Red River and Northwest Rebellions

Consider Questions like:

Did the lives of people in the 19th Century get better or worse? How should history remember John A. Macdonald? What happens when cultures collide? How do the words we use to describe an event come into play? (Ex. rebellion, resistance, uprising)

What you will learn!

To indicate the causes and consequences of the settlement of Red River in 1869

To describe the main points of the Indian Act.

To indicate the consequences of the National Policy on the Metis.

To explain the relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples in the 1880s.

Two-Eyed Seeing (Etuaptmumk in Mi'kmaw) is an approach developed by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall. According to the Institute for Integrative Science and Health, Two-Eyed Seeing is “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing ... and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.”

For far too long, Canadian history has been presented mainly from the settler perspective. The documents and assignments available in this section encourage students to examine the events that took place at Red River and North West Rebellion periods, and to consider the words we use to describe these events from multiple perspectives.

Engage via key-word vocabulary assignment: Rebellion vs Resistance vs Uprising.

Consider the words that have been historically used to describe the Red River conflict: rebellion, resistance, uprising.
Inquiry question to keep in mind: Which word is most appropriate to use to refer to the Red River Conflict?
Brainstorm what these words mean, and look up several possible definitions.

As a class and with teacher guidance, select a definition or definitions that will be used for each word. Discuss the similarities and differences between the terms. (A Venn diagram for the terms could be used. Note: A quick list of definitions can be found here!)

In small groups brainstorm examples of conflicts you have already studied (or know something about). Discuss which words (rebellion, resistance, uprising) would be appropriate to use for these conflicts, and why. Establish criteria to use when determining whether a conflict is a rebellion/uprising or a resistance.

Activity suggestion submitted by E. Evans (NFSB). From her original assignment document here.

Rupert’s Land and the Selkirk Settlement

The territory of Canada, initially limited to the central and eastern regions, began to expand more quickly westward in the late 1800s.

Rupert’s Land, the vast stretch of territory inhabited by Cree, Anishinaabe, Inuit, and many other peoples, had been granted to the Hudson’s Bay company in 1670 by Charles II, King of England, who had claimed the whole area after earlier expeditions by Hudson and Baffin. However, independent fur traders and the competing North West Company also soon infiltrated the territory, and using established trade routes they mingled, traded, and even lived with the various peoples already there.

Then “the stakes [increased] considerably when, in 1811, HBC sold over 74 million acres (300,000 km²) in the Red River valley to majority shareholder Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk. Selkirk planned to use the land to settle displaced Scottish highlanders, the first of whom arrived in 1812. [...] This immediately caused friction. [...] At the best of times, the farmer and the fur trader were poor neighbours: the success of the former usually depends on clearing the forests that support the animals sought by the latter.”

After Selkirk’s death, various crop failures and even floods, land subsidies were limited and European immigration decreased, leaving the colony to grow slowly, though conflicts between Metis (descendants of both French and Indigenous parents) and the Anglophone “country born” groups continued. (Source)

Explore Rupert's Land and the Red River areas

Research the land:
Use a
reference map of Rupert's land territory, and also other available maps for the Red River area. Compare them with similar areas on maps like those available at https://native-land.ca/.

Research to find out which peoples lived there. Learn specifically about which peoples would have been affected by trade with Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company posts you can locate, and especially by the sale of the whole Red River area to Selkirk.

Possible video introduction to help focus research:

View GeoMinute: Canada’s fifth province, Manitoba, was Indigenous first

Or alternatively, view first minute of our main overview video ​​ The Second Métis Uprising.


Note: For more depth about Selkirk himself and his original goal of settling Scots in the Prairies, see also The Selkirk Settlers; Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk

Red River as an extension of Canada!

The Americans just paid 7.2 million dollars for Alaska, and they were looking to expand their republic. Canada too eyed the lands to the west as a natural extension of their new nation, with George Brown claiming that vast and fertile territory “our birthright”. The English government too insisted that the territory not be sold to the United States, and so for 1.5 million dollars a quarter of the continent became Canadian-owned, with even Macdonald noting the problematic nature of the transaction, saying "No explanation it appears has been made of the arrangement by which the country is to be handed over," and then continuing, in a note to George-Etienne Cartier, how "All these poor people know is that Canada has bought the country from the Hudson's Bay Company and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep to us."

An immediate consequence was more settlers. Even during the lengthy negotiations, “Protestant settlers from the East moved into the colony, and their obtrusive, aggressive ways led the Roman Catholic Métis to fear for the preservation of their religion, land rights and culture. Neither the British nor the Canadian government — with no appreciation of the Métis people — made any serious efforts to assuage these fears, negotiating the transfer of Rupert's Land as if no population existed there.” (Sources)

HBC Farm Lands advertisement, The Beaver, December, 1930, Public Domain. Retrieved with permission from gov.mb.ca/chc/archives/

Red River and Métis - Community traits

The Red River colony area was isolated, with the next village, also distinctively Métis, being 60 miles to the south and in American territory. The community had a cultural character all its own, with various community traits that were common to Cree and Anishnaabeg/Ojibway traditions, including kinship (family connections mattered!), respect for diversity and harmony (they didn’t have or need a police department!), orality where people talked out their problems, leaders who spoke for their people, and territoriality which was assumed (they had a sense of the land they protected!) (Sources)

“The Métis have often been characterized by their high mobility, and the earliest Métis settlements were occupied seasonally. These settlements were also closely associated with their connections to the fur trade, their control of the transportation system in the historic Northwest, and their bison-hunting activities on the plains. Many communities were established around the earliest fur trade forts, at important transportation stopping points, and at the wintering sites of the Métis plains hunters. Other settlements were near important fishing locations. [...] In the post-1885 period, an influx of European settlers drove the Métis further and further west. The Michif, Cree, Ojibway, Dene and French names the Métis used to identify their settlements soon disappeared, as settlers renamed the locations.” (Source)

Metis guides and Robert Bell (centre) and party, 1883. Geological Survey of Canada Library and Archives Canada. (Copyright expired)

Surveyors or Trespassers? Louis Riel leads a group to stop them!

“In 1869, the Ontarians living in the Red River District had their wish: the federal government purchased Rupert’s Land, without consulting with its Indigenous residents, for £300,000 and 1/25th of all its fertile land. The purchase greatly alarmed the colony’s Aboriginal inhabitants. Nevertheless, even before the formal land transfer was to be confirmed on December 1, 1869, government surveyors, in the autumn of 1868 and summer of 1869, surveyed the land in order to create townships.

To the Métis, this amounted to trespassing since the surveyors did not inform them about the survey and did not recognize their existing river lot systems. Moreover, many Métis feared that the new land holding system would lead to a large influx of outsiders and their eventual assimilation. [...]

In October 1869, Louis Riel led a group of 18 unarmed Métis to stop the surveyors on Métis lands. The Red River Resistance was born."

(Source: The Métis and the Spirit of Resistance)

Source:“Louis Riel,” The Canadian Illustrated News, 15 January 1870, page 1. Via Manitoba History: Nationalism and Visual Media in Canada: The Case of Thomas Scott's Execution

Fort Garry occupation and a Provinsional Government under Riel

"On November 2,1869, an armed patrol of Métis ordered [Lieutenant-Governor] McDougall to leave the North-West. McDougall had little choice but to obey and he retreated to Pembina in North Dakota. Riel now saw that he must delay occupation of the Red River by Canada until the guarantees the Métis sought were assured. Fort Garry’s location gave control of the region to those who held it; furthermore, the Métis needed its supplies. Riel and 120 armed men occupied it without opposition." (Source: First Métis Uprising 1869-70)

"In the vacuum that was civil government in Red River, Riel seized Upper Fort Garry in early November of 1869, consolidating his authority and military dominance in the settlement. In December of 1869 he declared a provisional government, drafted a list of rights, and on a frigid January day in 1870 met at Upper Fort Garry with Donald Smith, HBC official and special commissioner from the Canadian government, in front of a crowd of 1000 local settlers. From this meeting came a second convention and list of rights, an agreement to send representatives to Ottawa to bargain with the federal government, as well as HBC approval of the legitimacy of the Provisional Government." (Source: Upper Fort Garry and the Red River Resistance)


Fort Garry was the main HBC outpost.

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Riel and Smith address crowd.
Source: HBC Archives via
Upper Fort Garry and the Red River Resistance

Scene from the film Riel (1979) via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wi81BvwrHPw

Conflict leads to the death of Thomas Scott.
Ontario and Canadian governments react!

"In late 1869, a man named John Christian Schultz had mustered a group of Ontario settlers to oppose Riel's uprising. [...] They prepared to attack Fort Garry. But Riel took the offensive and seized 45 of the men and kept them prisoner inside the fort. [They eventually escaped or were released, but ...] Later that month, some of Schultz's men regrouped and again they were captured by Riel and held at Fort Garry. [...]

Among Schultz's men was a big, aggressive man from Ontario named Thomas Scott. While held at Fort Garry, Scott continually insulted the guards and threatened to shoot Riel if he was ever freed. Riel's actions to date had been moderate, but with Scott he overreacted and appointed a military tribunal to try the prisoner for treason. On March 4, 1870, Scott was convicted, sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad in the courtyard of Fort Garry." Source: The Execution of Thomas Scott: from Canada a People’s History.


"Scott came to symbolize one of the unresolved problems of the new confederation. Was the Northwest to be the patrimony of Ontario or was its settlement to be a joint venture of English and French Canadians? The more extreme reaction may be seen in a resolution of Toronto Orangemen carried by the Globe on 13 April 1870: 'Whereas Brother Thomas Scott, a member of our Order was cruelly murdered by the enemies of our Queen, country and religion, therefore be it resolved that . . . we, the members of L.O.L. No.404 call upon the Government to avenge his death, pledging ourselves to assist in rescuing Red River Territory from those who have turned it over to Popery, and bring to justice the murderers of our countrymen.' Thomas Scott thus became a martyr in the cause of Ontario expansion westward." Source: Dictionary of Canadian biography


"The death of Thomas Scott was the turning point of the Rebellion. Following this event, Riel and his followers would face resentment and even outright hostility when negotiating a settlement with the Canadian Government. Only days after the execution of Thomas Scott, the provisional government released most of their remaining prisoners in exchange for a promise that the rights of the Red River settlers would be protected. In addition, on April 8, Fort Garry was returned to the control of the Hudson's Bay Company until a formal transfer to Canadian authorities could be arranged. In July 1870, the provisional government accepted entry into Confederation and the province of Manitoba was created. Source: "Canadian Illustrated News and the Red River Rebellion (October 1869-1870)"

Thomas Scott

Source: The Execution of Thomas Scott

Source: Begbie contest society.org: Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom: http://www.begbiecontestsociety.org/1st20.htm

End of the Resistance, beginning of Manitoba

“The Red River Resistance officially ended on May 12, 1870 with the implementation of the Manitoba Act, which recognized Métis land, language and education rights.

However, in the summer of that year, the federal government sent in troops, commanded by Garnet Wolseley, in order to “pacify” the region – as a result, many Métis including Louis Riel fled to the United States fearing for their lives.” Source: THE MÉTIS AND THE SPIRIT OF RESISTANCE

“On 12 May 1870, the Province of Manitoba was born. The Manitoba Act set the provincial boundaries to include most of the former District of Assiniboia, with the 49th parallel as its southern border. Its small rectangular shape earned it the nickname Postage Stamp Province. But a growing population, along with the provincial government’s desire for increased revenues, meant that the tiny province needed to expand. In 1881, Manitoba’s boundaries were expanded to five times its original size. On 15 May 1912, the Manitoba Legislature passed an act calling for further extension of the provincial boundaries and Manitoba grew into its present shape.” Text source: Cool Things in the Collection: Mapping Manitoba
Image above source:
Maps: 1667-1999 . Now archived at ​​https://web.archive.org/

Investigate the Red River Conflict


Students read and analyse a short Document File to learn about the Red River Conflict.

Teachers may choose to introduce the topic prior to using the Document File or begin their study of the topic with this assignment.


Students complete a graphic organiser as they learn about the conflict.

Red River Conflict_Document File
Red_River _Conflict_Graphic_Organizer.pdf

If the Youtube version doesn't work, click to view in Google Drive

Create - Characterize the Red River Conflict

In small groups and then as a class, students look back on the words that have been historically used to describe the Red River conflict: rebellion, resistance, uprising.

Students discuss which word they think the Métis would use to describe the conflict, and which word they think the Canadian government would use, and why.

Students respond in the form of an essay or other project:

Which word do you feel is most appropriate to describe the Red River Conflict, and why?


Activity suggestion and separate document file submitted by E. Evans (NFSB). Original assignment here.

Under construction

Texts and activities on these topics and on the Metis uprising and what follows are being prepared.
For now view the video below and access our growing document collection.

Document collection

We are in the process of verifying information for the images in our shared teacher document collection.

Teachers and students can browse it directly here or below while we do.

1840-1896 (#10) - Red River and Northwest Rebellions