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The Purchase of Rupert’s Land Part 2 – Manitoba is Born

Manitoba at the time of Manitoba Act

The tiny square that is Manitoba at the time of the Manitoba Act

In Part 1, we were told the following – With the American purchase of Alaska in 1867, Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was anxious to gain control of Rupert’s Land. He wanted it to be annexed to the new Dominion of Canada to prevent its annexation by the US.

In his mind, if he was successful, he could expand the Dominion both North and West. The prophecy in the country’s motto, “He shall have Dominion from sea to sea” (Psalm 72:8), would be fulfilled. He would also strengthen Canada’s presence in North America next to the United States. But the Prime Minister’s aspirations for Rupert’s Land led to the first crisis in the new Dominion, the Red River Rebellion, in 1869.

There were 8 Reasons for Canada’s Purchase of Rupert’s Land:

  1. The administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) saw the need for government oversight after almost 200 years of growth in European settlements (1668 -1867).
  2. They were of the opinion that no single company had the funds to administer such a large territory.
  3. They thought that the issue was no longer Fur Trading, but management of people.
  4. No one knew exactly how much Rupert’s Land was worth and whether there was anyone with the kind of finances to purchase it. The estimated value was $40 million. It was thought that the US had money to purchase it since they just purchased Alaska for $7.2 million.
  5. The British were concerned about US expansionism (and would not allow the United States to purchase it).
  6. HBC held only a Royal Charter to do business, which was given and enforceable by the Crown. The lands were Crown Lands owned by the monarch.
  7. Britain pressured HBC to enter into negotiations with Canada for its purchase, even though Canada was a new country and had no funds to do so.
  8. HBC was able to keep its rights to the Trading Posts and 5% of the fertile prairie lands after surrendering their Charter to the Crown for 300,000 pounds sterling. (the equivalent of $1.5 million)

Canada’s First Step in the Purchase

George Etienne-Cartier and William McDougall, as Canada’s representatives, engaged in 6 months of negotiations to seal the deal. The deed was first transferred to the British crown in 1869, but because of the Red River Rebellion, the land transfer only took effect in 1870 with the Manitoba Act.

Enthusiasm without wisdom and the struggle for identity

Three main issues contributed to the Red River Rebellion (1869-1870):

  1. As far as I have read, there was the over-enthusiastic lawyer and Father of Confederation, William McDougall, who, in 1869, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territories, by the new Federal Government. He arrived at the US / Canadian border with an entourage of administrative staff to establish sovereignty in the area. They were seen by the Metis as an imposition on them by the Federal government, without consultation. 
  2. This elicited the ire of the Métis, who formed their own Provisional Government with Louis Riel as Leader in an effort to be heard by the Federal Government. They prevented McDougall and his staff from entering the colony, capturing and jailing some of them at Fort Garry.
  3. An Irish Protestant, land surveyor named Thomas Scott, and a group of Ontarians opposed to Riel, attempted to enter the colony, but they too were captured and jailed at the fort in December 1869.  Riel had Thomas Scott executed by firing squad.  

Annexationists Covet the Productive Prairies

We need to look back in history to 1812, when the Scottish Lord Selkirk got a grant of 116,000 square miles of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC ) to set up an agricultural colony. There were about 195 settlers at the time. There was murderous conflict between the two competing fur trading entities in the area -the HBC and the North West Company.

The Selkirk colony was almost wiped out by the North West Company, leaving 45 survivors in 1817. The companies were forced by the British government to merge allowing for a period of peace prosperity and the development of agriculture.  

The Red River Settlement was a productive, vibrant agricultural settlement with over 1,000 farmers by 1827.  They invested mainly in wheat, providing much of the agricultural needs of the HBC so that flour production rose from over 20,000 lbs annually for 6 years (1823 to 1829) to over 30,000 lbs in the early 1830’s. The supply of flour reached over 50,000 lbs by the mid-1830’s.

The Plot Thickens – Manifest Destiny

For many years, Americans living south of the Red River espoused a doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” and coveted the growing economic productivity of the Red River colony. The climate, soil and economic potential seemed ideal for profitable investment. The main proponent for this plan was James Wickes Taylor, who was a special agent with the US Treasury department from 1859 to 1869, and US Consul to Winnipeg from 1870 till his death in 1893.

It has been reported that in 1866, Taylor actually addressed the US House of Representatives about the Red River Valley and its potential for economic development. He was of the opinion that the area could potentially feed 6 to 8 million people. Congress, it is said, favoured Taylor’s proposal and encouraged the idea that efforts should be made to acquire the prairie lands. Taylor believed that Rupert’s land could be bought for $25,000.

Remember that in 1866, America had already begun the process of purchasing Alaska, completing the purchasein 1867, and sending nervous ripples to the newly-minted Dominion.  

Another supporter of Taylor’s views was  Minnesota Senator Alexander Ramsey, First Territorial Governor of Minnesota, who expressed the opinion that the prairie lands would be a beneficial addition to his state’s commercial activities.

You must remember that, until 1816,  parts of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota belonged to Rupert’s Land.  This area used to be the farthest point south for which Rupert’s Land had a  claim. Now, annexationists from Minnesota wanted to expand into Rupert’s Land northwards along the Red River, into what is now Manitoba. 

Two representatives of the Detroit merchants, Senator Zachariah Chandler – a businessman, and one of the founders of the Republican Party, and Senator Jacob M. Howard from Michigan, supported the same position. They saw the potential for enhancing trade from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, via the Erie Canal which was built in 1825.  

Stoking the Fires of Discontent

In 1869, the popular opinion held by annexationists was that the Red River Valley, even though still belonging to Rupert’s Land,  was ripe for picking. They thought that the new nation, Canada,  had not yet developed its federal power, so if they were to capitalize on the instability on the prairies they could take control.

They supported the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel in 1869. The plan was to colonize the land personally, exert influence and dominance, destabilize any efforts of British colonization, and prevent Canadian sovereignty in the area.

It has been reported that between 1867 and 1869, Taylor closely monitored the discontent reporting back to Senator Ramsey. In 1869, the Secretary of State to then President Ulysses Grant, commissioned Taylor to investigate and report full details of the revolt as well as all aspects of the territory and its inhabitants.”

Taylor devoted his life singularly to the cause of American expansionism into the plains north of the 49th parallel, by negotiation, trade or military means and to exert every effort to rid the area of British influence. He used his political office to influence the politics of the Red River Valley, and to elevate the annexationists as the ideal leaders of the Red River lands.

Seeing Through the Schemes

The Canadian government thwarted these efforts at American expansionism by meeting with Metis representatives from the Red River settlement to understand their concerns. These included fears of US annexation, and the fact that the annexationists  did not understand that their identity was bound up in land ownership because of their history.  The Metis had come to view themselves as the legitimate “descendants of the lords of the soil.”  

Among the requests they made were: the right to elect their own representatives; the right to pass their own territorial legislation with the power to veto Federal laws; security of land ownership for lands held pre-Confederation; allocation of lands for schools, roads and other infrastructure; improvements in accessible transportation; military personnel taken from people already living in the colony; bilingualism and representations in the Canadian Parliament. There was a successful end to the negotiations and Manitoba was born.

United States’ expansionist proposals were met with resistance by the Red River residents. Annexationists had supported Louis Riel ostensibly to gain favour with those involved in the Red River Rebellion, so that US annexation would seem like an appealing option.

They sought to capitalize on Métis’ discontent, planting ideas of independence from Canada in their hearts, so that they – the annexationists – could step in to offer American protection, and so Americans would become the new leaders of the Red River Valley which would become American land.

Such aggressive propaganda backfired, with the Métis becoming hostile to the proponents of the American plan. The Métis became suspicious of the eagerness with which the Americans were pushing for union with the US. In resisting both the Americans and the Canadians, the Métis found their voice and identity.

The political chaos gave both the Canadian government and the Métis determination to work at negotiations that allowed Métis demands to make their way into the Manitoba Act of 1970.  The Canadian Government negotiated 7 treaties with the Natives in that area acquiring their consent to Crown Sovereignty. All the western provinces and territories, except BC, benefited from the purchase of Rupert’s Land.

Out of Rebellion… Birth of a Province

There is an old adage which says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  Some reports indicate that William McDougall  had started surveying the land around the Red River Valley before the Manitoba Act.  Others indicate that Ontarians, angry at Louis Riel’s pugnacity towards the Federal Government,  and opposed to his actions, set off to join in the struggle, ad in the process, became part of the hostages held at the fort.  Other reports indicate that the land surveyor, Thomas Scott, even though he was supposed to be a professing Christian, was very much the architect of his own demise, because he had an obnoxious attitude to the Metis, and was often rude and ungracious to them. Louis Riel also had good intentions, but he went about it the wrong way.

Out of Evil … Good 

Louis Riel helped the Métis to find their voice and their identity. Finding their identity helped them to say “NO” to the annexationists, because the Métis had a sense of “generational ownership” of the land, having lived in the Red River Valley for almost 200 years. 

Sir John A. MacDonald, as the Prime Minister in the newly-minted Dominion, saw the threat of US expansionism both north and south of the new nation of Canada. To the north was the purchase of Alaska and to the south was the intentional interference of US annexationists in the Red River Valley. He acted to acquire Rupert’s Land and his government sent someone capable and trustworthy to bring some order out of the chaos.

The stage was set for the entry of another Christian Father of Confederation, Sir Adams George Archibald, into the story of the Purchase of Rupert’s Land and the birth of Manitoba and its entry into Confederation.

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