Western Expansion and the Métis’ Uprisings

Métis leader Louis Riel.
Fur trapper of European origin courting an indigenous American woman.
Métis men who formed a provisional government in Manitoba in 1869.
Map of Canada in 1870, with Manitoba in the center.
Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.
Driving the last spike in the transcontinental railway, which was completed in 1885.

Britain’s decision to cede what was to become the North-West Territories to Canada in 1869 opened up for westward expansion. Canadian government officials now began surveying the new territories, and land rights were granted to people interested in cultivating the area. As a consequence, before long, English-speaking settlers from Ontario started to pour into the future North-West Territories on horse carriages, intent on making the western prairies their new home. The area they came to, however, was not uninhabited. Among other population groups, thousands of Métis already lived here.

Feeling squeezed

Having resulted from European fur trappers having relationships with indigenous women, the Métis in western Canada was a French-speaking half-indigenous half-European people. They had a long history on the prairie, yet the Canadian government did not recognize their claim to land. The Métis’ French-Catholic culture and their buffalo hunting ways were not recognized either, and with large numbers of English-speaking farmers now entering the area, the Métis seemed about to be squeezed out.

Fearing being engulfed in a sea of settlers, in 1869, Métis men took up arms and declared a provisional government in the southern parts of present-day Manitoba. This drastic action, just like the Métis had intended, forced Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to leave guarantees that the Métis’ economic and cultural interests would be respected.

The second uprising

Nevertheless, the Métis in Manitoba, over time, would feel increasingly unfree as more and more European settlers poured in. Many of the mixed-race people, therefore, moved even further west, to present-day Saskatchewan. Louis Riel, who had led the Manitoba uprising, was again elected leader in the new Saskatchewan colony, and once again Riel petitioned Ottawa to recognize Métis interests. However, this time the petition got a cold response. Frustrated, Riel and his supporters instead assumed a militant position and set up another local provisional government. This initiative, as could be expected, was not well-received by the Canadian government though, who saw it as a threat to their authority and decided to send armed militia to the Métis stronghold.

Using the newly built transcontinental railroad to transport themselves out west, large numbers of government forces arrived in Métis territory before long. Once here, armed conflict broke out, with the Métis having a few initial military successes against the government forces before their venture failed. Defeated, Louis Riel thereafter turned himself in, and despite passionately defending his actions in court, was hanged for treason in 1885.