Second Riel Rebellion Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The last gasp of Native Canadian resistance to white expansion into western Canada, Louis Riel’s second rebellion was crushed by the Canadian government, opening the way to settlement of the Canadian prairies by Euro-Canadians.

Summary of Event

In 1869-1870, Louis Riel led a rebellion in Manitoba Manitoba;First Riel Rebellion against a provincial administrator sent out from Canada’s newly formed dominion government in Ottawa. Believing that the lieutenant governor, William McDougall, represented only the English speakers of Manitoba, Riel and his largely French-speaking supporters blocked his entry and set up their own government. After some negotiations, the situation was resolved peacefully, and Manitoba was admitted into the Canadian confederation as a province in which both French and English were official languages. Riel Rebellion, Second (1885) Saskatchewan;Second Riel Rebellion Canada;Second Riel Rebellion Crees Riel, Louis [p]Riel, Louis;second rebellion Big Bear Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Second Riel Rebellion[Second riel Rebellion] Middleton, Frederick D. Poundmaker Native Canadians;Riel Rebellions [kw]Second Riel Rebellion Begins (Mar. 19, 1885) [kw]Riel Rebellion Begins, Second (Mar. 19, 1885) [kw]Begins, Second Riel Rebellion (Mar. 19, 1885) [kw]Rebellion Begins, Second Riel (Mar. 19, 1885) Riel Rebellion, Second (1885) Saskatchewan;Second Riel Rebellion Canada;Second Riel Rebellion Crees Riel, Louis [p]Riel, Louis;second rebellion Big Bear Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Second Riel Rebellion[Second riel Rebellion] Middleton, Frederick D. Poundmaker Native Canadians;Riel Rebellions [g]Canada;Mar. 19, 1885: Second Riel Rebellion Begins[5450] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Mar. 19, 1885: Second Riel Rebellion Begins[5450] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 19, 1885: Second Riel Rebellion Begins[5450] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 19, 1885: Second Riel Rebellion Begins[5450] Dumont, Gabriel Crozier,Leif

As part of the settlement, Riel agreed amicably to go into exile in the United States. A complicated man, Riel belonged to the ethnic group known as the Metis, who took their name from a French word for mixture because they were part Native Canadian and part French. Although they spoke French and were part of francophonic culture, they also had good relations with Native Canadian groups, such as the Cree.

By 1885, Riel had become the most controversial figure in Canadian public life. He had run for parliament from Manitoba and won but had been expelled by that legislative body’s pro-British majority because they saw his earlier rebellion as having been an act of treason Treason;Louis Riel[Riel] against the Crown. Riel often had been accused of mental instability and spent extended periods of time in a hospital and a mental asylum. During the 1870’s, his religious views, which had previously been conventionally Roman Catholic, veered in a maverick direction. He was starting to believe that a North American pope was needed. He proposed that idea to a French bishop of Montreal, who refused to have anything to do with the idea. Riel left Canada and moved to Montana, where he married an American woman and seemed to forsake his Canadian political ambitions. However, his absence from the Canadian political scene came to a dramatic end in 1883, when he returned to the Canadian prairies, this time to Saskatchewan, to help the struggling Metis cause.

In July, 1884, Riel arrived in the Metis stronghold of Batoche. He tried to engage in peaceful pro-Metis political activity, but his past and his controversial reputation shadowed that effort. On March 19, 1885, he decided to take the path of direct, violent action when he seized control of the main Roman Catholic Church in Batoche and mobilized his supporters into military formation, organizing an army led by a capable general, Gabriel Dumont Dumont, Gabriel . Riel declared himself governor in opposition to the constituted authorities.

The core of Riel’s new supporters were no longer French Catholics and English-speaking frontier whites (who found Riel much too pro-Native Canadian and too eccentric), but Native Canadians. Riel found two crucial allies among the chiefs of the Cree Crees;and Riel Rebellions[Riel Rebellions] peoples of the plains. These men had very different natures, despite their common ethnic origins. Poundmaker was a determined and vigorous warrior. He was convinced that the only way the native peoples could resist the onslaught of white settlers was through military force. Poundmaker saw that the time to take action was drawing to a close because the white settlers were rapidly gaining control of the prairie through the efficiency of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and technological advances, most particularly the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway Railway.

Big Bear, whose Cree name was Mistahimaskwa, was of a more moderate persuasion than Poundmaker. He favored negotiations with Euro-Americans in order to safeguard his people’s best interests. Although Big Bear never fully accepted the violent agenda advocated by Riel and Poundmaker, he did not stand in the way when some of his more extreme followers Frog Lake Massacre (1885) attacked the villagers of Frog Lake. The leadership skills of Big Bear and Poundmaker formed the backbone of the rebellion. Riel supplied the vision; they supplied the practical leadership.

Even before the so-called Frog Lake Massacre, the rebellion had begun in earnest. After Riel declared his provisional government on March 19, the RCMP reacted quickly. Led by Superintendent Leif Crozier, Crozier, Leif they engaged the combined Metis and Indian forces at the village of Duck Lake. After the police were forced to retreat, the Canadian prime minister, Sir John Alexander Macdonald, sent in Canadian troops. Aided by the logistical support provided by the railroad, more than five thousand troops went to Saskatchewan under the command of General Frederick D. Middleton.

By that time, many of Big Bear’s troops had joined Riel and Poundmaker in the rebellion. To government authorities, it seemed as if the entire prairie was in rebellion. However, many Native Canadian peoples, especially the populous Blackfoot, remained neutral throughout the conflict. On April 24, Middleton’s troops engaged Dumont’s troops in formal battle. The confrontation ended in a stalemate, and Middleton’s advance was stymied.

Middleton gathered additional troops. By early May, he was approaching Riel’s headquarters at Batoche. Middleton devised an effective strategy of having his headquarters remain in a fortified camp south of Batoche while his troops sortied out during the daytime and attempted to wear down the resistance of the Metis. After enduring several daytime charges, the Metis were worn down by attrition. On May 15, Riel surrendered himself and Batoche to Middleton. Dumont Dumont, Gabriel fled south to Montana.

Poundmaker’s resistance against the government was more effective. It took until May 26 for him to surrender his troops to Middleton at Battleford. Big Bear was never apprehended by the government. After evading capture for more than a month, he voluntarily surrendered to the RCMP at Fort Carlton in early July. Canadian historians later came to see Big Bear as the most farsighted figure on either side, the only leader who possessed a sound vision of how the prairies could be a place where English speakers, French speakers, and native peoples could all enjoy autonomy and self-determination.

In mid-July, Riel’s trial for treason Treason;Louis Riel[Riel] began. Although most French Canadians had turned against Riel because of his religious unorthodoxy and his penchant for violence, now that he was being prosecuted by the English-speaking Macdonald and his government, they again became his fervent supporters. Riel’s lawyers advised him to plead insanity, but Riel decided to speak in his own defense. His explanations of his actions to the jury were lucid, but there was no hope that the jury, composed largely of English speakers, would be moved by his words. After the jury found him guilty, it was up to Macdonald to decide whether to seek the death penalty. Macdonald considered several factors in making the decision but finally concluded that only by executing Riel could the government satisfy the English speakers in Ontario. Ontario;and Riel Rebellion[Riel Rebellion] Despite further medical appeals claiming that Riel was insane, he was hanged on November 16 in Regina.


Louis Riel’s execution made him a national martyr. Whatever the complexities and ambiguities of his life, he has ever since remained a metaphor for unexamined possibilities in the Canadian national soul. Big Bear and Poundmaker were given lenient sentences of only a few years in jail. However, both men died before the 1880’s came to a close, and the potential for political resistance on the part of the Native Canadian peoples of the prairies was foreclosed. With the opening of the railroad, the prairie provinces quickly became flooded by white settlers, and by the beginning of the twentieth century the provinces were firmly part of the Canadian body politic.

The Second Riel Rebellion was certainly one of the most dramatic events in nineteenth century Canadian history. Riel’s failure, for better or for worse, helped bring into being the Canada that represented the opposite of so much for which he had hoped and struggled.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beal, Bob, and Rod Macleod. Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1984. Emphasizes the Native Canadian perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowsfield, Hartfield. Louis Riel: The Rebel and the Hero. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971. A good introductory book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flanagan, Thomas. Riel and the Rebellion. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Revisionist perspective on the Second Riel Rebellion that examines Riel’s actions from the point of view of the Canadian government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friesen, John W. The Riel/Real Story. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1996. Biography of Louis Riel that examines his importance in creating and shaping Metis culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riel, Louis. The Collected Writings of Louis Riel. Edited by George F. G. Stanley. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985. Collection of Riel’s surviving writings that demonstrate he was a thinker as well as a political leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siggins, Maggie. Riel: A Life of Revolution. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994. Readable and lively narrative account of Riel’s extraordinary life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanley, George F. G. The Birth of Western Canada: History of the Riel Rebellions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960. Argues that Riel’s rebellions were the defining events in western Canadian history.

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Sir John Alexander Macdonald; Louis Riel. Riel Rebellion, Second (1885) Saskatchewan;Second Riel Rebellion Canada;Second Riel Rebellion Crees Riel, Louis [p]Riel, Louis;second rebellion Big Bear Macdonald, Sir John Alexander [p]Macdonald, Sir John Alexander[Macdonald, John Alexander];and Second Riel Rebellion[Second riel Rebellion] Middleton, Frederick D. Poundmaker Native Canadians;Riel Rebellions

Categories: History