Remembering the 1885 Resistance 130 Years Later

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Michel Hogue, Carleton University

The Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) funded the recent publication of Michel Hogue’s book Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People (University of Regina Press). The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences invited Professor Hogue to share his reflections on the 130th anniversary of the North-West Resistance.

Ride "swift-safe in the night, ride without rest," writes poet Marilyn Dumont, urging Metis leader Gabriel Dumont to flee as Canadian troops close in on the Metis at Batoche in May 1885. She admonishes him to

     "rest only beyond the border 
     safe from the Canadiens that stalk your breath"

and thus evokes the peril the Metis leader faced as he fled Saskatchewan and sought sanctuary in the United States. One hundred and thirty years later, the stories of the Metis Resistance continue to challenge Canadian tales of the uniquely peaceful trajectory of Canadian westward expansion. Confident that the forty-ninth parallel marked the border between American brutality and Canadian civility, Canadian observers have typically pointed to the dramatic clashes on the American Plains as evidence of the fatally compromised relations between Indians and whites south of the border. Marilyn Dumont's words remind us of the violence inherent in Canada's colonization of the West and puncture such self-satisfaction. They also help us connect the events of 1885 to a continental story in which the suppression of Indigenous sovereignty was the necessary precursor to white settlement.

Indeed, Dumont's ride southward marked a return to the lands that had been at the heart of a sprawling Metis borderland world through much of the nineteenth century. Built on the traffic in furs, buffalo robes, and provisions, these communities exploited opportunities to hunt and trade on this national periphery. For some, that meant trafficking arms and alcohol to their Indigenous kin and neighbours, including those (like the Dakotas and Lakotas) who were engaged in struggles with the U.S. Army. Through the 1870s, American military efforts to dismantle these Metis communities failed, but the buffalo's collapse in the early 1880s and the emerging consensus among officials in the two countries that securing national boundaries required suppressing Metis mobility and independence led to joint efforts to expel the Metis and other Indigenous people from the region. Even in 1885, after the largest borderland communities had been dispersed, American officials continued to work with their Canadian counterparts to monitor the border, to investigate repeated rumours of pan-Indian uprisings, and to keep Canadians apprised of movements of Metis "refugees" like Dumont in Montana and North Dakota. Their cooperation revealed the joint investment among Canadian and U.S. officials in shoring up the border and in resettling the Plains. 

Dumont's ride for the border reminds us, then, that much of Plains Metis history has been wound around the forty-ninth parallel. Following these cross-border threads allows us to see that the events of 1885 are not the aberration that they are often imagined to be. Instead, the conflict of 1885 and its aftermath were born of a culture of dispossession that spanned the forty-ninth parallel. Like the still bloodier confrontations south of the border, the conflict on the banks of the Saskatchewan offered a stark reminder of the Canadian government's interest in freeing land and resources for white newcomers.

Michel Hogue is assistant professor of History at Carleton University. He is the author of the recently released Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People (University of Regina Press).

Image: University of Regina Press


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