Serving the Nation
1885 and After
Louis Riel, a prisoner, in the camp of Major-General F.D. Middleton
The Northwest Rebellion of 1885 was a complex period in Canadian history, hotly debated then and now. A full discussion of the circumstances surrounding it is far beyond the scope or purpose of this website. Recent historical scholarship suggests that First Nations people were much less involved in the rebellion than previously thought (see Stonechild and Waiser in Further Research). It is possible that First Nations groups who had accepted treaty and reserves may have stayed out of the rebellion; those who had not signed treaties and tried to continue the traditional life were more likely involved. The Métis were not eligible for treaties.
In any case, in the spring of 1885, some Métis, led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, armed themselves against the federal government and its policies in western Canada. For years, NWMP officers had warned the government in Ottawa that trouble was brewing. The reserve system was not working as planned and many Aboriginal people were finding it difficult, if not impossible, to find sufficient food. The old way of life, based on the annual buffalo hunt, was quickly slipping away and thousands of First Nations and Métis men, women and children were suffering the consequences. Ottawa ignored pleas for action from the West.
Violence erupted on March 26, 1885, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. Superintendent Lief Crozier was quietly surrounded; a gunfight broke out and three mounted policemen were shot dead. Crozier quickly retired to Fort Carlton, but the first shots had been fired in what would prove to be a short, but bloody, series of confrontations between militia, mounted policemen, white settlers, a large number of Métis and some First Nations fighters. It ended with Riel's execution for high treason, as well as the imprisonment or execution of other Métis and First Nations people.
After the skirmish at Duck Lake, the NWMP had little part in the rebellion, although some members served with Steele's Scouts and with the Alberta Field Force under Major General Frederick Middleton. The NWMP were severely criticized by Middleton for being timid and indecisive in the conflict. Middleton's troops called them "gophers."
Although the involvement of First Nations was perhaps marginal, many reserves were officially branded as "disloyal," a tactic that allowed the federal government to enact more restrictive measures against them.
Overall, the Rebellion and its immediate aftermath was a terribly sad series of events in Canadian history and not a glorious moment for the North West Mounted Police. This was particularly true for First Nations and Métis; as historians Bob Beal and Rod MacLeod point out, it took them "many decades to recover politically and emotionally from the defeat of 1885."
In the immediate post-rebellion years, the Mounted Police were concerned that another outbreak of violence was imminent, since the government had not really addressed the underlying problems. Under the direction of Commissioner Herchmer, the NWMP established a comprehensive patrol system after 1886 that included regular visits to all reserves. (See On the Job.)