I Fought Riel: A Military Memoir
Bill Waiser is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince
Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western
Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946. His
I Fought Riel is an abbreviated version of Charles Boulton’s autobiographical account, Reminiscences of the North-West Rebellions. Originally published in 1886, it is one of a spate of new or reprinted books commemorating the centennial of the North-West Rebellion.
Major Charles Boulton (1841-1898) had the rare distinction of participating in both the 1869-1870 Red River Resistance and the 1885 North-West Rebellion. Appointed to accompany the J.S. Dennis survey expedition to Red River in 1869, the young militia officer became embroiled in the troubles surrounding Canada’s acquisition of the region. He led an unsuccessful march on Louis Riel’s Fort Garry stronghold in February 1870 and came close to being executed. Fifteen years later, when the North-West Rebellion broke out, Boulton raised a force of irregulars from among his friends and neighbours in Russell, Manitoba. Known as Boulton’s Scouts, this mounted force fought alongside Canadian troops at Fish Creek and Batoche, and it took part in the futile chase of the Cree chief Big Bear. At the end of hostilities, Boulton returned home and immediately put together an account of his involvement in the events of 1869-1870 and 1885.
Heather Robertson has edited and retitled Boulton’s Reminiscences and added a new preface and introduction. Unfortunately, this revised version does little to enhance the original account. There is no index and no list of suggested readings, and there are only two explanatory footnotes. In fact, Boulton’s appendix, listing the names and ranks of the Canadian forces in the 1885 Rebellion, has been deleted. Robertson’s brief preface and introduction are also found wanting. Her explanation of the cause and nature of western discontent during this period is oversimplified and sensationalist: for example, the federal government’s “ruthless expansionist policies precipitated both rebellions” (p. ix), while the events themselves were “a desperate struggle for power in a vast inhospitable wilderness” (p. x). Robertson also makes some questionable statements of fact. She suggests that Red River in 1869 was populated by Indians, Scots, and Metis — she does not seem to realize that there were a large number of English-speaking people born in this country. Similarly, she implies that Manitoba after 1870 was largely settled by “fortune hunters, speculators, roustabouts, crooks, and ne’er-do-wells. from Ontario” (p. xvi). She even goes so far as to identify Boulton, and not Dr. John Christian Schultz, as the leader of the Canadian Party at Red River. The most glaring errors, however, are contained in the endpaper map, which shows not only the Canadian Pacific Railway terminating before Regina, but also other western railways that did not exist in 1885.
I Fought Riel is an ill-conceived, bald-faced attempt to take advantage of the centennial of the North-West Rebellion. Despite the importance of Boulton’s Reminiscences, it would have been better if unpublished manuscript sources had been reproduced instead.