The Many-Sided Manitoba Wars:

A chronology of the events and skirmishes that brought about the establishment of the Canadian province of Manitoba is a fascinating look into the cultural, political, economic, and military tensions that were playing out in North America and Europe. They all seem to have reached a head in the middle of the 19th century in the race and battle to settle and govern this frontier land. The story is full of enough intrigue, bloodshed and balls-out heroism in this rough northern prairie-scape to fill volumes.

The stage: The harsh north country landscape of prairies, forests, and lakes on the western frontier of British North America, soon to be Manitoba. The land is bisected by the Red River of the North.

The time: mid 19th century

The players:

1. French Speaking Metis: The Metis were a cultural group of mixed French and Indian ancestry who lived in the region as trappers and traders. Their rough frontier culture was 150 years old, and came about when hard core, backwoods French explorers took Indian wives and established small communities. The Metis were in the employ, directly or indirectly, of the Hudson’s Bay Company which bought their furs and other wares and partially administered their communities. By the time of The Many-Sided Manitoba Wars, a leader emerged in the person of Luis Riel, a Metis who was sent to Quebec in the civilized east to study but returned to the Frontier. They may have numbered some 50,000.

2. English Speaking Metis Like the French Metis, but the result of British explorers and Indian wives. Not as numerous as the French Metis, they were also trappers and traders in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company.

3. Gaelic Speaking Metis Some of the British frontiersmen were directly from the Scottish highlands. Their offspring with Indian wives became it’s own cultural group.

4. The Hudson’s Bay Company Chartered to explore and exploit the unsettled parts of British North America in 1670, they came to ‘own’ most of the land to the west of Ontario.

5. The Northwest Company also known as the ‘Nor’westers’. A rival to the Hudson Bay company, based in Montreal.

6. The Scottish settlers In 1811 Lord Selkirk of Scotland began a farming settlement in the Red River Valley, appropriately called the Red River Settlement. The few people he could get to settle this remote northern land were, of course, Scots. The Nor’westers saw the Red River Settlement as an encroachment on their domain and sent a militia to attack, killing the governor and 19 people in 1817. Selkirk reestablished the settlement and the legal proceedings that followed bankrupted The Northwest Company, at which point they were absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

7. Indians The region wasn’t densely populated by natives, but those that were there wanted their land, too. Many groups such as the Chippewa were semi-nomadic. There were constant skirmishes with the Metis, the Red River settlers, and the government militias. In addition, many Souix from the U.S. arrived when they were forced from their lands in 1863. They pledged to not harm any Canadian, but to carry on a guerilla war against the states.

8. The British Government Interested in maintaining order and maintaining profits. Also interested in preventing any encroachment by the Americans.

9. The soon-to-be Canadian Government The confederation that made Canada a nation took place in 1867, but even before then nation builders in the east were dreaming of a coast to coast Canada, with a tamed west full of settlers and bursting with farms. Of course, the Metis, Indians, Hudson Bay Company, British Government, and others were very conspicuously standing in the way of this vision.

10. The U.S. Government From the get-go the U.S. had visions of annexing British North America. George Washington is said to have regretted not marching on Nova Scotia. By the mid 19th century, it was clear that the Maritimes and Quebec and Ontario were here to stay, but the west was up for grabs. During the American Civil War, Britain’s tacit support for the Confederacy had some crying for full scale invasion, but the Union could not face a two front war. Still, there were attempts made to coax the Metis, or anyone, into rebellion.

11. The Ontario Orangemen A gun-totin’ militia of Scotch-Irish settlers in Ontario. True to form, these people are militant about being Protestant and British. They don’t like those half-breed Metis, especially the Catholic Frecnhies, nor do they like the U.S., or the Indian tribes, or the Hudson Bay Company. They called themselves ‘Canada Firsters’ or the ‘Canada Party.’ At the time, some criticized their supposed connections to freemasonry. In the 1850s they left for the west from Ontario armed to the teeth and with the intention of kickin’ some ass and scoring one for Ontario and her majesty.

12. The Fenians A revolutionary Irish Catholic society in New York City, dedicated to an independent Ireland. Their far-fetched plan was to carry out and armed invasion of Ontario in the hopes of drawing the British military into a quagmire, leaving Ireland unguarded to throw off colonial rule. They decided to get to Ontario the ‘back way’, from the northwest. In 1870 they arrived in Minnesota, fully armed.

13. Minnesota Settlers A few transplants from New England made their way to the Minnesota territory before the Civil War. Many of them were rough loggers itchin’ for a fight, and others were homesteaders who had a, well, puritanical Yankee mistrust of Britain, and were sure that the Brits were going to invade from the North.

14. The poor, huddled masses of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe yearning to breathe free and settle in a land similar to home.

The action:

So, as it stood in 1860, the Hudson’s Bay Company owned this vast northern land, the southwestern tip of which was farmed by a few Scottish settlers, trapped on by three distinct groups of Metis, coveted by three governments which all had their own plans for it, and seen as a means to an end by some militias with agendas elsewhere.

The Ontario Orangemen showed up and did some minor pillaging, but then abandoned armed struggle for a while and pursued a strategy of inundating Indian and Metis communities with liquor. It was somewhat successful, and by the end of the decade these ‘loyal’ Canadians were in possession of much Indian land.

Lincoln wisely decided against going to war against Britain as well after an incident in which the Union navy imprisoned some British officials for circumventing the blockade of the Confederacy. An uneasy truce insued for the remainder of the Civil War, with the northern frontier insuring it. Britain would not actively support the Confederacy while the union would not interfere with British shipping. Either side could face attack over the porous border if they misstepped.

Canada was constituted in 1867, and the government set about to claim the region. Of course, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Indians, and especially the Metis stood in the way. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, had this to say about the Metis: "The French half-breeds at Red River are pertinaciously resolved to keep the Northwest a buffalo reserve forever."

Negotiations with Hudson’s Bay Company for a purchase of the land followed, and when rumors of an impending deal spread, the Metis saw the urgency of their situation. Under Riel, all three groups of Metis united and they revolted. He declared an independent Metis state in the Red River area. The US congress passed a resolution to annex the Metis state to the U.S. Riel refused annexation by the U.S., and presented demands to Canada, which, if met, would result in a peaceful transfer of power to the Canadian government.

The Orangemen had had enough. They rearmed and seized Fort Garry, now Winnipeg. Finally, facing demands from Orangemen still in Ontario, Canada sent troops to put down the rebellion. Both rebellions actually. Settlement talks produced an agreement by which a new province would be created respecting Metis rights. In order that the Metis should not be overwhelmed by numbers, Manitoba would created as a tiny province, including the Red River Settlement and not much else, much of it a Metis reserve. It was so small it was known as the ‘postage stamp’ province, and was only 1/12th it’s present size. In 1870, the sides lay down their weapons and Canada bought the northwest from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a small piece of it becoming Manitoba. Riel was elected to the House of Commons from the new province. No provision was made for the rights of Indians, who were in the way to all sides.

In the midst of the rebellion, it was the Metis who chose to stand up to the encroaching Fenians, and gathered a militia. When word spread of a possible war, the U.S. Government moved to check the Fenians advance in Minnesota. Thus, the oft-cited claim by the Metis that they ‘saved Canada,’ twice actually, once for refusing annexation of their short-lived republic to the U.S. even in the face of Canadian attack, and again for mustering the potential resistance to the Fenians.

Of course, in the next few years, the Canadian government did not honor its promises to the Meits. It turned a blind eye as settlers moved in on them, and issued homesteads to settlers in land promised to the Metis. Many Metis moved farther west, where they would resist the Canadian government in Saskatchewan for years, or into the Dakotas and Montana. Riel himself was committed to a mental institution. After his release, he moved to Montana and lived for several years as a teacher. He may have been regretting his decision not to agree to U.S. annexation.

With the Metis out of the picture, the ‘postage stamp’ province was expanded in stages well beyond it’s original agreed to boundaries. Settlers arrived from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and even from Iceland. The western boundary of the U.S. and Canada was set.