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The Executions

“I am desirous of having the Indians witness it… I think a sight of this sort will cause them to meditate for many a day.”
- Hayter Reed, Assistant Indian Commissioner

The summer and autumn of 1885 was a time of unease and apprehension for the people of the Northwest Territories. In the aftermath of the Northwest Resistance, the Dominion needed to publicly demonstrate its control over the region.

Some reserves, such as Star Blanket’s, were deemed “loyal” and treated in the same manner as before the uprising. But for the more than twenty reserves that were branded “disloyal,” the government created new policies that restricted the residents’ movements and activities. A system of permits was implemented, ensuring that Aboriginals could not leave their reserves without a permit, and regulating what materials they could buy and sell. Their horses were branded by the Indian Department, and could not be ridden without the permission of the reserve instructor. “I know this is hardly supportable by any legal enactment,” wrote Assistant Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed, “but we must do many things which can only be supported by common sense and by what may be for the general good.” Reed was doing all he could to abolish the traditional tribal systems of the Aboriginal people and instead make them accountable to government officials in every way.

For the perceived ringleaders of the resistance, an even harsher punishment awaited. By the end of September, 1885, Big Bear, Poundmaker and eighteen other Aboriginal men were charged with treason-felony — the crime of planning war against the Queen — and given prison terms ranging from two to three years. Three others were convicted of felony for crimes such as theft and arson, and in some cases given even longer sentences. Few of these men could speak English, and none were given legal representation at their trials.

Louis Riel was tried and hanged on 16 November 1885, sparking a national dispute between French and English Canada. What is less commonly known is that on November 27, eleven Aboriginal people were tried for murder at Fort Battleford. Eight warriors, including Big Bear’s war chief Wandering Spirit (Kapapamahchakwew), were subsequently hanged. They were buried in a mass grave outside of Battleford. About 350 North West Mounted Police oversaw the executions along with the townspeople.

The message was very clear: First Nations people were to conform to government directives or suffer the consequences. In contrast to the Métis, many of the Aboriginal raids for food and clothing had been made by women and children, not warriors, in order to feed and clothe their families. These acts of desperation, performed by starving people, ended in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history.

Waiser, Bill. Saskatchewan: A New History. Calgary: Fifth House, 2005
Christensen, Deanna. Ahtahkakoop: The Epic Account of a Plains Cree Head Chief, His People, and Their Struggle for Survival, 1816-1896. Shell Lake: Ahtahkakoop Publishing, 2000.
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