Major J.H. Graham of the 22nd Cheshire Regiment, ca. Late 1860s.
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (George T. Taylor Collection, P5-450)

Major J.H. Graham of the 22nd Cheshire Regiment, ca. Late 1860s.

Major Graham was a member of the last British regiment garrisoned in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Fenian Raid Volunteers, Metcalfe, Ontario, ca. 1865.
National Archives of Canada (PA-103906).

Fenian Raid Volunteers, Metcalfe, Ontario, ca. 1865.

The Fenians, an Irish-American revolutionary movement, believed that they could seize Canada and use it as a base from which to free Ireland from Great Britain. Since they had 10,000 members with military experience from the U.S. Civil War, they posed a considerable threat to the weakly defended British North American colonies. In the end, the Fenians attempted to invade Canada six times.

At the time of Confederation in 1867, British troops and a small force of Canadian militia volunteers were the only military presence in Canada. The militia helped to guard against Fenian invasions and, along with regular British troops, played a role in opposing the Red River Resistance of 1870. The infantry and cavalry units that would become the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal Canadian Dragoons respectively were not to be established until 1883, just in time for the second crisis in the North-West Territories. Nonetheless, an embryonic form of a permanent force army structure had come into being with the establishment of the first artillery units at Kingston and Quebec City in 1871. As early as 1855, however, imperial troops had begun to withdraw from British North America, leaving only naval stations at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Esquimalt, British Columbia. By 1871, Canadian defence was left to the militia and a small permanent force army that included, in addition to the artillery schools that manned the abandoned British fortifications and trained the militia gunners, the Provisional Battalion of Infantry in Manitoba. Raised in Ontario and Quebec, the battalion was created to establish Canadian law in the North-West Territories (lands purchased from the Hudson's Bay Company) and respond to the 1869 Métis uprising in the region. This unit, comprised of men enrolled for one-year, renewable engagements, was effectively the first Canadian permanent force unit. The battalion was reinforced following the Fenian incursion into Manitoba in 1871. It was disbanded by 1877 but not before it assisted in the training of the first drafts of the North-West Mounted Police (N-WMP), the predecessor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), in 1873. (1) The N-WMP possessed another military connection in that many of its initial members came from the permanent force army artillery schools in Kingston.

National Archives of Canada (C-020890).


Troops Enter Fort Garry during the Red River Resistance, North-West Territories, 1870.

The militia, as it would be recognizable today, has its origins in units established as early as the start of the imperial retreat in 1855. These new units were composed of civilians who agreed to train for 16 days a year for three years. Up to this time, the militia had been based on the principle of universal military service: all men in the colony were required to muster for training once a year. These first volunteer units -- created in 1855 -- were so popular that additional units, whose members were unpaid, were authorized the next year. This event marks the demise of conscription as an instrument of Canadian defence policy and the move to a preference for voluntarism. The militia was mainly confined to the army's three arms -- the infantry, cavalry, and artillery -- but companies of engineers were formed as early as 1862.

Punch, 11 June 1870, p. 234.

"The Canadian Volunteers' Song."

The volunteer militia scorned the Fenians, regarding them as villains rather than champions of a just cause.
Cheap Death to Suit the Times.
Grip, 1894. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

"Cheap Death to Suit the Times."



Throughout the late nineteenth century, the militia often performed duties associated with domestic security. They were assigned such tasks as tax collection and security at public hangings and, at one time, were even required to separate warring Catholics and Orangemen in Guelph, Ontario. No plans were in place in the event Canada found itself at war. The militia lacked logistical support such as a service and ordnance corps to transport, equip, and supply the men. Moreover, no medical services were in place. These organizations would have to await the reforms that occurred at the turn of the century. Weaponry was inadequate, and training was deficient. Rural militia units often did not train at all, and the officers were commonly chosen for their social status or political connections, rather than their military ability.

An important innovation during this era of parsimonious defence spending was the establishment of the Royal Military College of Canada at Kingston in 1876. The college was created "for the purpose of imparting a complete education in all branches of military tactics, fortification, engineering and general scientific knowledge in subjects connected with and necessary to a thorough knowledge of the military profession, and for qualifying officers for command and for staff appointments." (2) Graduates became officers in the militia, the small permanent force, as well as the N-WMP/RCMP and military and police forces of the British Empire. Once the navy and air force were established, Royal Military College also provided officers for these branches of the armed forces.

Although ill-prepared, the militia served in 1885 against those Métis and Native peoples of the Canadian West who participated in the North-West Rebellion. Major-General Frederick Middleton commanded the small Canadian force; the local base of operations was Qu'Appelle in what is now Saskatchewan. After the initial Métis victory at Duck Lake, Middleton asked Ottawa for 2,000 more men, and the militia in Eastern Canada eagerly took up the challenge. Under the leadership of its "energetic, inventive, and efficient" (3) minister, Adolphe Caron, the Department of Militia and Defence produced small miracles in raising contingents of troops and transporting them to the West. Given that the department did not have recourse to the same resources as its American counterpart, its achievements were even more impressive. Almost 8,000 soldiers were raised in Eastern Canada and Manitoba and sent to the North-West Territories, the first two regiments arriving just two weeks after Duck Lake. The Canadian troops participated in a number of small skirmishes and attained an important victory at the Battle of Batoche, effectively crushing the insurrection.

Although the Canadian troops in the campaign displayed inconsistent combat abilities (a significant proportion of this force consisted of untrained recruits), the rapid move of the troops to the West is noteworthy. The Canadian force, along with its guns, horses, and wagons, had been forced to march over gaps in the railway lines north of Lake Superior in bitterly cold sub-zero weather. In the North-West Territories, the Canadians had faced the daunting task of moving men and equipment through blizzards and across sodden muskeg and treacherous rivers swollen with spring runoff and filled with hazardous ice floes. The successful Canadian mobilization under such extreme conditions was a major achievement. Indeed, European armies studied the deployment of Canadian troops in the North-West Territories as an example of what can be done with mobilized reservists.


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