Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In 1869 the Métis of Red River, led by Louis Riel, formed a provisional government to stop the Canadian annexation of Rupert's Land. This territory, encompassing most of today's Prairie Provinces, was under Hudson's Bay Company rule and was scheduled to be transferred to Canada in 1869. During the negotiations between the company, the British government, and the Canadian government for the transfer of sovereignty, no one consulted the Métis, who were the vast majority of the 12,000 residents in the Red River Settlement in the present-day province of Manitoba. Worried about their status in the new Dominion, the Métis took matters into their own hands.

During the summer of 1869, the Métis, comprised of English-speaking Protestant "mixed-bloods" and French-speaking Catholic Métis, held several public meetings to determine how to respond to the proposed transfer. Two competing factions emerged. One, led by William Dease, argued that the Métis should form a provisional government and negotiate with Canada on the basis of their Aboriginal rights. Louis Riel and the Catholic clergy led a second faction, who argued that the transfer represented the annexation of Red River Settlement by Protestant Ontario and threatened the religious rights of the Catholic Métis. Controlling the largest army, and having the Catholic Church on his side, Riel triumphed in this power struggle. In early November 1869 he seized Upper Fort Garry and effective control of the settlement.

Riel and his Métis supporters suppressed internal dissension in the settlement by imprisoning dozens of Métis opponents and Canadians, and then forged a consensus by calling a number of representative conventions. In January 1870 Red River residents elected a representative provisional government to negotiate the terms of their entry into the Dominion. The resulting Manitoba Act of 1870 created the province of Manitoba, guaranteed the property rights of the Métis, provided for bilingual institutions and denominational schools to protect the interests of the Catholic Church, and granted 1.4 million acres of land to Métis children.

The Manitoba Act and Manitoba's entry into the Dominion was a victory for the Red River Métis that Riel was unable to enjoy. During the Resistance, which lasted from October 1869 until August of 1870, Riel's provisional government had executed an Ontario Orangeman by the name of Thomas Scott. This act made it politically impossible for the Canadian government to grant Riel's government an unconditional amnesty for actions taken during the Resistance. Riel fled to the United States in August 1870 when Canadian troops arrived in Manitoba.


Gerhard J. Ens University of Alberta

Ens, Gerhard J. "Prologue to the Red River Resistance: Pre-liminal Politics and the Triumph of Riel." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 5 (1994): 111–23.

Stanley, George F. G. Louis Riel. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1963.

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