March 19, 1885 – Métis leader Louis Riel announces the creation of a provisional government in Saskatchewan, beginning the North-West Rebellion. Canada easily suppressed the Métis rebellion, ensuring Anglophone dominance of Canadian culture and crushing the rights of First Peoples for much of the next century.
Riel was a Métis, a group descended from both Europeans and Native Americans. Derided as "half-breeds" by both whites and First Peoples, the Métis emerged as a distinctive culture because Native American culture fostered the easy and continuous reinvention of what constituted a "tribe". Native American bands and tribes were constantly splitting up, merging, uniting, dissolving. These changes happened swiftly, often within the space of a single generation (e.g., less than 20 to 30 years). So, while "half-breeds" are ostracized and reviled in many cultures across the globe, the Métis were able to almost instantaneously form a long-lasting, robust, vibrant culture outside the "traditional" First Peoples tribal structure which protected them and gave them an economic future.
Riel was born in 1844 near what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a Métis (Franco-Ojibwa) father and French mother. Well-educated in Catholic schools and with some legal training as an adult,
In 1869, Riel helped to lead the Red River Rebellion in modern-day Manitoba. The area was largely composed of Métis and First Peoples, whose way of life and culture were threatened by an influx of white English settlers from Ontario. The area had long by administered by the Hudson's Bay Company as a privately-held nation, but now was being turned over to the government of Canada. Hudson's Bay had not negotiated the political status of the Métis and First Peoples, and it was not clear that they would retain title to their land. Riel declared the establishment of a provisional government on December 27, 1869, and demanded that Ottawa negotiate with it. But the Canadians refused, and instead sent spies and guerrillas into the province to undermine the new government. When one of these plotters, Thomas Scott, was captured, Riel ordered his execution. Riel justified the act by claiming that Canada did not take the Métis seriously.
Scott's execution worked -- and didn't work. Ottawa did take the Manitobans seriously, and entered into negotiation with the provisional government. Manitoba was admitted to the Canadian federation as a province on May 12, 1870. But Anglophiles in Canada were outraged by Scott's death. When Canada sent its troops into Manitoba later in 1870 on a "good will tour", Riel learned that the troops intended to lynch him.
Riel fled to Montana in the United States, where he spent the next several years teaching Native American children at St. Peter's Mission near Great Falls. He married and had three children. Known as the "Father of Manitoba", he was elected three times to the Canadian House of Commons -- although he never assumed his seat. Riel also became increasingly convinced he was destined to lead the Métis and First Peoples of Canada.
In 1884, Métis leaders in the Saskatchewan District asked Riel to return to Canada to help them. Many Métis had fled Manitoba after its admission to the Saskatchewan Valley. But the collapse of the buffalo herds (due to American slaughter) and conflict with the Cree and Piikani (Northern Piegan Blackfoot) was causing problems for them. Ottawa proposed a census of the district, but the Métis saw this as a delaying tactic. So did Riel, who infused his political speeches with religious themes that alienated many Catholics.
In March 1885, the North-West Mounted Police planned to reinforce their garrisons in the district in anticipation of rebellion. Riel and his followers (believing an invasion was imminent) took up arms, seized hostages, cut the telegraph lines, and announced the creation of a Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. On March 21, Riel demanded that Ottawa surrender Fort Carlton. That was not going to happen, obviously. Five days later, Métis forces routed a NWMP group near Duck Lake.
Riel had counted on Ottawa being unable to respond to the North-West Rebellion due to its isolation. But he did not realize that the Canadian Pacific Railway had penetrated deep into the district, allowing Ottawa to send 5,000 soldiers and volunteer militia into the territory within two weeks. Many Métis leaders now advocated a guerrilla war, but Riel demanded that his government at Batoche (which he called a "city of God") be defended. The Canadian troops easily overcame Métis resistance, and captured Riel on May 15. Métis and First Peoples forces held out for another three weeks, but the the rebellion was over by June 3.
Louis Riel was convicted of treason. Prime Minister MacDonald decided to hang him, just as Riel had executed Thomas Scott.
Riel was long been viewed as a hero by francophone Canadians. His execution polarized Canada along ethno-religious lines for another century, and guaranteed that the prairie provinces would be controlled by the Anglophones.