Over the summer, autumn and winter of 1869, fears grew within Red River Settlement that lives might be disrupted by self-styled “friends of Canada” — a.k.a. the “Canadian Party” — who were willing to install a “new order” by force. People feared that a foreign administration might not give the original settlers a say in how their settlement would be run, or a place in their region’s future.
In the autumn of 1869, a governance vacuum had threatened the settlement. The land transfer deal — from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), to the Crown of England, and then to Canada — was in a state of suspension. The Lieutenant Governor designated by Canada, William McDougall, had been blocked from entering Assiniboia by one group of Red River settlers on the grounds that as a foreign country that had taken no steps to inform inhabitants of Rupert’s Land of its intentions, Canada ought to declare those intentions and consult with people of the settlement before presuming the right to rule. This was a critical issue for some settlers because from what they had heard from the Canadian Party and had gleaned from Canadian newspapers, it was possible that Canada’s intentions were hostile when it came to ‘Halfbreeds’ — particularly those who might be classified as having French and Catholic leanings or allegiances. These settlers were particularly alarmed by reports that Governor McDougall was transporting 350 rifles, with ammunition in his baggage with which he intended to arm a Canadian Party Volunteer Militia. The Volunteers were suspected of having been brought into the country under the guise of road building and survey crews when in reality they were meant to serve as an occupying force. Canada had declined to forward the £300,000 purchase price owed to the HBC until a guarantee of peaceful possession could be guaranteed.
During this time, HBC Governor William Mactavish was seriously ill. Although his appointed Council of Assiniboia was competent to carry on normal duties, it was not capable of dealing with extraordinary circumstances — the Company having no force, other than settlers, on which it could rely to keep the peace in the settlement and ensure that the decrees of the Council and courts of law, and the actions of their constables, would be respected.
By December 1869, the perceived inability of the HBC to ensure order and preserve settler safety had been addressed. A provisional government had been installed in Upper Fort Garry by the Comité National des Métis (Métis National Committee) under President John Bruce. This provisional government was averse to allowing McDougall and his Volunteers to take command: by this point, the settlers’ argument was that Canada, as a foreign Dominion with no title to the territory, had no right to install a government.
The Comité National des Métis then inaugurated a formal process of discussion by which representatives from the parishes of the settlement met to evaluate the argument that provisional self-government was the only prudent course to follow until such time as Canada made its intentions clear. At the same time that this argument was put forward, and before consensus as to what course to follow had been achieved, the Comité National des Métis had organized its own volunteer force made up of settlers and led by Adjutant-General Ambroise Dydime Lepine. Because the Comité thereby took over the responsibility of policing the settlement, a condition of virtual martial law existed.
There were dissenting opinions as to whether this was the best course of action — McDougall having issued a proclamation that asserted, by Royal Decree, that he was the legitimate governor of the Settlement. That McDougall’s proclamation was false was not a fact known — or guessed at — by everyone at Red River. Many settlers, particularly the Canadian Party, could not believe that a senior Canadian official would issue a bogus proclamation given the disrespect for the Crown, not to mention the illegality, of such an action.
Rumours of impending violence passed round and about the settlement. The Canadian Party and its force of volunteers remained staunchly loyal to their supposed Lieutenant Governor. They were determined he would be installed at Upper Fort Garry.
By January of 1870, however, the activities of the Canadian Party had been severely curtailed. The Comité National des Métis was securely established as what its supporters believed to be the provisional government most deserving of that title. As the provisional government under President Louis Riel, it did not tolerate any attempts, whether real or rumoured to install a Canadian-led government.
Rumours of violence that circulated in the settlement came primarily from the Canadian Party. The Party took much of its direction from John Christian Schultz. He was jailed in 1868, but escaped and lived in open defiance of the Council of Assiniboia’s laws and a court-ordered sentence for non-payment of debts. The provisional government attempted to take a harder line when it came to dealing with Schultz. He was arrested a second time in December 1869, along with members of the Canadian Volunteer Militia, after they conspired to attack Upper Fort Garry.
Schultz escaped again and then went into hiding — as did two other notable Canadian escapees, Charles Mair and Thomas Scott. The Canadian Party it seems was as determined as ever to depose the provisional government and substitute an alternate governing body. The ongoing Canadian agitation was considered disruptive and dangerous by provisional government supporters within the settlement.
The people of Red River were not happy with the state of affairs. From 25 January 1870 to 10 February 1870, the people held the Convention of Forty/ la Grande Convention to decide “what would be best for the country.”
There were a number of important decisions made by the Convention of Forty. Perhaps the most significant of these were:
- They would send delegates to Ottawa to negotiate terms of confederating with Canada; and
- They would institute fully representative government at Red River, preparing the way for fully responsible government upon confederation.
The Convention of Forty therefore determined that the provisional government would have an elected legislative assembly along with an executive council chosen from among the assembly members (a feature in keeping with responsible government).
Thus, the historical significance of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia rests in its relation to the history of political development in Canada. The legislative assembly was a singular development in one respect: Métis people created the provisional government and made up the majority of its members. Along with a Métis president and chief justice, twenty-one of the twenty-eight honourable members of the representative legislative assembly were Métis and at least one half of the responsible (meaning chosen from the assembly) executive council were likewise Métis.
Another notable achievement was that the provisional government actually functioned. The deliberations of the president, chief justice, and executive council were more than matched by the work of the legislative assembly. The honourable members sat for three sessions. During the first two they tabled committee reports, debated, and passed bills related to land tenure, the military, and the judicial system, in addition to devising a full set of laws. During the third, they ratified the Manitoba Act. Thus, representative government was enacted and put into practice in the North West, and provisions for responsible government were well in place, prior to the creation of Manitoba as a Canadian province on 15 July 1870.
See a summary of Red River and the LAA on the following page that can be printed out and distributed.