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The roots of western discontent : an interpretation of the white settlers’ role in the rebellion of 1885 Fairey, Elaine Louise


The 1870 Resistance at Red River and the Saskatchewan Rebellion of 1885 form an important chapter in the history of the Canadian West and are considered pivotal episodes in the development of the region. Despite the presence and participation of the white settlers in certain aspects of these protest movements, especially in the latter, studies have tended to characterize these events primarily as the result of the actions of Louis Riel and the Metis, relegating the role of the whites to a subordinate position in their analyses. This trend has had important consequences for the interpretion of Western Canadian history. As the idea of Western discontent and distinctive regionalism is fundamental in understanding the history of the region, the focus on the Metis role in protests against the Canadian Government has led to the conclusion that Western discontent grew out of the Metis experience and that it was Western, that is, environmental, in origin. However, as Western society and culture were shaped to an astonishing degree by the Ontario immigrants of the 1870's and 1880's, any analysis of the roots of Western discontent must also take into account the white settlers' role in the protest movements of the time. This is especially true for the Rebellion of 1885 as large numbers of Ontario settlers were both present in the West and active in agitation against the government prior to the Rebellion. By placing the general characteristics of the Western white settlers' protest and agitation during the 1870's and 1880's in the context of protests and rebellions elsewhere in North America,, it becomes clear that the settlers' discontent was not the product of the Western identity they shared with the Metis, but rather grew out of the cultural heritage they had brought from Ontario. Although the frontier environment of the West provided reasons for their discontent, it was as "British subjects," not as Westerners, that the settlers protested against the Ottawa government and the "East." In fact, in the same way that the settlers' Ontario culture became that of the West, their protest tradition, derived from their British heritage, determined the characteristics and persistence of Western discontent. Far from imposing their protest tradition on the white settlers, the Metis revealed, by their use of petitions and their appeals to the "rights of British subjects," that it was they who adapted to the form of protest brought to the West by the Ontario immigrants.

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