The North West Rebellion lasted less than three months in the spring of 1885. But the prairie uprising had an enduring effect on a nation. Its leader, Louis Riel, became a permanent symbol of language, religious and racial divisions in Canada.
The seeds of the Rebellion were planted in the 1870s as Canada settled its vast North West Territories (present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta). The Canadian government had wisely brought peace and order to the frontier before the flood of settlers. But the territory lacked direct political representation from the federal government.
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The North West Rebellion
By the early 1880s, prairie residents including white settlers, Métis, and Plains Indians were convinced of the neglect of a distant and imperial Ottawa.
The Métis (mixed blood offspring of fur traders and natives) of the Saskatchewan Valley had petitioned Ottawa for years for legal claim to their land. In 1882, the Canadian government sent surveyors to the area rising fears among Métis that their land would be taken from them.
The Métis weren't the only ones protesting against Ottawa: the white farmers who lived in the Territories had had enough. They also waited for their property titles that were absolutely necessary for obtaining loans and improving their farms.
The natives of the region accused the federal government of not respecting the Indian treaties. Many bands were starving and Ottawa showed indifference to their plight.
Louis Riel returns
Within this growing climate of frustration, Louis Riel returned to his prairie homeland in July 1884. The charismatic Métis leader had spent years in exile in the United States for heading the 1869-70 Red River Resistance.
The Red River uprising had won many rights for Manitoba residents. Now Métis and white leaders in the North West Territories wanted Riel to work his magic for them.
At first, Riel took the political route. He sent a petition to Ottawa outlining the grievances of the Métis and white settlers. Riel also tried to entice the prairie natives to join the cause.
Faced with continued government indifference, Riel�s tactics became more militant and his mental state became shakier. Riel increasingly believed he was a prophet from God sent to lead his people.
In March 1885, Riel formed a provisional government and a small military force. Armed conflict followed as Riel�s followers and government troops clashed mostly in the Saskatchewan territory.
Riel lost all the support of the white settler's organization, which had once allied with him. He was never able to gain the firm support of the prairie natives.
The Métis were eventually defeated by government troops and Louis Riel was arrested.
English Canada clamored for the federal government to take tough measures against the Rebellion leader. People had not forgotten Riel's execution of an English Canadian man named Thomas Scott during the Red River uprising.
In contrast, French Canada pressed the government to show leniency toward the French Catholic Riel.
In the end, the federal government was determined to dispose of the man who had led two uprisings in the young country's history. Riel's trial for high treason was a national spectacle, manipulated by Ottawa. Despite continuing questions about his sanity, Riel was found guilty and hanged.
The trial and its aftermath divided the young country along French and English lines. Riel�s legacy persists today and symbolizes a nation�s continuing struggle to reconcile its linguistic, religious and racial differences.