Two thousand miles west of the tiew Dominion of Canada lay the Pacific coast, Vancouver Island—and the “Oregon country.” This huge, forested area west of the Rockies had been left to joint British-American occupation following the War of 1812; but in the’s American expansionists, under the banner of “fifty-four forty or fight,” demanded all of it up to Russian Alaska for the United States. In the Oregon Treaty of 1846, however, Britain profited by the American troubles with Mexico, which made Washington willing to settle for a dividing line extending along the forty-ninth parallel to the Pacific, but leaving all of Vancouver Island on the British side. The American-Canadian border was now virtually complete, although American annexatiouists still looked hungrily northward. The discovery of gold on the Fräser River in 1856 soon transformed the little Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, into a booming supply center for the inrushing prospectors—most of them Americans. To maintain British control, the new royal colony of British Columbia was quickly established, and in 1866, with the gold rush over and both British Columbia and Vancouver Island suffering in consequence, the two were combined into one, taking the name of the former but with Victoria designated as the capital in 1869. The addition of the vast Northwest Territories to the Dominion of Canada (which bought them from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869) then led naturally to adding British Columbia; in 1871 it became a full-fledged province.


In her haste to secure the great Canadian Northwest against possible American encroachment—for all of Alaska had become United States territory in the summer of 1867—the new Dominion overlooked the sensitive feelings ol the only considerable body of settlers in the enormous reaches between Ontario and the Rockies. At the Red River Settlement, two generations of pioneers had tenaciously survived since the days of Selkirk’s first tiny colony. Numerous among them were the French-speaking Métis—part Indian, as their name suggests, but already a people with a proud sense of identity and a deep loyalty to the faith and culture imparted to them by ardent Catholic missionaries from Quebec. They undeniably had marks of frontier wildness about them, too—they were buffalo hunters, boatmen, trappers—but they did not deserve the description given them by the usually astute John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minster of the Dominion: “miserable half-breeds.” They were incensed when they heard, in the fall of 1869, that a Canadian lieutenant-governor was on his way to set up a territorial government about whose terms they had been totally unconsulted. At this point an educated young Métis with a gift for leadership, Louis Riel, took drastic action. He organized a “National Committee” which sent the would-be lieutenant-governor packing, took over Fort Garry, and in March, 1870, dispatched delegates to Ottawa. They demanded a regular provincial government to guarantee that the Metis could retain their French-Catholic customs and enjoy the equal protection of the Dominion’s laws. Ottawa acceded, and in July a small area of the Northwest territory around the Red River Settlement became the Province of Manitoba. Meanwhile, however, back at Fort Garry, Riel had indiscreetly and summarily executed a Canadian who had rebelled against his leadership. This unfortunate act polarized violent feelings between British and French Canadians. In Quebec, Riel was regarded as a heroic servant of the faith and the father of Manitoba; in Ontario, he was a desperate half-breed rebel. A military expedition sent by Canada to support the new provincial officials at Red River began to assume a punitive look, and before it arrived, Louis Riel took flight—to be heard from, however, later on.