Following the Trail of  1885 – Louis Rîel

The Northwest Resistance: The Opening Salvo at Duck Lake

On the second leg of the trip Maxine George continues on the discovery of the story of Louis Rîel.

Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George

Our next stop on our trail of discovery was at the Duck Lake Regional Interpretive Centre and Battlefield. This battlefield was the scene where the first shots of the Northwest Resistance were fired in 1885. 

Saskatchewan's Duck Lake Interpretive Centre
Saskatchewan’s Duck Lake Interpretive Centre
Saskatchewan's Duck Lake Interpretive Centre museum
Celine Perillat, (centre) from the  Duck Lake Museum, explains the battlefield monument to Maxine George (left) and Katherine McIntyre (right)

A little historical background on Louis Rîel would probably help to understand his connection to this story. First to give credit where credit is due: Rîel was a founding father of the province of Manitoba. By rights he was a Father of Confederacy. Born in the Red River Settlement in Rupert’s Land, the territory under control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to a prominent Métis family, Rîel was intelligent, attracting the attention of the Catholic hierarchy as a youth. Through them he received a good education, with the expectation that he would become a priest. He dropped that educational avocation when his father died. At some time he worked in a lawyer’s office, which must have added to his skills and knowledge. Louis Rîel was a born leader and an eloquent speaker.

Portrait of Louis Rîel Riel
Portrait of Louis Rîel

By the time he was 25 he was elected by the Métis, Indians, and the white settlers, to head the Provisional Government of the Red River. The federal government at the time, which consisted of only four provinces, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, was in the process of taking over Rupert’s Land. Rîel fought for basic human rights for his people. Under his leadership the provisional government brought the province of Manitoba into the Canadian federation. The terms were much improved by this negotiation. The government of Canada intended to divide the land in Manitoba into square 640 acre sections of land with an eye to bringing in new settlers. The Métis River Lot system of land division would have been destroyed. Rîel succeeded in having the Métis system retained in Manitoba. Political life has not changed much over the years. There was constant friction between the various politicians, both provincial and federal, plus the fractious citizenry. At the time of the Red River Rebellion Rupert’s Land was not part of Canada, therefore it was not a rebellion against Canada. There is not room here for the rest of the story of the Red River Rebellion. Enough to say Rîel left Canada for a period of years and went to live in Montana.

Louis Riel Rîel
Louis Rîel

By 1884 as part of the North West Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan were a territory of Canada. The native people who lived there were being treated as second class citizens. Their allotment of land was doled out during a time when the hunters were away hunting for meat for the winter. As a result the numbers of people counted were at a yearly low. Surveyors came in and changed all the traditional boundaries bringing the British type of square 640 Acre section boundaries into usage in Saskatchewan and Alberta to the displeasure and determent of the native population.

Louis Rîel in traditional Metis dress
Louis Rîel in traditional Metis dress
Etching of Louis Rîel
Etching of Louis Rîel

The First Nations people were shuffled onto reservations and were under control of an Indian Agent. They could no longer roam freely, but were expected to contact the Indian Agents for any of their needs or complaints. Those white Indian Agents lived in white settlements, so were not easily accessible to the native people, especially when the Indian people were not supposed to come off their reservations to air their grievances or make their requests.

The Saskatchewan Provisional Government 1800s
The Saskatchewan Provisional Government at the time.

The large influx of hunters and settlers into the territory had dissipated the former huge herds of buffalo that the native people had depended on for many of their life’s needs. The result was that the original people of this land were desperate for food. The Plains Indians were unable to produce sufficient other food in the areas they had been given. They had never been farmers, but had relied on nature to produce wild berries and herbs to supplement the animal protein obtained from hunting. Although, the treaties, that had been signed, guaranteed that all their needs would be taken care of, in exchange for their moving onto the reservations and giving up their land, were not being upheld. The buffalo were practically non-existent. The people realized they were facing starvation if changes were not made soon.

Louis Rîel around the time of his trial
Louis Rîel around the time of his trial

In 1884, a delegation of white settlers, First Nations, and Métis from the Northwest Territories and the land now known as Saskatchewan, travelled to Montana to beg Rîel to return to help the people in need of a leader, a leader who would stand up for them. Their land was being surveyed by the Canadian government, in preparation for being settled upon. Little regard was being paid to the requests of the people who had occupied the land, and they were very concerned. Rîel came, as the people had requested, to help them settle their grievances with the Canadian government, and to obtain their basic human rights, just as he had done for people of Manitoba. Rîel saw himself as the savior of his people.

Louis Rîel at his trial
Louis Rîel at his trial

The story from here can be discovered in the Duck Lake Regional Interpretive Centre. It is told from three perspectives: First Nations, Métis and pioneer – civilian and military versions. Copies of the documents, portraying the words of the participants in the Northwest Rebellion, as those involved attested to the story at the time, hang on the walls for all to see. It reminds me very much of the story of the elephant and the blind men. The truth lies somewhat between the versions of each person.

Battle of Duck lake, Saskatchewan.
An Indian Chief’s vestment.  A presentation piece donated to the museum by Fred Anderson, founder of the museum.

When he returned to Saskatchewan, Rîel began working with the Settlers and First Nations people to present their grievances to the government of Canada. The settlers had established the Northwest Settler’s Union with the goal of setting up a local government by creating a new province that would take care of western rights. There was concern amongst the people about federal land and railway monopolies, favoritism in land grants and high tariffs. The First Nations people were concerned because the promises, that had been made to them when they signed the treaties, were not being kept. Where they had been led to believe that they would be protected from the hardships and future uncertainties that came about because of the resettlement of their land, including the prospect of starvation if adequate food supplies were not available, nothing was being done to keep those promises. They had been given inferior farm implements to work their land, as a result they had crop failures. From 1881 until 1884 money was cut from the provisions budget, which further increased their hardship and lack of sustenance. William Henry Jackson, an activist for the Settlers, drew up a “Bill of Rights” which was sent to the Federal government on behalf of those – the Settlers, Métis and First Nations people in November 1884. As the winter set in food for the aboriginal people was in short supply. They were struggling for basic human rights. By February 1885 still no response was received from the Federal government, therefore, Rîel sent a petition to Ottawa. It was a polite testimonial to conditions in Saskatchewan with requests for better conditions for the settlers and First Nations people under the terms of the existing treaties. Still no word from Ottawa. Time had run out. Rîel declared war on the Provincial Government of Saskatchewan on March 19, 1885. 

The aftermath of the Battle of Duck Lake 

Arriving at Duck Lake one is immediately confronted by a riveting painting of the battle of Duck Lake. A dead Métis lies prone in the snow, a bloody bullet hole apparent in the back of his shirt. In death he is still clutching at the land he died to save. Two other men lie in the snow not far from him. These three were the victims of the first salvo of the Northwest Rebellion. The Métis was Isadore Dumont, who was shot at point-blank range, along with a First Nations man, Assywin. Both these men had come to parley with Major Cozier and his interpreter, McKay hopeful of getting some justice for their people.

Duck Lake Battle Monument
Duck Lake Monument to the Battle

There seems to be no disputing that the first shot was fired by “Gentleman” Joe McKay, the interpreter for the police, under orders from his boss, North West Mounted Police Major Lief Crozier during a parlay which was supposed to be taking place under a white flag of truce. The biggest disparity in the stories seems to lie in the exact exchange between Isadore Dumont and McKay and  the number of participants on the Métis-Indian side. Crozier and McKay both estimated their opposition could have been in the hundreds, while the Métis talk about very much smaller groups of  25 or more men. At the conclusion of the battle 18 people had been killed. Three of the Northwest Police died and nine volunteers. There were five Métis killed, and one First Nations. 

Cozier, McKay and Gabriel Dumont, brother of Isadore and leader of the Métis, have left their reports of this attempted parley, for all to see. A First Nations version also exists.  They all agree the encounter lasted not more than thirty minutes.  Gabriel Dumont gave an interesting explanation for the withdrawal of the Northwest Mounted Police.  He said that the Police gunner, who was loading the cannon, put in the shot before the powder, rendering the cannon inoperable.  With their big gun out of commission, Dumont’s infantry men began to surround them, but Riel ordered the men not to kill anymore as there had been enough bloodshed.  According to Dumont, Rîel was unarmed, only carrying a cross as he rode his horse in full view of the enemy.   

For anyone who wants to know about an important piece of Canada’s history, I recommend they take the time to visit the Duck Lake Interpretive Centre. There is much information available there to be pondered.  Read it  and then decide for yourself where the truth lies.

Three bells with a history at Duck Lake: Church, Community and Education
The Residential School bell, The Town Hall bell and St. Michael's Church bell.
Three bells with a history at Duck Lake: Church, Community and Education
The Residential School bell, The Town Hall bell and St. Michael’s Church bell.

Continue Following the Trails of Louis Riel – 1885
Fort Carlton: The Hudson Bay Trading Post, then home to the Northwest Mounted Police

Article and photos by M. Maxine George

Last updated December 3, 2020 by Matthew George – Webmaster

Return to Canada