compiled by Aurélie Lacassagne
A promising family history: Gabriel’s childhood
In the late 1790s, a Montrealer named Jean-Baptiste Dumont began working for the Hudson’s Bay Company at several forts (Fort Edmonton, Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt, which served as trading posts) in what would later become Saskatchewan. On the north shore of the Saskatchewan River, he met Josephte, a young woman from the Tsuut’ina Nation (Sarcee/Dene). The couple married and had three sons: Gabriel, who settled in Alberta; Jean-Baptiste; and Isidore, father of our hero, Gabriel.
The Dumonts formed a clan that spanned the Prairies, from the Red River to Alberta. They were known for their skill as negotiators and interpreters. (Gabriel Dumont the elder, for instance, spoke six Indigenous languages and French, though he never learned to read or write.) They were also excellent hunters and trappers. For many Métis, life was nomadic: in winter they trapped fur-bearing animals and traded with neighbouring Indigenous tribes; in summer they hunted bison (from which they made pemmican) and prepared the furs and pemmican for sale to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Isidore Dumont’s many fine qualities earned him the respect of the Cree, who called him Ekapow (“the impassive one”). In 1833, at the age of 23, Isidore married Louise Laframboise, the daughter of a Métis hunter. Isidore and Louise moved to Saint-Boniface, on the Rouge River in Manitoba, and established a successful farm. Their second son, Gabriel, was born in December 1837. (They had eight children in all, of whom six survived.) A few years later, tiring of the farm life, the family returned to Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, at the meeting point of the Cree and Blackfoot territories.
Gabriel showed exceptional talent from an early age. Even as a child, he was an accomplished horseman and an outstanding marksman with both bow and rifle. Not surprisingly, he became an excellent hunter, and was “chief of the bison hunt” for many years.
In 1848, Isidore decided to move his family back to the Red River area. They settled at White Horse Plains, in Métis and Assiniboine/Nakota territory. In 1851, when he was just 14, Gabriel was introduced to plains warfare when he fought at the Battle of Grand Coteau, North Dakota, defending a Métis encampment against a large Lakota war party. Over the next few years the bison population declined, forcing hunters to venture farther northwest. The Dumonts’ family ties with the Tsuut’ina/Sarcee facilitated their encounters and exchanges with the First Nations people living on those lands.
The year 1858 was an eventful one: it was marked by the death of Gabriel’s mother and his love marriage to Madeleine Wilkie, daughter of Jean-Baptiste Wilkie (a Scottish Métis and chief of the Great Hunt of 1840) and Isabella Azure. Already known as an outstanding hunter, Gabriel was also acquiring a reputation as a skilled leader and diplomat.
Dumont the political activist: Self-government and petitions
Dumont’s leadership skills attracted a number of other hunters, and they eventually formed a self-governing democratic community with rules and procedures for the hunt. At the age of 25, Gabriel was elected hunt chief, just as the bison herds were declining and the Métis way of life was undergoing major changes. Gabriel and his supporters founded the settlement of La Petite Ville, near the Saskatchewan River, not far from the site of present-day Saskatoon. From the late 1860s to 1884, Gabriel was the undisputed leader of the communities on the South Saskatchewan River, and as such he tirelessly defended the rights of his people. Though history remembers him chiefly as a military man, it’s important to note that Gabriel Dumont was also an exceptional political leader with deep convictions and impeccable ethics, who favoured negotiation and diplomacy and endorsed violence only as a last resort.
The Métis necessarily began to adopt a more settled, agricultural way of life. The Métis villages along the Red River were already feeling the pressure, as government land surveyors arrived and refused to respect the traditional system of land distribution (in the French seigneurial style, that is, in long, narrow, rectangular lots stretching back from the river). The newcomers wanted to divide the land in the English style (in squares), with complete disregard for the inhabitants’ occupancy and usage rights.
Gabriel Dumont was aware of the problems facing the Red River Métis, and in June 1870 he met with Louis Riel (whose provisional government had just concluded negotiations with the federal government to create the province of Manitoba) to assure him of his support. Over the summer Gabriel travelled around the province, meeting with the chiefs of the various tribes and encouraging them to join a grand alliance to protect and defend their rights to their ancestral lands. Gabriel and his community left La Petite Ville and moved to Batoche, founded in 1871. Here Gabriel built a house and operated a ferry service across the South Saskatchewan River. Recognizing the need for some form of independent government for the expanding population of Batoche and the nearby Métis settlement of St. Laurent, Gabriel organized community meetings to that end.
In 1873, the community adopted a constitution for self-governance, based on the principles of the bison hunt. In so doing, the Métis were attempting to fill a legal vacuum created by the Canadian government itself; the community was simply forming a local government, not a secessionist movement. Gabriel was elected president of the new eight-member Council of St. Laurent. The community had 28 laws and regulations, and captains and soldiers were assigned to maintain civil order. The Council also collected taxes and served as a court of law. Every year, the community held a general meeting to elect a new Council and potentially pass new laws. (Click here to view the laws and regulations adopted at the first general meeting, in 1873.)
The year 1875 was pivotal for St. Laurent in several respects. The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) established a permanent general headquarters at Battleford; surveyors for the Canadian Pacific Railway began to arrive; and in 1876, the Canadian government signed Treaty Six with the chiefs of the local Cree, Chipewyan and Assiniboine communities. The Métis, notably the Dumont clan, realized that the First Nations people were being moved onto reserves and their lands taken over by the government. As well, the community of St. Laurent was dealing with an influx of new arrivals, including hunters driven into Saskatchewan by the Americans and desperate over the disappearance of the bison herds, and Red River Métis who had lost their property rights in the scrip fiasco and been forced to move farther west.
Throughout these turbulent times, Gabriel remained a respected leader who acted primarily by petitioning the government—petitions to which Prime Minister John A. Macdonald turned a deaf ear. It wasn’t until 1884 that a government envoy, William Pearce, arrived from Ottawa to look into the Métis’ demands. His report landed on the desks of the Ottawa bureaucrats in February 1885—too late.
In March and April 1884, Gabriel led a movement to mobilize English- and French-speaking Métis in a united front to protest the government’s actions. On March 28, at a meeting attended by several hundred people, it was decided to send for Louis Riel. In May 1884, Gabriel, accompanied by Michel Dumas and James Isbister (representing the Anglophone Métis), left for Montana to find Louis Riel and ask him to return with them to Saskatchewan and help them persuade the government to guarantee their rights.
However, Riel’s arrival didn’t change a thing. He wanted to negotiate peacefully with the government, as he had in 1870, but the balance of power had shifted, circumstances had changed, and the government was no longer interested in negotiating. Furthermore, there was dissension in the ranks—among Francophone Métis, between Francophone and Anglophone Métis, and between the Métis and various Indigenous tribes, not to mention the role of the priests.
Rebellion becomes inevitable
After months of unanswered petitions and unfulfilled government promises to look into the Métis’ demands, Gabriel concluded that the only way forward was through guerrilla-style resistance. In February and March 1885, Riel and Dumont led a flurry of meetings. On March 19, the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan was formed and Gabriel Dumont was named adjutant-general. Drawing on his military skills, he organized his troops in the same manner as the bison hunt, into small units led by captains.
The last motion passed by this constitutional assembly was to take Fort Carlton in order to gain access to the weapons required to defend the community. Learning of the plan, Crozier, the fort’s commander, dispatched the NWMP to quash the Métis troops. In the ensuing battle at Duck Lake, Gabriel’s brother Isidore was killed and Gabriel himself was shot in the head, but the injury didn’t prevent him from continuing to lead his soldiers. It was a first victory for the Métis. Riel prevented Dumont from looting the fort, whose occupants left for Prince Albert with all the fort’s supplies, including a stock of ammunition that the Métis could sorely have used a few weeks later.
Back in Ottawa, learning of the NWMP’s defeat, Prime Minister Macdonald instructed General Middleton to ready his troops, bolstered by reinforcements from Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. Aware that the Canadian army would soon number more than 5,000 soldiers, Gabriel tried to muster all the Métis, Cree, Assiniboine, Sioux and Blackfoot, but his efforts failed. A few Cree, Assiniboine and Sioux joined his ranks, and he had the support of Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker, but most of the other tribes, notably Sitting Bull’s, refused to participate in the resistance. Despite this shortage of manpower, Gabriel was confident that his strategy (rooted in the guerrilla tactics that he and his troops knew well) and intimate knowledge of the terrain would prevail. Gabriel’s courage and strategic genius were the rebels’ most valuable assets, and indeed, on April 23 at Fish Creek, Dumont and his Indigenous allies, though outnumbered about 9 to 1, defeated Middleton’s army. However, the battle did little to shift the balance of power and was inconclusive.
Middleton mounted a siege against the Métis stronghold of Batoche, an encounter that proved too much for the Métis’ experience and resources. Between May 7 and 12 a few skirmishes took place, and on the morning of the 12th, Canadian soldiers, acting against Middleton’s orders, launched a final attack and defeated the Métis. Dumont remained in the Batoche area, making sure that his wife Madeleine was safe from harm and searching for Riel to take him back to Montana; however, Riel surrendered to Middleton on the 14th, before Gabriel could find him.
Life after Batoche
Gabriel and his wife fled to Montana, where he was arrested and held for a few days, but released on orders from American president Grover Cleveland. Undaunted, Gabriel tried to persuade the Montana Métis to come to the aid of the imprisoned Riel, but without success, and Riel was hanged on November 15. After Madeleine’s death the following spring, Gabriel was recruited by Bill Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, for his Wild West Show, and toured with the show for several months. In July 1886, the Canadian government announced an amnesty for Gabriel and the other insurgents. In 1887–88, he dictated the first of two vivid memoirs of the North-West Resistance. He divided his time between Quebec and the area along the Canada–U.S. border. Throughout his later years, driven by his strong sense of political duty, he never stopped petitioning the authorities and meeting with influential people to call their attention to the disastrous plight of his people. In 1893, he returned to the Batoche area, specifically to Bellevue, some 10 kilometres away, to the household of Alexis (his cousin Jean’s son, whom he and Madeleine had adopted), a farmer. He hunted, fished and did a little trading. In 1902–03 he dictated his second memoir. Gabriel Dumont died suddenly on May 19, 1906.
AURÉLIE LACASSAGNE is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Laurentian University in Sudbury. She is a theorist by training, and her areas of research include cultural policy, cultural studies, and issues of identity. She is particularly interested in creolization in the arts.