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Indian Fall: Prelude to Resistance

After the scuffle between the Cree and the police, Big Bear knew he had no hope of meeting Dewdney or travelling to Ottawa. But the resistance he had led for so long began to grow. In late July 1884, he participated in a meeting of twelve chiefs from the Carlton area, most of whom had a history of cooperating with the Canadian authorities. Now they, too, were disillusioned with the government and its treatment of their people. And in the fall, the chiefs along the North Saskatchewan launched a major diplomatic campaign. They began organizing a grand council of all Plains Cree leaders for the summer of 1885, the objective being to force the government to renegotiate their treaties.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, remained wedded to the status quo and more determined than ever to crush the Cree resistance. The "no-work, no-rations" policy stayed in place. Prime Minister Macdonald ordered the recruitment of a hundred new mounted police officers, confiding in a letter to an associate that "I do not apprehend myself any rising, but with these warnings it would be criminal negligence not to take every precaution." Dewdney, by now lieutenant-governor of the territories, as well as Indian commissioner, hired a mixed-blood interpreter named Peter Ballendine to spy on the Cree leaders by visiting their camps and gathering information about preparations for the grand council. And he concocted an insidious plan to smash the Cree diplomatic initiative by having the police arrest Big Bear, Piapot, Little Pine and other leaders in the spring of 1885. He would then have charged with inciting insurrection.

Uncertainty prevailed in the North-West as fall turned to winter and a new year began. At the very least, the Plains Cree and their adversaries in the Canadian government were headed for a political confrontation. But rebellion was also a possibility. Settlers in the vast but sparsely populated territory talked fearfully of an Indian uprising, and some eastern Canadian newspapers were predicting violence. It was more than idle speculation.

Two wild cards had surfaced to make the political situation even more volatile. The Metis of the South Saskatchewan fed up with the distant and indifferent government of Canada, which for years had ignored their pleas and petitions for recognition of land claims along the river and its tributaries. Finally, in the spring of 1884, they had sent a delegation south to bring Louis Riel back from exile in Montana to lead their cause. Riel provided the spark that set the country ablaze. Furthermore, he gave the Canadian authorities the pretext they needed to crush the Plains Cree, once and for all.

From pgs. 152-153 of Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, by D’Arcy Jenish. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

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