Good on Justin Trudeau for apologizing to an indigenous leader, but the prime minister ought not ignore the ‘father’ of the Canadian army’s contribution to this injustice.
On Thursday the Prime Minister is expected to exonerate Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) who was convicted of treason after being attacked by Canadian Forces in 1885.
In response to the North-West Rebellion, 5,000 Canadian/British troops and militiamen were deployed to Saskatchewan and Alberta to subjugate the Metis and plains First Nations. With much of their land taken by treaty and the bison decimated, the Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Saulteaux were under pressure from settlers’ farms, towns and railways. Métis fur traders faced similar pressures though they also worried about whether the federal government would respect their river-lot homesteads and farms.
Hundreds of Métis and Indigenous people were killed by the military in a bid to enforce Ottawa’s control of the West.
In Canada’s largest mass hanging, eight Indigenous men were publicly executed at Battleford.
The North-West Rebellion lead to a tightening of the reserve system, including the infamous pass system that required individuals to receive permission to leave their reserve from the local Indian Agent. Completely illegal, the pass system would remain in place for six decades.
Lieutenant-Colonel William D. Otter was part of the military force dispatched to suppress the Louis Riel led rebellion. The Canadian-born son of English settlers led a force that attacked Cree and Assiniboine warriors near Battleford, Saskatchewan. Without orders to do so, the ‘father’ of Canada’s army sought to “punish Poundmaker.” Otter failed miserably. Despite employing a rapid-fire Gatling gun, his men were forced to retreat. They only survived because an overly conciliatory Poundmaker stopped his warriors from pursuing Otter’s retreating soldiers. But, the attack pushed the neutral Cree leader towards Riel and when the Metis leader was defeated Poundmaker surrendered.
Otter was hugely influential in Canadian military history. The Montreal Daily Star coined the term “Otterism” as a “synonym for merciless repression.” In 1890 he established the Royal Canadian Military Institute, which still operates in Toronto. Three years later he was made the first commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry. Otter commanded that force in the 1899-1902 Boer War. About 7,000 Canadians participated in this brutal conflict to strengthen British colonial authority in Africa, ultimately leading to racial apartheid.
In 1908 the Upper Canada College graduate was the first Canadian appointed Chief of the General Staff. (British officers dominated the Canadian Forces leadership in the decades before and after Otter’s appointment.) During World War I Otter came out of retirement to oversee the internment of 8,500, mostly Ukrainian, individuals living in Canada from countries that were part of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Their wealth was largely stolen and they were turned into quasi-slaves with Otter noting, how the “system proved a great advantage to the organization short of labor.”
Exonerating Pitikwahanapiwiyin is a welcome step in the reconciliation process. But, Trudeau should also discuss Otter’s role in Poundmaker’s persecution. It is time for a discussion about the Canadian military’s roots in a force that conquered much of Turtle Island and the world.
To achieve reconciliation the truth must be told about the repressive, colonial, origins of the Canadian Armed Forces.