Dominion Day Brawl on the White Horse Plains

by A. D. “Tony” Doerksen

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1974, Volume 20, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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It didn’t exactly start out as a particularly eventful Dominion Day. There were, nonetheless, straws in the wind that boded no blessing on the observance of the sixth anniversary of confederation (1873) in Manitoba and even the most casual observer might have predicted that something would go amiss in some part of the province. As the probable cause he most likely would have pointed to the exceedingly tense political situation in the infant province. Louis Riel, popular champion of the rights of the Métis population, was being deprived of his seat in the legislature (he had lately been campaigning in Provencher in preparation for a contest against Attorney General Clarke in the upcoming election); Orangemen were still seeking an opportunity to avenge the death some three years ago of a super-patriot named Thomas Scott who had sought to overthrow the Métis-dominated provisional government and had consequently been executed by members of a radical wing of this government; and Métis delegations had been frequently lobbying for government action on the allocation of lands (already set aside to answer Métis claims to their ancestral soil) but without any significant success.

About this time the provincial government was hosting a delegation of land-seeking Mennonites and Hutterites from Russia and other parts of Europe and a federal immigration and land settlement official named William Hespeler was personally escorting them around the province so they could see the lands (some of which had been cleared of Métis and Indian residents) that had been especially set aside for them. The initial inspection tours were winding up that day.

The anniversary was ushered in unofficially at dawn in the bustling new settlement of Winnipeg by a number of “private” salutes performed by patriotic citizens who were fortunate enough to possess a firearm. A commendable number of flags, flown from poles perched atop business houses and even private homes, fluttered in the fresh morning breeze.

Official observance of the day began shortly before noon when, under a warm, friendly summer sun, “the men of the Provisional Battalion and Dominion Artillery under Major Irvine were paraded immediately in rear of their camp on the Assiniboine River. The Provisional Battalion occupied the centre having a section of the Dominion Artillery on either flank. Then, sharply at 12 noon, His Honor, Governor Morris accompanied by Miss Morris, Mr. Urquhart, private secretary and Lieutenant-Colonel Osborn Smith appeared on the scene and were received by the troops with a salute. After the ranks were inspected a feu de joie was fired by the Infantry and the customary salute by the Artillery under Lieutenant Toscheau, the band playing the national anthem,” recorded the Manitoba Gazette in its July 5, 1873 issue.

Following this was a dress parade sponsored by the youth and then a track meet featuring all types of races, including a squaw race with $400 in prizes offered. Horse racing commenced late in the afternoon. An outstanding crowd of 3,000 was assembled on the picnic grounds on the out-skirts of Winnipeg. Young and old, rich and poor, statesman and farmhand mingling freely together in the open air ... forgetting, for the moment the political tensions and domestic cares that beset them.

Meanwhile, five members of the Mennonite delegation were leisurely travelling back from the Riding Mountain area to Winnipeg on the Dawson trail, being escorted by Hespeler and a Mr. Wagner. At about four o’clock, when they were two miles west of House’s Hotel on the White Horse plains (about 25 miles out of Winnipeg) a French Métis named McKay who had been “celebrating” rather lavishly, rode up and engaged the driver of the lead wagon named George Rath, in a “spirited” conversation. Suddenly he lashed out with his whip and struck one of Rath’s horses (another report says that Rath struck first). Teamster Rath retaliated, striking McKay and knocking his hat off in the process. He dismounted, retrieved his hat and remouting, rode past the party at a furious pace shouting, “I will kill you” and when he was some distance ahead of the teams he turned off into the bush towards a dwelling. He returned with two Métis reinforcements: Jackson and Desjairais. When McKay reiterated his threat to kill the driver, his friends, sensible enough to see the gravity of the situation, took his gun and broke it.

However, shortly after the travellers finally arrived at House’s Hotel, “a large group of Métis surrounded the building and threatened them all,” wrote H. J. Gerbrandt in his account of the incident in his book, Adventure in Faith.

“Hespeler pled with them and told them they would be punished for this. He also told them he would protect the Mennonites with his own life. All night long he stood guard at the door of the Mennonites, one hand on his sword and one on his revolver. When the Mennonites asked Hespeler whether he would kill the attackers if they broke the door, he assured them he would. He said he had a wife and child to live for and also had committed himself to the government to protect them.”

Miraculously, during a brief lull in the hostilities, Hespeler managed to somehow dispatch an express rider named Warner with an SOS message to Lieut-Governor Morris in Winnipeg. It simply stated:

White Horse Plains
July 1/73

Hon. Mr. Morris
Governor of Manitoba

Dear Sir:

We are attacked by halfe Breeds—we are in danger of our lifes—please send soldiers at once as we can not leave the place.

Yours truly
Mr. Hespeler

He probably arrived not long after the steamer Selkirk had docked following a special Dominion Day “nightcap” excursion.

Morris lost no time in contacting Colonel Osborne Smith and advised him to consult Judge Betournay and Attorney-General Clark on what measures to take. Morris’ letter said:

Silver Heights
1st July 1873

My dear Col Smith

I send you a note I have just received from Mr. Hespeler in charge of the Mennonite deputation, by an express horseman who will give an account of the position of affairs. I think you had better confer at once with Judge Betournay who is a stipendary magistrate and see also Mr. Attorney General Clarke and take such steps as the emergency may seem to require, losing no time

In haste your truly
Signed A. Morris

Col Smith wrote a hasty note back stating that he would be “in the saddle and at Silver Heights quickly (?) ... with fifty men

—I will get Betournay and Clarke as soon as possible-
Please get one or two of McKays (?) men waiting for me at Silver Heights.

Col Osborne Smith

They suspected a Riel uprising and immediately the fifty-man Provisional Battalion which had so capably participated in officially kicking off the Dominion Day festivities some twelve or thirteen hours earlier, was on its way to the scene. Of such consequence was this military mission that nearly all the executive members of the government rallied and rode shotgun with the battalion. Besides Clark and Chief of Police Betournay, there were Capt. Fletcher and Hon. J. Norquay, minister of public works and agriculture. They reached the besieged party at five-thirty the next morning, freed them, and arrested and imprisoned the villains.

It is not difficult to imagine the excitement and suspense that gripped the province when the news of the incident spread the following day. The four Winnipeg newspapers, two of which were pro-Métis, made the best of it. The July 5 issue of the Free Press featured a lengthy editorial that read like this:

“There is but little doubt that the dastardly outrage committed upon the Mennonite delegation by the French halfbreeds on Tuesday last at White Horse Plains was in itself a casual or impromptu occurrence. It seems more than likely that directly the affair may be attributed to a recklessness begotten of drunkeness.”

The editor went on to link the disturbance with Riel who, as confirmed by the Gazette, had indeed been recently in the area on St. Jean Baptiste day: “engaged in loyal and patriotic addresses (truly French, assuredly not British) at the time he was reported to have been at White Horse Plains.” The Gazette tactfully pointed out that it was a curious circumstance that if the meeting was held only in observance of St. Jean Baptiste day, which was usually a national festival linked with St. George’s and St. Andrew’s Day, why weren’t official members of these sister societies invited? And why wasn’t the press invited? “It was ... a political meeting, purely local, and for the purpose of giving Riel a chance of addressing the electors of Provencher in a manner detrimental to his own interests and that of Manitoba.”

The Manitoban soundly rebuked the Free Press for linking Riel with the incident and the French language paper Le Metis said that Rath, the driver of the Mennonite wagon, had struck first, and a letter to the editor signed “Un Ami” (a friend) poured ridicule on the government for sending an army out to settle an “ordinary Dominion Day brawl.”

Later, the courts cleared Riel of any direct connection and ruled that the incident was purely the result of over-indulgence in liquor; there were no political implications in it. The three accused had to post a $200 bail or probation bond.

“The Mennonite travellers’ spirits were. however, not dampened and the men ... decided that this would be their future home. Not only was the soil good but so were also its authorities. The ... drinking Metis and government troops had all acted to bring the Mennonites and Manitoba government into close proximity; and an attachment had begun to germinate that played an important part in the decisions that followed,” wrote Gerbrandt.

Page revised: 20 July 2009