Sometimes you get lucky, and the fates conspire to hand you a gift.
So I already (briefly) introduced Member of Parliament Robert Falcon Ouellette, the MP for Winnipeg Centre. He’s the real life human being who stands in contrast to the underwhelming Jim Riley whom Bland has representing a similar region in the novel (Winnipeg South). Now, any of the MPs from Winnipeg would make a better example of an elected official than Jim Riley. Hell, I’m pretty sure their election pamphlets got more depth. But MP Robert Falcon Ouellette stands out for a couple of reasons.
One is the fact that he’s an Indigenous man from the Cree Red Pheasant Reserve who advocates for First Nations issues while somehow continuing to be an individual with his own opinions and perspectives. He is also, despite being a member of the horrid Liberal Party of Canada, a former military man with a long and proud career both in the Regular Force…and the Reserves! But the best part came a few months ago as I was doing some research for ILP (Intermediate Leadership Program – mid level NCO training). It seems that, over the course of his career, Robert Falcon Ouellette did a bit of historical writing for the Canadian Military Journal. And you’ll never guess the subject he chose…
***If the link above isn’t working, this should allow you to download a pdf.***
The article is fairly short, and therefore doesn’t go too far into the depths of what is popularly referred to as the North-West Rebellion. It also follows a very particular format that’s popular in the CF but might sound a bit off if you’re used to civilian academia or a more narrative format. He does raise an interesting point or two about the conflict that argues against the popular myths, but the main reason I want to look at this is because here we have a real life example of the kind of person Bland can’t convincingly imagine: A native man, with a military background, looking at a conflict from the perspective of a force opposing the Canadians.
It seemed many [ILP] students were unable to grasp the idea that one’s world-view will give one a different perspective, and they had a desire to quickly pass on to the next assignment in order to be expedient in their reasoning. It was the feeling that students were more interested in being celebratory of Canadian nationalism that in actively reflecting upon different views concerning this important conflict. It did not help that supplementary material provided by the ILP did not present a variety of views, but only an orthodoxy that had been long-established. This presents great dangers for the CAF, for as NCMs [non-commissioned members-anything from Pte to Chief Warrant Officer] who have higher education levels are asked to fulfill important leadership roles, they must have an understanding of warfare, not in a linear concept, but as a holistic model of warfare that allows various points of view.
I love it…Good times…Good times…
You may have noticed I said ‘popularly‘ above when I referred to the two conflicts in which Riel was the central figure. Robert Falcon Ouellette calls the Red River and North West Rebellions the First and Second Métis Wars. Rebellion implies fighting against an established and legitimate government. His article postulates that this was not true in either of Riel’s conflicts. In the former case, the Métis had declared their independence in the midst of a power vacuum, in the latter the government had broken their promises regarding how the people of the Prairies would be treated, thereby rendering themselves illegitimate.
Not being a lawyer I’m unsuited to judge this particular argument, but I can see there’s a point to be made here of contrasting the letter of the law vs. the spirit. More importantly, this is a good example of what a differing point of view actually looks like. Douglas Bland portrays the Movement as essentially saying “bad guys are good!” While Ouellette is saying “they weren’t bad in the first place!” It’s a subtle distinction but an important one.
There’s one major point in the article I wanted to focus on, but before that it’s worth taking a moment to look at the structure of how it is written. For those not familiar, this is actually a very common type of essay for ILP-level writing. Essentially you take a historical conflict (or even a single battle) and analyze it in terms of modern day concepts. In this case the ten principles of war.
If you’ve done any reading into strategic issues, you’ll encounter some version of these principles in every national army. They’re broad and simple, and pretty much universal.
- Selection & maintenance of the Aim
- Offensive Action
- Concentration of Force
- Economy of Effort
- Administration & Supply
So my main issue with the Principles of War isn’t that there’s anything wrong with them per se, it’s that they get applied in an over simplified way. For example, I’ve actually written a test in the CAF where the question was: Which Principle of War best characterized the Battle for Vimy Ridge? For those who don’t know, Vimy Ridge was a three-day battle in the First World War involving over a hundred thousand Canadian soldiers, at least as many Germans, nearly a month of preparation based on nearly two years worth of battlefield experience and innovation.
But yeah, I’m going to break it down to one principle of battle.
So while they’re good in theory, there’s a unfortunate tendency to employ them in a kind of ranked system where you can fall short in a couple of categories while still winning on the master issue. That having been said, they make for a good starting point and in this particular case, I do like what Ouellette has to say about the Second Métis War.
However, the Canadian effort faced many difficulties. The campaign to destroy the Métis forces was a logistical nightmare from the beginning because the Canadian forces believed they possessed a comfortable superiority of power. Also, the Canadian minister responsible, Sir Adolphe Caron, made every effort to institute a logistics and transportation system that relied upon private enterprise. The Canadian military’s lack of preparation was apparently behind this solution, which eventually cost the government $4.5 million, an enormous amount for the late-19th Century.
Okay so, in case you haven’t guessed already, I’m kind of a nerd NCO who actually goes Squeee! over logistics. Resupply is traditionally the NCO’s domain, and not only is it vital to achieve victory, but it’s regularly overlooked or under-valued by younger, more inexperienced Officers. There’s a saying in the CF (at least among the NCOs) that the young officer thinks tactically, the old officer thinks strategically, but the Sergeant thinks logistically. While there’s a lot of other factors involved, the final question in any war is Do we got the fuel to get there and the ammo to win?
So the Canadian army screwed up their logistics. How were the Métis doing?
The greatest mistake on the other side was the failure of the Aboriginal coalition to ensure an adequate supply of ammunition…The Aboriginal peoples at Batoche were supposedly firing rocks and nails near the end of the battle, due to a shortage of ammunition. They thus failed to adequately plan their future needs. They Métis and Indians were supplied almost exclusively by the Hudson’s Bay Company and other small outfitters for their weapons, but once the provisional government had been declared, this source of supply was extinguished. It is known that they did raid the Walters and Baker weapons store at Batoche, seizing a number of arms and ammunition, but this was not enough to meet needs.
It’s kind of a characteristic of the old colonial wars that they often consisted of spending two months hacking your way through the wilderness in order to fight a battle that would be over in two hours. While maybe not literally true (the Battle of Batoche would last four days), the most important reality of the Metis Wars was that the Canadian government forces were operating at the end of an extremely long supply train. Just being able to manoeuvre their way to the battle field was a test of their resources.
At the same time, while the Métis, and Prairie First Nations were fighting on their home turf, this fact did not magically give them unlimited supplies and perfect freedom of movement. It takes time to hunt and gather, to preserve your food so that it will last more than a few days, and to stockpile enough not only for your upcoming war but for the winter that’s coming after. That’s the thing. Every day that an able-bodied man is fighting is a day that he is not providing, during which time he still needs to be fed. It compounds the effect of a loss of labour with an increase in demand. So while the Canadian troops had their own logistic challenges, the Métis were balanced on a razor’s edge where even a military victory could still mean starvation.
Now the common perception of the war was that Gabriel Dumont was the pragmatist who knew how to fight, but was constrained by Louis Riel, who at that point had descended into a near madness of religious mysticism. Bland already presented this perspective via Alex Gabriel and Molly Grace. The position taken by Ouellette is a more complex one.
The Métis had assembled perhaps 500 Warriors in and around Batoche. Just to equip such a force with twenty rounds per man (something that even untrained fighters could blow through in half an hour’s combat) would require ten thousand….
…well that’s another problem. There was no real standardization amongst the Métis or the Cree of that time. Gabriel Dumont’s popular photograph has him posing with a modern lever-action repeating rifle, but a lot of the people on the Prairie would have still been using muzzle loading rifles or even smooth bore muskets. So when I say ten thousand rounds, it has to be qualified. Are we talking powder and shot, or manufactured rifle cartridges. Even when they seized the ammunition available at the Walters & Baker store, equipping everybody was still a serious hit and miss affair.
This is where the concept of grand strategy runs face-first into the harsh reality of logistics and morale. In theory, Dumont could have led the Métis in a protracted series of delaying actions, fighting half a dozen Fish Creeks and Duck Lakes before the army ever got close to Batoche. Realistically, how many of his fighters would have had rations and fodder to carry out this campaign? Some parts of the population supported them, but not everybody. Not only was their total supply potential limited but tapping into it would mean taking badly needed food from the people who supported them the most. How much ammunition was there? One protracted fight with a certain type of weapon (such as say, cartridge firing repeating rifles) could put dozens of Warriors out of action even if the result was a victory.
Remember also that at Duck Lake Gabriel Dumont’s brother Isidore was killed in action, and he himself was struck in the head with a rifle bullet. The injury proved minor, and despite his grief he was able to soldier on, leading the Métis through until the end of the fighting. Clearly Gabriel Dumont was a leader of formidable qualities.
How many of his people could say the same?
Every battle brought casualties. Even the victories. Most of the Métis Warriors knew each other and many were even family. How many would have been able to carry on, day after day, week after week as the death toll mounted, while food and ammo ran out?
That’s the thing that’s so frustrating about Bland’s interpretation of history, and about his whole hypothetical scenario presented in Uprising. He ignores basic but vital things such as ensuring there’s food and water to sustain the front line fighters, never mind making sure that their families back home are taken care of as well. Breaking down the North-West Rebellion leadership into three magically separate parts (Riel, Dumont, and Big Bear) ignores the real, pragmatic pressures on each man. It’s the same mindset that reduces complex battles to arrows on a map free of any messy human dimensions.
Perhaps most disturbing is the corollary that goes with the idea of the super-leader as the solution for all. Just prioritize the right person or idea and the rest will take care of itself. It’s the sort of thinking that can lead a person to think that one Principle of War can outweigh the rest at a Battle as complex as Vimy Ridge. If the super-leader can solve anything, then by definition whatever they have decided upon will be the best possible solution. Their will must be adhered to and any doubts must be suppressed.
And if you think that’s disturbing, wait until you see how Bland applies this notion to his Canadian Forces leaders.
***Today’s featured image is of Robert Falcon Ouellette sitting inside a TAPV, one of the new armoured vehicles recently acquired by the CAF. Source is Mr Ouellette’s official Facebook page.***
 The term North West Resistance has also started popping up in some place.
 It was multiple choice, and I still got it wrong.
 NCO Squeee! is a bit different than, say, My Little Pony Squeee! I once got into a shouting match with a couple of characters regarding local defence (QRF is not supposed to conduct long range patrols that take them out of radio contact!) and I’m currently digging up various PAMs (Personal Aide Memoirs) to win an argument over how to conduct a Rolling DP (delivery point). The modern PAM on the subject was a bit ambiguous, but I found an old Tanker’s PAM that confirms my point and I actually clapped my hands and giggled with delight.
 This can especially be seen in the fact that Chief Big Bear of the Cree confederacy were still looking to negotiate as they established their huge camp at Frog Lake. But when the town of Battleford evacuated to their Fort, the government storehouse in town was closed down, meaning he was unable to trade for vital supplies. Without any alternatives, Big Bear allowed his Warriors loot the abandoned trading post, an action which was treated by the government as an act of war, forcing the issue for the Cree (This was prior to the killings on 2 April).
 There’s also the quasi-fascist notion that all problems can be overcome so long as your leader has all the right personal qualities. Uh…no. You can have the mightiest of wills, reality’s still going to triumph.