Most Manitobans know Louis Riel was Métis. Some people think he was a contentious figure and others consider him to be the father of Manitoba. Beyond these broad understandings, many Manitobans and Canadians know little about the events of 1869–70 in a small place called Red River, or Assiniboia, that would become one of the most significant political resistances in Canadian history. Louis Riel was certainly an important figure in the events that would help bring Manitoba into Confederation, but there were others as well, both Métis and non-Métis, which enabled this transformation. The Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia (LAA) is a lesser-known historical and political development that played a crucial role in the history of Manitoba and Canada.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans several First Nations called the area known as Red River (where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet) home. They lived off the land, shared space, and defended the territory. The Forks, as it is known today, was a natural trading intersection for the Plains Cree, the Woodland Cree, the Ojibway/Saulteaux, Dakota, Dene, Assiniboine, and many others. First Nations have occupied the region for more than ten thousand years. It wasn’t until 1738 that the first European, La Verendrye, arrived in this region.
La Verendrye’s achievement was overshadowed somewhat by wars in Europe and the eastern colonies, but his exploration was the first “shot” in what would become an almost century-long conflict between two powerful fur trading companies — the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC).
In 1670, the British Crown gave the HBC a charter that granted the HBC all territory that drained into Hudson Bay for the purposes of trading furs and other resources. The HBC set up their trading posts along the Hudson Bay, and First Nations people wishing to trade with the Company were obliged travel to these posts. The area conferred by the 1670 charter was known as Rupert’s Land and covered almost 25 percent of North America (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Historical Map of Canada in 1700[i]
In the late eighteenth century, smaller fur traders and companies joined together and created the North West Company (NWC, established out of Montreal) to compete with HBC. The NWC undercut the HBC and established its trading posts inland including the territory around Red River.
By 1811–12, the Métis, descendants of fur traders and Indigenous women, were well-established in Red River and were making a living hunting buffalo as well as making and selling pemmican to the NWC fur traders as a food source. This situation worked out well, unless you were an employee or shareholder of the HBC. To be competitive, the HBC sold shares to a Scottish philanthropist, Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, also known as Lord Selkirk. He purchased one-third of HBC shares and negotiated a tract of land, which became the Red River Colony, to serve as a settlement for disenfranchised Scottish men and women. For the HBC, the establishment of the colony was an opportunity to set up a Protestant community in the middle of Roman Catholic, NWC territory (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Plan of the Settlement on Red River as It was in June 1816[ii]
The first Selkirk Settlers arrived in Red River in the fall of 1812. It was not the best season for farming. Peguis, an Ojibwe chief, gave them shelter over the winter so they would survive. From there, the HBC and the NWC had a number of skirmishes that eventually led to war. Trading posts were being ambushed, battles were fought at places like Seven Oaks, and trade was suffering.
Lord Selkirk attempted to broker a deal with the First Nations, as represented in Figure 3, but this was not honoured by Selkirk. Peguis attempted to broker peace between the two fur-trading companies. The Métis had been on the land for years and had established a sense that they were a nation.
Figure 3: Plan of the Land bought by the Earl of Selkirk from Peguis and other Indians, 18th July 1817[iii]
Due to this business conflict, the British government demanded that the HBC and NWC merge under one company. In 1821 they merged under the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In 1869, 48 years later, the Red River valley population was about 12,000 people and was made up of 6,000 French-speaking Métis, 4,000 English-speaking Métis, and 2,000 European and Canadian settlers. It is important to note that most First Nations people were not included in this 1869 census. The fur trade was the main industry, the Métis supplied buffalo products to traders, and life was somewhat peaceful. The Red River region was governed by the Council of Assiniboia, appointed by the HBC to ensure peace and order. But things were about to change.
Two years earlier, in 1867, through Confederation, the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada (which became Ontario and Québec) became unified as the Dominion of Canada. One of the first orders of business for the new government was to expand its border and reach the West before other countries — notably the United States — decided to take some territory north of the 49th parallel. The USA had just recently purchased Alaska from the Russians and had made several proclamations throughout the nineteenth century that Canada would simply become part of its domain. Aware of this, the Canadian government was focused on establishing its territorial control by creating settlements and a transcontinental railroad throughout the western part of North America. In order to do this, however, it needed to purchase Rupert’s Land from the HBC. This deal was negotiated in the summer of 1869 and the land transfer was scheduled for December 1, 1869.
The inhabitants of Red River were not consulted on this deal.
Before the land transfer took place, John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, began to send out surveyors to measure and carve up the land into square agricultural sections. This farming practice ran completely against the French seigneurial system and the Métis river lot system, whereby plots were long, narrow rectangles that gave everyone access to the river.
Hearing news of the Government of Canada surveyors’ activity, the Métis, who had been on the land for decades, were alarmed. Led by Louis Riel, the Métis confronted the surveyors on October 11, 1869. Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had been warned by the Catholic Bishop, the Anglican Bishop, and the HBC governor of Assiniboia not to send the surveyors, but this did not deter him. The Métis on that day sent a message to Canada that it must negotiate with the Métis if it wished to develop this area of the continent.
Hearing no response from Canada, Riel enlisted the help of the residents of the territory to create the National Committee to stand up for their rights. They took on the responsibility of creating a response to the appointment of William McDougall. McDougall was an anti-French, Orangeman and colleague of the prime minister, who had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the area (The Orange Order, a Protestant secret society, was often militant when it came to issues of religion and politics).
Action was needed: the Committee understood that if McDougall was allowed into the area, and if Assiniboia was absorbed into Canada, the Métis way of life would disappear.
On November 2, 1869, the Métis took action by occupying Upper Fort Garry, the HBC trading post. (Today, in downtown Winnipeg, only one gate of Upper Fort Garry remains.) The Métis used a small force of armed men to prevent McDougall from entering the area. These moves caught the attention of the Canadian government but they had no way of efficiently, or even legally, sending out troops to the area. On December 1, 1869, William McDougall crossed the border and illegally declared the area part of Canada and himself the governor. He then quickly retreated to North Dakota.
Over the next few months, the Orange/Protestant population in Red River was stirred by McDougall, and there were attempts made to topple the National Committee of the Métis, also known as the provisional government. To manage this struggle, the Committee arrested and imprisoned these people. Following their trials, most were set free except for Thomas Scott, a particularly difficult prisoner who was later executed.
This act is often seen as Riel’s downfall, as much of the English and Protestant portion of the country seized on Scott’s execution to denounce and vilify Riel until his own execution 15 years later.
Between January and June 1870, democracy grew in Assiniboia, or Red River. The provisional government was a legislative body whose members needed to create a political institution that could make political decisions. Between January 25 and February 10, 1870, the Convention of Forty was held to decide on the next critical steps for the region. With 20 French and 20 English representatives, the Convention agreed that it needed to create a legislative body that was responsible and representative, and that they would send delegates to Ottawa to negotiate with Canada.
From March 9 until June 24, 1870, the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia sat, governed in the region, and would eventually approve the Manitoba Act, the legislation that would bring Manitoba into Confederation. The LAA was the first form of responsible government in western Canada.