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The North West Rebellion
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Louis Riel comes home to lead his people
Louis Riels homecoming grabbed national attention and sparked an epic chapter in Canadian history - the North West Rebellion.
The leader of the mixed-blood Mtis, Louis Riel, returned to Canada from exile in the United States on July 4, 1884. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
The leader of the mixed-blood Mtis, Louis Riel, returned to Canada from exile in the United States on July 4, 1884. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

The undisputed leader of the mixed-blood Métis returned to his prairie homeland on July 4, 1884. Riel had spent years in exile in the United States for his role in the 1870 Red River Resistance.

Many of the same issues that sparked the Resistance now prompted Riels return: land rights and political power. The Métis and white settlers, based in Saskatchewan, asked for Riels help to lobby for them. They thought the charismatic leader would catch the governments attention.

The tactic worked. In Ottawa, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald watched Riels actions carefully, fearing he could help unite all the dissident groups in Saskatchewan and lead an uprising.

"At this moment, Riel has gone into the North West on the invitation of the half-breeds, and requires to be watched," Macdonald warned. "One cannot foresee what he may do, or what they, under his advice may do."

Across the Northwest, there was growing talk of rebellion. It could be found in newspapers like Frank Olivers Edmonton Bulletin.

"If history is to be taken as a guide, what could be plainer than that without a rebellion the people of the North West need expect nothing, while with rebellion, successful or otherwise, they may reasonably expect to get their rights."

But the advocates of rebellion did not include Riel. At a public meeting in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Riel urged 500 white settlers to negotiate peacefully with the federal government.

Riels main tactic was to send a petition to Ottawa outlining the combined grievances of the Saskatchewan Métis and settlers:

"Instead of wasting your time sending individual petitions would it not be better to act together as one group? ... Gentlemen, do not compromise your rights. Protest if you are forced to but do it within the limits of the law.."

Riel wanted to unite the diverse prairie groups in a show of political strength. He immediately formed a bond with William Jackson, one of the founders of the Settlers' Union. Riel also met with Cree chief Big Bear although the chief did not wholly trust the Métis or the Settlers Union.

In December 1884, a petition was circulated on behalf of the Saskatchewan settlers and Métis, demanding the early issue of land deeds, tariff reductions, control of natural resources and the right to vote for elected representatives.

Riel sent it to Ottawa and waited through a desolate Christmas for the response. Crops had been poor for three years, and most settlers were facing famine. Riel himself was penniless, forced to accept charity.

By the middle of February the only response from Ottawa was the weak suggestion of a commission to look into Métis land claims.

Riel had accomplished little and decided to change his tactics. He had been plagued by religious delusions in the past and now his visions and militancy were becoming stronger. Riels words were threatening, suggesting the Métis would fight to the death for their cause.

"The petitions sent to the Government are not listened to," he said, "The Original half-breeds are determined to save their rights or to perish at once."

By March, Riel had formed a provisional government and the Métis were committed to armed rebellion. The North West Rebellion had begun.

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Rebellion on the Plains
Anger in the West
Fury with Ottawa creates shaky alliances on the prairies
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Rebellion on the Plains
Violence erupts on the prairies and Canadian soldiers go west
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The Fate of Louis Riel
Madman or hero? The trial of the Metis leader
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