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The Northwest Resistance

1885

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Synopsis

Though the Americans had used military force to end any resistance to their western expansion by 1877, the Dominion of Canada’s only armed force west of the Great Lakes was the Northwest Mounted Police. They were a paramilitary police force with only light armaments, ill prepared to fight a war against the First Nations. The Canadian government relied on treaties to keep the peace with the First Nations, as well as acquire land for settlement. However the government had no such agreement with the Metis, a young Indigenous nation born out of the unions between European fur traders and Indigenous Louis Riel, the leader of both Metis uprisingsLouis Riel, the leader of both Metis uprisings women. With no treaty guaranteeing their lands and no voice in government, the Metis rose up in 1869, led by a charismatic ex-seminary student named Louis Riel. Though the uprising ended in defeat, the Metis remained resentful of Canadian authority and Louis Riel managed to escape across the American border.

Over the next several decades, the situation in the prairies became increasingly tense. The Cree, Ojibwe, Assiniboine and Stoney had once dominated the region as members of the Iron Confederacy, but the decline of the buffalo and the fur trade brought their communities to brink of ruin and starvation. When they appealed to the Canadian government for assistance, their plight was ignored, inspiring bitterness among the First Nations. The situation worsened when the government sent men to survey lands which the Metis considered theirs.

Already suffering economically from the fur trade’s decline, the threat dispossession prompted the return of Louis Riel in 1884. By the following year, the Metis and the Iron Confederacy’s members grew so angry, that two simultaneous uprisings broke out.

Riel and a council of Metis leaders went so far as to declare themselves an independent state.

When the Northwest Mounted Police attempted to arrest and disarm a Metis Militia led by Riel and Gabriel Dumont at Duck Lake, a battle broke out. The militia won it decisively. Not long after Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibwe warriors from bands led by Chiefs Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) and Poundmaker (Pîhtokahanapiwiyin) looted Battleford and attacked a settlement at Frog Lake, despite their leader’s objections. In response to the violence, the Canadian government hastily assembled a militia army and shipped them west. Canada also received the support of Siksika Chief Crowfoot, who used his prestige and influence to keep the mighty Blackfoot Confederacy out of the fighting.

Location

Alberta, Saskatchewan

Map canadaAlberta, Saskatchewan
Conflict Category: Armed Resistance

Combatants

The Provisional Government of Saskatchewan

An unrecognized breakaway Metis state based around the town of Batoche, the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan sought to protect the Metis’ land, faith and Francophone culture. Led by famed revolutionary Louis Riel, Saskatchewan was defended by a few hundred Metis militia. The state’s sovereignty was not recognized by any foreign government or the First Nations leader.

The Iron Confederacy

A mighty alliance of Cree, Ojibwe and Assiniboine which once dominated much of the northern plains, a bitter war against the Blackfoot and the decline of the Buffalo forced the Iron Confederacy to trade land for the promise of humanitarian aid from Canada. Canada’s failure to abide by its own treaties sparked outrage among the Iron Confederacy’s members.

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Dominion of Canada

Less than two decades old when the Northwest Resistance began, the Dominion of Canada was a rapidly industrializing country eager to open the west for settlement. Though it had no real standing army at the start of the war, the Northwest Mounted Police and thousands of eager militia volunteers deployed west by the railroad, allowed Canada to swiftly respond to the Metis and Indigenous uprisings.

Allies

The Provisional Government of Saskatchewan

  • None

The Iron Confederacy

  • None
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Dominion of Canada

  • Blackfoot Confederacy
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Pivotal Battle

The Battle of Batoche — May 9 - 12 1885
May 9 - 12 1885

Though the Metis and First Nations Resistance fighters enjoyed early successes at the Battles of Fish Creek and Cut Knife, the Canadian Army, led by General Frederick Middleton, enjoyed a distinct advantage in numbers and logistics. With the railroad at his disposal, Middleton could resupply and reinforce his army in just days, while the Metis and First Nations resistance fighters ran critically low on ammunition after just a few engagements. While Big Bear and Poundmaker could keep moving and evade the Canadian Army, Gabriel Dumont was forced to defend the Metis government’s de facto headquarters of Batoche, Saskatchewan. In previous battles, the Metis militia had used mobility or surprise to counter the Canadian army’s artillery and superior numbers. Batoche would be static defensive battle. Though Dumont’s men constructed a network of rifle pits to fight from, the Metis had little protection from the Canadian artillery. Despite these odds, the Metis bitterly resisted the Canadian army’s attack for three days until Dumont’s militia were reduced to firing rocks and nails. On May 12th, the Canadian army launched a bayonet charge which finally broke through the Metis’ lines and captured Batoche. Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont managed to escape Batoche’s fall, but their army was either dead, wounded or prisoners.

Aftermath

Word of Batoche’s fall and Riel’s surrender on May 15th, sent shock waves through the Indigenous bands still resisting the Canadian forces. Poundmaker, who’d been marching towards Batotche to join forces with the Metis, surrendered on May 26th. Big Bear’s band managed to defeat the Canadians on May 28th at Frenchman’s Butte, but within five days they were decisively defeated at Loon Lake. Big Bear finally surrendered on July 2nd 1885, ending the last armed Indigenous resistance to European expansion in the Northwest and cementing the Canadian government’s control of its newly annexed territories.

Poundmaker and Big Bear were briefly imprisoned, while Louis Riel was hung after a contentious trial which divided Canadian society along linguistic and religious lines.

Only Gabriel Dumont, who fled to the USA after Batoche, escaped the Canadian government’s wrath. Dumont joined Buffalo Billy Cody’s travelling show before being pardoned and allowed to return home to Saskatchewan. Though they were dismissed as rebels and traitors in their day, over time Canadians have come to appreciate the heroism and sacrifice of leaders like Louis Riel, Poundmaker, Big Bear and Gabriel Dumont, as well as the causes of their uprising.

Notable Commanders

Gabriel Dumont, Grand Captain of the Metis Militia
Gabriel Dumont, Grand Captain of the Metis Militia

Indigenous/Metis Resistance
Gabriel Dumont

One of the greatest Indigenous military leaders in Canadian history, Gabriel Dumont spent his formative years hunting buffalo and fighting in the long running Metis-Dakota conflict. These experiences turned Dumont into a hardened survivor and expert guerrilla fighter. He scored two victories over the Canadian forces and suggested that the Metis destroy the railway, but Louis Riel overruled him.

General Frederick Middleton, leader of the Canadian Militia during the Northwest Rebellion
General Frederick Middleton, leader of the Canadian Militia during the Northwest Rebellion

Dominion of Canada
Frederick Middleton

An Irish born veteran of the British Army, General Frederick Middleton spent his early career fighting against the Maori of New Zealand. The commanding General of Canada’s part time army, he was charged with leading the expedition to crush the Northwest Rebellion. After being ambushed at Fish Creek by the Metis militia, Middleton adopted a cautious approach to fighting the Metis.

Key Weapons

Weapons are a central part of war. Explore the selections below to learn about the weapons used in this conflict.
Gatling Gun
Gatling Gun
Gatling Gun

Gatling Gun

The first true “machine gun” to see active combat, two hand cranked Gatling guns saw action with the Canadian militia during the Battles of Cut Knife and Batoche.

Snider Enfield
Snider Enfield
Snider Enfield

Snider Enfield

The Snider-Enfield is a breech loading, percussion cap rifle with an effective range of 600 metres, capable of firing both .577 and buckshot cartridges.

Bow
Bow
Bow

Bow

The oldest weapon in mankind’s arsenal, even the arrival of firearms did not banish the bow from North American battles.

Tomahawk
Tomahawk
Tomahawk

Tomahawk

Despite being created in the 1600s, Tomahawks are still carried into battle by Canada’s special forces.

Winchester Rifle
Winchester Rifle
Winchester Rifle

Winchester Rifle

A lever action, multi-shot rifle sold in large quantities on the civilian market, the Winchester Rifle’s many models became a favourite of settlers, soldiers and Indigenous warriors.

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