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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

The Second Battalion, Quebec Rifles, at Lower Fort Garry

by William R. Morrison

Historical Background

The Second Battalion, Quebec Rifles, was part of the Red River expeditionary force which travelled to Manitoba in the late summer of 1870 to suppress the disorder of the Red River Rebellion. Before examining the services of this battalion, it will be necessary to consider the reasons behind the decision to send it to the West.

The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 is one of the least glorious chapters in Canadian history. Its cause, which should not concern us in detail here, is best summed up by G.F.G. Stanley as "a movement against the Dominion of Canada for national and economic security."1 The results of the discontent aroused by the encroachment of civilization on the privileges and traditions of the Métis are more important than the causes, since they posed a threat to Canadian sovereignty in the West and were the direct motivation for the formation of the Second Battalion, Quebec Rifles.

In the autumn of 1869, the Red River colony had polarized into two factions. In Winnipeg, Louis Riel and his Métis followers were adopting an increasingly defiant stand vis-à-vis the federal government. At Lower Fort Garry, Colonel J.S. Dennis had set up headquarters for a counter-revolutionary movement, the "Canadian party." This group had small support in the colony, but its members provided an irritant to Riel. By the end of that year, however, Riel and the Métis had made themselves complete masters of the colony.

The Canadian government, to which all these events had come as an unpleasant surprise, reacted mildly at first, and sought to end the dispute by mediation rather than by force, and to this end sent commissioners to the Red River to report on the grievances of the Métis. Unfortunately, its belated good intentions were largely vitiated by the slowness with which it acted, and by the infamous shooting of Thomas Scott. Matters were made worse by the uproar which the supporters of the "Canadian party" had begun to foment in Ontario. Pressure grew on the federal government to put an end to what many people considered to be arrant treason.

Sir John A. Macdonald, who had earlier ignored warnings that trouble was ahead in the West, was now hastening to repair the damage that had been done. While publicly he was "pursuing a policy of conciliation and concession," he was at the same time "quietly making preparations for the sending of a [military] expedition" to the disaffected settlement.2 The preparations for this expedition were made in the late winter of 1869 and the early spring of 1870. To ensure that the troops would be able to get to Red River, Macdonald assigned S.J. Dawson the task of building a road between the head of Lake Superior and the waters flowing into Lake Winnipeg. Contracts were let for the construction of boats to take troops over the water part of this route. Two steamers were chartered to carry troops through the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay, and Indian agents were sent into the Rainy River country to prepare the Indians for the expedition to come.

The question of the composition of the troops was a thorny one. Macdonald was anxious to have as much Canadian participation in it as possible, and for this participation to be on as broad a base as could be managed, both from English and French Canada. In this he showed that he was not unaware of the political implications of sending Canadian troops to suppress the Métis; he wished to involve French Canada in this task as much as possible, as will become apparent presently. However, Macdonald also wished to have British troops in the expedition. He gave his reasons in a confidential minute of the cabinet:

First a belief exists not only in Rupert's Land but in the United States, extending even to their leading statesmen, that England does not care for the retention of her North American Colonies as a portion of the Empire, and that she will not make any effort to retain them.

Secondly, because the prestige of an Expedition composed partly of Regular troops will be much greater than if it consisted of untried volunteers only; and Thirdly, because a feeling of hostility to Canada having unfortunately arisen which does not exist with regard to England, the insurgents would more readily lay down their arms to a British force than one entirely Canadian — and even in the case of actual resistance, the conflict would not be attended with the same animosity, and after the rising was put down would not leave behind it such feelings of bitterness and humiliation.

It is hoped, then, that H. M. Government will readily assent to send a small body of Regular troops, with an officer of reputation in command. Canada will supplement that Force to any extent that may be necessary to quell the insurrection and restore peace and order.3

The British government met this request with marked lack of enthusiasm. In the first place, it was in the process of withdrawing all its troops from Canada; in the second, it feared the wrath of the Americans. However, after much prodding, it eventually decided to contribute a force, and 373 officers and men of the Sixtieth Rifles, along with detachments of artillery, engineers, service corps and hospital corps formed the British part of the expedition.

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