Definition: Provisional Government

Provisional government: is an emergency or interim government set up when no government has yet been established, or when a political void has been created by the collapse of an existing government. There is no specific way a provisional government must be organized or run. By its very name — provisional — it is understood to be a temporary solution until a permanent system of governance can be instituted.


One temporary government projected for Red River Settlement in 1869, but never instituted, was that of the Canadian government appointee, Lieutenant-Governor William McDougall. An article, “The Situation at Red River,” in the Toronto Globe (23 November 1869), used the phrase “expelled Provisional Government,” to describe it.[1]

Of temporary government that was instituted at Red River Settlement during the Resistance of 1869 – 1870, that which is generally identified as ‘the Provisional Government’ (implying a single entity) developed and changed over time (exhibiting multiplicity in form and function).

1st) There was the Comité National des Métis de la Rivière Rouge, which was consolidated by about 20 October 1869. According to one account, the Comité National consisted of:

The Comité National was not initially declared as anything more than a committee devoted to: halting the Canadian survey;[3] preventing the entry of a foreign Lieutenant-Governor (McDougall) to the settlement;[4] and “protecting” Upper Fort Garry (and thereby the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] Governor and Council of Assiniboia’s authority).[5] Arguably, however, the Comité National became a provisional government as soon as it occupied Upper Fort Garry on 2 November 1869 and demonstrated conclusively that the existing government was powerless to countermand Comité National directives. And indeed, at that that time, there were indications that the Comité National was understood to be a provisional government. McDougall for instance reported that two emissaries of the Comité National, “Lépine and Lavallée,”

stated that they had been sent to tell me to go back [across the U.S. border] — that I must not remain in the [HBC Pembina] post later than nine o’clock the next day. I asked them who sent them, and by what authority. They said their leaders sent them, and their authority was the Government. I asked, what Government? They replied, “the Government we have made.”[6]

By 15 November, newspapers in Canada and the United States were referring to the new government installed in Upper Fort Garry as a “provisional government.”[7]

In addition, according to several sources, the Comité National had declared martial law — perhaps as early as 8 November 1869.[8]

The Comité had a somewhat representative, and quasi-‘legislative’ council – the Convention of Twenty-four (16-24 November, and 1 December 1869) — which passed a Bill/ List of Rights.[9] Nevertheless, the Comité National did not completely impinge on the power of the HBC Governor and Council of Assiniboia — the latter’s law courts continued to function (the quarterly court heard cases during 19-29 November 1869), and its councillors continued to issue liquor licenses up to and including 1 December 1869.[10]


declaration of provisional government 24 Nov. 1869

Formal declaration of provisional government at Red River: LAC, MG27-IC6, Red River Rebellion, William MacDougall fonds, item 11, “Declaration of the people of Rupert’s Land and the North-West,” (8 December 1869), signed by John Bruce and Louis Riel. [Click image to embiggen]

2nd) There was the provisional government officially declared on 10 December 1869, after the close of the Convention of Twenty-four, and presumably after the ‘royal’ proclamation issued by McDougall, on 1 December 1869, was found to be bogus.[11] (Although official confirmation that the proclamation was a forgery was not received until about 24 December, it is possible that word of Canada’s declining the transfer on 26 November had reached the settlement by way of telegraph and an express rider in as few as eight to ten days — as early as about 4 or 6 December.)[12]

McDougall’s illegal and ill-timed proclamation had effectively terminated any remaining sense that HBC rule existed (Governor William Mactavish having initially accepted the proclamation as legitimate, as had most if not all Red River settlers). McDougall had not instituted a substitute system of governance, however, as he was not at the time in Red River Settlement, but was instead residing at Pembina in the United States. Governor Mactavish was in no condition to carry on HBC governance as he was seriously ill and confined to his bed. The Comité National des Métis, stationed at Upper Fort Garry was unwilling to allow McDougall to enter Assiniboia until he agreed to discuss, and assent to, the List of Rights passed by the Convention of Twenty-four. McDougall refused to meet with anyone whom he considered to belong to a party of “rebels” and “insurgents.”[13] (While it is possible that he might have agreed to meet ‘English’ parish representatives, they had declined to travel south to meet with him at the close of the Convention of Twenty-four — seemingly content to ‘wait and see’ what happened).[14]

In the apparent absence of government, members of the Canadian Party decided to take the law into their own hands. On 6 December 1869, John Stoughton Dennis proclaimed himself Lieutenant Colonel of the Canadian Militia (made up principally of residents at the settlement originally from Canada) and Conservator of the Peace, empowered to “attack, arrest, assault, fire upon, pull down or break into any Fort, house &c.”[15] The Comité National des Métis responded to this indication of a state of “anarchy and confusion” prevailing in the settlement (a situation that had  “no parallel in the history of the British Empire”), by declaring a provisional government to restore “public peace and safety” and avoid “bloody civil war,” and to “protect the rights of the people from invasion.”[16] Forty-five or fifty members of the Canadian volunteer militia were arrested and jailed [beginning 6-7 December 1869].[17]

If martial law had not existed previously, it very likely did as of the arrests of the Canadians. There is uncertainty, however, due to a lack of surviving records. That uncertainty extends to the end of this government and the beginning of the next: it is difficult to determine exactly when the one ended and the other began, because it it difficult to know how, or for how long, martial law applied to the transition period between the two.

3rd) There was a provisional government declared by the elected representatives of The Convention of Forty/ La Grande Convention (25 January – 10 February 1870), who appointed James Ross as Judge of the Supreme Court, Henry McKenny as Sheriff, Dr. Curtis James Bird as Coroner, A.G.B. Bannatyne as Postmaster, John Sutherland and Roger Goulet[18] as Collectors of Customs, Thomas Bunn as Secretary to the Provisional Government, Louis Schmidt as Under-Secretary, and Louis Riel as President. The Convention members also determined that existing “Justices of the Peace, Petty Magistrates, Constables, &c” would continue in their positions, with a few substitutions.[19] Judge John Black,[20] Alfred H. Scott,[21] and Rev. N.-J. Ritchot were appointed as delegates of the Provisional Government to negotiate terms of confederation in Ottawa.[22]

The Provisional Government of Assiniboia was established as a representative government, because its members were elected (and served as honorable members of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia and as members of the Executive Council). In a sense, it was also a responsible government, because all of its members held their offices only temporarily — all positions were to be filled by a new set of elections once the territory of Assiniboia had confederated as a province with Canada.


corrected 1870 model

[See also Definitions: Representative and Responsible Government, this site.]


[1]  “The Situation at Red River,” reprint in Toronto Globe (23 November 1869), in Glenbow Museum [GM], M-6058, “James Ross’ Scrapbook,” 7, describes the Red River grievance as:

“for the paltry sum of £300,000 paid to the Hudson Bay Coterie in London, it was proposed, by a mere order of the Queen’s council, to transfer their country to Canadian domination without any guarantee for the rights of the settlers, and to impose a government of Canadian officials upon them without any consultation with the inhabitants. The high contracting parties to this cession took no pains to secure in the terms of the transfer or by subsequent legislation the possessory or other rights of the settlers. They and their lands, which, for a half century, they have occupied, were turned over by the stroke of a pen to what was to them a foreign government, their wishes, views and interests being utterly ignored as if wholly unworthy of notice. They conceived, therefore, that they and their property had been wantonly delivered up by an act of despotism to spoilation and oppression. This general popular disatisfaction was greatly aggravated by the policy of the Canadian Government, which, as the first step to the establishment of its authority in that ceded territory, undertook to impose upon it a provisional government in the most offensive form of arbitrary power. This new government was to consist of a Governor and a council to be nominated by himself, to consist of not more than 12 persons, in whom were to be vested complete executive and legislative power, subject, of course, to the authority of Canada. Rupert’s Land was thus reduced to a mere satrapy.”

[2] See Oscar Malmros, quoted in Hartwell Bowsfield, ed., The James Wickes Taylor Correspondence 1859-1870 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Record Society, 1968), 100, 121. I am not certain that the membership shown above is entirely correct. See Philippe R. Mailhot, “Ritchot’s Resistance: Abbé Noël Joseph Ritchot and the Creation of Manitoba,” Ph.D. diss. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1986), 17, 19, 28, 39, 44, 49, 52, who indicates a succession of meetings were held over the summer of 1869, as well as on 19, 24, and 27 October. On the 19th, at a public meeting in St. Norbert, settlers elected members to the Comité National des Métis under president John Bruce, with Louis Riel as secretary, and including Paul Proulx (cousin-in-law of Riel), Amable Gaudry, and Prosper Nault. Around the 27th, William Fraser and John Sutherland of the parishes of Middlechurch and Kildonan met in St. Norbert with a “Committee of ten.” According to John Bruce’s comments, this committee had formed by 20 October and subsequently formulated resolutions – the “code du Sénat Métis dejas connu du peuple” — for a new government “composed of the elected representatives of the people, a president, a vice president and a secretary. The executive was to be chosen from amongst the representatives who would make the selection by secret ballot. Once the executive was chosen, the president’s seat among the representatives was to be filled … it was urgent to have the elected representatives swear an oath of fidelity to the people.”

[3] See William Cowan, “[B],” letter to Colonel Dennis (15 October 1869), in Canada, Sessional Papers vol. 5, 3d session, no. 12 (1870), 9. See also “Chronology: 1st Canadian Attack on Fort Garry, 1869,” this site, for descriptions of Comité National motives.

[4] See John Bruce and Louis Riel, “[E] A Monsieur W. McDougall,” (21 October 1869), Sessional Papers 5, no. 12 (1870), 11; W.E. Sanford, letter to [Joseph] Howe, (18 November 1869), Sessional Papers 5, no. 12 (1870), 16; “The North-West. (Correspondence of the Montreal Gazette),” Halifax Morning Chronicle (9 December 1869), 2.

[5] W. McTavish, “(A.),” letter to W. McDougall (9 November 1869), in Sessional Papers 5, no. 12 (1870), 52-54.

[6] “Lépine and Lavallée” quoted in Wm. McDougall, letter to “Governor McTavish, &c.” (4 November 1869), Sessional Papers 5, no. 12 (1870), 30.

[7] Canada, Parliament, Correspondence and papers connected with recent occurrences in the Northwest (1870), 73. See also “The Winnipeg Revolution. Speech of Hon. A. Ramsey in the United States Senate, Intimate Relations of Winnipeg to Minnesota,” New Nation (4 March 1870), which mentions a declaration of martial law before the Convention of Twenty-four in November.

[8] “Mr. McDougall Stopped by the French Insurgents. A Provisional Government Organized. (By telegraph from our own correspondent. [15 November 1869],” Toronto Globe (n.d.), in  in GM, M-6058,”James Ross’ Scrapbook,” 3; “Disturbance at Red River,” Hamilton Spectator (n.d), in GM, M-6058 ,”James Ross’ Scrapbook,” 6, cites the St Paul Press (15 November 1869), as asserting, “A Provisional Government has been organized”; “(From our own correspondent). St. Paul, Minn, Nov 21,” [Globe (n.d.)] in GM, M-6058, “James Ross’ Scrapbook,” 4, reports “The Fort is now occupied by the Provisional Governor, John Brouse”; “Another Letter. Pembina, Nov. 3, 1869,” Globe (23 November 1869), in GM, M-6058, “James Ross’ Scrapbook,” 7, notes “Mr. John Brousse is their governor”; “Another Account,” Globe (23 November 1869), in GM, M-6058, “James Ross’ Scrapbook,” 7, avers, “A provisional government has been formed, with John Brousse at the head as President, and Louis Riel, commander-and-chief of the forces.”

[9] Louis Schmidt, “Memoires,” 74, comments that “le nom de gouvernement provisoire” (trans: the name provisional government) was adopted by Riel, secretary of the convention, at this time.

[10] See “Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. Second Session,” New Nation (13 May 1870), 1-2.

[11] According to retrospective articles published in the New Nation, the provisional government considered itself as holding de facto status as of 8 December. The newspaper also reported, however, that during the 13th Day: 8 February of the debates of the Convention of Forty/ La Grande Convention (25 January – 10 February 1870), William B. O’Donoghue asserted, “The Provisional Government was established on the 24th of November and proclaimed on the 8th of December.” William B. O’Donoghue, quoted in “Convention at Fort Garry,” New Nation (18 February 1870), 1 column 3. See also “Enquire Within,” New Nation (17 May 1870), 2 column 1.

[12] See William McDougall, ed., The Red River Rebellion. Eight Letters to Hon. Joseph Howe, Secretary of State for the Provinces, etc., In Reply to an Official Pamphlet (Toronto: Hunter, Rose and Company, 1870), 24, 33, on the time frame for communication, and for a somewhat hysterical argument, in which, without referring to a document or other source, he asserts that as of 6 December 1869 [see “Chronology: 1st Canadian Attack on Fort Garry, 1869,” this site for the timeline], the Comité National had “private information from Ottawa … that the Canadian Government would not accept the transfer! That their so-called [HBC] Governor had no authority [sic: italics in source].

[13] William McDougall, letter to Joseph Howe (20 November 1869), in Canada, Parliament, Correspondence and Papers connected with Recent Occurrences in the North-West Territories (Ottawa: I.B. Taylor, 1870), 50, 51.

[14] William Cowan, quoted in Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, vol. 1, session 1875, ed. A.M. Burgess (Ottawa: C.W. Mitchell, 1875), 1066, deposed that at a meeting of the HBC Council of Assiniboia (of which Cowan was a member) on 25 October 1869, prior to the Convention of Twenty-four,  “That on the discussion of the question as to what action should be taken, it was the opinion of the Council that the well-affected settlers would not respond to any call on the part of the executive to assist in bringing in the said Mr. McDougall and party, members of the Council stating that they had made inquiries in their respective districts, and that the people refused to act either armed or unarmed, alleging, generally, that the Canadian Government had been preparing for a long time to assume the Government of the country, and should be able to do so without calling on one portion of the settlers to take up arms against another.”

[15] William McDougall, “B 9,” commission to J.S. Dennis (1 December 1869), Correspondence and Papers connected with Recent Occurrences, 105.

[16] “Enquire Within,” 2 columns 1, 2, 3; “Canada’s Blundering,” New Nation (14 January 1870), 2 columns 1, 2, 3, 4; and “Our Defence,” New Nation (3 May 1870), 1 columns 1, 2. See also “The Past and Present,” New Nation (22 April 1870), 2 columns 5, 6, 7.

[17] See “Prisoners of the Provisional Government,” this site, for list of the arrested Canadian Volunteers.

[18] Roger Norbert Alexis Goulét/ Goulait (Métis, born 1834 to Alexis Goulét and Josephte Siveright), served as surveyor of Red River Settlement; was appointed to the HBC Council of Assiniboia in 1866. His name was put forward as Justice of the Peace for Fort Garry by the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia [LAA] (see Session 2, Day 11: 7 May, this site). Some histories allege he refused the commission as collector of customs in 1870 — though I have not found the corroborating source.

[19] Committee Resolutions, “14th Day,” Convention of Forty, this site.

[20] See Margaret Caldwell, “Black, John (1817-1879),” Australian Dictionary of Biography online; and Lionel Dorge, “Black, John,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography online [DCB].

[21] Alfred Henry Scott is a man of mystery in Red River Settlement history. Next to no biographical details are known. Given his position as a member of the LAA, who was also appointed as a delegate to negotiate a confederation agreement in Ottawa, the lack of historical detail seems odd. Alexander Begg, The Creation of Manitoba; Or, a History of the Red River Troubles (Toronto: A.H. Hovey, 1871), 320-321, includes the text of a letter, apparently penned by Scott and purportedly printed in the 18 March issue of Red River Settlement’s New Nation newspaper. The letter indicates that Scott was born in England. The letter is not visible, however, in the online version of the issue for that date (16 March at the Manitobia website), which consists of two pages – the other pages carrying a dateline of 2 April 1870. W.L. Morton, ed., Alexander Begg’s Red River journal: and other papers relative to the Red River resistance of 1869-1870 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), 278 n. 1, also refers to the letter, stating that Scott “was considered an American, but claimed to be of British birth.” W.L. Morton, “Scott, Alfred Henry,” DCB, however, notes only that Scott was “of English parentage.”

[22] See the discussion leading to the Provisional Government’s formation on the 13th Day: 8 February, 14th Day: 9 February, and 15th Day: 10 February of the Debates of the Convention of Forty. See also “Appendix B: Representative Government announced in Rupert’s Land*,” this site.





Published: 12 December 2012; revised 26 August 2014


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: