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Invasion of Canada


Many people believe that America and Canada have always been at peace with each other, but that’s not actually true. On this date in 1871, U.S. citizens invaded Canada by way of Pembina in what became known as the Fenian Invasion.

The Fenians were essentially an association of Irishmen and sympathizers who wanted Great Britain to grant Ireland its freedom. Many Fenians who immigrated to this country had fought for the Union in the Civil War. England’s support of the Confederacy added fuel to the fire; now the Fenian goal included punishing and embarrassing the British. They formulated a plan to capture Canada and hold it hostage until England granted Ireland its freedom.

Fenian raids on Canada began in 1866. During the night of June 2nd, between 1,500 and 5,000 Fenians crossed the river from Buffalo NY and took over Fort Erie. The Halifax Morning Chronicle reported, “The Fenians are reported to be marching towards the suspension bridge, 22 miles from here. Fort Sarnia...opposite Port Hudson, was also captured this morning by a detachment of Fenian troops, and Windsor, opposite Detroit, is also in Fenian possession.”

The United States government was, to put it mildly, alarmed, since the U.S. and Canada had a neutrality agreement between them. The President declared the Fenians an unlawful organization and quickly had them arrested and brought back across the border.

During this same time period, there was escalating unrest in the northern Red River Valley, especially in Ft. Garry and the growing town of Winnipeg. Both were on land claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The population was isolation, with three distinct factions: 1. English speaking mixed-bloods; 2. Scottish settlers; and 3. Catholic Métis, who were primarily French and Native American.

The Métis were the largest group, who had developed a distinct and colorful culture – they spoke French, loved music and were more interested in hunting than in farming. The English mixed-bloods – or country-born – were Anglican farmers, proud of their British blood. The Scottish settlers were strictly Presbyterian.

By the summer of 1868, the Anglo-Protestant community dominated the area, and they had become hostile toward the Métis’ Catholic faith, as well as their social and economic values.

Meanwhile, Canada was aiming to annex the Hudson’s Bay area before Minnesota did, and sent Canadian representatives to begin surveying the land. It became apparent that the Canadian delegation had no use for the Métis, who became alarmed about the possibility of losing their homes. To make a long story short, the Métis staged a rebellion and took prisoners at Fort Garry. They were overcome, but they did manage to win representation in the provisional government. Little did they know the folks in Ontario meant to drive out the troublesome Métis for good.

One member of the rebellion was an Irishman named O’Donoghue who felt the Métis’ desire for self-rule was much like that of the Fenian Brotherhood, to which he also belonged. O’Donoghue pushed the Métis leader, Louis Riel, to fight the Canadians by getting help from the United States. Louis Riel turned him down, believing the rebellion had brought matters under control. Still, O’Donoghue felt conditions were ripe for the Fenians to once more carry out their plan to take over Canada, and he was sure the Métis would warm to the plan. Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm