The North-West Rebellion Breaks Out At Duck Lake

Today on March 26, 1885, Louis Riel led the Metis rebels to a decisive victory over Canadian forces at the Battle of Duck Lake.

The Battle of Duck Lake was a relatively minor, but important, infantry skirmish between the North West Mounted Police and a group of Metis militia — marking the official beginning of the North-West Rebellion. The conflict took place near Duke Lake in Saskatchewan and has since become a National Historic Site of Canada. In 1884, leaders across Saskatchewan appointed a man named Louis Riel to lead them. Despite his original mandate — which was to escalate Metis grievances to the federal government in Ottawa — he went about organizing a military resistance instead. On March 19, 1885, he established the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan and became the organization's president. The Metis peoples were now in open rebellion against the Canadian government.

Under the command of Superintendent Leif Crozier, the North West Mounted Police — today known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — were preparing for a mass uprising at Fort Carlton. The day before the battle, Crozier ordered a few of his sergeants to secure additional supplies from stores around Duck Lake. On the way, they suddenly found themselves in view of Metis warriors that had taken up a defensive position near the road. Unprepared to fight, the sergeants promptly decided to return to the fort.

The next morning, Crozier gathered 53 professional soldiers, 41 men of the Prince Albert Volunteers, and only one 7-pound cannon to suppress the rebels. But little did they know that they were outnumbered by more than two-to-one. Under the command of Gabriel Dumont (Riel's right-hand man), the Metis waited for an attack. As the Canadian forces approached their position, they immediately came under heavy fire. Despite a lack of proper training and experience, the Metis managed to kill twelve mounties and severely wound another dozen men.

The Battle of Duck Lake lasted less than an hour before Crozier ordered a retreat back to Fort Carlton. While victorious on the field, the battle is considered to be a strategic loss for Riel, as he failed to capitalize on his tactical victory. The North-West Rebellion ultimately failed later that year after a decisive defeat at Loon Lake. The Canadian forces used the newly built national railway to rapidly move new troops into the region. Despite the loss, Riel's movement played an instrumental role in securing new territorial and cultural recognition for the Metis people.

The Metis are a multi-ancestral Indigenous group living in Canada and the parts of the United States with a mixed heritage of First Nations and colonial European ancestry (typically French). Under the Constitution Act of 1982, they were recognized as a distinct Indigenous people with their own culture and language. Their lands are generally located between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. According to a recent census, roughly 587,000 Metis are living within Canada today.

Throughout his life, Louis Riel increasingly believed that he was a divinely chosen leader and prophet. While being elected three times to the House of Commons, he never officially assumed his seat. During his early career, Riel successfully led the Red River Rebellion in 1869-1870, helping establish the new province of Manitoba. The Metis Crusader was eventually captured, tried, and hung for high treason by the Canadian government. His execution still remains controversial today, especially among First Nations and francophone communities.

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