HM - June 2015 - Storer
Louis Riel: Canada's Rebel, Madman or Prophet of Justice?
By Tina Storer, Curriculum Specialist, Center for Canadian-American Studies, Western Washington University
and Joshua Tataran, WWU Student Outreach Assistant
Throughout the country’s history, Canada has prided itself on its non-revolutionary past, as demonstrated most notably by its choice to remain a colony of Britain instead of fighting for independence like the United States. However, closer historical inquiry reveals that not everyone in Canada supported this mindset, including Suffragettes, French Canadians, Indigenous peoples, and others. Each group has faced its own struggles, fighting for what they perceived to be correct, and each merits separate study in order to develop a true understanding of what helped shape Canada as the nation we know today.
One of the earliest calls for social and political justice in Canada was headed by Louis Riel, Métis leader during the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and the North-West Resistance of 1885 in what is now the Province of Manitoba. Riel led two popular Métis governments, was central in bringing Manitoba into Confederation, and was eventually executed for high treason due to his role in the 1885 resistance to Canadian encroachment on Métis lands. Riel was initially dismissed as a rebel by Canadian historians—and known to have mental instability that even required institutionalization—although many now sympathize with Riel as a Métis leader who fought to protect his people from the Canadian government. His trial is arguably the most famous in the history of Canada, and he is considered a hero in the eyes of many today.
Louis Riel (Oct. 22, 1844—Nov. 16, 1885)
In Riel’s day, Manitoba was not yet a province of Canada like Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In the 1850s, the Hudson’s Bay Company was pressured into ceding the Red River Settlement area in its North-West holdings to the Métis peoples.
[Note: The term Métis was historically a catch-all describing the offspring of any First Nations and European union, but now the Métis are one of three federally-recognized Aboriginal groups in Canada (with the other two being First Nations and Inuit peoples). Mothers were usually Cree, Ojibwe, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Menominee, Mi'kmaq or Maliseet First Nations, and fathers were European fur-trappers. At one time there was an important distinction between French Métis born of francophone voyageur fathers, and the Anglo-Métis descended from English or Scottish fathers of the Hudson’s Bay Company; however, these two cultures have essentially coalesced into one Métis tradition today, and their native homeland includes regions scattered across Canada, as well as parts of the northern United States (specifically Montana, North Dakota, and northwest Minnesota) wherever the fur trade ruled.]
Map of Manitoba in 1870
Map of Manitoba Today
In 1869, in its quest for western expansion, Canada bought a large land package from the Hudson’s Bay Company that included the Red River Settlement. The Métis community was resentful of its new status under Canadian jurisdiction and felt isolated and disconnected from the rest of Canada. Map 1 shows how far away the seat of government, in Ottawa, was from their region. This distance, as well as the undeveloped wilderness between them, seriously hindered communication and other relations between Canada’s British-controlled central government and the inhabitants of what was soon to become Manitoba. Had the new territory been located closer to the rest of Canada, or shared a similar culture, a more peaceful integration of the region and its inhabitants might have occurred.
Instead, the relationship between the government of Canada and the Métis was full of tension, starting with an incident that spurred Louis Riel, a businessman and political leader in the Métis community, on his path toward becoming the “Father of Manitoba.” On October 11, 1869, he and several other Métis converged on the property of André Nault, Riel’s cousin, in order to protest the government surveyors who had come to transfer the land into government hands. Riel held firm to his belief that the Métis had the right to determine the nature of their territory’s entry into Canada, sparking a series of protests that would come to be known as the Red River Rebellion. His integrity and vehement defense of the rights of the Métis people inspired others to join him in resistance to the government. Although the Canadian government found him annoying, to say the least, many in the region viewed him as a father figure.
Louis Riel (center) and the Métis National Committee
Louis Riel’s success was short-lived, however. After he accomplished many goals, such as setting up the Métis National Committee, as well as helping write the Métis Bill of Rights (http://victoria.tc.ca/history/etext/metis-bill-of-rights.html), a series of unfortunate events led to his exile. He was not entirely popular with all the inhabitants of Manitoba, and in February 1870 a group of Canadians who supported Ottawa launched a counter-movement. Riel and the Métis people were able to stand their ground and resist their opponents. In fact, they took several prisoners. One of the captives, a Canadian named Thomas Scott, was shot by firing squad by Riel’s followers because he had angered the Métis people with insults. Riel allowed the execution, viewing it as the only way to maintain control of his people and not show signs of weakness. That decision would prove ill-fated. Ironically, shortly after the federal government passed the Manitoba Act on May 12, 1870 to create the new province—proving that the fight against injustice achieved meaningful political results—Riel was forced to flee to the United States because angry Canadian soldiers threatened to avenge Scott’s death.
Execution of Thomas Scott
Over the next fourteen years, Louis Riel remained devoted to his people during exile. He returned to Canada many times to support their rights, but was always forced to return to the US. He even tried, without success, to become a Member of Parliament, but his candidacy was not allowed. The US, on the other hand, offered him a safe haven whenever things turned sour up north and enabled him to still strategize politically from a distance on behalf of the Métis. He even became a US citizen and married two different American women, Evelina Barnabe and Marguerite Monet Bellehumeur.
Unable to be with his people during this period, Riel, a devout Catholic, became depressed and claimed in 1875 to have had a religious experience. He came to believe he was a prophet whom God had chosen and given the name "David." His ideas and his conduct alarmed the people around him and Riel spent two years in asylums in Québec. His opponents branded him as an insane rabble-rouser.
Louis Riel returned to Batoche, Manitoba on July 8, 1884, to help deal with Canadian settlers encroaching on land that rightfully belonged to the Métis, and this time he remained in Canada. Despite news of his mental health problems, he quickly gained respect and support from both the Métis people and First Nations tribes in the Saskatchewan River area. When a petition Riel sent to Ottawa on December 16 of that year did not result in swift action, he and his followers decided to take matters into their own hands. Although peaceful negotiations were attempted at first, fighting eventually broke out and grew into what is now called the North-West Rebellion. The Métis/First Nations coalition was defeated at the Battle of Batoche. Riel surrendered and was arrested. He gave himself up on the condition that his people would remain free, defending them to the very last moment.
Battle of Batoche
On May 20, 1885, Louis Riel was charged with high treason. He pleaded “not guilty” to the charges. At the trial, in defense of his actions, Riel stated, “I worked to better the condition of the people of the Saskatchewan at the risk of my life…to better the condition of the people of the North-West... It will be for you to pronounce - if you say I was right, you can conscientiously acquit me, as I hope through the help of God you will. You will console those who have been fifteen years around me only partaking in my sufferings. What you will do, in justice to me, in justice to my family, in justice to my friends, in justice to the North-West, will be rendered a hundred times to you in this world, and to use a sacred expression, life everlasting in the other” (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/riel/rieltrialstatement.html).
After months of deliberation, Riel was eventually found guilty and hanged on November 16, 1885. A “Heritage Minute” video about Riel’s trial and execution can be seen at www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/louis-riel-0.
Trial of Louis Riel
Louis Riel’s acts of rebellion, as well as the Canadian government’s response, had critical, lasting impacts on Canadian relations between the government and the people. Riel was able to not only secure a voice for the Métis people during his lifetime, but also gave future generations the will to resist perceived injustice. The relationship between the federal government and French Canadians was also drastically affected by Riel’s death. French Canadians felt similarly alienated from their political leaders, and Riel’s hanging led to increased friction that shaped the way politics developed between French Canadians and the federal government in the following years. Was it worth it?
Well, times have certainly changed since Riel’s death. The third Monday in February is now celebrated in Manitoba as Louis Riel Day. Many Canadians consider Riel a martyr to injustice in Canada, a man who refused to agree with what he thought was wrong, and someone whose leadership is inspirational. History has provided perspective on events, and the complexity of historical figures like Riel demonstrates to us all why digging deeper and studying history is so very important.
REFERENCES AND CLASSROOM RESOURCES
- Battle Cry at Batoche by B.J. Gayle (Dundurn, 2008)
- The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture by Albert Braz (University of Toronto Press, 2003)
- Horizons: Canada Moves West by Michael Cranny (Prentice-Hall Ginn, 1999)
- Marie-Anne: The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother by Maggie Siggins (McClelland & Stewart, 2008)
- Rebellion by W.J. Scanlon (General Publishing Co., Ltd., 1989)
- Storm at Batoche by Maxine Trottier (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2006)
- Louis Riel: Firebrand by Sharon Stewart (XYZ Publishing, 2007)
- History on Trial Teacher’s Guide to Louis Riel: www.learnalberta.ca/content/aeChapter/pdf/Alberta_Louis_Riel%20_Teacher_Guide.pdf
- The Red River and Northwest Rebellions: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:TbTdBRpimf8J:ubcostep2010.wikispaces.com/file/view/Red%2BRiver%2Band%2BNorthwest%2BRebellion%2BUnit%2BPlan.docx+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
- Canada in the Making: www.canadiana.ca/citm/specifique/rielreb_e.html
- Centre du Patrimoine: http://shsb.mb.ca/en/educational_resources/Louis_Riel
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Louis Riel: www.biographi.ca/en/bio/riel_louis_1844_85_11E.html
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Marie-Anne Gaboury (Lagemodiére): www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gaboury_marie_anne_10E.html
- Final Statement of Louis Riel: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/riel/rieltrialstatement.html
- Historica Canada “Heritage Minute”: www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/louis-riel-0
- Métis Bill of Rights: http://victoria.tc.ca/history/etext/metis-bill-of-rights.html
- Métis Nation of Ontario: www.metisnation.org/culture--heritage/louis-riel
- The Canadian Encyclopedia: www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/louis-riel/
- The Question of Louis Riel’s Insanity: www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/rielinsanity.shtml