Mutiny at Jackfish Bay

Flipping through the Illustrated War News from April 18, 1885, I came across this interesting image.

teamster mutiny

In the late winter and early spring of 1885 Canada went to war against the Metis and their allies. It was fifteen years after the first confrontation between the state and Metis at Red River. Conditions in 1870 had meant it was impossible for Canada to transport forces westwards in time for a military response to the Metis; thus requiring negotiation, and ultimately the Province of Manitoba was created under terms generally favourable to the Metis. By 1885 strides had been made to ensure such impediments to the would not condition the state’s ability to respond with force to any future challenges.

The mobilisation of Canada’s armed forces manifested itself in two wings. The Alberta Field Force, under General Strange; and the North West Field Force under General Middleton, who also held overall command of the mission. While available forces in the West amounted to around 2000 men, gathering the troops involved the transportation of over 3000 from the East. Over 5000 men would be mobilised to put down the resistance of no more than 300 Metis and allied fighters. Units were raised in all major centre’s from Toronto to Halifax as recruits eagerly rallied to the colours. Transportation of these soldiers and their supplies to Winnipeg from the Eastern Provinces would take more resources and effort than would the actual campaign against the Metis and their allies.

Getting Canada’s army to the West depended upon the construction of the railway. But by the time of the second fight with Riel and the Metis, the rail line was still incomplete. The months it had taken Wolseley’s force to reach Red River fifteen years earlier had demonstrated the need for a rail link if Canada was to be able to assert itself with any sort of expediency in the West. In the gaps where transportation by rail was impossible the sleigh and dog sled were often used to transport men and equipment. It is at one of these junctions that a mutiny occurred.

Logistical services to the Canadian military were provided by contractors, not soldiers. The movement of men and material from the East was a feat which undoubtedly involved great effort and hardship for the troops and accounts of it have been recorded. There were attempts of suicide and at least one episode of “insanity” amongst the troops as a result of spending, “…days on end, in freezing weather, they were hungry, sleepless, and wet…” But the troops were highly motivated and, in the main, persevered. While the trials and tribulations of their journey are available in various first-hand accounts and by historians, little is told of the men tasked with moving and supplying Canada’s war machine.

Getting the troops to the theatre of war was the responsibility of Adolphe Caron, the Dominion of Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence. He relied on private enterprise to fill in the gaps where Canada’s military was incapable, mainly in the cohorts needed for supply and transportation. His main concern was cost, and after all was said and done he was awarded a knighthood for his efforts. The rank and file, however, had a different experience. The description of the photo elaborates.

Description of the mutiny of Teamsters from the Illustrated War News. April 18, 1885.

Doing a rather limited search hasn’t turned up any more information on the wildcat strike held by Teamsters during the North West Resistance. The events of 1885 are a fascinating and underappreciated episode of Canadian history. The more attention given to them reveals much that contradicts the Canadian state’s reputation as a fair-minded nation of peaceful negotiators. If anyone has more on this incident please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Kdbell AT gmail DOT com.


About Kevin D. Bell

Painter, writer, amateur historian.
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2 Responses to Mutiny at Jackfish Bay

  1. mikulpepper says:

    That’s a great story! I would like to know more.

  2. Me too! All I’ve really been able to find is stuff unrelated to the mutiny. If you don’t mind the lack of source material I can add that the hiring of Teamsters was serendipitous as Canada was facing a depressed economy at the time. Good farmland was being exhausted in the east and employment was an issue. The Teamsters were often armed, and some sources include them as part of the armed force (which they were, just not as soldiers). One article I read put the number of Canadian troops committed to the campaign at 8000. (I would love to see a comparison in relative terms of Canada’s military commitment to suppressing the Metis to that of the major 20th-century conflicts, and also, perhaps especially, with that committed to Afghanistan.)

    At any rate, I believe several were captured along with the supplies they were transporting, but I’m not too sure about this. At least one was killed in action, and you will find them in casualty lists. Aside from that, I did find a history of the Queens Own Rifles, written in 1901 by an officer of the Regiment, which contained the following reference to the Teamsters during the journey north of Lake Superior,

    “Upsets are a thing of constant occurrence, but are a source of nothing but amusement, and howls of delight rise from the expectant onlookers as some subtle snow bank claims its unwary victims. All the teamsters [sic] are expert with swear words, and it is startling and forcible the way they use them. They seem to be a very rough lot, of all nations and kindred, many Swedes, Finlanders, French, and in fact, as the foreman tells me, there are plenty of every nationality but Christians.”

    I think he means “plenty of every” variety of European settlers, but that they were all Christians nonetheless. Also, I would guess that the “howls of delight” were typically directed at Teamsters whose job it was to carry stuff or move the beasts doing the carrying, and who would have probably found themselves “claimed by a snow bank” more usually than did the soldiers.

    Despite the hiring, it seems the military was still short of teams to convey them over the unfinished portion of the CPR on the northern shore of Lake Superior. As far as I can tell reading the finding aid for “Riel Rebellion” telegrams at the Glenbow museum there was a shortage of teams for the journey from Jack Fish to Red Rock where the line picked back up. The trip of about 80 miles (one way) according to another telegram was completed by two units of soldiers in 32 hours.

    My guess is that they were being pushed harder in awful conditions with companions who were utter dicks than they were willing to go. Col. Miller demanded they move, and they said stuff it. But I’m sure that there has got to be more info out there, so take all this with a grain of salt.

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