Spy Mission: The Trouble at Red River

In this lesson students will use research and role play to learn about The Red River Rebellion from different perspectives.

Created by Antony Caruso Governor General's History Awards Winner 2006 recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History

Posted March 8, 2010

Lesson Overview

This lesson looks at a controversial period in Manitoba’s History, The Red River Rebellion. Students will have an opportunity to research this crisis from a number of different perspectives, role-play and attempt to solve the conflict using their historical discoveries.

Time Required

7 – 10 classes

Historical Thinking Concept(s)

This lesson plan uses the following historical thinking concepts: establish historical significance, use primary source evidence, analyze cause and consequence, take historical perspective and understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations.

Learning Outcomes

Student will:

  • Describe the causes, results and personalities of the Red River Rebellion of 1869.
  • Describe the everyday life of various groups (Aboriginal Peoples, Europeans, Métis) in Western Canada at the time of settlement by Europeans.
  • Locate relevant information using a variety of sources.
  • Analyze, synthesize, and evaluate historical information.
  • Analyze and describe conflicting points of view about an historical event.
  • Use appropriate vocabulary.
  • Communicate the results of inquiries for specific purposes and audiences using a creative written report.

Background Information

 This activity is simple in that the resources for the teacher are readily available. The activity takes a common resource, the textbook, and uses it in a creative way. The activity will examine the 1869 Red River Rebellion in what is now Manitoba. One of the resolutions passed in the Confederation debates was the purchase of Rupert’s Land. This land covered most of Western Canada and was owned by the Hudson Bay Company. Rupert’s Land was to provide a young nation, the Dominion of Canada, with a chance to expand. Canada purchased the land for 300, 000 pounds and the authority of this land was to be transferred to the Canadian federal government on December 1, 1869.

However, thought to seek the approval of the inhabitants of this land was overlooked. The Hudson Bay Company withdrew its rule in January 1869, technically leaving the area with no legal government for close to a year. The Métis people, under the leadership of Louis Riel, were upset at not being consulted about joining the new nation and were fearful that their land rights and way of life would be compromised. They stopped Canadian surveyors from surveying their land, they prevented the future lieutenant-governor, William McDougall (a Father of Confederation) from entering the Red River area, and they established a provisional government of their own. They made demands that they wanted the Canadian government to meet.

Students are to pretend that they have traveled back in time to 1869. The class will receive a package containing all the necessary worksheets and a PowerPoint presentation. The PowerPoint presentation has John A. Macdonald writing directly to your class seeking their help. He does not know how to respond to this ‘problem’ at Red River. He ponders: “Do I seek a peaceful solution through negotiation, or do I use force?” Macdonald then asks the students to act as spies. He wants them to infiltrate the Red River settlement to gather vital information so that he can make the best decision. 

In this activity, Macdonald wants to know more about the details of the events that happened, more about the people who live in Rupert’s Land, more about the Métis and Louis Riel. He then asks that each student advise him on the course of action he should take. The students will do this in the form of a written report. Students will ‘travel back in time’ through the use of their textbooks, video, primary sources, and the internet.

Integrated Learning

French: There is an opportunity for the students to translate a primary document written in French into English. It is simple enough for students who take French regularly to translate. Others should consult a French-English dictionary. Certainly, there is an opportunity here to demonstrate to the students the advantage of knowing a second language.

English: There should be some formal teaching of expository (explanatory) paragraphs prior to this lesson. Another great tool that I have used is the Power Paragraph, a simple yet effective way of outlining your ideas into paragraphs. To learn more about Power Paragraphs, please read Betty Hamilton’s The 3 Steps to Powerful Writing, revised 2002 by C & C Graphics.

The Lesson Activity


Period 1

  • Have the entire package for this activity delivered in a sealed special envelope to your classroom - the more drama, the better! Take out a CD-ROM (or USB key) and the worksheets. Display the PowerPoint presentation to the class using a T.V or a LCD projector. Have students read the different slides out loud. Hand out the worksheets when requested to do so by the presentation.
  • The students will receive The Trouble at Red River Mission worksheets that has the following: “John A. Macdonald’s Problem”; “Your Mission”; “Definitions”; and “Where to find research.” The students will use the PowerPoint presentation to fill in the blanks, and later to complete the definitions using their textbook or a dictionary.
NOTE: The presentation uses the term “halfbreed.” Explain to the students that it is an insulting and derogatory term that would have been used by English and French speaking white Canadians. Explain how Métis were looked down upon by many members of Canadian society. You may want to change this term to “peoples” if you feel it would insult some of your students.
  • Complete the period by having the students find the events listed by Macdonald in their textbook. (Flashback Canada: pp. 82, 111, 116, 118).


Period 2

  • Hand out a copy of the letter that was given to Mr. W. McDougall. Have students work in pairs to translate. Make a copy of the English translation on a transparency, and show it on an overhead. Hand out the sheet The Métis Bill of Rights. Explain that this sheet contains many of the demands the Métis were making. Make sure the students know their mission and what they are to do. Have them start their research by giving them the organizers: THE EVENTS: What really happened? and THE EVENTS: What demands are made and why did this happen?
  • Explain that these organizers will be used for their research and later to help organize their thoughts for their final written report. Students need to complete the column TEXTBOOK.

Period 3

  • Have the students read pages dealing with the PEOPLE. They should find the different peoples of the west in their textbook (aboriginal peoples, Selkirk settlers, French-speaking Roman Catholic farm families, English-speaking Protestant farmers, and of course, the Métis). In Flashback, these pages are 112-115.
  • Students should complete the organizers PEOPLE: Who are the peoples of the West? and PEOPLE: Who are the Métis? by filling in the column marked TEXTBOOK.

Period 4

  • Discuss with the students the different websites they can visit to get information. Draw attention to the websites listed in their first handout The Trouble at Red River Mission - Where to find research. If your school has a computer lab with internet access, have the students visit it and complete the WEBSITE/OTHER column of their organizers. Students should be visiting these websites almost daily from now on, to conduct research and to complete their organizers.
  • Explain to the students that when they are completing another column in their organizer, they should not copy out research that is the same in a previous column. For example, if the students recorded in the TEXTBOOK column that Riel’s birth was in 1844, they shouldn’t record it in the WEBSITE/OTHER column unless a different date is given.


Period 5

  • Have students complete the organizer PEOPLE: Who is Louis Riel? #4 (Flashback p. 117).
  • You may want to draw their attention to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography website.

Period 6 

  • Show the CBC video, Canada: A People’s History Episode 9. The students need to have their organizers to complete the column VIDEO. You may want to pause at certain points to give students time to make notes.
  • Show the following segments:
    • Introduction
    • From Sea to Sea
    • If we are rebels
    • War is upon us
    • A single act of severity

Period 7

  • The students should have all their research completed. They are ready for the organizer THE SOLUTION: What is your recommendation?
  • It is possible that students may have read about the real course of action that John A. Macdonald took in history. If they did, you should tell your students that they should not let that influence their decision. They should make the recommendations based on their research and what they personally believe should have been done.
  • Once they have completed this organizer, the students are ready to communicate their results in written form.

Remaining Periods

  • Give students plenty of time in class to work on their written drafts. Give students the rubric for the written report. Remind the students what must be in the written report. Encourage the students to be creative. Remind them that they are writing as spies. Have the written report presented in an unusual envelope. The written report may be written in the first person. They may want to tell how they infiltrated the towns, and how they escaped. In other words, encourage the students to not just relate facts, but to tell a story that is based on fact, with some imagination added.
  • Once the written report is handed in, discuss with the students what course of action John A. Macdonald really took by watching the rest of the video, or reading the textbook. The students will have a better understanding of that decision and it may lead to a debate as to whether it was the best choice.



Use the rubric attached to evaluate the written report. Before the students hand in their completed assignment, have them evaluate themselves using the rubric. They can place check marks, in pencil, for each criteria and the level they feel they should get. Make sure you allow students to share some of their creative work with the rest of the class.

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