Manitoba History: Review: Bob Beal and Rod Macleod, Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion

by Walter Hildebrandt
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion, Bob Beal and Rod Macleod. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1984. 384 pp., maps, ill. ISBN 0-88830-262-2.

Prairie Fire was written by Dr. Rod Macleod, a professor of Canadian History at the University of Alberta and Bob Beal, a freelance journalist. The claims made for the book are broad indeed. The dust jacket tells us that Prairie Fire is “the first comprehensive history of the rebellion” and the authors in their introduction lead us to believe we are about to read the “definitive” history of the rebellion. What is delivered is far from definitive. The three distinct sections, like many traditional narrative histories, represent beginning, middle and end of the “Rebellion.” Part I, “Waiting for a Spark,” provides the background for the fighting in 1885; Part II, “Conflagration,” presents the battles or skirmishes from Duck Lake to Frenchman’s Butte; and in Part III, “Stamping Out the Embers,” the authors discuss the trials of the Métis and Indians after the fighting.

Part I deals primarily with the origins of the discontent in the North-West among the Indians, Métis and whites. The period covered is from 1870 to the return of Louis Riel to the West in 1884. The information provided in this section is in the form of a narrative. Considerable information is presented from well known sources. The authors do not take a critical approach to issues that are now the subject of debate among Canadian historians. Instead they appear to shy away from any in-depth analysis of controversial areas such as the fairness of the treaties, and they certainly shy away from presenting the information in any theoretical framework. Their method of presenting large quantities of evidence through narrative without showing its significance tends to obscure rather than clarify. With reference to the Numbered Treaties, particularly Treaty 6, we do not get a clear idea of why there were differences in the negotiating positions adopted by the diverse bands of both the Woods and Plain Cree. Why were the Christianized Indian bands more willing to sign the treaty than those who had not converted? Why did the chief government negotiator, Lieutenant Governor William Morris, not wait for Big Bear to arrive for the initial negotiations? Did linguistic differences prevent a clear communication between the negotiating parties? Recently historians have questioned the reliability of the verbal translation provided by Peter Erasmus, a point not discussed by the authors. These are all important issues that are avoided. Instead we are told in a somewhat patronizing tone that: “After the initial posturing, the Cree settled in to do some reasonably successful negotiating on the factor that mattered the most: the fear that the transition to farming would not be easy as the whites claimed.” (p. 55).

In fact there is very little analysis of issues relating to the effectiveness of government policies intended for the North-West or of the individuals who administered them. Other historians have shown that thousands of Indians suffered from starvation as a result of government policies towards the Indians, but these tragedies are not sufficiently addressed. In discussing policies which amounted to genocide the authors present with gravity the bankrupt claim that the government was doing all that was possible given the political milieu of the times. Of the complicity of government officials who saw what the policies were leading to Beal and Macleod simply say: “Dewdney as usual vacillated. He sympathized with the difficulties and dangers his subordinates in the field faced. He recognized that ripples in the smooth running of the territories, particularly in the shape of real or threatened Indian war, might severely retard his hoped-for advancement to the federal cabinet.” (p. 100). We are also told that “... there is no doubt that many [Indians] sickened and died, that tribes and bands had their culture and political life destroyed by what was in effect, at least for many of them, a policy of starvation” but that “it is not that most of the policy makers were being deliberately malicious. Some of them honestly believed that there was only one course of action open.” (p. 102). We are then told that Canadians in the east would not have tolerated money being spent to put an end to this starvation. These conclusions are most unsatisfying. There is much that remains to be written about this era and much more that can be understood. Indeed for those interested in the causes of Indian unrest this first section should be read in conjunction with the recent articles of John Tobias and the recently published biography of Big Bear by Hugh Dempsey.

In a similar uncritical fashion the authors describe the position of the Métis just prior to the fighting. There is little analysis of the validity of Métis land claims even though they have been much debated by scholars recently. The authors have simply presented another version of what is already historiographical convention.

Parts II and III are more successful than Part I. Part II contains a series of well written accounts of the battles that occurred in the spring of 1885. Unfortunately the text is accompanied by maps that are of little or no use in understanding the battles. Also it is important to recognize that the authors are writing primarily from the perspective of the North-West Field Force. They do not use information that is available from the Métis perspective for Fish Creek and Batoche or from the Indian perspective for Cut Knife Hill. Chapters 16 and 17 in Part III are perhaps the best in this book. They provide some excellent analysis of the trials of both the Métis and the Indians. This good work is immediately undone in the final chapter, where somewhat disconcertingly we are told that the real significance of 1885 is the way it realigned the political map of the nation. Such an emphasis ignores the very real consequences 1885 has and continues to have for all Western Canadians but particularly for the Métis and Indians.

From a critical perspective the real problem with this book is that its discourse prevents us from clearly understanding the important issues of 1885. Penetrating analysis does not accompany the admittedly lively writing style. In the past few decades many books have been written analyzing similar conflicts in the United States, Africa, South America and Asia. The authors draw on none of this work even though many of these studies would clearly apply to the Canadian situation. Instead of good structural analysis (which we might expect in a definitive history) we are given a comforting metaphor of a prairie fire as the framework. Like a story about a natural disaster a fire has a simple beginning, a devastating middle and a definitive end. As Hayden White has stated in his landmark book Metahistory, metaphor of this kind is the trope most commonly associated with “Formism” which typifies the writing of historians who romanticize history. What Prairie Fire has done with its lively style is to construct a pleasant narrative in which the story is over and the fire is out. This conclusion would be a surprise to many Métis and Indians today. This book does not help Canadians come to terms with their past nor to face the present. It gives only entertainment instead.

Page revised: 29 March 2022