2010 has been designated by the Federal Government as the Year of the Métis Nation in Canada in commemoration of the 1885 Northwest Resistance and the controversial hanging of its charismatic leader, Louis David Riel. Although many of the key events in what is popularly known as the “North West” or “Riel Rebellion” took place in Saskatchewan, Métis, First Nations and settler communities in east central Alberta were also caught up in the unrest that swept parts of the western prairie like a grass fire.
Frustrated by Ottawa’s lack of concern for the increasingly difficult plight of the inhabitants of the western plains following the decimation of the once great bison herds, the Métis, several First Nations allies, as well as some white farmers rose up in rebellion against the Canadian government. This led to a series of bloody confrontations until the rebels were finally quashed by militia units under the command of Major-General Frederick Middleton.
The first indication as to how serious tensions had become was a clash on 17 March 1885 at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, that left 17 people dead. Another outbreak of violence on 2 April escalated the conflict when a faction of Cree from Big Bear’s band took matters into their own hands and sacked the Frog Lake settlement, north of modern-day Lloydminster. Ten people were killed and settlers taken hostage in what became infamous as the “Frog Lake Massacre,” inciting passions that threatened to engulf the Goodfish, Whitefish and Saddle Lake Cree communities and to spill over into the Victoria Settlement.
Although rebels subsequently attacked a government warehouse at Saddle Lake and mounted a brief assault on the Hudson’s Bay Company Post at Victoria that was quickly called off without any loss of life, emotions ran high until a 700-strong contingent of troops under the command of Major-General Thomas Bland Strange arrived at Victoria from Edmonton on 16 May. Strange reinforced fortifications at the outpost, organized the loyal Victoria Home Guard under Rev. McLachlan, and effectively pacified the situation, thereby preventing the spread of any further bloodshed west of Frog Lake. Thanks to the efforts of local leaders like Chief James Seenum (a.k.a. Pakannuk, or Pakan) and Peter Erasmus, most of the area Cree and Métis did not join in the rebellion, notwithstanding the strong sympathies that many felt for those who had taken up arms to have their grievances seriously addressed by Ottawa.
Once rebel resistance was suppressed by force three months after it had erupted, Louis Riel and eight warriors were executed for the roles they played in the conflict. This painful episode was to have a profound influence on the history of Canada’s Western provinces, in addition to helping to consolidate the identity of the Métis people as a Nation with a proud and distinct heritage.
By Jars Balan
Voluntary Kalyna Country Curator