First Riel Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The resistance of the multiethnic Metis people to the incorporation of their ancestral homes into the new Dominion of Canada and the threat of being swamped by new immigrants led to some concessions to their demands when the province of Manitoba was created, but their unresolved grievances would later lead to a second rebellion.

Summary of Event

During the fall of 1869, the Metis living in and around the Red River Valley in what is now Manitoba prevented a party of government land surveyors from continuing their work. They declared a provisional government and barred the new Canadian government’s appointee from taking up his post as territorial governor. This act marked the start of the uprising known as the First Riel, or Red River, Rebellion. The background to the rebellion and the Canadian government’s response are complex, and its outcome had important implications for both the Metis and the Dominion of Canada. Riel Rebellion, First (1869-1870) Manitoba;First Riel Rebellion Red River (Manitoba) Metis;first rebellion Riel, Louis Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and First Riel Rebellion[First Riel Rebellion] Native Canadians;Riel Rebellions [kw]First Riel Rebellion (Oct. 11, 1869-July 15, 1870) [kw]Riel Rebellion, First (Oct. 11, 1869-July 15, 1870) [kw]Rebellion, First Riel (Oct. 11, 1869-July 15, 1870) Riel Rebellion, First (1869-1870) Manitoba;First Riel Rebellion Red River (Manitoba) Metis;first rebellion Riel, Louis Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and First Riel Rebellion[First Riel Rebellion] Native Canadians;Riel Rebellions [g]Canada;Oct. 11, 1869-July 15, 1870: First Riel Rebellion[4350] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 11, 1869-July 15, 1870: First Riel Rebellion[4350] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Oct. 11, 1869-July 15, 1870: First Riel Rebellion[4350] McDougall, William Nault, Andre Scott, Thomas

Descendants of French fur traders and American Indian women, the Metis Metis;origins of blended elements of both cultures. Metis society flourished on the northern prairies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They were particularly noted for the highly militaristic organization of their twice-annual buffalo hunts.

The late 1860’s was a period of great transition for people living in Great Britain’s North America territories. The Dominion of Canada was created by the British North America Act on July 1, 1867. British Columbia British Columbia;and Dominion of Canada[Dominion of Canada] prepared to join the Canadian Confederation as a province, on the condition that a transcontinental railroad would be built. With the fur trade Fur trade era at an end, the Hudson’s Bay Company Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];and Rupert’s Land[Ruperts Land] prepared to give up its claim to Rupert’s Land Rupert’s Land[Ruperts Land] —the part of northern Canada whose rivers drain into Hudson Bay Hudson Bay —and the northwest. The new dominion government had two goals: to build the railroad and to prevent the company lands from becoming part of the United States Under its first prime minister, John Alexander Macdonald, Canada entered into negotiations to acquire the territories. The government agreed to pay the Hudson’s Bay Company £300,000, and the land transfer was set to occur on December 1, 1869. However, this was done without consulting the ten thousand Metis and English so-called half-breeds living in the Red River region.

Tensions between French Roman Catholics Canada;Roman Catholics Roman Catholics;in Canada[Canada] from Quebec Quebec;Roman Catholics and English-speaking Protestants in Ontario—which have continued into the twenty-first century—affected relations within Red River. Ontario Ontario;immigrants had many new Protestant immigrants in need of land, and Red River, located immediately to the west of Ontario, seemed an ideal place to settle them. Although residents of mixed Indian-white ancestry formed more than 80 percent of the population of Red River, a great deal of racism was directed against them. The French-speaking and Roman Catholic Metis were held in particular disdain by the immigrants from Ontario. The rate at which these new immigrants were arriving made the Metis fear that they would soon be a minority in their own ancestral homeland. Moreover, several crop failures and the destruction of the buffalo herds had created economic stress among the Metis.

Although the official date of land transfer was several months away, the Canadian government sent land surveyors to the Red River in the summer of 1869. Despite government promises to respect Metis land tenure, the activities of the surveyors indicated that this would not be the case. The Metis had for many years occupied long, narrow farmsteads extending back from the Red River. Disregarding this practice, the surveyors delineated square township lots. On October 11, 1869, the surveyors reached the farmstead of Andre Nault Nault, Andre . After securing the assistance of eighteen other Metis, Nault forced the surveyors off his land—the first action in the brief Red River Rebellion.

Under the leadership of Montreal-educated Louis Riel, the Metis formed the Council of Assiniboia Assiniboia , which one month later declared itself the government of the region. On November 2, the Metis stopped William McDougall, McDougall, William who had been appointed lieutenant governor of the territory by Prime Minister Macdonald, at the U.S. border Borders, U.S.;with Canada[Canada] with Assiniboia Assiniboia , which had the only passable road into the territory from Ontario. They then seized Upper Fort Garry, which was located near the site of near present-day Winnipeg. No shots were fired, and the fort’s occupants retreated to Lower Fort Garry.

The next move occurred on December 7, 1869, when the Metis seized Lower Fort Garry and arrested approximately fifty white Protestant settlers. Three militant Orangemen among the arrested—John Schultz, Charles Boulton, and Thomas Scott Scott, Thomas —were tried, convicted of treason Treason;and Metis Rebellion[Metis Rebellion] , and sentenced to death. Boulton’s sentence was commuted, and Schultz escaped to Ontario. Only Scott was hanged, on March 4, 1870. Scott’s death made him a martyr and reinforced white Protestant opposition to the French Catholic Metis.

Leaders within the government of Assiniboia Assiniboia apparently did not plan to remain independent of Canada, but merely wished to guarantee that the rights of the Metis would be respected in an orderly transition of power. Militant Protestants in Ontario Ontario;and Roman Catholics[Roman Catholics] urged the dominion government to crush what they viewed as a French Catholic uprising, but Macdonald had no desire to upset the delicate balance of power that existed between Protestant Ontario and Catholic Quebec. In January of 1870, Macdonald’s government entered into negotiations with Riel’s provisional government. Among Metis proposals were demands for Assiniboia to enter the confederation as a province rather than as a territory, for both French and English to be official languages, and for high officials to be required to be bilingual. They also demanded a recognition of Metis property rights. In addition, they wanted amnesty for the members of the Metis government.

In May of 1870, the Canadian parliament passed the Manitoba Act, Manitoba Act of 1870 and the transfer of Rupert’s Land Rupert’s Land[Ruperts Land] from the Hudson’s Bay Company Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];and Rupert’s Land[Ruperts Land] to the Dominion of Canada, originally set for the previous December, occurred on July 15, 1870. On that same day, Manitoba became a Canadian province. Although the establishment of the province should have met many of the Metis’ demands, in practice it did not. The province was limited to one hundred thousand square miles; Canada’s parliament, not the new Manitoba legislature, retained control of the public lands; and the conveyance of the Metis’ land titles was delayed so long that many Metis sold their rights to land speculators and moved farther west. Racism continued to be rampant, and many of the leaders of the Metis government were attacked and murdered. Riel himself fled to Montana and became a U.S. citizen. Andre Nault Nault, Andre was assaulted and left for dead. He fled over the border and was arrested upon his return in 1883.


So many white Protestant immigrants flooded into Manitoba that only 7 percent of the population was of mixed ancestry by 1885. Although Riel and his followers thought they had ensured a multiethnic society in which the Metis could participate as equals, Metis society was in disarray only fifteen years after passage of the Manitoba Act. Poverty and fear of further displacement led the Metis to the Second Riel Rebellion. This time, Cree Crees and Assiniboine Indians Assiniboine Indians —starving because of withheld treaty rations—joined the Metis in their revolt. Riel was summoned from his exile to lead the Metis. The Canadian government, fearing a general Indian uprising on the prairies, responded with swift military action rather than with negotiation. Riel was arrested, convicted of treason, Treason;Louis Riel[Riel] and hanged on November 16, 1885.

The great Metis society of the prairies was dispersed. Some Metis joined American Indian tribes; others remained in Canada, disenfranchised and impoverished. During the last decades of the twentieth century, Metis renewed their claims for the lands and rights lost at the time of Canadian confederation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Jennifer S. H., Jacqueline Peterson, Robert K. Thomas, and Marcel Giraud, eds. New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2001. Ethnographic study of Manitoba’s Metis people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charlebois, Peter. The Life of Louis Riel. Toronto: NC Press, 1975. Illustrated, very sympathetic, and readable biography of the most prominent Metis leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friesen, John W. The Riel/Real Story. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1996. Biography of Louis Riel that focuses on his contributions to the shaping of Metis culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giraud, Marcel. The Metis in the Canadian West. Translated by George Woodcock. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Primary source on the Metis, originally published in French in 1945. Volume 2 deals with the period of the rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDougall, John. In the Days of the Red River Rebellion. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1983. Memoir of a Methodist missionary during the time of the First Riel Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, J. R. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada. Rev. ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. General history of interethnic relations in Canada that contains a full chapter on the First Riel Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owram, Doug. Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. Chapter 4 discusses the politics of the Canadian response to the rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Purich, Donald. The Metis. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1988. Highly readable treatment of the Metis that contains three chapters on the two Riel Rebellions.

Red River Raids

Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada

Canada Forms the North-West Mounted Police

Macdonald Returns as Canada’s Prime Minister

Second Riel Rebellion Begins

Laurier Becomes the First French Canadian Prime Minister

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Sir John Alexander Macdonald; Louis Riel. Riel Rebellion, First (1869-1870) Manitoba;First Riel Rebellion Red River (Manitoba) Metis;first rebellion Riel, Louis Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and First Riel Rebellion[First Riel Rebellion] Native Canadians;Riel Rebellions

Categories: History