On March 26, 1885, the opening engagement of the North-West Resistance began west of the settlement of Duck Lake on the Carlton Trail. Dissatisfaction and militancy among the area's Métis and Cree had been growing since the return of Louis Riel from his Montana exile in July 1884. North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) Superintendent Leif Crozier had been monitoring the situation from his post at Battleford. In early 1885, he urged Ottawa to come to terms with Riel and the Métis, but the government of Sir John A. Macdonald ignored his request. As the predicament intensified, Crozier moved with about twenty-five men from Battleford to Fort Carlton, which was nearer to Riel's base of operations at Batoche. On March 13, Crozier warned Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney about the likelihood of a Métis rebellion. Five days later Gabriel Dumont, Riel's military commander, learned that a group of mounted policemen intended to arrest him and Riel. Accompanied by sixty to seventy supporters, both men responded by ransacking two stores, confiscating arms and ammunition, and seizing two prisoners near Batoche. On March 19, Riel proclaimed his provisional government and appointed his “exovedate” or council of fifteen men, including Dumont.
Needing supplies for his troops, Dumont ransacked a store at Duck Lake on March 25 and prepared his defences against the expected NWMP attack from Fort Carlton. Early the next morning, Crozier sent Sergeant Alfred Stewart and a small party of police and volunteers to seize the goods and arms at the Duck Lake store. Stewart's force encountered Dumont and his men on the Carlton Trail. A noisy confrontation ensued, and the police retreated. Although reinforcements were approaching, Crozier impetuously led a force of 100 mounted police and special constables out of Fort Carlton, where they confronted Dumont and 300 Métis on the Carlton Trail. A Cree emissary and a police interpreter scuffled during a brief parley, setting off gunfire and the first battle of the rebellion. Although the battle of Duck Lake lasted only thirty minutes, Crozier's force suffered severe casualties: twelve were killed and eleven were wounded, as compared to the Métis who lost only five men. The police and volunteers might have been annihilated had Dumont not suffered a head wound that prevented him from continuing to command his men; in fact, Riel prevented the slaughter of the government forces by ordering the fighting to stop.