of his men. One Métis lost his life. The Métis bard, Pierre Falcon, was inspired by this incident in his song “La Chanson de la Grenouillère”. The 1821 merger of the North West Company with the Hudson's Bay Company melted away some of the discord. Governor George Simpson, who also took a native as a wife, held his post from 1821 to 1860.

Hudson's Bay Company domination continued to provoke discontent among the Métis. The Métis resented the authoritarian government of the Hudson's Bay Company as well as the Company's monopoly of the fur trade. A 1846 petition to the Queen by a thousand English and French half-breeds pointed to grievances such as lack of civil rights, the absence of schools, and the Company's monopoly. A court case against Pierre Guillaume Sayer in 1849 accusing him of having violated Company law by trading with an American was influenced by a large number of riders with their rifles assembling outside the court house. A victory was celebrated by the elated Métis.

Métis identity was further enhanced in the 1851 Battle at Grand Coteau in which the White Horse contingent during a buffalo hunting expedition fought off an attack by a much larger Sioux group of warriors. Upon detection by Métis scouts of the large (2,500 man) Teton Sioux warrior camp the Red River carts were circled in a laager defensive stand. With the women and children, the priest (Father Laflèche, waving his crucifix), and the animals and supplies inside the circle, the 67 hunters and a few boys, one of whom was the thirteen-year-old Gabriel Dumont, took their positions in the surrounding rifle pits and held off the attacks of the feared Sioux for two days with only one Métis casualty (Baptiste Malaterre). Chief White Horse had been confident and determined on his mission to drive the Métis away from these hunting grounds. However, eighty Sioux were killed. The eclipse on the night (June 13, 1851) of the first attack, two thunder storms, the crucifix-waving priest wearing his vestments, and Métis marksmanship seemed to overwhelm the dispirited Sioux. An inspiring and decisive victory against the Sioux who twenty-five years later would totally destroy Custer.

Canadian Expansion : The Fifth Province

Back at Red River things were happening. In 1859 the first newspaper in the Canadian West, the “Nor' Wester”, was established in Red River by William Buckingham and William Coldwell. The paper was soon taken over by Dr Christian Schultz, leader of the Canadian Party, a small group that was loudly demanding annexation to Canada. In 1869 William McDougall, Ontario MP in the Canadian government, introduced legislation which led to the purchase of Rupert's land from the Hudson's Bay Company for 300,000 pounds. Negotiations and transfers of the land were done with no consultation with the people who were living within the area. The Canadian Government sent John Stoughton Dennis to survey the land in a quadrilateral (squared) way which would not correspond to the elongated riverfront lots that the Métis had settled on (with no land titles). McDougll was sent out to be Governor. The inhabitants of the Red River region felt insecure and threatened, especially the Catholic French-speaking Métis. Leadership came with Louis Riel, who had,in previous years, been sent to be educated in Montreal where he had been prevented from marrying Marie-Julie Guernon by her parents due to his being a half-breed.

Resistance was organized. The Métis National Committee was formed with John Bruce as president and Riel as secretary. Riel and some of his men stopped the land surveyors and would not allow McDougall to come into the Red River settlement without permission. The Métis took over Fort Gary and on December 10, 1869 set up a Provisional Government and up went the Métis flag. Hudson Bay Company representative, Donald Smith, tried to negotiate and Riel proposed a list of rights to be drawn up by 20 French-speaking representatives and 20 English-speaking representatives. The list of rights was done by February. Strife within the colony led to the execution of Thomas Scott, a rather belligerent objecter to the Provisional Government. This was an issue which would haunt Riel for years.

On 12 May, 1870 the Manitoba Act passed the Canadian Legislature to create the fifth province of Canada. French and English rights were protected but education rights in French or English were not protected. Métis were promised 1.4 million acres of land; this matter was badly mishandled and never happened (as was indicated by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that would conclude that “the government failed in its obligation to properly distribute and safeguard the 1.4 million acres set aside for Métis in the Manitoba Act”). The Dominion Government maintained control of all unallocated land and natural resources. Manitoba was given four seats in the Canadian Parliament. Louis Riel was elected three times but was prevented from sitting due to the strong reaction in Ontario concerning the Thomas Scott execution. Not having been granted amnesty, Riel went into exile.

Colonel Wolsely with his troops were sent to Red River to maintain order. Many of the Métis were the targets of abuse and attack. About two-thirds left Red River and found their way to Qu'Applle, Cypress Hills, Prince Albert, Batoche, Edmonton, St Albert, Lac la Biche, Montana and the Dakotas. The chance of retaining a lifestyle of the buffalo hunts and furs might still be more attractive than agricultural life in a settlement where they were becoming greatly outnumbered by the influx of English-speaking Protestants.

Saskatchewan Refuge

Farther west they ventured into wilder regions which for the time being might offer some refuge. Already by the 1860's, however, there were noticeably fewer buffalo and fewer fish in the lakes causing serious suffering from lack of food. Natives and Métis found themselves united against the threat of invading whites. Church missionaries arrived and in some places formed the nuclei of settlements such as the parish of St Laurent along the South Saskatchewan river established by the tough, beaver-capped, Father André in 1871. In 1874 a trader set up a store at Duck Lake and another Métis trader, Xaxier Letendre, established a store at Batoche on the east shore with a ferry to St Laurent. Log houses sprang up along the riverfront on lots in the (French) style familiar in New France. In 1872 Gabriel Dumont staked out his first land claim along the South Saskatechewan.

Gabriel Dumont was well-prepared to take on a leadership role of the Métis. Jean Baptiste Dumont, his grandfather, had come out to Saskatchewan in the 1790's in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company and married a Sarcee woman with whom he had three sons: Gabriel, Jean and Isidore. Gabriel estabished his reputation as a wild and dominant character around Fort Edmonton. Jean and Isidore spent their time in the Saskatchewan and Red River regions where they did well. It was in the Red River region in 1837 where Isidore and Louise Laframboise's second son,Gabriel, was born and named after his formidable uncle. The young Gabriel grew up to become very strong, stocky and resourceful. He learned to be skilled with a bow and arrow and was an excellent rifleman, horseman, hunter and trapper. By 1863 at the age of twenty-five he was already the leader of the Saskatchewan hunt during which he always did at least one run to get meat for the old and the less able. He had an exceptional knowledge of the land and very good contacts with the native Indians, speaking six native languages as well as French. Highly respected and admired, he instilled confidence in the people that he led.

Having commited himself to live on a claim here along the South Saskatchewan, Dumont thrived. He broke 25 acres and produced hay, barley, potatoes and such. He set up a ferry service called “Gabriel's Crossing” which became quite remunerative and a store nearby. There were times that he contracted to do such services as building roads. Such amenities as his billiard table and treadle washing machine, and having been in the process of building a new and larger house to compete with the mock-colonial structure that his rival Batoche had erected beside that competing ferry seem to indicate that Dumont was quite well-off by the mid 1880's. Many stories attest to the generosity and social conscience of this man. John Kerr records that he saw Dumont fill sacks with groceries and hand them to Father André to distribute to the old Métis women of St Laurent who were left at home while the others had gone to the hunting grounds. He also tells about a poor Métis named Isidore had no cart or horse. When his wife gave birth Dumont picked out a good cart horse from his own lot and brought it over to Isidore hooked to a cart…….later he killed enough buffalo to fill the cart with dried meat and pemmican and gave it to them. Kerr goes on to tell about Dumont killing as many as eight buffalo in one day and not take any for himself but give them to those who had no fast runnrers (horses). This kind of a sense of social responsibilty, the realization that luck and ability should be used for others as well as oneself, was inherent in the character of the man to play his part in the construction of a political order among the Métis.

At a meeting in December of 1873 presided over by Gabriel Dumont and secretary Father André as “loyal and faithful subjects of Canada” the people of St Laurent (approximately 1,000) formed a constitution to govern themselves. Gabriel Dumont was elected president with a council of eight. All took an oath to perform duties faithfully. They enacted 28 basic laws and set up an executive organization of captains and soldiers to police their community. Council was authorized to raise levies for public services and impose corvees for work in the community. In the following year Dumont called a general meeting to frame regulations for land holding whereby each head of family had the right to a strip of land 1/4 mile wide and 2 miles from the river. Ideas pertaining to conservation were put in place so that there would be no waste of trees. Rules for the buffalo hunt were revised to prevent waste because by this time these great beasts of the prairies were becoming scarce – sportsmen had been irresponsibly killing for trophies.

A disruptive incident in 1875 sent resounding waves beyond the community. A group led by a former Hudson's Bay Company man, Peter Ballentine, including three St Laurent Métis who knew the laws, went hunting on the Métis land ten days before the designated hunt date. Dumont's letter of warning was ignored resulting in his enforcing fines on the offenders. Ballentine complained to Lawrence Clarke, the Hudson's Bay Factor at Fort Carlton and recently appointed justice of the peace for the territories. Clarke took Ballentine's side and sent an inflamatory note to lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris. This resulted in Major General E Selby-Smythe and George Arthur French, Commissioner of the Mounted Police travelling to Fort Carlton with a troop of fifty men to investigate. They assessed that the whole incident was an exaggeration and left, leaving Inspector Leif Crozier and a dozen men to settle the issues. The result was the vindication of Dumont but the St Laurent Council ceased to exist.

By 1875 the North West Mounted Police was becoming a presence. A district headquarters was established at Battleford which also became the capital of he Northwest Territories in 1877.

Lieutenant Governor Morris concluded with the Cree, the Chipewyans, and the Assiniboines the sixth treaties. Ceremonies took place in 1875-76 at Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt. Terms included allocation of one square mile of land for every family of five, $12 per head and annuities of $5, medals and flags and horses and buggies for chiefs, a few tools and agricultural implements. Indians who settled on reservations would get a 3 year grant of provisions and there was a promise of aid, inclding rations of food, in the event of pestilence or famine. Some chiefs grudgingly accepted but the Cree, Big Bear, refused. David Mills, Minister of the Interior expressed regret about the arrangements because it would cause Indians to rely on government instead of their own exertions. The following year Treaty 7 with the Blackfoot Confederacy limited the plains Indians to reservations. Now all the territory was available for settlers. Morris still signalled to the Dominion Government that two main issues that remained to be dealt with were the conservation of the buffalo and the provision of land for the unsettled Métis.

Métis issues seemed to be unimportant. An 1873 petition by Qu'Appelle half-breeds for grants of land was ignored by the Dominion government. Scattered groups in the more southerly areas in desparate search for buffalo found themselves hunting on the American side and in 1879 the American army went into action against them and rounded up 400 families and released them only on condition that they hunt in the country where they were domiciled. Some of them drifted father north toward the St Laurent and Duck Lake areas; others went to Montana. Red River Métis left to seek better conditions in the Saskatchewan river regions: men like Louis Schmidt, Michel Dumas and Charles Nolin. Petitions to the North West Council in 1877 asked for grants for schools. A petition in 1878 requested scrip for land grants and assistance in seed grain and agricultural implements. A request for representation on the Council resulted in an old man, Pascal Breland, who usually sided with the authorities. Gabriel Dumont continued to raise agitation against a 1880 regulation which would have imposed a toll on wood cut from crown lands. In 1881 another petition to Ottawa to ask for land and scrip. Though not himself personally affected, Dumont initiated a petition in 1882 to protest regulations that forced some Métis to pay for land that they already occupied if it happened to fall on the unevenly numbered sections that were not available for homesteading (these sections having been set aside for the CPR or schools). The further request was to accomodate their traditional predilection for long narrow riverfronting lots rather than square quarter-sections. The response, again unsatisfactory, came only in 1884 in the person of an Inspector of Dominion Lands, William Pearce who spoke no French and consequently left the matter to a bilingual Dominion Land Agent in Prince Albert whose report was then mislaid.

The disastrous neglect in regard to the Métis issues was blight on this country's history. Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris lamented the lack of attention. Lieutenant Governor David Laird urged action. Archbishop Taché who arrived at Red River as early as 1845 saw the unfair treatment. Deputy Minister of the Interior, Colonel J S Dennis recommended that the half-breed claims be immediately attended to. The Dominion Lands Act of 1878 (Clause 31) gave authority to the Dominion Cabinet “to satisfy any claims in connection with the extinguishment of the Indian title, preferred by half-breeds outside the limits of Manitoba…..by granting land to such persons, to the extent and on such terms and conditions, as may be deemed expedient”. But Macdonald, doubly responsible as Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, never seriously attempted to ascertain or satisfy Métis demands. These people had acted as guides and freighters for settlers, gentlemen hunters, and government officers and had acted as go-between for dealings with the native Indians.

In 1881 the Métis demonstrated their loyalty to Queen Victoria when Viscount Lorne made his viceregal progress across the prairies. People came out dressed in their best attire for the expected day on August 22, though the real arrival day was August 25. Gabriel Dumont ferried them across the river: 80 horses and 19 wagons. Then Dumont and the Métis formed a mounted escort to see the party to Duck Lake and Fort Carlton. Lord Lorne boarded the Northcote to Prince Albert and on to Battleford.

By 1884 frustration had reached a critical level. At a meeting in March 1884 of some thirty Métis including men such as Gabriel Dumont, Charles Nolin, Maxime Lepine, Michel Dumas, and Napoleon Nault, a proposal by W H Jackson, secretary of the settlers' Union for common action among Metis, English half-breeds, and white settlers aroused interest. There seems to have been some suggestion of rebellion and of involving Louis Riel. Another meeting of several hundred men on April 28 outside of Isidore Dumont's house saw the adoption of seven resolutions which reiterated the demands of all the French-speaking people (including those in the outlying settlements from as far as Prince Albert) for a more representative Territorial Council and for land titles and also blamed the government for its neglect of the Indians. The meeting elected a committee of six to prepare a draft Bill of Rights to be submitted on behalf of the Métis to a meeting of all three groups in May. The next meeting on May 6 at the Lindsay Schoolhouse between Batoche and Prince Albert chaired by Andrew Spence was a general agreement of delegates from the three aggrieved communittees about the unendurable procrastinations and indifference of the Dominion government. The resolution to involve Riel, however, was specified as representing the “French and British natives of the North-west”. May 19 the three chosen delegates to fetch Riel from Montana – a seven hundred mile journey – left with Dumont driving a four-wheel wagon and Moise Ouellette and James Isbister each driving two-horse buggies.

The likes of Father André and Lawrence Clarke did not approve. We might note that the April and May meetings metioned above were not held at the church but rather at the residences of local individuals or at the schoolhouse. Lawrence Clarke sent missives to Lieutenant-Governor Dewdney and James Grahame, the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company in Winnipeg, who forwarded these to the Minister of the Interior. Clarke raised alarm about the plight of the Métis who might form alliances with native Indians in the event of uprising. He urged that the Mounted Police in the area should be reinforced. There was little or no reaction to his warnings as the now Minister of the Interior, David Lewis McPherson, was also “an accomplished pigeon-holer” and continued to deny that any Métis grievances existed.

The delegation to bring Riel, advantaged by Dumont's facility in dealing with the natives, was accomplishing its mission. Riel agreed to come with them along with his Métis wife and children. About fifteen miles from Batoche at Tourond's Coulee, also known as Fish Creek, on 5 July sixty cheering Métis horsemen shouted welcomes and fired salvoes from their muskets and Winchesters and sang Pierre Falcon songs in their delight at seeing the returning travellers. Riel was moved to tears when they arrived at Tourond's farm and were greeted by fifty wagonloads of older people, women, and children. They proceeded ten more miles to Gabriel's Crossing where Madeleine, Gabriel Dumont's wife, welcomed Riel into her house. Next morning the cavalcade rode north to Batoche. Riel spoke to another crowd of English-speaking half-breeds as well as Métis about their rights.

Riel's exhortations to the unity of all discontent groups seemed to strike up positive response from even white settlers such as at a meeting at the Lindsay schoolhouse in July ; although some of that new-found support was lost when he extended his call to include many of the Indian chiefs from as far away as Battleford and Qu'Appelle. Riel and Gabriel Dumont wanted to resurrect the support of the Catholic clergy. Unfortunately, their efforts, focused on the clergy and especially Bishop Grandin, led only to the creation of the “Union Métisse de Saint-Joseph” , the significance of which was differently interpreted by various parties. The clergy hoped that it would lead to the church having a beneficial influence, while in Riel's mind the Union was interpreted politically pointing to a recognition of Métis nationhood.

Saskatchewan Rebellion

Lieutenant Governor Dewdney, cautiously watching the situation heat up, asked the Mounted Police to strengthen their forces at Prince Albert and place a detachment at Fort Carlton.

In December the various aggrieved groups concluded their grand petition to the Dominion Government. On 16 December the document was sent to the Secretary of State, J A Chapleau under cover of white settler, W H Jackson, as secretary of the joint Committee. The petition asked virtually for what had been obtained 15 years earlier at Red River with special concessions for the western circumstances: responsible provincial government elected by ballot, scrip and land patents for half-breeds, better treatment for Indians, modifications of homestead laws, reduction of railway tariffs, and a railway to the Hudson's Bay. Chapleau acknowledged the petition and sent a copy of it to London. Again there was no response until February and then it came via Dewdney and was sent to Charles Nolin whose loyalty to the cause had become doubtful. (Nolin had tendered for a government contract to construct a telegraph line.) Macdonald's response said only that there would be an investigation of the half-breeds' demands and a commission of three would be appointed to carry out “enumerations of those who did not participate in grant under Manitoba Act”.

Gabriel Dumont wanted to engage in a geurilla campaign to cause the government to negotiate. By this time Dumont himself had secured his own homestead and thus had nothing to gain on a personal level; this was not the case for many of his fellow citizens. Thus the choice to fight was because their freedom and pride as a people seemed to be threatened. On March 2 Riel saw Father André about forming a provisional government. André refused, despite having witnessed and taken part in the well-functioning government in the St Laurent community in 1873-75, and from then on the clergy actively opposed Riel and the Métis. The English settlers and the English half-breeds adopted a neutral stance. If Dumont had had his way he could have taken control of the area: Fort Carlton, Prince Albert, Batoche, thereby possibly encouraging the other groups (English-speaking) to rally to the winning side. Riel, however, refused to go with such an approach and thus a tactical advantage was lost.

The impetus and passion among the Métis could not be quelled. Riel and Dumont called a meeting on 5 March, 1885 of the core Saskatchewan clan of hunters, the Dumonts, Ouellettes, Pierre and Philippe Gariépy, John Ross, Augustin Laframboise, Calixte Lafontaine, and Napoleon Nault being some of the most prominent. At this meeting the decision was made to resort to armed action. Charles Nolin tried to buy some time by suggesting a novena – nine days of public prayers and confessions – after which the Métis could act according to their consciences.

Spies for the Mounted Police reported that the Métis were rufusing to carry freight and that Dumont and his men were talking about taking Fort Carlton. Superintendent Crozier, in charge at Prince Albert sent warnings that a rebellion could be expected at any moment. Commissioner Irving was instructed on 15 March to move as quickly as possible from Regina to Prince Albert with a force of 100 men. The Saskatchewan Herald reported from Battleford, where local Indian unrest provoked anxiety: “Incipient rebellion. Riel and his friends are on the move, and so are the police.” Dumont and his men assembled all the arms and supplies they could find. This meant raiding some of the stores. At the small store operated by George Kerr they also took John Lash, the Indian agent, and his interpreter, William Tompkins, as hostages.

A meeting outside Xavier Batoche's house on March 19 saw the establishment of a Provisional Government by popular vote. Several of their prisoner hostages were allowed to attend as witnesses. Riel nominated Dumont as “Adjutant-General of the Métis Nation……..at the head of the army.” It was left to Dumont to choose the members of the council. Riel himself refused to accept any official position since he considered himself to be an outsider and saw himself as a prophet rather than a president. He declared that the council should be called the Exovedate and its members Exovedes which would mean those of the “flock” (religious undertones). The whole group of councillors and officers called themselves the “Provisional Government of the Saskatchewan” (or to many of the Métis “le petit Provisoire”).

Dumont quickly established his military command and its headquarters. As principal lieutenants he chose Joseph Delorme and Patrice Tourond. He organized his miniature army of about 300 men according to the traditional ways of the buffalo hunts. Ambroise Champagne and Patrice Fleury were appointed captains of scouts to patrol each side of the river. Then ten captains of the fighting companies were chosen. Dumont proposed the raising of the Indian allies and an immediate attack before the government forces could establish themselves. He intended to begin with surprise assaults on Fort Carlton and Prince Albert and the capture of the stores of arms and ammunition in these places. Riel disagreed.

On March 20 Riel and the Exovedate sent Superintendent Crozier at Fort Carlton an ultimatum requiring him to relinguish the role that the Canadian Government had placed him in at Fort Carlton and Battleford together with all the government properties. In the event of him accepting, he and his men would be set free to leave the country and even be helped with provisions and teams to get them to Qu'Appelle. In case of non-acceptance the Métis would attack by March 23 and commence a war of extermination upon all those who had shown themselves hostile to Métis rights. Crozier did not surrender and the Métis did not attack on March 23.

The Battle of Duck Lake

When, on 25 March, the police had shown themselves on the other side of the river, Riel agreed that Gabriel Dumont with 30 men go to pillage Hillyard Mitchell's store and the stores of those in Duck Lake. He established Duck Lake as an outpost and his scouts found and arrested Harold Ross, the deputy sheriff of Prince Albert, and John Astley, a surveyor, who clumsily were acting as scouts for Crozier. The two men were added as hostages and their horses were appropriated.

Crozier sent a detachment of 15 police and 7 Prince Albert volunteers under Sargent Stewart and Thomas McKay. Dumont and about 30 men intercepted the police party. Shouts and threats led Sargent Stewart to realize it to be wise to avoid further provocation and they slithered off back to Fort Carlton in ignominious retreat. The concern back at Fort Carlton was that as news about the ignominy of Sargent's retreat spread the Métis and others may cease to fear the power of the police. Indian uprising was suspected to be a possibility. The pride of the force was also on the line.

The impetuous Crozier, insecure about his honor, and goated on by the troublesome noise of Lawrence Clarke chose to lead the whole garrison of Fort Carlton in an immediate assault on Duck Lake. He had 56 Mounted Police and about 45 volunteers and a cannon. About 300 Métis had converged at Duck Lake along with a number of Cree Indians from nearby reserves. Upon hearing that the police were returning Dumont took an advance guard of 25 men to pick a suitable ambush. He was not keen on confronting the police head on because they would be much better armed. Dumont chose a spot where there was an elevation in the land and a gully through which his men could move unseen and sheltered from cannon fire. To the side was a log house where Dumont stationed some good marksmen. Some of Crozier's scouts were English half-breeds and they detected the Métis. Crozier had his group form a circle (mostly sleighs) and prepared the cannon. More Métis reinforcements were arriving led by the crucifix-waving Louis Riel.

There is some confusion about who first fired. Gabriel Dumont's brother, Isidore and an unarmed old Indian rode forward to meet Thomas McKay and Crozier. McKay fired when the Indian approached and reached for one of his weapons. Crozier gave the order to fire and Isidore Dumont fell dead from his horse. Gabriel, enraged by his brother's death, disposed his men to battle. The police and the English volunteers seemed to be quickly scared by the number of their dead and their cannon was silenced in reloading efforts. Dumont's men began to surround them. In their retreating flight the police had to run through a clearing and the over-zealous Dumont carelessly exposed himself and took a ball in his head which knocked him down and quite severely wounded him. Joseph Delorme and Edouard, his younger brother, came to his aid. He told his brother to lead the men. The police and their volunteers began to flee and Edouard shouted to his men to follow them and finish them off. Riel begged him to kill no more and Crozier and his men ran off. The police took their own dead with them but the corpses of the dead volunteers lay on the battlefield. They also left behind 5 wagons, 8 uninjured horses, and a dozen rifles and some ammunition. After having his wound attended-to Dumont sent one of his prisoners to Fort Carlton with an offer for them to have safe passage to come and pick up their dead.

Crozier's superior, Commissioner Irving arrived just in time to celebrate the first defeat suffered by the Dominon's forces in the western territories and the first outbreak of insurrection in the country since the 1837 uprisings in Lower and Upper Canada. Irving's problem now was the vulnerability Fort Carlton with its surounding hills. He decided to abandon Fort Carlton and concentrate on the defence of Prince Albert, the main white settlement in the area. Dumont anticipated this move and proposed using a natural spot for ambush to attack Irving's column. Again Riel said no and another important tactical advantage was given away. Scales of battle would be changing. John A Macdonald sent Major-General Frederick Middleton in command of the Canadian militia to the west.

Métis leaders and the Indian leaders such as Big Bear and Poundmaker realized that they could not sweep the whites away. The only hope was to try to agitate enough to force some recognition and negotiations. Most of the Métis outside of the Batoche and St Laurent area did not mobilize.Wandering Spirit led a massacre of whites by Cree and Assiniboines at Frog Lake, an extreme act not condoned by men like Big Bear or Poundmaker. Most of the Indians seemed to be cautiously watching events. The powerful chiefs of the prairies, the Blackfoot Crowfoot, the Cree Piapot, and the Sioux, Sitting Bull chose to remain neutral. Some of the Sioux led by White Cap made their way to Batoche. A group of Métis from Turtle River joined Poundmaker in a siege of Battleford. Riel's indecision after the Duck Lake victory was likely a factor in the failure of the other half-breeds and the Indians to also rise to action. Riel's mystical religious preoccupations and aspirations distracted him from the reality of the oncoming Canadian Militia, much to the frustation of the loyal Gabriel Dumont whose instincts and judgements were focused on the real situation, which for his people was becoming more perilous by the day.

Middleton with 6,000 men came to the prairies to crush the rebellion. A column of 800 with artillery and with Captain Howard's famous Gatling gun marched toward Batoche. Other columns were sent via Swift Current and Edmonton to deal with Poundmaker and Big Bear. The rest remained at Qu'Appelle. Middleton started north from Qu'Appelle on 6 April, Dumont's Métis scouts watching all the way. With only a possible 300 men and fewer than 200 guns Dumont was out-matched. Dumont and his men knew the country very well and he and his captains worked out a strategy of guerilla harassment. This would have involved blowing up railway tracks and bridges, harassing Middleton's men at night, trying to get some arms and weapons. Riel maintained his opposition and it became clear that this “prophet's” usefulness lay only in his literacy. Dumont's spies reported that their enemy was equipped with all the modern weapons further eroding the confidence of some of the men. Once the army would arrive at Batoche the effect on Dumont's men hearing the crying of the women and children would be devastating.

Battle of Fish Creek

When on 23 April the Canadian army moved forward from Clarke's crossing Dumont decided to act. Middleton's army camped six miles south of Fish Creek that night giving Dumont the idea of a night attack. He immediately sent couriers to alert Poundmaker and Big Bear. His scouts, however, supected that some of the army scouts were on their guard and the idea of the night assault was abandoned. Dumont's knowledge of the terrain led him to choose as his spot for ambush Tourond's Coulee, the ravine down which Fish Creek ran toward the South Saskatchewan. There were low thick woods that would serve as cover. Just as the Métis were in the process of killing two cattle in the evening to provide supper two Métis came to warn that the mounted police were on their way to attack Batoche and so Edouard wanted 30 men back there for defence. Almost every man wanted to go but Dumont picked out 50 men to go back with Riel. That left him with a small group that was less than a fifth of the Canadians.

In the morning as the Métis had killed a bull to grill for breakfast Gilbert Breland, one of Dumont's scouts came to warn that a column of about 800 men were advancing toward them. Dumont placed 130 of his men in the hollow on the bank of Fish Creek and hid their horses in the woods. He took the other 20 horsemen farther up along the path which the troops would follow. He gave instructions to not attack until all the enemy were in the ravine. A few of the older Métis had some experience in buffalo hunts and some Indian wars but several years had passed since. Many of the Métis had only shotguns and trading muskets and there were only about three Winchesters. A group of Sioux warriors were painted for battle. Dumont's main assets were position and his own courage and tactical skill. Middleton had been told about the posible ambush and thus the element of surprise was lost.

One of Major Boulton's scouts came boldly riding toward Dumont who was so provoked as to chase him down and shoot him. The fight was on. Dumont had to quickly rush back to rejoin his 20 horsemen. There was intense exchange of fire. Dumont and Napoleon Nault galloped back to the men he had left in the ravine to find that troop disintegrating in panic. Only 47 of the 130 were left. With the 15 horsemen left with him he had barely 60 men to resist 400 riflemen and artillery. The excited and determined Dumont inspired his few men to shout and sing as they fought and prayed. When they had practically no cartridges left Dumont resorted to another trick of plains warfare. He set fire to the grass and the smoke blew toward the Canadians. He advanced firing his few remaining cartridges and the troops fell back. Middleton sent some of his men to put out the fires. Dumont returned to his horsemen and found that the Sioux had slipped away, tired of fighting and of the worsening weather of rain and sleet; also twilight was coming on and Indians usually avoided fighting after dark. Just as Dumont and a few men who remained with him tried to outflank the enemy Edouard arrived from Batoche with about 80 horsemen and charged into the coulee to force the Canadians back. Middleton decided to withdraw. The Métis, though running out of ammunition, had scored a victory in holding back a force that was several times more numerous, and had severly mauled their enemy. Only four Métis were killed and three wounded. Unfortunately, 55 of their horses were killed. They picked up 32 Canadian carbines and some ammunition. Wet and chilled as he was, with his head wound throbbing, Dumont wanted to pursue the retreating enemy but most of his men were not willing. They went back to warm themselves at Tourond's farm and then made their way back to Batoche.

The shaken Canadians had to regroup. Middleton was apprehensive about marching through the Métis territory, informing the Minister of Militia and Defence, Adolphe Caron, that a few Métis stationed at strategic points along the way could kill quite a number of his troops. News came that Colonel Otter and his expedition on their mission to bring relief to Battleford had been defeated on 2 May by Poundmaker's Indians and their Métis companions. But Canadian reinforcements were coming from Qu'Appelle on the Hudson's Bay steamer, the Northcote. About 80 men of the Midland Batallion and a Lieutenant-Colonel van Straubenzie who had served in the Crimea and Arthur L Howard , a lieutenant in the Connecticut National Guard, with his Gatling gun would be quite a boost.

The Battle for Batoche

The Northcote with the reinforcements renewed Middleton's confidence. He decided, as his tactical plan to combine naval with military operations. The Northcote would sail downriver to create a diversion on the west side of Batoche while his military forces would attack from the east. On 7 May the Canadian column was in motion with 850 men, four cannon and the Gatling gun which could eject a continuous stream of bullets.

Dumont and his captains knew that with their limited arms and ammunition guerilla tactics of harrassing the army in their camps and in the wooded areas in the country so famiar to the Métis, might keep Middleton's men at work and tension for months and perhaps years. Again their problem was Riel whose religious preoccupations and conflicts with the priests kept him in state of distraction. Riel maintained that through his visions God had informed him of the need to fight in Batoche.Consequently, Dumont and his men carefully prepared their rifle pits and trenches. They had fewer than 300 men.

The Canadians were on the way. Most of the local inhabitants had left their homes and retreated to Batoche or St Laurent. Middleton's men regarded the edible property left behind as legitimate booty. On 7 May they reached Gabriel's Crossing where they looted and burned Gabriel Dumont's home after taking his Billiard table and Madeleine's washer.

On 9 May the Northcote arrived at Batoche somewhat early. Dumont had Patrice Fleury and his men ready on the west bank and another group of thirty men on the eastern shore with a plan to lower the cable of the Batoche ferry in order to trap the boat and take the crew hostage for bargaining purposes. The cable came down too slowly and only tore off the Northcote's smokestack. The boat swung around uncontrolled and continued to drift downstream and out of range. Meanwhile, Middleton's troops coming in from the east had gotten so close as to foil the next plan of the Métis which was to set fire to the prairie and enable the Métis sharpshooters to harrass the intruders. Middleton dug in at Jean Caron's farm overlooking the river about half mile from Batoche.The cannon were set up and Lieutenant Howard began firing his Gatling. Dumont, in the thick of the battle giving orders, fought all day and lost no men. The first day's fighting was indecisive as were the second and third days. The quick manoeuverability of the Métis convinced Middleton that they were more numerous than expected. The Métis were running out of ammunition, however. Finally, on 12 May the militia troops rushed the Métis defences. The defenders tried to make a stand among the houses of the village and it was here that most of the Métis deaths occurred. The deaths of Joseph Ouelette, aged 93, Joseph Vandal, aged 75, Donald Ross, and Isidore Boyer. Damasse Carrière was wounded in the leg and then dragged by the neck with a rope tied to a horse's tail and strangled to death. Some of the Métis, including Dumont and Riel disappeared into the woods along the river. The battle was lost.


There were no more followers or resources to carry on. Dumont, still an elusive fugitive in the woods seemed concerned with Madeleine's welfare and that of Riel and his family. He took Madeleine to stay with his father, Isidore. Isidore convinced him to seek out his brother-in-law, Moise Ouelette who had a letter for Riel from Middleton. Dumont rejected Ouelette's advice to give himself up saying that he still had 90 cartridges to use on anyone who would try to capture him. Riel surrendered 15 May and thereafter Dumont submitted to Isidore's and Madeleine' pleas to leave the area to avoid capture. On 16 May Dumont, armed with a revolver and Le Petit (his rifle) with 90 cartridges, and joined by Michel Dumas, left for exile to the United States. The two fugitives reached the border in eleven days without incident. Although the prairies were infested with military and police patrols and the news of the escape had been sent everywhere the two men were not threatened. No one was anxious to encounter Dumont because his courage and it was well known that he was armed and would use his celebrated marksmanship on any policeman or soldier who was foolish enough to get within range. Dumont knew the country well and was received happily by the various Indian groups along the way.

Other refugees followed Dumont to Montana. Edouard and Jean, and eventually Madeleine also came bringing with her the news of his father, Isidore's death. There was the idea of trying to rescue Riel but the attempt never happened because the Mounted police took great precautions to prevent it. After Madeleine died Dumont accepted for a while to be a star in Buffako Bill's Wild West show. In July of 1886 news arrived saying that the Canadian government had issued a general amnesty to those who had taken part in the Northwest Rebellon. Gabriel did not trust the Canadian government enough to risk returning to Canada at that time. He travelled to the eastern States where he addressed audiences of French descent who were interested and sympathetic to the Métis cause. Major Edmund Mallet, a French-speaking former Inspector of Indian Agencies under the U.S. Government, facilitated an audience in 1887 with President Grover Cleveland. Dumont used this contact to request rations to be granted to impoverished Canadian Métis in Montana, a request which was politely rejected.

While Dumont was staying in New York he was visited by some Canadian ecclesiastics. Bishop Grandin of Prince Albert and Blackfoot missionary, Father Lacombe, spoke of a return to Saskatchewan; Dumont was somewhat less than cordial with them since he suspected that they did not want him to tell the truth of the clergy's negative endeavors against the Métis during the uprisings.

Dumont did return to Canada, going first to Montreal, from where his grandfather Jean-Baptiste had left to venture to the west. Nationalists such as Honoré Mercier and Laurent Olivier David were interested in hearing what he had to say. The natonalist politicians withdrew their patronage when Dumont stressed the treason of the priests as a factor leading to the Métis defeat. These types of claims were not welcome by the clerically dominated newspapers.

In 1893 Dumont decided to return to Saskatchewan. He had never surrendered the Quarter-section of land that he had claimed in 1872 on which he had built his house and out-buildings, that had been destroyed and burned by Middleton's men. In March of 1893 he went to Winnipeg to try to secure patent to his land. Finally on 31 January 1902 he received title to the land he had first occupied in 1872. Many of the men who had fought with him in the rebellion had drifted farther northward into the more marginal lands. Some had remained on their land beside the Saskatchewan River. They resisted assimilation although their existence as a separate people was mostly unnoticed. They did not even have the negative dignity of recognition as a separate people that the treaties had granted to the Indians. It was these people and members of the surrounding Cree reserves who came to Batoche to respectfully mark the passing of Gabriel Dumont in May of 1906.

Louis Riel was tried in court and found guilty of treason by a jury which was made up of six English and six Scotish Protestants, though they recommended mercy. His lawyers had attempted to make a case for insanity; Riel, however, spoke eloquently in his own defence and refused the idea of insanity because it would take away from the legitimacy of the Métis grievances against the Dominion Government. According to Riel, “Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having”. The appeals to the Court of Queen's Bench and to the Privy Coucil were rejected. Riel was hanged on 16 November, 1885. The Macdonald cabinet was determined to see him executed.

The ramifications to Riel's execution were/are extensive for the country. Especially in Quebec where an aroused sense of nationalism propelled Honoré Mercier to power, where the sense of betrayal to the notion of having a country born with the concept of a duality of language and culture was strongly felt. The Orangemen of Ontario seemed determined to prevent the formation of French-speaking Catholic provinces in the west . The Conservative Party lost its support in the province of Quebec.

Métis struggles continued as a second dispersal, particularly to Alberta took place. Poverty, demoralization and racism commonly connected with being identified as “half-breed” led many to deny or suppress their heritage. Métis land allowances or financial equivalences were usually given in paper scrip. Unscrupulous speculators often pressured them to sell. The Métis Association of Alberta was able to secure land for settlements in the 1930's . In Saskatchewan the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians organized for protection of rights.

In the 1960's and 70's Métis and Non-Status Indians continued to agitate for social, economic and educational support dealing with mostly provincial governments due to the continued neglect of federal agencies. With the Canadian constitutional patriation Métis organizations managed to succesfully pressure for inclusion in what became Section 35 of the Constituion Act of 1982, protecting the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples who were defined as Indian, Inuit and Métis.

The question of specifically defining the Aboriginal rights is still a work in progress. Some relatively recent court declarations are significant. The R v. Powley case in 2003 in which two Métis hunters were charged with illegal hunting resulted in the Supreme Court establishing the Powley test for declaring who may claim Metis Aboriginal rights under Section 35: a person must a) self identify as Métis; b) have an ancestral connection to a historic Métis community; and c) be accepted by a contemporary community that exists in continunity with a historic rights-bearing community. In 2013 the Supreme Court determined in the Manitoba Métis Federation v. Canada that the government failed in its obligation to properly distribute and safeguard the 1.4 million acres set aside for Métis in the Manitoba Act. And most recently in 2016, Daniels v. Canada resulted in a ruling that Métis and Non-Status Indians are considered Indians under federal jurisdiction as per Section 91(24) of the Constitution Act of 1867. Thus as we presently enter the year 2017 it remains for the Federal Government of Canada to address and deal with a people who have for too long been wrongly neglected.

Note: Written with a small m, métis refers to any community of European-indiginous ancestry including those in Ontario, Quebec, or Maritime provinces. The above article concerns those indentified as Métis according to the 2002 Métis National Council which is also the definition given in 2003 Supreme Court declared Powley test. The geographical areas in this case are the three prairie provinces, parts of Ontario, the Northwest Territories, Brirish Columbia and some northern states. These people shared a widespread nomadic early existence associated with furs and buffalo hunts prior to land-claiming struggles and the use of French language and often the Michif language, a mixture of French and Cree and sometimes Ojibway.


  • Canada's Native Peoples – Antoine Lussier ( Heirloom Publishing Inc.)
  • Gabriel Dumont – George Woodcock ( Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton)
  • The Canadiana Encyclopedia

Richard Bleile (January 2017)

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