A Decade of Turbulence

The Northwest Expedition

An Expedition To Establish Canadian Control

Colonel Garnett Wolseley and his troops at a portage at Kakabeka Falls , 1870

Caption: Colonel Garnett Wolseley and his troops at a portage at Kakabeka Falls , 1870

To restore order, the Canadian government arranged for Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley of the British army to take command of a military expedition to the Red River. It consisted of a battalion of the 60th British Rifle Regiment and two battalions of volunteer riflemen, the first recruited in Ontario, the second in Quebec. But the French Canadians found that the Métis were being treated in a very offhand manner and that the operation was sullied by an unacceptable level of racism. They had the impression that by recruiting a battalion from among their ranks the English Canadians, who controlled the volunteer militia, sought moral approval to do what seemed right to them in the name of a purported "national" will. In addition, only a third of the officers' commissions in the Quebec battalion were to go to French Canadians. Cohesiveness was missing, as were the Francophone recruits of the "2nd Battalion, Quebec Rifles." Only 77 French Canadians enlisted out of a total of 362 non-commissioned officers and men. Recruiting for the "Quebec" battalion had to be completed in Ontario. The Ontario battalion obviously had no such recruiting problems.

At the beginning of June 1870 Wolseley assembled his three battalions, as well as some artillery and engineer detachments, for a total of 87 officers, 1,048 soldiers, 256 voyageurs and 15 guides, and headed to the western end of Lake Superior. On August 24, after an exceedingly difficult voyage punctuated by many portages in which the hardiness of the voyageurs greatly impressed Wolseley, the expedition reached Fort Garry only to find that Riel and his supporters had vanished and that everything was quite peaceful. Wolseley and his British soldiers immediately returned eastward without any fighting, leaving the two Canadian battalions in garrison in Manitoba. With volunteers from the two battalions, a mounted police company was also formed. It wore a dark-blue uniform with brass buttons instead of the dark green of the riflemen. In April and May 1871 the troops were demobilized except for two infantry companies that formed a small "temporary" battalion in Manitoba; it guarded Fort Garry until it was disbanded six years later.