The dominant consideration in military operations in the Canadian hinterland was, of course, movement and supply over vast distances.Canadaextends for 5,000 miles from sea to sea, and most of it, even now, comprises a sparsely populated wilderness of rivers, lakes, forests, and mountains.
At the time, Canada was still in the process of formation. The Ontario-based government had created the Canadian Federation in 1867, and, in furtherance of this, had purchased Rupert’s Land (today’s Manitoba province) from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869. An English-speaking governor, William McDougall, was appointed, but his survey teams faced armed resistance from Métis settlers in the Red River region.
The Métis were pioneer farmers and French-speaking Catholics, many of mixed blood, their forebears having intermarried with Native Americans. Under the leadership of Louis Riel they formed a provisional government and an armed militia to resist the authority of the governor and his survey teams.
TheOntariogovernment was willing to negotiate a settlement which respected the rights and claims of the Métis. But McDougall, the man on the spot, was an anti-French bigot, and he had the support of a minority of English-speaking Red River settlers. An added complication was the infiltration of American pioneers and consequentUScounter-claims to the territory. Armed clashes culminating in the arrest and execution of one Thomas Scott, an Anglophone firebrand, had soured relations between Ontario and the Métis by the time a planned military expedition set out.
Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s challenge was to move 1,000 men and all their equipment and supplies across several hundred miles of wilderness. They were transported on riverboats, but this necessitated the construction of numerous corduroy roads for portage between waterways, and they toiled in high summer amid clouds of blackflies and mosquitoes. The expedition took two months to reach Fort Garryat the Red River Settlement on 24 August 1870.
Wolseley’s force, a mix of British regulars and Canadian militia, comprised: the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (60th Foot), 1st Ontario Rifles, 2nd Quebec Rifles, The Queen’s York Rangers, a Provisional Battalion of Rifles, and a Provisional Battalion of Artillery. The Métis militia could not contemplate military resistance to such force, especially in the knowledge that it would be supported by the vengeful English-speaking minority among them.
Riel fled to the United States (though he later returned, became a member of Parliament, led a second rebellion, and was then tried and hanged for treason in 1885). Manitoba was absorbed into the Canadian Federation, but recognition was accorded the French language, the Catholic religion, and the land claims of the Métis. However, tension between English- and French-speaking Canadians – a legacy of the struggle for empire in the mid 18th century – has remained a feature of political life ever since.