by Bruce Cherney
It is possible that the unrest of 1869-70 in the Red River Settlement could have been avoided if an earlier movement had carried the day.
In 1857, a small, though vocal, group of settlers began promoting the conversion of the settlement into a British Crown Colony.
Those favouring such status looked westward to British Columbia where James Douglas, the Governor of Vancouver Island and the chief officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, unilaterally declared the Caribou country goldfields, along the Fraser River and its tributaries, to be under the protection of the British Crown. His aim was to prevent annexation of the territory by the United States — Americans dominated the gold fields — and to maintain a degree of law and order. Douglas expanded his mandate despite having no real authority over the B.C. Mainland.
Since the Colonial Office in Britain also shared his fears, it rubber stamped Douglas’ decisions and the territory of New Caledonian attained Crown Colony status on August 2, 1858.
In 1849, Vancouver Island itself was leased to the HBC, the only British presence at the time in the area, to keep it from falling under the sway of the U.S, as had the Oregon territory two years earlier. The HBC was told to act as the colonization agent and the defender of the territory.
The prospect of HBC-controlled Rupert’s Land (also commonly referred to as the Northwest) becoming a Crown Colony had been first proposed in 1857 by Sir Edmund Head, the governor general of the united province of Canada, which was comprised of Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec).
The desire for change to Rupert Land’s status was also fuelled by the impending renegotiation of the HBC’s fur trade monopoly. In 1838, the HBC had been granted a licence for exclusive trading privileges in the region for 21 years.
The exclusive contract was continually challenged in the Red River Settlement, culminating in the May 1849 Guillaume Sayer trial. Sayer was charged with illegal trading — that is, outside the authority of the HBC. Sayer was found guilty by a jury, but the presence of a threatening mob played a role in HBC chief factor John Ballenden’s decision to withdraw all charges.
At the news, the 300-member mob led by Louis Riel, Sr., shouted, “The trade is free!”
Free traders had won an important victory and the HBC’s authority in the district had been further called into question.On February 5, 1857, the British House of Commons ordered that a “select committee be appointed to consider the state of those British possessions in North America which are under the administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company, or over which they possess a Licence of Trade.”
The British government renewed the HBC licence in 1859, but at the same time indicated a possibility that Canada could later acquire the territory. This did nothing to alleviate the confusion already existing in Red River — a confusion that bordered on anarchy that was exemplified by the short-lived “Republic of Manitobah” created in 1867 by Thomas Spence in Portage la Prairie. The republic ended in a courthouse scuffle and these words uttered by Spence, while hiding under a table, “For God’s sake, men, don’t fire, I have a wife and family.”
The Nor’Wester newspaper, the settlement’s first such publication — the premiere issue by owners William Coldwell and William Buckingham, new arrivals from Ontario, appeared on December 28, 1859 — openly challenged the HBC-appointed Council of Assiniboia as non-representative of the settlement’s residents as well as the HBC’s court system.
The make-up of the settlement was also in a state of flux. While the Metis remained the most numerous of Red River’s few thousand inhabitants, there was a growing community of settlers from Ontario, who brought with them religious and racialk animosity that would eventually throw the settlement into turmoil. These Ontarians exercised a sway over local affairs far out of proportion to their numbers. It was they who would eventually dominate the community’s business enterprises. It was also this group which at first favoured Crown Colony status.
Becoming a Crown Colony was just one of a number of options discussed in Red River. Others were annexation to the U.S., annexation to the province of Canada or maintaining the status quo. The latter was favoured by the highly-influential Roman Catholic clergy in Red River, who felt that a gradual transition from the HBC sphere of influence would best protect the rights of the Catholic and French-speaking Metis in the settlement.
American influence was gaining ground as a result of the trade between the settlement and St. Paul, Minnesota. For decades, large contingents of Red River carts carried goods between the U.S. and Red River.
The HBC water route to the settlement from York Factory on Hudson Bay, where goods were received that had been shipped by sea from Britain, was losing its lustre because it was inconvenient — it closed for the winter season — and was costly when compared to U.S. imports. Another water and overland trade route between Canada and the settlement had similar problems.
A milestone in the trade with America was the arrival of the Anson Northrup, the first steamboat to navigate the Red River from Fort Abercombie, North Dakota, to Fort Garry. The advent of steamboat travel effectively transformed the settlement, linking it more closely to the outside world via the U.S..
“Old residents who, some years ago knew every individual in the settlement, say that now every second person is a stranger,” reported the Nor’wester of September 28, 1860. “Of course, citizens from the neighbouring Republic (U.S.) form by far the largest proportion.”
The same issue said it was no surprise that “the Red River people should be somewhat Americanized. They are in the immediate neighbourhood of Minnesota, whose capital (St. Paul) serves as the general emporium for the whole of this North-west country.”
The Nor’wester said many Red River residents had travelled throughout the U.S., including visiting such far-off cities as Chicago, Baltimore and New York, and were impressed by its “progress and prosperity.”
“This constant intercourse is thus producing sympathies which ere long might result in a demand for annexation to the United States.”
James Wickes Taylor, who had been commissioned by the U.S. Treasury department in 1859 to report on a route via Red River to the B.C. goldfields, believed that annexation of Rupert’s Land was inevitable. His arguments in favour of U.S. annexation persuaded the Minnesota legislature to pass its own resolution to annex Rupert’s Land. In fact, Minnesota came to regard Red River as “their patrimony,” according to Manitoba historian Ed Whitcomb.
The Nor’wester wrote that many in the settlement were asking: “Why so anxious to be connected to Britain, when such connexion is nominal and fruitless? — let us rather seek to form part and parcel of the great country from which we are receiving and will ever receive such practical benefits.”
The newspaper then said that an antidote to this sentiment was a change in the settlement’s system of government.
The Nor’wester of July 14, 1860, reported that the Duke of Newcastle had introduced a bill in Britain to make Red River a Crown Colony.
An editorial said, “ ... this country will be better as a distinct Colony, than as an outlying portion of Canada, a majority of whose people are adverse to an extension necessarily productive of increased expenditure. England being satisfied, then, to assume the responsibilities which a Crown Colony involves, Canada will have no reason to complain of the result; and certainly the Red River settlers will on the whole be pleased with a procedure which confers (on) them fresh importance and manifold advantages ...”
The reasons promoted for a change to a Crown Colony was the appointment of a governor and advisers outside the influence of the HBC and the arrival of responsible government “needed to adapt the machinery of government more completely to the interests and feelings of the infant colony.”
Eastern Canadian politicians looked upon Rupert’s Land as having the potential to become its hinterland ripe for exploitation.
In particular, George Brown, the publisher of the Toronto Globe and leader of the Clear Grits (otherwise called Reformers) in Eastern Canada, frequently called for annexation of Red River by Canada. The Clear Grits made the “incorporation of the north-west into Canada a plank in the party platform.”
The Globe was used by Brown, a future Father of Confederation, to criticize the policies of his political opponents. When writing about the John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier ministry then controlling the government, he intently used such loaded words as “tyranny” to make his points.
If the British bill creating a Crown Colony was passed, the Globe claimed “Canadian merchants will encounter a hostile tarrif at Red River.”
“The North-West must and shall be ours,” proclaimed Brown.
The Toronto Leader, a newspaper friendly to Macdonald-Cartier, reported on June 14, 1860, that there still existed within the Red River Settlement some sentiment for annexation to Canada, but there was a more vocal movement for Crown Colony status as “the best means of getting rid of the control of the Company.”
The newspaper said the Northwest could never be governed by a central government located in Ottawa and that Canada did not want the territory. The editors of the newspaper said it was up to the people of Red River to decide their own fate.
While the fate of Red River was being debated in the East, those who arrived from Ontario began to form themselves into the “Canadian Party.” They believed it was the Eastern Canada’s “manifest destiny” to control the West.
Prominent in the Canadian Party was John Christian Schultz, who had arrived in 1860 and in 1869-70 would be a thorn in the side of Louis Riel and the Metis provisional government. In 1863, when Schultz became a partner with Coldwell in the Nor’Wester, the newspaper intensified its promotion of annexation to Canada and its attacks on the HBC.
With the gathering strength of the Canadian Party, the Nor’wester began to articulate, not for Crown Colony status, but for annexation to Eastern Canada.
The newspaper’s editors began to realize that the British government was losing its interest in Crown Colony status for Red River and was shifting its support in favour of Canadian Confederation. After Confederation, the Colonial Office believed Canada should then annex Rupert’s Land and prevent the region from falling under American control.
The Colonial Office in London wanted Confederation of all its British North American provinces as a means to solve the financial drain placed on the government to defend the colonies. At high cost, British troops were stationed in Canada to ward off a potential invasion from south of the border. The fear of an invasion arose from the animosity between Britain and the U.S. caused by the British government’s political intrigue and missteps during the U.S. Civil War and the presence of well-armed Fenian veterans of the U.S. Army looking to invade Canada after the Civil War ended in 1865. The Fenians wanted to capture Canada to blackmail the British government into granting Ireland independence.
Meanwhile, the Metis were uneasy about the forces — inside and out of Red River — that were pulling the settlement in different directions, none of which seemed to take into account their interests.
The premature surveying of land by Canadian surveyors — Rupert’s Land had not yet been formally transferred from the HBC to the Canadian Confederation — in the fall of 1869 resulted in the Red River Resistance and the emergence of Riel as the leader of the Metis. It was Riel’s guidance, not the Canadian Party’s, which successfully negotiated Red River’s status within Confederation as the province of Manitoba.
But conflict within Red River could have potentially been averted if a Red River Crown Colony had been established in the late 1850s or early 1860s. At that time, it had become evident that the HBC oversaw a lame-duck government, twisting in the wind and awaiting whatever direction the political winds would eventually blow before relinquishing its tenuous hold on local affairs. In the end, it was powerless to contain the Canadian Party and to prevent Riel from forming a provisional government.
Using the examples of former provincial Crown colonies in Eastern Canada, a change to this status and all its benefits would have more sooner than later led to the creation of responsible government in Red River. If Red River had possessed a governor responsible to an elected government, as existed in Eastern Canada prior to Confederation, then the Metis would have had a voice in governing the settlement and the reasons for the troubles of 1869-70 would have been avoided.
Furthermore, as a Crown Colony, the settlement would have been informed by the Colonial Office during all stages of the negotiations for the sale of Rupert’s Land by the HBC to Canada, removing the underlying point of local contention — Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s failure to consult Red River residents, especially the Metis, that the land they had lived on for generations was being bought by the Canadian government for $1.5 million (£300,000) without an explanation of their land tenure and legal rights under a new authority.
What had been so promising a solution for Rupert’s Land in 1857 had been allowed by the British government to lapse into obscurity with disastrous consequences 12 years later.