Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
David T. McNab was Senior Indian Land Claims Researcher, Toronto.
Prairie Fire is a very unusual book. Published one year before the hundredth anniversary of the Metis and Indian resistance and the hanging of Louis Riel, it is a hybrid — an almost unique blend of the best of modern historical scholarship and popular history. Moreover, it deserves to attract a large readership. However, Prairie Fire will likely be buried in the multitude of publications, conferences, and other popular and academic hoopla that will appear to celebrate 1885. Bob Beal, an Edmonton journalist, and Rod Macleod, Professor of History at the University of Alberta and a specialist in western Canadian history, have written the best account of the “1885 North-West Rebellion” to date. It supersedes The Last War Drum, published by Professor Desmond Morton in 1972.
The framework that Beal and Macleod have created in Prairie Fire is deceptively simple. The three parts of the book include the events that led to the resistance of 1885, the events of that year, and the trials that followed it; they are entitled “Waiting for a Spark,” “Conflagration,” and “Stamping out the Embers,” respectively. The authors present their interpretation and analysis of the “rebellion” through the motif of a prairie fire. They indicate that the 1885 “rebellion” had to have the “right” long-term conditions before it started. Once it was under way it spread quickly and had far-reaching implications for all those individuals who were caught up in it. Unlike more recent interpretations of that event in Canadian history, Prairie Fire does not dwell at too great a length on Louis Riel and his role in it. Instead, this book focuses on the grievances of all of the major players in the resistance (the Metis, the Indians, and the settler population) prior to the outbreak of the “conflagration” and presents a balanced view of them. There are accurate portraits of all of the major persons involved, such as Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Chief Big Bear, General Sam Middleton, Lieutenant-Colonel W.D. Otter, Thomas Quinn, Will Jackson, and Sir John A. Macdonald, to name a few. The federal government in Ottawa is not merely exposed as the “villain” that caused the “rebellion”; its ideas and motives are also well presented and understood. The authors, however, do not depart from the hitherto dominant historical orthodoxy that the events of 1885 were a “rebellion” from federal government authority in Ottawa. Influenced by the large government documentation of these events, which present the view from Ottawa, the authors do not also see the events of 1885 as primarily a resistance movement that had its basis in the strivings for nationhood by the Metis and the Indian people on the prairies since at least the early nineteenth century. This is not to argue that the authors have not sought out or interpreted sources having a native view. But there is still clearly a need, which is outside of the scope of this book, for a major reassessment, using British Imperial perspectives, of the “resistance movements” before and after 1885.
There is much that is original in Prairie Fire. The authors present and interpret new sources of the events of 1885, which are eyewitness accounts of what occurred. This lends an immediacy to the narrative and makes for exciting historical reading. New and up-to-date research is presented (such as that in chapter four, “Indians and Treaties”). Rod Macleod also presents a new interpretation of the battle of Batoche, which understands and highlights the Metis defensive approach to that battle — an approach that accounts, in part, for their defeat in it (p.260). The trials of the major participants are very well developed and narrated in Part 3.
One can quibble with only a few items in Prairie Fire. The howler on page 342, that Riel was “hung” instead of “hanged,” is unfortunate. More seriously, no comprehensive or detailed map(s) help the reader follow the narrative. There are excellent illustrations and photographs, and the bibliography and index in this book are most helpful.
At $19.95 (hardcover) Prairie Fire is a well-produced, handsome book that should soon be published in paperback. It is a significant contribution to the understanding of Canadian history, and particularly of the events of 1885.