Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists
Chapter 27 Lord Strathcona's Hand

On Christmas Day, 1870, John Bruce, who was but a figurehead, resigned his office of President of the so-called Provisional Government of Red River Settlement, and the ambitious Louis Riel was chosen in his stead. The Dominion Government had at length, been awakened to the danger. Divided counsels still prevailed. Two Commissioners, Grand Vicar Thibault and Col. De Salaberry, arrived at Fort Garry, but they were safely quartered at the Bishop's palace at St. Boniface, and as they professed to have no authority, Riel cavalierly set them aside. At this time the American element in the hamlet of Winnipeg became very offensive. Riel's official organ, "The New Nation," was edited by an American, Major Robinson. This journal was filled with articles having such head-lines as "Confederation," "The British-American Provinces," "Proposed Annexation to the United States," etc., etc. Or, again, "Annexation," "British Columbia Defying the Dominion," "Annexation our Manifest Destiny." All this was very disagreeable to the English-speaking people, and highly compromising to Riel.

But the real negociator was at hand, and he not only had the authority to speak for Canada, but had Scottish prudence and diplomacy, as well as real influence in the country, from holding the highest position in Canada of any of the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company. This chief factor was Donald A. Smith, whom we have since learned to know so well as Lord Strathcona. He, with his secretary, Hardisty, arrived on December 27th, and went immediately to Fort Garry. Riel demanded of Mr. Smith, the object of his visit, but received no satisfaction. On being asked for his credentials, Mr. Smith replied that he had left them at Pembina. Being a high Hudson's Bay Company officer, he was quartered in Government House, Fort Garry. The larger portion of the building was occupied by Governor McTavish, the smaller or official portion became the Commissioner's apartments. Here he was able to observe events, meet a number of the old settlers, and obtain his information at first hand. On the 15th of January Riel again demanded the Commissioner's papers; he, indeed, offered to send to Pembina for them, but Mr. Smith declined the offer. In the meantime the Commissioner had learned that the Dauphinais Settlement, lying between Pembina and Fort Garry was loyal. Accordingly, with a guard, Hardisty started to bring the papers. Riel learned of this, and taking a body guard with him, went to the Dauphinais house, intending to seize the credentials. Hardisty arrived with his precious documents. Meanwhile, the Loyalists had made Riel's men prisoners, and when Riel attempted to interfere, Pierre Laveiller, a loyal French half-breed, put his loaded pistol to the Dictator's head, and threatened his life. Sixty or seventy of the Loyalists escorted Hardisty and his papers to Mr. Smith in Fort Garry.

Train of Huskie Dogs. Fort Garry, north gate

Now in possession of his documents, the Commissioner called a general meeting of the people for January 19th, and one thousand men appeared on that day in the Court Yard of the Fort. As there was no building in which they could assemble, the meeting was held in the open air, with the temperature 20° below zero. The people stood for hours and listened to the proceedings. Commissioner Smith then read the letter of his appointment, and also a letter from the Governor-General, which announced to the people that the Imperial Government would see that "perfect good faith would be kept with the inhabitants of the Red River and the Northwest." The Commissioner then demanded that Vicar Thibault's commission, which Riel had seized should be read. Riel refused it, but Mr. Smith stood firm. At length the Queen's message to the people was proclaimed. One John Burke then demanded that the prisoners be released and a promise was given. On the second day the people again assembled, and Mr. Smith then read authoritative letters, one from the Governor-General to Governor McTavish, and another to Mr. McDougall. It was then moved by Riel, seconded by Mr. Bannatyre, and carried unanimously, that twenty representatives should be elected by the English Parishes and twenty by the French, and that these should meet on January 25th to consider the subjects of Commissioner Smith's communications, and decide what was best for the welfare of the country. Speeches were made by the Bishop of Rupert's Land, and Father Richot and Riel closed the meeting by saying: "I came here with fear ... we are not enemies—but we came very near being so.... we all have rights. We claim no half rights, mind you, but all the rights we are entitled to."

Begg, an eye-witness, says: "Immediately after the meeting the utmost good feeling prevailed. French and English shook hands, and for the first time in many months a spirit of unity between the two classes of settlers appeared. The elections took place in due time, but in Winnipeg Mr. Bannatyne, the best citizen of the place, was beaten by Mr. A.H. Scott, and the greatest annoyance was felt at this by the better citizens on account of his being an American, and because of the 'New Nation' continuing to advocate annexation."

On the 25th of January the forty delegates assembled. Much excitement had been caused at this time among the French by the escape of Dr. Schultz, their great opponent. Commissioner Smith addressed the Convention. Riel wished him to accept the original Bill of Rights, but Mr. Smith refused to do this. A proposal was then brought up by the French Deputies that the proposal made by the Imperial Government to the Hudson's Bay Company to take over their lands be null and void. This was voted down by 22 to 17. Riel rose in rage and said: "The devil take it; we must win. The vote may go as it likes, but the motion must be carried." Riel raged like a madman. That night, in his fury, he went to the bedside of Governor McTavish, sick as he was, and it is said, threatened to have him shot at once. Dr. Cowan, the master of the fort, was arrested, and so was Mr. Bannatyne, the chief merchant, as well as Charles Nolan, a loyal French delegate.

On the 7th of February the delegates again met, and at this meeting Commissioner Smith, having the power given him by the Dominion Government, invited the Convention to send delegates to Canada to meet the Government at Ottawa. Two English delegates, Messrs. Sutherland and Fraser, not quite sure on this point, visited Governor McTavish for his advise. "Form a Government, for God's sake," said the Governor, "and restore peace and order in the Settlement." Being asked, if in such case, he would delegate his authority to anyone, he hastily replied, "I am dying, I will not delegate my authority to anyone."

The Convention then proceeded to elect a provisional government. Most of the officers were English, they being better educated and more prominent than the French members. But when it came to the election of a President, to their disgust Riel was chosen. Immediately after this, Governor McTavish, Dr. Cowan, and Mr. Bannatyne were released as prisoners, but Commissioner Smith was a virtual prisoner in his quarters in the fort, though his influence was still felt at every turn.

Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal. 
Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company

Among the earliest acts of the new provisional government was on February 11th, the confiscation of Dr. Schultz's property, and of the office of The Norwester newspaper. The type of The Norwester was said to have been melted into bar lead and bullets. Judge Black, Father Richot, and A.H. Scott were chosen as delegates to Ottawa, though the appointment of the last of these, the "American delegate," was very distasteful to the English-speaking people. The success of Riel led him to dismiss about a quarter of the prisoners in Fort Garry. The fact that he seemed to hold the remainder as hostages stirred up the English people living along the Assiniboine.

What is usually called the "Portage la Prairie" Expedition was now organized, to secure the release of the remaining prisoners. A body, varying from sixty to one hundred, marched down to Headingly, and were there joined by a number of English-speaking Canadians and others. They then pushed on to Kildonan Church, where they were increased by a number of English half-breeds from St. Andrew's and adjoining parishes. The proposal was to attack the fort and set free the prisoners. Alarmed at the movement, Riel released all the prisoners in the fort. Their object being gained, the men of the Kildonan Church camp, who had grown to be six hundred strong, dissolved, and were proceeding to their homes, when Riel, by an unheard of act of treachery, arrested some fifty of the Assiniboine party. Among them was Major Boulton, a former officer of the 100th Regiment. Riel again sought out a victim for revenge, and intended to execute this prominent man. It was only on the persistent request of Commissioner Smith and the urgency of Mrs. John Sutherland, whose son had been killed by an escaping French prisoner at the Kildonan Church camp, that Boulton's life was spared.

Riel, however, seemed to feel that power was slipping from his hands. He was criticised on all hands for his treachery and for his arrogance. It is said his followers were dropping off from him, notwithstanding the luxurious lives they had been living on the Company's supplies in Fort Garry.

He determined, though with a divided Council, to make an example, and despite the solicitations of Commissioner Smith, the Rev. George Young, and others, publicly executed, on the 4th of March, outside of Fort Garry, a young Irish-Canadian named Thomas Scott. It was a cold-blooded, cruelly-executed and revolting scene—it was the act of a mad man.

"Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad." The execution of Scott was the death-knell of Riel's hopes as a ruler. Canada was roused to its centre. Determined to have no further communication with Riel, and feeling that he had done all that he could do, Commissioner Smith, on the 18th of March, returned to Canada. On the 8th of March, Bishop Tache returned from Rome. A few days after Chief Factor Smith's departure, he was followed to Canada by Father Richot and Mr. Scott, and they shortly after by Judge Black, accompanied by Major Button. The conflict of opinion was transferred to Ottawa, and the act constituting the Province of Manitoba was passed.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus