By: W.A. Waiser
“Spin” has always been part of government and politics. That was certainly the case in how the Conservative government of John A. Macdonald portrayed the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
While researching the role of the Indians1 in the rebellion, I turned to one of the best sources on government Indian policy in the 1880s–namely, the John A. Macdonald papers. The prime minister served as his own Indian Affairs minister. In fact, Macdonald held the portfolio longer than anyone before or since (from 17 October 1878 to 2 October 1887). Because of his central role in overseeing federal Indian policy during these years, there was a considerable volume of material that crossed his desk and was subsequently saved in the Macdonald fonds at Library and Archives Canada.
It is readily apparent from Macdonald’s 1885 correspondence that he believed that the Indians, not the policy, were the problem in the aftermath of the rebellion. He also endorsed and supported the coercion and interference being advocated by his officials to end any remaining resistance to federal Indian policies. That meant deliberately portraying the Indians as rebels in 1885. Particularly instructive in this regard are two letters between the prime minister and the governor general.
In an exchange with Lord Lansdowne in the late summer of 1885, Prime Minister Macdonald referred to the uprising as a form of domestic trouble that did not deserve to be elevated to the rank of rebellion. The governor general bristled at the comment and chastised the prime minister, “We cannot now reduce it to the rank of a common riot. If the movement had been at once stamped out by the NWM Police the case would have been different, but we were within a breath of an Indian war.” A somewhat unrepentant Sir John replied in his defence, “We have certainly made it assume large proportions in the public eye. This has been done however for our own purposes, and I think wisely done.”2
This idea that there had been an “Indian rising” in western Canada was a gross exaggeration. In the weeks immediately following Métis leader Louis Riel’s declaration of a provisional government at Batoche on 19 March 1885, several Indian leaders across the West came forward and solemnly affirmed their allegiance to Queen Victoria and to the spirit of the treaties they had signed in the 1870s. From the federal government’s perspective, though, a crisis could not be wasted. And with the rebellion, Ottawa had been handed an unprecedented opportunity to rid itself of troublesome Indian leaders and their nagging call for revision of the treaties.
Though privately he knew better, then, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney (a close friend of Prime Minister Macdonald) charged that the Indians were reckless allies of Riel who would cause trouble in the future unless reined in. Hayter Reed, his ambitious assistant, readily agreed and was ready to act. “One of the great faults of our [military] leaders,” Reed told Dewdney in a letter from the war front at Fort Pitt, “is” that they do not understand the Indian character, and do not know when he is defeated, and when to follow up an advantage.”3 Even the prime minister shared his officials’ reading of the situation–as evidenced by his correspondence with Lansdowne.
Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Macdonald, consequently chose to ignore Indian declarations of loyalty in favour of presenting the rebellion as a concerted, yet futile, attempt by Aboriginal peoples to wrest control of the region away from the Canadian state. For the Conservative government, the Indians and Métis were all traitors, united in an evil cause.
This so-called Indian-Métis conspiracy quickly gained traction and became one of the most enduring myths in western Canadian history. And it has been expressed in many forms. In his 1910 history of the force, Riders of the Plains, mounted police historian A.L. Haydon observed that “there had been war–red war, with its opportunities for fighting, for revenge, and for many other outlets of energy so dear to the primitive mind. These instincts are hard to eradicate.”4 The idea also spilled over into fiction. In The Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail, minister-turned-novelist Charles Gordon (Ralph Connor) had a handful of resolute Mounties facing the prospect of an Indian war in 1885. It was a prospect “so serious, so terrible, that the oldest officer of the force spoke of it with face growing grave and voice growing lowered.”5
Running counter to the idea of Indian involvement in the rebellion is a growing body of scholarly literature–largely based, ironically, on the records of the Department of Indian Affairs and the papers of federal politicians and government officials. Its genesis was a 1983 article in the Canadian Historical Review, in which John Tobias persuasively argued that the Canadian government had deliberately interpreted the isolated incidents of Indian violence as acts of rebellion in order to derail a growing Indian movement for renegotiation of the treaties and to make the government’s policy of coercion more effective.6 Tobias’ subjugation argument generated considerable scholarly interest. It was even picked up by the Globe and Mail, no small achievement for an academic article. But more importantly, his findings were supported, if not enlarged upon, by a number of related studies.
Hugh Dempsey, Big Bear’s biographer, described how the powerful Cree chief was interested in a peaceful resolution of Indian grievances. The spontaneous action of younger frustrated warriors in early April 1885, he argued, effectively ended Big Bear’s political career. Along similar lines, Gerry Friesen, author of the award-winning The Canadian Prairies, observed that there was no Cree military movement in 1885–let alone an Indian and Métis uprising–and that Big Bear and Poundmaker remained “aloof” from Louis Riel. That same year, Bob Beal and Rod Macleod maintained in Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion, now the standard text on the rebellion, that Ottawa was determined to punish the Indians even though the Métis had started the agitation. A few years later, Sarah Carter, in her examination of Indian agricultural policy in western Canada, Lost Harvests, not only noted that most Indians honoured their treaty pledge not to take up arms, but also drew attention to the “often overlooked” fact that Indians were “equally uneasy and apprehensive” in 1885.7
What is missing from these conflicting interpretations of the rebellion is the defining role played by Prime Minister Macdonald. The Lansdowne-Macdonald exchange demonstrates that what actually happened in 1885 was less important than the “our own purposes” strategy pursued by the prime minister. That strategy had a terrible cost for Indian peoples. Twenty-eight reserves were identified as disloyal in 1885, while over fifty Indians were convicted of rebellion-related crimes. Those sentenced included prominent Cree leaders Big Bear and Poundmaker, and eight warriors who dropped to their death simultaneously at Battleford on 27 November 1885 in Canada’s largest mass hanging. Several bands also had their annuities–a treaty promise–withheld for a few years.
Bill Waiser, SOM, FRSC, DLitt is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan. His latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905, will appear in the spring of 2016.
1. I have chosen to use the word “Indian” because it was the term in usage during the period under consideration. First Nations did not come into usage until the late twentieth century, while Aboriginal peoples refers to First Nations and Métis peoples collectively.
2. Library and Archives Canada, Manuscript Division, John A. Macdonald papers, v. 106, 42559-62, Lansdowne to J.A. Macdonald, 31 August 1885; v. 23, 271-72, J.A. Macdonald to Lansdowne, 3 September 1885.
3. Ibid., vol. 107, 43180-83, H. Reed to E. Dewdney, 23 June 1885.
4. A.L. Haydon, Riders of the Plains (Edmonton 1971), 155-56.
5. R. Connor, The Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail (Toronto 1914), 12.
6. J.L. Tobias, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885,” Canadian Historical Review, v. 64, n. 4, 1983, 519-48.
7. H.A. Dempsey, Big Bear: The End of Freedom (Vancouver 1984); G. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto 1984); B. Beal and R. Macleod, Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion (Edmonton 1984); S. Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy (Montreal 1990).