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The Battle of Duck Lake: A Struggle for Land and a Way of Life

For the week of Monday March 22, 2010

On March 26, 1885, the Battle of Duck Lake took place at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.  This was the first in a string of battles now known as the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance of 1885. Fronted by Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the battle began after many attempts to resolve outstanding issues of Métis and First Nations’ rights to property, government representation, schooling, and language with the Canadian government.

The Beginning of the Battle of Duck Lake
© Glenbow Archives / NA-1353-10

On March 25, the day before the battle, a group of Métis, accompanied by a small number of Cree and led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, captured Hillyard Mitchell’s store in Duck Lake and all of its supplies. The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), led by Superintendent Lief Crozier, and accompanied by the locally recruited Prince Albert Volunteers, arrived too late to prevent the capture. They retreated to Fort Carlton when they realized how serious and dangerous the situation had become.

When the NWMP returned the next day, reinforced in number, they were surprised to find themselves ambushed. Dumont and his men, who had set up camp a short distance away from the store, approached Crozier’s men and tried to force the authorities to negotiate. There are a number of different versions of how the battle actually started, but once a shot had been fired, neither the NWMP nor the Métis continued to hold back.

After a brief but bloody exchange, the Métis took cover in a nearby cabin, and the Prince Albert Volunteers tried to attack it. The NWMP were pushed back, and although Dumont wanted to pursue the fleeing police, Riel intervened and allowed the NWMP to retreat. The Métis were the victors of this first encounter.

Gabriel Dumont
© Strong / Library and Archives Canada / PA-178147
The Northwest Rebellion/Resistance of 1885 had only escalated to violence after attempts at peaceful negotiations had failed and the Canadian government continued to ignore Métis grievances. Over the course of eight months, several significant battles occurred, including the battles of Fish Creek and of Cut Knife Hill. Although the Métis had finally forced the federal government to pay attention to the difficulties that they faced, westward expansion continued to encroach upon traditional Métis and First Nation lands, and public resentment towards them continued to grow.

The Battle of Duck Lake was the only time the NWMP fought directly against Riel and Dumont’s Métis, and is considered an important victory for the Métis. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1924. Louis Riel was designated a National Historic Person in 1956, as was Gabriel Dumont in 1981. The battles of Fish Creek and Cut Knife Hill were designated National Historic Sites, as were Batoche, Fort Battleford, Fort Pitt, and Frog Lake. The Establishment of the Northwest Mounted Police, in 1873, was designated a National Historic Event in 1972.

For stories on subsequent battles, see A Second Last Stance and Batoche: Sacred Grounds of the Métis. For more information on the Northwest Resistance/Rebellion of 1885, visit Batoche National Historic Site of Canada and Fort Battleford National Historic Site of Canada.

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