There are many important years in the history of Canada. Of course 1867 is a big one, but there was also other important years and 1885 is one such year because of many things, but one of the biggest events was the North West Rebellion. That being said, there were many other important events from the history of our country that year.
Due to the huge impact of the North-West Rebellion, I am going to talk about that as its own separate long event, and then the rest of the events of the year after that.
So first, let’s look at the events of the Northwest Rebellion, which lasted from March until June.
On March 19, Louis Riel would self-affirm the existence of the Provincial Government of Saskatchewan. With Riel doing this, the Canadian government decided that it would need to re-affirm its control over the territory. Leif Crozier, the North-West Mounted Police superintendent in Saskatchewan requested reinforcements at Fort Carlton because he was worried about the growing instability in the area and the possibility of an Indigenous uprising. Riel would then dispatch emissaries to deliver an ultimatum calling for the surrender of Fort Carlton. This demand was rejected immediately.
On March 25, Crozier sent Sgt. Alfred Stewart, Thomas McKay and 17 Constable to the general good store of Hillyard Mitchell to get supplies for the men and horses. What Crozier didn’t know what’s that Gabriel Dumont, the right-hand man of Riel, had a Metis force already entrenched in the area. The following day in the morning, Stewart’s party encountered the Metis at Duck Lake but Stewart decided not to risk an engagement and returned to Fort Carlton. At this point, Crozier rallied together a larger force, which included 53 North-West Mounted Police non-commissioned officers and men, 41 men from the Prince Albert Volunteers, and a seven-pound cannon, and set out to secure the much-needed supplies.
The Métis and the North-West Mounted Police force met just outside Duck Lake. Dumont ordered his men into defensive positions around a log cabin and to wait. Crozier’s scouts informed him of the Métis and he halted his men, taking up a defensive position.
Dumont then dispatched his brother, Isidore, and Chief Assiwiyin with a white flag hoping to distract the forces of Crozier. Crozier believed Dumont was interested in a parley and walked forward with his Métis interpreter Joe McKay. Crozier soon believed the two men were stalling so the Métis could move to flank his own men. As the two men went to live, they attempted to draw their guns, which prompted Crozier to give McKay the order to fire. Both Isidore and Assiwiyin were killed in the fight.
The battle was now on and with the firepower and training of Crozier’s militia being better, they still were outnumbered by the Métis and the Métis had the advantage of their position. Within half an hour of fighting, Crozier sounded the retreat to Fort Carlton. The Métis attempted to pursue the force but Louis Riel declared that the battle was over. In the end, 12 men were killed on the side of the government, 11 were wounded. On the Métis side, Dumont was injured in the head by a passing bullet and five Métis warriors, including Dumont’s brother, were killed.
On March 28, at 4 a.m., Fort Carlton was abandoned and was soon burned to the ground by the Métis.
On April 2, the Frog Lake Massacre would occur. Now looking for ammunition and food supplies, the Métis and Cree looted the Hudson’s Bay Company post and the store of George Dill at Frog Lake. There was a lot of anger among the Cree directed towards the government and Thomas Quinn, the Indian agent for the area. On April 2, War Chief Wandering Spirit and his band of Cree took Thomas Quinn hostage in his home in the morning. More settlers in the community were taken hostage and the Cree took over the community. The settlers, along with two priests, were gathered in the local Catholic Church where a Mass was performed. At 11 a.m., the Cree ordered all prisoners to move to an encampment several kilometres away. Quinn refused to leave the town and was shot in the head by Wandering Spirit. Big Bear, the Cree chief, was also there and attempted to stop the shootings but in the ensuing panic, the band of Wandering Spirit shot eight settlers, including the two Catholic priests. William Bleasdell Cameron, who had been rounded up with the hostages, went to the Hudson’s Bay shop to fill an order made by Quinn for Miserable Man after Mass. He would hear the shots fired and with the help of a Cree man, he escaped to the Wood Cree camp where he was protected by the chief.
The incident would prompt the Canadian government to send troops out to the Canadian West to deal with the rebellion.
On April 4, the church, rectory and all the buildings at the Frog Lake settlement were burned to the ground.
On April 24, the Battle of Fish Creek would occur. The Canadian force, led by Major General Frederick Middleton, who was advancing his force upstream from Clarke’s Crossing along the South Saskatchewan River. He soon discovered that Gabriel Dumont had a quickly-organized ambush waiting for him. The day previous, Middleton and his militia began to advance from Clarke’s Crossing, leading to Dumont to take 200 men and ride out to Tourond’s Coulee, along with Louie Riel. Most of the men were stationed in the coulee, dug into rifle pits. The next day, the militia was about to cross the coulee when one of their scouts saw the tracks of an inexperienced Métis soldier and followed them. The scout came close to where Dumont and his men were hiding and they attempted to grab him. Before they could, the two armies came in contact with each other and at this point the concealed Métis in the rifle pits would attempt to ambush the militia. Under pressure, Dumont shot the scout and returned his men to the rifle pits to fight the rest of the militia. The Métis pounded the militia with a devastating fusillade before going into cover and using sniper fire. The militia attempted to fight the best they could with their limited force and their artillery batteries were of little effect. Nonetheless, many of Dumont’s men attempted to flee but he convinced some of them to stay. Eventually though, he had 47 of his previous 130 men. Though outnumbered, he kept casualties to a minimum because of his defensive superior position.
By the end of the battle, despite the heavy casualties taken by the Métis, Middleton decided to retreat. For Dumont, he had 11 Métis and Dakota warriors killed, and 18 wounded. On the militia side, 10 were dead and 40 wounded.
On May 2, the Battle of Cut Knife would occur. With Middleton being sent out to put down the rebellion, Fort Battleford became a very important strategic location and the police force there was responsible for protecting 500 civilians. To help at Fort Battleford, Middleton dispatched a force under the command of Lt. Col. William Otter to the fort to assist. This force consisted of 763 men from various regiments. The force set out by train to Swift Current and then began marching from that community to Battleford on April 13, arriving on April 24. He found a fort crammed with people who had fled the rebellion.
At this point, Otter decided he was going to take action and despite orders from Middleton to stay in the fort, he wired the Lt. Governor of the Northwest Territories, asking for permission to punish Poundmaker. He received that permission and he would take 392 men to attack the Cree at Cut Knife Hill.
On May 2, Otter and his force arrived and not realizing he would have to cross a creek to get to the Cree camp, his force would have to wade through the marsh to reach the Cree. Jacob with Long Hair, an old Cree man, would hear the men coming through the creek and he alerted the camp. Otter quickly began to have his men fire into the camp, despite there being women and children in the camp, who were running for safety in the ravine. A group of Assiniboine warriors charged at Otter’s men to stop them from killing the women and children. The Indigenous warriors began to follow a pattern in their attack. A group would run forward, attack the soldiers then rush to the ravine before the soldiers could get them, and as soon as the soldiers attempted to attack those warriors, another group was coming up on them in the same pattern. This caused confusion for Otter and his men because they did not know where the enemy was or their numbers. It is estimated that between 50 and 250 Indigenous warriors took part in the battle.
After six hours of fighting, Otter decided to withdraw his men and Poundmaker gave the order to let the soldiers leave. The warriors respected Poundmaker and followed his orders. Today, it is believed that Poundmaker calling off the attack prevented the complete slaughter of Otter and his men. This battle would the most successful Indigenous battle of the entire rebellion, thanks to the military genius of Fine Day, who directed the battle from a hill nearby, and the Indigenous knowledge of the terrain. Many of the soldiers within Otter’s group gained respect for Poundmaker and his warriors for their ability to fight. In all, 14 of Otter’s soldiers were wounded and eight were killed. On the Cree and Assiniboine side, three were wounded and five were killed.
On May 9, and running until May 12, the Battle of Batoche would occur. This battle would spell the beginning of the end for the rebellion. Batoche had been chosen as the ad hoc capital of the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, and the battle there would turn the entire tide of the rebellion.
By this point Middleton was very cautious about taking on the Métis in battle but he approached Batoche on May 7, coming within 13 kilometres of the community the following day. Middleton planned to encircle the community as his main contingent advanced on the defensive lines of the Métis. While the Métis were distracted, it was planned to have the Northcote, a steamship carrying troops, steam past the Métis and drop 50 men close to the town. Unfortunately, Middleton’s force was behind schedule and when the Northcote appeared, it was spotted by the Métis and they lowered the ferry cable of the community, which sliced off the masts and smokestacks of the ship, causing it to drift down the river and out of the battle.
On May 9, Middleton began to advancing on the church at Mission Ridge and were fired upon. The artillery began to shell the houses, burning one to the ground. The Métis fled the settlement and as the troops approached the church they saw people near the buildings who they took to be the rebels. A Gatling gun was fired at the rectory but then a white flag was unfurled and several nuns, priests, women’s and children came out and advanced past the line. Middleton, seeing that the mission was only occupied by civilians took his artillery to the ridge and began to shell Batoche. As the troops advanced towards the community, the Métis began to fire upon the militia, causing them to go for cover. Eventually, the attack was repulsed and the artillery was pulled back several hundred meters, with the infantry and scouts following.
On May 10, Middleton established gun pits and conducted a devastating day-long shelling of the town. While there were advances made by the militia, they were repulsed by the Métis and no ground was gained. Through the day, the militia made slow advances and eventually reached as far as the Batoche cemetery.
On May 12, with the Métis defences in poor shape, having lost 75 per cent of the defenders, and those that were still around were dealing with fatigue and low ammunition. Many Métis fighters were looking for bullets fired by government troops and firing them back, or even using rocks, forks and knives instead of bullets. The militia then did a charge on the community, and the Métis were overwhelmed in the community. With the charge into town, the resistance in Batoche ended. This defeat for the Métis put an effective end to the North West Rebellion and Louis Riel was captured.
Following the battle, which saw eight deaths and 48 wounded for the militia, Middleton marched back to Prince Albert and part of the contingent went back to Eastern Canada. Among the Métis, 16 were killed and as many as 30 were wounded.
On May 28, the Battle of Frenchman’s Butte would occur between the Alberta Field Force and the Cree under Chief Wandering Spirit. Wandering Spirit led 200 warriors to positions in trenches and rifle pits while Little Poplar remained with a second group to protect the camp of Cree. Major General Thomas Bland Strange, a retired cowboy who raised a force of cowboy and other white settlers had headed north to join in the fight against the rebellion and would meet the Cree at Frenchman’s Butte. At 6 a.m., Strange opened fire with artillery, with the Cree responding by opening fire on Strange and his units. Strange pulled his forces back and deployed them along the valley edge and the two sides exchanged fire for three hours. General Strange eventually ordered Major Sam Steele to lead the North West Mounted Police contingent to the north to outflank the Cree, which the Cree saw and a group of Cree were led to the top of the hill Parnell to Steele, opening fire. With this resistance, Steele turned back and with the Cree circling around and outflanking the Alberta Mounted Rifles, Strange ordered a retreat and the Canadians withdrew to Fort Pitt. The battle was seen as a victory for the Cree, but with the defeat the Métis earlier in the month, the Cree rebellion was mostly hopeless. Poundmaker had been forced to surrender earlier.
On June 3, the last of the Cree resistance would be finished in the Battle of Loon Lake. In this battle, the Canadians were led by Major Sam Steele, who caught a group of Plains Cree warriors and a very brief battle resulted. In the battle, four Cree were killed and several dozen were wounded. The Cree realized that their rebellion had come to an end and many fled, while also releasing their prisoners. Chief Wandering Spirit would surrender to authorities at Fort Pitt and Big Bear, would elude the Canadians until July 2. With this, the 1885 North-West Rebellion was finished.
On July 6, Louis Riel would be tried on six counts of high treason and three weeks later on July 20, the trial of Louis Riel would begin in Regina. Today, it is considered to be the most famous trial in the history of Canada would last only five days and would result in a guilty verdict. Riel, who had supporters among Francophones and Catholics, would see 36 people receiving jury duty summons and only one would be able to speak French and that one man was not able to attend. In addition, the only Roman Catholic in the jury pool was challenged by the prosecution for not being of British stock and he was excluded. Riel’s jury was six men, all English and Scottish and all from the area around Regina. Riel would see his defence led by Charles Fitzpatrick, who would become the Chief Justice of Canada, and would produce witnesses who all testified to give evidence of Riel being insane, but none were sympathetic to him. The defence’s case lasted just one day. Riel would give two speeches during the trial and reject his lawyer’s attempt to argue he was insane. He would state, “life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.” Riel defended his religious themes, and insisted his actions were aimed at practical results and he denounced the Government of Canada for the lack of regard towards the people of the west.
On July 31, after 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Riel guilty but recommended mercy. Judge Hugh Richardson then sentenced him to death by hanging. The execution would take place on Nov. 16, near where the current RCMP Heritage Centre is located today. On Nov. 27, Round the Sky, Bad Arrow, Miserable Man, Iron Bear, Little Bear, Crooked Leg and Man Without Blood would be hung for the murders during the Frog Lake Massacre. This was the largest mass hanging in Canadian history.
Now, we will look at the events that happened during the year not related to the North West Rebellion.
On Jan. 11, Gordon Conant was born in Ontario to a well-known family in the area. He would go on to attend the University of Toronto and would begin working as a lawyer in Ontario in 1912. In 1914, he was elected as the deputy reeve of Oshawa and then served as the reeve, or mayor, in 1916. This made him the youngest mayor in Oshawa history. Once he was done as mayor in 1917, he devoted himself to developing the hydro-electric power potential of Ontario. In 1937, he would be elected to the Ontario Legislature. In 1942, with the resignation of the premier, he became premier, but not leader of the party. He would serve as premier from Oct. 21, 1942 to May 18, 1943. He would attempt to run for the leadership of the party but collapsed hours before the leadership vote and withdrew his candidacy.
On Feb. 4, Cairine Wilson would be born in Montreal. She would move with her family to Ottawa in 1918 and begin doing an immense amount of volunteer work with the underprivileged, and also running organizations to influence women to get into politics. She would serve as the president of the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada from 1938 to 1948. In 1930, at the age of 45, she would be appointed the first female senator in the history of Canada, only four months after the Persons Case, something I talked about in a previous episode. In 1949, she would become Canada’s first female delegate to the United Nations General Assembly and was the chair of the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and the first woman to chair a Senate Standing Committee. She would be given the Legion of Honor by France in 1950. In 1955, she became the first woman deputy speaker of the Canadian Senate. She would die suddenly on March 3, 1962. Today, a school is named for her in Orleans, Ontario.
On April 8, Susanna Moodie would pass away at the age of 81. She had been born in 1803 in England and wrote her first children’s book in 1822. In 1832, she immigrated to Canada with her husband and children and would continue to write about her life in Canada. In 1852, she published Roughing It In The Bush, detailing her experiences on a Canadian farm in the 1830s. This book would become her greatest and most successful work.
On April 9, Frank O’Connor would be born in Deseronto, Ontario. At the age of 14, he began working for General Electric and would start his own candy shop in Peterborough in 1910. In 1913, he would open the Laura Secord Candy Store in Toronto, named for the War of 1812 hero that I did an episode on a couple months ago. He would expand that business across Canada and into the United States. In 1935, he would be appointed to the Senate of Canada. He would pass away on Aug. 21, 1939.
On June 27, Arthur Lismer would be born in England. He would come to Canada in 1911 and settle in Toronto where he became an official war time painter, painting many of the ships that came into Halifax Harbour, and also doing sketches of the damage after the Halifax Explosion. He was an original member of the Group of Seven and would eventually become a member of the Canadian Group of Painters. In 1967, he was awarded the Order of Canada and would pass away in 1969 in Montreal.
On July 20, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 would be passed. This Act would put a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants, with the exceptions being diplomats, tourists, merchants, men of science and students. This Act was brought in because of a wave of Chinese immigration into Canada. Within the Act it stated plainly, “An Act to restrict and regulate Chinese immigration into Canada.”
This was the first piece of legislation in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic origin. Under the new law, vessels coming into Canada from China could only transport one Chinese immigrant per 50 tons of ship weight. Essentially, a 300-ton ship could carry six Chinese immigrants. In 1887, the law would be changed to allow Chinese women married to non-Chinese men to enter Canada. Things would not improve in the 20th century. In 1900, the tax was increased to $100 and in 1903 it was raised to $500. In 1923 the Act was superseded by the Chinese Immigration Act, which banned Chinese immigration into Canada. This Act would be repealed in 1947.
On July 23, Izaak Killam is born in Nova Scotia. He would eventually start working for the Union Bank of Halifax and gain full control of the company in 1919. He would be involved several projects and businesses, including the Mersey Paper Company, and would become the richest man in Canada during his life. He would also buy the Mail and Empire in 1927, and sell it in 1936 when it became the Globe and Mail. With no children, he and his wife devoted themselves to using their wealth to promote higher education in Canada. They would create the Killam Trusts as part of this. This endowment today is worth $400 million and is used to artistic ventures and scientific research in Canada. Dalhousie University would receive $30 million from the couple, or $215 million today. He also established the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children and his inheritance taxes went to create the Canada Council For The Arts following his death in 1955.
On Aug. 18, Francis Hincks died at the age of 77. He was born in 1807 in Ireland and would come to Canada only two weeks after his marriage where he set up an import business. His business would prove to be very successful and he would move into politics, serving as the co-premier of the Province of Canada from 1851 to 1854, the Governor of Barbados from 1856 to 1862 and the Canadian Minister of Finance from 1869 to 1873.
On Sept. 15, the Northwest Territories would hold an election, the first major election in the history of the territory. This election would elect 11 people to the Council of the Northwest Territories. In 1888, the first Northwest Territories General Election would be held.
On Oct. 23, Lawren Harris was born in Branford, Ontario and would become a member of the Group of Seven. Many consider him to be the stimulus behind the creation of the organization. He would make several trips out to the Rocky Mountains with A.Y. Jackson to sketch the landscape. He would pass away in 1970 and his South Shore, Baffin Island painting would sell for $240,000 in 1981, a record at the time for a Canadian painting. That painting was then sold in 2001 for a record $2.2 million.
On Nov. 5, David Anderson would die in England. He was born in 1814 in London, England and would come to the Red River Colony in 1849 to become the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, serving until 1864 when he returned to England.
On Nov. 7, the Last Spoke would be driven in for the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, British Columbia. The spike was driven into the ground at 9:22 a.m. by Donald Smith, who helped to finance the railway. This would mark the end of the saga of building Canada’s first transcontinental railway. The work on the railway had run from 1881 to 1885, stretching from Montreal to the Pacific Coast. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald would receive a telegram telling him that the first train from Montreal was approaching the Pacific Ocean.
On Dec. 5, Ernest Cormier would be born in Montreal. He would go on to become one of Canada’s greatest architects and would he design the Supreme Court of Canada Building in Ottawa. In 1974, he was awarded the Order of Canada. He would pass away in 1980 and in 2018 was named a National Historic Person.
On Dec. 24, A.A. Heaps was born in England and would find his way to Canada and Winnipeg in 1911. He would become one of the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike, which I did an episode on several months ago and would then serve on Winnipeg City Council from 1917 to 1925. In 1925, he was elected to Parliament and was instrumental in bringing in Canada’s first old age pension. A founding member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP, he would serve until 1940. He would pass away on April 4, 1954.
Also this year, Canada would outlaw the potlatch ceremony among the Indigenous people of the Northwest Coast. The law is often ignored by the Indigenous people but it would remain in place until 1951.
Banff National Park would be established this year, the first national park in Canada and today one of the biggest tourist spots in the country.