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Banner: From Colony to Country: A Reader's Guide to Canadian Military History

Canadian Military History: An Overview
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Northwest Campaign
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Northwest Campaign

In the summer of 1884, many of the Métis of Batoche and the Saskatchewan district despaired of the government of Sir John A. Macdonald ever responding to their concerns regarding official tenure to their lands and their desire to safeguard their way of life in the face of settlement from eastern Canada. At the same time, the plight of many western Indians had become desperate because of the disappearance of the buffalo and a harsh government policy requiring them to settle and farm on their reservations. In June, the noted buffalo hunter, Gabriel Dumont, led a delegation of Métis to Montana in the United States to search out Louis Riel and to persuade him to lead them as he had done in 1869-70 in Red River. Riel reluctantly returned to Canada and again proclaimed a provisional government. The situation worsened until March 1885 when a skirmish at Duck Lake between the Métis and a force of North West Mounted Police with civilian auxiliaries from Prince Albert cost 17 dead on both sides. The government feared a general Indian rising (although only the Cree bands of Poundmaker and Big Bear responded to Riel's entreaties and joined the resistance), and dispatched a force which eventually numbered over 5000 militia, including all 400 permanent troops, to the North-West via the still-incomplete Canadian Pacific Railway.

Major-General Frederick Middleton, the British General Officer commanding the Canadian militia, sent to take command at the seat of the rebellion, was acutely aware of the inexperience of most of his militia command. He desperately feared that any reverse inflicted by the Métis might result in a tactical débâcle as had occurred when the militia met the Fenians at Ridgeway in 1866, and might lead to a strategic disaster in which perceived government weakness could spark a widespread Indian uprising. Thus he adopted a policy of slow advance, training his men as he went. Gabriel Dumont, Riel's Adjutant-General, also recognized the militia's weakness and at Fish Creek attempted to employ the same successful ambush tactics he had used at Duck Lake. Restricted in his actions by Riel, he could only harry the government forces in their advance on the Métis capital of Batoche, where a four-day siege overcame Métis opposition. The wisdom of Middleton's plan was borne out by events at Cut Knife Hill, where a militia detachment of 325 men led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter, sent to relieve Battleford, attacked Poundmaker's camp and was probably only saved from complete disaster by the chief's reluctance to countenance a massacre. Major-General T.B. Strange, a retired British officer ranching in the west, commanding the Alberta Field Force, Middleton's other detached column, followed Middleton's strategic concept. In his only set-piece action at Frenchman's Butte, Strange used artillery rather than attack Big Bear's Crees in their well-chosen defensive position.

After the fall of Batoche, the Campaign became a pursuit of Big Bear's fleeing band, with their few remaining prisoners, through the forests and muskegs of northern Saskatchewan. Inspector Sam Steele of the North West Mounted Police and his mounted scouts played a prominent part in this pursuit. In the end, Big Bear surrendered peacefully to a mounted policeman.

The collapse of resistance was followed by prosecutions and trials, as well as civilian claims for damages by both the insurgents and the soldiers. The most famous trial, with important implications for the political future of Canada and for English-French relations, was that of Louis Riel for treason, with his subsequent execution at Regina in November 1885. It should not be forgotten that eight Indians were also executed, after trials in Battleford in which they had little opportunity to plead their cases. Poundmaker and Big Bear served prison terms, and both died soon after their release. Gabriel Dumont fled to the United States after the fall of Batoche and returned to his farm on the North Saskatchewan nearly a decade later. Middleton received a knighthood, but later faced disgrace in Canada over his part in the disappearance of furs "looted" by the militia.

The 1885 Campaign was the first carried out by Canada's military forces without British involvement, apart from Middleton and a few staff officers. It was also the first test of Canada's tiny permanent force. Although relatively minor within the overall military history of Canada, it was a modern war with correspondents reporting by telegraph to the daily newspapers and it was fought with amateur soldiers from eastern Canada's major communities. That, and the significant political implications, have led to a very large volume of monographs, journal articles, newspaper reports and government documents about the Campaign. What follows here is only a selection of works to introduce the reader to the wide-ranging literature of the Northwest Campaign of 1885.


The authors have included the English edition of works if they are available in both French and English. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are known to be available in French. Most titles included in this guide are held by Library and Archives Canada, and many are available for interlibrary loan, both within Canada and abroad.