Changing of the guard — enthusiastic welcome for Ritchot who negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Confederation

by Bruce Cherney

The same steamer returning Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot to Winnipeg as a conquering hero, left the city with William McTavish as an unheralded passenger.

When the International arrived in Winnipeg, its whistle sounded and a 21-gun salute was fired in Ritchot’s honour, who was one of three delegates sent to Ottawa to negotiate the Red River Settlement’s entry into the Canadian Confederation.

When the steamboat departed, no such honours were bestowed upon McTavish, the former Hudson’s Bay Company Governor of Assiniboia, although he “enjoyed our confidence and deserved our gratitude,” according to an editorial in the New Nation on May 20, 1870, announcing his departure.

What the arrival and departure signified was the changing of the guard in the newly-created province. McTavish, who oversaw the affairs of Assiniboia as the head of an unelected council, would soon be replaced by Adams Archibald, the new province’s lieutenant-governor appointed by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s administration in Ottawa to bring responsible government to Manitobans.

“The long expected change has at last come to us in reality, and we hail it with gladness,” reported the August 27, 1870 New Nation on the arrival of Colonel Garnet Wolseley and the British troops and Canadian militia he commanded, “... and we now only await anxiously the arrival of Lieut. Gov. Archibald ... In this transitional state, little can be said although much is hoped for, but we trust sincerely that petty strife and party feeling will not be indulged in, and that all will unite in helping to accomplish the great end. This important change in our political life, is a happy relief.”

Of course, the important change was the passage of the Manitoba Act in the House of Commons and its receiving Royal Assent on May 12, 1870. Officially, the new province of Manitoba came into effect on July 15, 1870.

“We are now entering upon our new career as a province, and it is the duty of every one to unite in promoting the interests of his country, whether by birth or adoption; and with the stifling of party rancour and petty strife, nothing can be more conducive to our future progress and prosperity. Now that we begin the work of local self-government, under a properly constituted representative legislature, upon the equitable and impartial basis which we possess under the new regime, the complaints and grievances of every man will no doubt by impartially heard, and treated with by the government.”

En route home to Scotland with his family, McTavish stopped over in New York and was interviewed by a New York Sun reporter on June 25, 1870.

McTavish, who by the time  was seriously ill and would shortly thereafter die, praised the “native population — the half-breeds” of Red River as “peaceable” and trustworthy, and are men of good common sense ... The Canadian traders who came up there were the only discontented people. They were adventurers, with hardly a copper to rub, and no character ... The People became bitterly incensed against (Dr. John Christian) Schultz (the self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Canadian Party in Red River which was a perpetual thorn in the side to the Louis Riel-led Provisional Government), and looked upon him as a bad man.”

McTavish told the Sun reporter McDougall “did not understand the people. Schultz, who was his chief advisor, and one of the chief reasons of his failure, is now a great lion for Canada.”

In Donald Smith’s report to the Canadian government, the special commissioner to Red River said the failed attempt by an armed group from Portage la Prairie led by Capt. Charles Boulton to take over the reins of government had only resulted “in placing the whole Settlement at the feet of Riel. The great majority of the settlers, English and Scotch discountenanced the movement and bitterly complained of those who had set it on foot.”

Sir Charles Northcotte, the Governor of the HBC sent from London, England, to Ottawa to represent the interests of the Company, expressed the opinion that Schultz and Dennis should be locked up for 12 months so a settlement could be reached with the people of Red River. 

For McTavish, there had been no rebellion under the Louis Riel regime.

“The people said, ‘The old government (the HBC-appointed Council of Assiniboia) is wiped out, and there is no new government put in its place, and so we will have a Provisional Government,’” he told the reporter.

“I feel sorry for (William) McDougall,” said McTavish. 

McDougall was the erstwhile lieutenant-governor of Manitoba appointed in 1869 by Ottawa to rule Red River. He was prevented on October 31, 1869,  by the Métis from entering Red River and assuming his position. It was this action which symbolized in the minds of Eastern Canadians the beginning of the so-called Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. 

Technically, the resistance started on October 11, 1869, at the farm of André Nault, when Riel stepped on a surveyor’s chain and told the men plotting out the land for the Canadian government, “You go no further.” What Riel was signaling by this act was that Canada had no legal authority to commence surveying land or transferring jurisdiction of the region from the HBC  without the consent of the local inhabitants. 

In fact, the purchase of Rupert’s Land from the HBC for £300,000 ($1.5 million) was not completed until June 23, 1870, when Queen Victoria signed an order-in-council to cede the territory to the Canadian government. The Canadian purchase came after the land was transferred by the HBC to the British Crown on November 19, 1869. The final purchase came as a result of a series of complex negotiations between London, Ottawa and the HBC. 

At one stage, Macdonald asked the British to postpone the land transfer until his government could resolve its difficulties with the inhabitants of Red River.

It was left to George Leveson-Gower, second Earl Granville, the Colonial Secretary, to explain the situation in Red River to the British House of Lords. “The Government of the Dominion declined to accept the transfer which it had been agreed upon should be in effect in December,” remarked Earl Granville, in the British House of Lords on May 5, 1870, “on the grounds that the settlement appeared to be for the moment in a state of anarchy. They accordingly stopped payment of the money which was to be given to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Her Majesty’s government, although not admitting the justice of the refusal, were convinced that any misunderstanding with the Dominion would only increase the difficulty of the position.”

In reply to other questions in the House of Lords, Granville said the Canadian government had also asked for approval of a British-led military force to “maintain tranquility and to prevent possible collisions between the different races and creeds in the (Red River) Settlement.”

The British government placed three conditions on their approval: the first was that the transfer had to be accomplished upon the terms originally agreed upon, the second condition was that the Canadian government supply at least two-thirds of the men and expenses needed for the military force, and the final was that the Canadian government arrive at an “amicable understanding” with the people of Red River.

Francis Hincks, the finance minister in the Macdonald government, assured the British Parliament, the “expedition will be one of peace.”

The expedition was originally proposed to allay the threat of an American takeover and the possibility of an “Indian uprising.” Ironically, the only “Indian” threat came when Dennis of the Canadian Party tried to recruit the Sioux to rise up against Riel and his government. The American government, which had a few years earlier battled the Sioux in Minnesota after settlers had been killed, was appalled as were the British and Canadian governments.

Manitoba historian W.L. Morton pointed out that the Red River resistance of 1869-70 was based upon the failure of Ottawa to go ahead with the transfer as well as the Canadian government’s failure to consult the local inhabitants.

“They held therefore that there was no legal government,” wrote Morton, “that the people at Red River were in a state of nature, and might lawfully, under the law  of nations, set up a provisional government for their mutual protection and security.” 

This was a point emphasized by Alexander Begg, a Red River historian and witness to the events of 1869-70, in his journal.

The only problem with this assertion is that the British government had purchased the HBC title and still claimed the Company constituted an interim government until the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. But distant England could  not have fathomed that events had progressed too far in Red River and whatever the British government’s wishes were, the reality of the situation was a different matter.

The resolution of the “thorny problem” for Canada came when Ritchot of St. Norbert, Alfred H. Scott of Winnipeg  and Judge John Black of St. Andrew’s, the three delegates from Red River, negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Confederation with Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant George-Etienne Cartier. 

Originally, the thought was to have Red River admitted to Canada as a “territory,” but Riel at the Convention of Delegates (made up of representatives of the English- and French-speaking parishes in Red River) on February 3 raised the issue of admitting the settlement as a province.

“His aim was to make such terms with Canada as would enable the people of the North-West to control its local government in the early days of settlement, and as would allow them to possess themselves, as individuals and as a people, enough lands of the North-West to survive as a people, and to benefit by the enhancement of the wealth of the North-West that settlement would cause,” wrote Morton.

The convention rejected Riel’s plan for provincehood, but once the ailing HBC Governor McTavish urged a provisional government be established, Riel used his position as president of the elected government to implement his plan. He also used his  new standing to rewrite the original Bill of Rights. It was the so-called “fourth” Bill of Rights that would be the basis of the settlement’s entry into Confederation during negotiations with the Canadian government.

The three delegates were officially the representatives of the Council of the people of Red River, and not the Provisional Government, although the delegates negotiated with the measures proposed by Riel in mind.

After his escape from imprisonment in Red River, Schultz rallied Ontario Protestants against Riel and other “traitors,” a term which apparently also applied to the three delegates from Red River. 

The effectiveness of Schultz’s campaign is seen by the Ontario government offering a $5,000 reward for the arrest of Riel on the charge of murdering the “patriot” Thomas Scott. The execution of Scott was the sole blot upon the reputation of Riel and the Provisional Government. If not for his ill-advised decision to place Scott before a firing squad, Riel would not have had to flee as Wolseley’s troops approached Upper Fort Garry in August 1870. In fact, it is unlikely any troops would have been dispatched to Red River in the first place if not for Scott’s “martyrdom.” The decision to send Wolseley west was made in May, after English-speaking Ontario was worked to a fever-pitch by Schultz and other self-proclaimed “refugees” fleeing the “tyrant” Riel and his alleged murderous minions.

Actually, the New Nation felt the leaving of Schultz and his followers to Ottawa restored “peace and harmony” in Red River, “and prosperity and mutual confidence among the people have generally increased.

“We do not wish to deal harshly with the leaders in all these rash, unauthorized and illegal proceedings (reference is to the attempt by Col. John Stoughton Dennis — appointed conservator of the peace by McDougall — and a party of Canadian “volunteers” to liberate Red River for Canada), which caused the shedding of blood and the expenditure of a large sum of money; but when they become our assailants through willing organs, it is our duty that the truth be told, and that those organs should know all the reasons why those people have not a shadow of claim upon either the Imperial or Canadian Governments ... We cannot believe that the Dominion Government will be liberal as to indemnify (for alleged loss of property at the hands of the “rebels’) those who have already caused such an amount of trouble and expense to that Government; but as ... the Ottawa Times, says in an able article headed A Mischievous Loyalist, ‘... The Parliament of the Dominion is open to all parties who have grievances to complain of, and rights to maintain.’”

On the other hand, Schultz and others aroused sentiment to the point that arrest warrants were sworn out for Ritchot and Scott. Eastern newspapers reported that incensed mobs of Orangemen were set to “lynch the delegates.” In fact, the two delegates were arrested when they entered Ontario via the United States. 

When news of their arrest reached London, Granville sent a telegram to Sir John Young, the Canadian governor general, asking if the Macdonald government had a hand in detaining Ritchot and Scott. It was a private initiative, assured Young. 

Granville believed Ottawa may have been in collusion with the two men since the Macdonald government refused in any way to acknowledge the authority of the Provisional Government and the delegates. It was the British government which urged Macdonald to at least engage in private negotiations with the delegates, which would not constitute official recognition of their credentials. 

The Canadian government came to the rescue of the delegates, arranging for their legal counsel and having the charges against them withdrawn on April 23.

Meetings between Cartier, Macdonald and the three delegates took place not on Parliament Hill, but privately at the Bishop’s Palace and at Cartier’s house. Although Black and Scott accepted the informal nature of the talks, Ritchot wanted the negotiations to have a more formal footing and refused to participate until such an accommodation was arranged. 

Joseph Howe, the federal minister for the provinces, resolved the issue by writing a letter welcoming the delegates to the conference. The letter was carefully worded, accepting them as “delegates from the North-West to the Government of the Dominion of Canada,” and made no mention of them as representatives of the Riel-led Provisional Government.

At the time, the political reality was that Macdonald and Cartier were walking a fine political line by undertaking negotiations of any type with the delegates.  

On April 28, Sir Stafford Northcote aptly summed up the conflicting tensions in Canada for British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “The situation here is curious and interesting. Macdonald and Cartier, so long as they hold together, and so long as Cartier commands the French vote, are very strong. Ontario, however, is the dominant element in the Dominion and tends to become more and more so, and Macdonald is not supreme in Ontario, if even he has a majority there. Quebec, on the other hand, is alarmed at the power of Ontario, and desires to neutralize it by creating a French Catholic province in the North-West ... The result has been the almost open raising of a national struggle between French and English, the former openly advocating Riel’s cause until he made the stupid blunder of shooting Scott and setting themselves strongly against an Expedition that it seemed very doubtful at one time whether Cartier would be able to retain his command of them. Ontario on the other hand has been for war and forcible measures from the first, and when Scott’s death was known there was an outburst of fury ... Upon any division that might have taken place the English would have had a large majority in the House of Commons, for the opposition would have gone with Macdonald on this question. But it would have been a division between French and English (eo nomine), not between Catholics and Protestants (for the Irish would have all gone against the French) and the result would have been either to make a split between Macdonald and Cartier, or to destroy the influence of the latter with his own party ... The two leaders have shown great skill and tact in avoiding the catastrophe.”

While in  Ottawa, Ritchot, who believed it was the legal right of the people to establish a provisional government, also would attempt to resolve the question of an amnesty for Riel and his followers. Ritchot left Ottawa convinced he had a verbal promise of an amnesty, although a subsequent denial of the promise by Macdonald added to the tension between the factions battling for supremacy in Manitoba. Macdonald later said it was not within the power of the Canadian government to grant an amnesty. He claimed only the British Crown could provide an amnesty since the difficulties of 1869-70 had taken place while the region was in the control of the British Crown. 

When relating a meeting with Young, the representative of the Queen in Canada,  in 1874, Ritchot said the governor general had also assured him an amnesty would be granted, although it would not be in writing. Young told Ritchot it had to be an agreement between gentlemen, whose word could be trusted. Young also pointed out he had made a promise on December 6, 1869, through a proclamation that if arms were laid down, a general amnesty would be granted. Unfortunately, this proclamation was intentionally never read in Red River since many still used arms to resist the introduction of Canadian authority.  

Ritchot accepted the verbal promise, but the word of gentlemen was not binding since one of the first acts by new Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald was to issue arrest warrants for Riel, Ambroise Lepine and William O’Donoghue.

When the Manitoba Act was introduced in the House of Commons on May 3, Macdonald said the bill “was received last night with great favour ... and will pass without serious opposition.” 

Macdonald was right as the act passed third reading by a 120-11 vote on May 9, 1870.

When Ritchot returned to Red River, thoughts of amnesty had been overshadowed by the magnitude of the delegates’ accomplishment in Ottawa.

After Ritchot made his report to a special session of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia (the Riel-led Provisional Government), “the House passed him a cordial vote of thanks for the straightforward, courageous, and successful way in which he discharged his important mission. It was then unanimously resolved by the Legislature, in the name of the people, that the Manitoba Act should be accepted as satisfactory, and that the country should enter the Dominion on the terms specified in the Manitoba and Confederation Acts.

“This conclusion elicited loud and enthusiastic cheers,” according to the New Nation.