“In forty days Ottawa will have my answer”

“In forty days Ottawa will have my answer” is a statement of defiance in the face of federal government inaction.

In 1884, Métis leader Louis Riel returned to the North West to find white settlers, Plains Cree and his fellow Métis barely eking out a living on poor land. In many cases, miserable conditions and lack of access to medicine violated explicit commitments made by a seemingly indifferent Canadian government.

Counselling restraint, Riel helped draft a petition requesting food relief, tariff reduction, responsible government and provincial status for the North West’s inhabitants. Sir John A. Macdonald’s government in far-off Ottawa wrote back months later with what became a typical federal government instinct – strike a commission in the name of Peace, Order and Good Government. In 1884, such a commission was to review matters “with a view to settling equitably the claims of half-breeds.”

Riel, operating at a much-higher level of intensity, had had enough. On hearing about the “half-breed” commission idea, he slammed his fist down and bellowed, “In forty days Ottawa will have my answer.”

Riel proclaimed a provisional government at Batoche and the North-West Rebellion was soon underway. The upstart government would last but two months, crushed by thousands of troops ferried to the west on the newly completed CPR rail line. After his capture by Canadian authorities, Riel was swiftly tried, convicted and executed for treason in November 1885.

For Riel himself, the phrase “In forty days Ottawa will have my answer” bore religious connotations. Louis “David” Riel thought of himself as fighting Macdonald’s Goliath, and in this moment was comparing his people’s ordeals to Jesus’ forty days in the desert.

Besides, getting something done in 40 days is a lot faster than doing it in your first 100 days.

(And not to get overly biblical on you but the first reference to ‘forty’ in the Bible was much earlier: the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt.)

Image source: National Archives of Canada

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