Louis Riel (October 22, 1844 - November 16, 1885) was a Canadian politician, founder of the province of Manitoba, and leader of the Métis people of the Canadian prairies.
Riel led two resistance movements against the Canadian government, the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870 and the North-West Rebellion of 1885. In the 15 years between the two conflicts, he went into exile in the United States, was elected three times to the Canadian House of Commons (he never assumed his seat), married and had two children, and became a United States citizen.
Riel sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands in the Northwest fell progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence. He came to believe that he was a divinely chosen leader and prophet of the Métis, which led to his being committed to an asylum for the mentally ill for nearly two years from 1876 to 1878.
The North-West Rebellion of 1885 ended in Riel's arrest, trial, and execution on charges of treason. His trial was arguably the most famous trial in the history of Canada. He was hanged November 16, 1885 in Regina, District of Assiniboia (now Saskatchewan).
Riel was viewed sympathetically in French speaking regions of Canada, and his execution had a lasting influence on relations between the province of Quebec and English-speaking Canada. It led to fierce outbreaks of racism in Quebec and Ontario and marked the beginning of the Canadian nationalist movement.
Riel's reputation was maligned as a traitor for more than one hundred years. It was not until 1992 that Canada acknowledged him as the founder of Manitoba province. Today he is considered more a folk hero. Whether seen as a Father of Confederation or a traitor, he remains one of the most complex, controversial, and tragic figures in the history of Canada.
Early lifeLouis Riel, age 14
The Red River Settlement was a community in Rupert's Land nominally administered by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), and largely inhabited by First Nations tribes and the Métis, an ethnic group of mixed Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, French Canadian, Scottish, and English descent.
Louis Riel was born there in 1844, near modern Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Louis Riel Sr. and Julie Lagimodière. He was the eldest of 11 children in a well-respected French Canadian-Métis family. His father had gained prominence in the community by organizing a group that supported Guillaume Sayer, a Métis imprisoned for challenging the Hudson's Bay Company's historical trade monopoly.1 Sayer's eventual release as a result of agitations by Louis Sr.'s group effectively ended the monopoly, and the name Riel became well known in the Red River area. His mother was the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière and Marie-Anne Gaboury, one of the earliest Caucasian families to settle in the Red River Settlement in 1812. The Riels were noted for their devout Catholicism and strong family ties.2
Riel was first educated by Roman Catholic priests at Saint Boniface. At age 13 he came to the attention of Alexandre Taché, the suffragan Bishop of St. Boniface, who was eagerly promoting the priesthood for young Métis. In 1858 Taché arranged for Riel to attend the Petit Séminaire of the Collège de Montréal in Montreal, Quebec, under the direction of the Sulpician order. Descriptions of him at the time indicate that he was a fine scholar of languages, science, and philosophy, but that he exhibited a frequent and unpredictable moodiness.2
Following his father's premature death in 1864, Riel lost interest in the priesthood and withdrew from the college in March 1865. For a short time following, he continued his studies as a day student in the convent of the Grey Nuns. He remained in Montreal over a year, living at the home of his aunt, Lucie Riel. Impoverished by the death of his father, Riel took employment as a law clerk in the Montreal office of Rodolphe Laflamme.
During this time he was involved romantically with a young woman named Marie-Julie Guernon. This progressed to the point of Riel having signed a contract of marriage, but his fiancée's family opposed her involvement with a Métis, and the engagement was soon broken. Compounding this disappointment, Riel found legal work unpleasant, and by early 1866 he had resolved to leave Quebec. It is reported that he worked odd jobs in Chicago, Illinois while staying with poet Louis-Honoré Fréchette, and wrote poems himself in the manner of Alphonse de Lamartine; also that he was then for a time employed as a clerk in St. Paul, Minnesota prior to returning to the Red River Settlement on July 26, 1868.2
Red River Rebellion
The majority population of the Red River Colony had historically been Métis and First Nation people. But upon his return, Riel found that religious, nationalistic, and racial tensions were exacerbated by an influx of Anglophone Protestant settlers from Ontario. The political situation was also uncertain, as ongoing negotiations for the transfer of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada had not addressed the political terms of transfer. Finally, despite warnings to the Macdonald government from Bishop Taché and the Hudson's Bay Company governor William Mactavish that any such activity would precipitate unrest, the Canadian minister of public works, William McDougall, ordered a survey of the area. The arrival on August 20, 1869 of a survey party headed by Colonel John Stoughton Dennis increased anxiety among the Métis.3 The Métis did not possess title to their land, which was in any case laid out according to the seigneurial system rather than in English-style square lots.
Riel emerges as a leader
In late August, Riel denounced the survey in a speech, and on October 11, 1869, the survey's work was disrupted by a group of Métis that included Riel. This group organized itself as the "Métis National Committee" on October 16, with Riel as secretary and John Bruce as president.4 When summoned by the HBC-controlled Council of Assiniboia to explain his actions, Riel declared that any attempt by Canada to assume authority would be contested unless Ottawa had first negotiated terms with the Métis. Nevertheless, the non-bilingual McDougall was appointed the lieutenant governor-designate, and attempted to enter the settlement on November 2. McDougall's party was turned back near the U.S. border, and on the same day, Métis led by Riel seized Fort Garry.
On November 6, Riel invited Anglophones to attend a convention alongside Métis representatives to discuss a course of action, and on December 1 he proposed to this convention a list of rights to be demanded as a condition of union. Much of the settlement came to accept the Métis point of view, but a passionately pro-Canadian minority began organizing in opposition. Loosely constituted as the Canadian Party, this group was led by John Christian Schultz, Charles Mair, Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, and a more reticent Major Charles Boulton. McDougall attempted to assert his authority by authorizing Dennis to raise a contingent of armed men, but the white settlers largely ignored this call to arms. Schultz, however, attracted approximately 50 recruits and fortified his house and store. Riel ordered Schultz's home surrounded, and the outnumbered Canadians soon surrendered and were imprisoned in Upper Fort Garry.
Provisional governmentThe Métis provisional government, Reil is seen at the center.
Hearing of the unrest, Ottawa sent three emissaries to the Red River, including Hudson's Bay Company representative Donald Alexander Smith. While they were en route, the Métis National Committee declared a provisional government on December 8th, with Riel becoming its president on December 27.5 Meetings between Riel and the Ottawa delegation took place on January 5 and 6, 1870, but when these proved fruitless, Smith chose to present his case in a public forum. Smith assured large audiences of the Government's goodwill in meetings on January 19 and 20, leading Riel to propose the formation of a new convention split evenly between French and English settlers to consider Smith's instructions. On February 7, a new list of rights was presented to the Ottawa delegation, and Smith and Riel agreed to send representatives to Ottawa to engage in direct negotiations on that basis.
Canadian resistance and the execution of Scott
Despite the apparent progress on the political front, the Canadian party continued to plot against the provisional government. However, they suffered a setback on February 17, when 48 men, including Boulton and Thomas Scott, were apprehended near Fort Garry.The execution of Thomas Scott
Boulton was tried by a tribunal headed by Ambroise-Dydime Lépine and sentenced to death for his interference with the provisional government. He was pardoned, but Scott interpreted this as weakness on the part of the Métis, whom he regarded with open contempt. After Scott repeatedly quarreled with his guards, they insisted that he be tried for insubordination. At his trial, he was found guilty of defying the authority of the provisional government and was sentenced to death. Riel was repeatedly entreated to commute the sentence, but Donald Smith reported that Riel responded to his pleas by saying:
"I have done three good things since I have commenced: I have spared Boulton's life at your instance, I pardoned Gaddy, and now I shall shoot Scott."6
Scott was executed by firing squad on March 4. Riel's motivations for allowing the execution have been the cause of much speculation, but his own justification was that he felt it necessary to demonstrate to the Canadians that the Métis must be taken seriously.
Creation of Manitoba and the Wolseley expedition
The delegates representing the provisional government departed for Ottawa in March. Although they initially met with legal difficulties arising from the execution of Scott, they were soon able to enter into direct talks with Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier. An agreement enshrining the demands in the list of rights was quickly reached, and this formed the basis for the Manitoba Act 7 of May 12, 1870, which formally admitted Manitoba into the Canadian confederation. However, the negotiators were unable to secure a general amnesty for the provisional government.
As a means of exercising Canadian authority in the settlement and dissuading American expansionists, a Canadian military expedition under Colonel Garnet Wolseley was dispatched to the Red River. Although the government described it as an "errand of peace", Riel learned that Canadian militia elements in the expedition meant to lynch him, and he fled as the expedition approached the Red River. The arrival of the expedition on August 20 marked the effective end of the Red River Rebellion.
It was not until September 2, 1870 that the new lieutenant-governor Adams George Archibald arrived and set about the establishment of civil government. In the absence of an amnesty, and with the Canadian militia beating and intimidating his sympathizers, Riel fled to the safety of the St. Joseph's mission across the border in the Dakota Territory. However the results of the first provincial election in December 1870 were promising for Riel, as many of his supporters came to power. Nevertheless, stress and financial troubles precipitated a serious illness that prevented his return to Manitoba until May 1871.Louis Riel circa 1875
The settlement now faced another threat, this time from cross-border Fenian raids coordinated by his former associate William Bernard O'Donoghue. While the threat proved overstated, Archibald proclaimed a general call to arms on October 4th. Companies of armed horsemen were raised, including one led by Riel. When Archibald reviewed the troops in St. Boniface, he made the significant gesture of publicly shaking Riel's hand, signaling that a rapprochement had been effected. But this was not to be-when this news reached Ontario, Mair and members of the Canada First movement whipped up a significant resurgence of anti-Riel (and anti-Archibald) sentiment. With Federal elections coming in 1872, Macdonald could ill afford further rift in Quebec-Ontario relations. He therefore quietly arranged for Taché to convince Riel to relocate to St. Paul Minnesota, where he arrived on March 2, 1872. However, by late June Riel was back in Manitoba and was soon convinced to run as a member of parliament for the electoral district of Provencher. However, following the early September defeat of Cartier in his home riding in Quebec, Riel stood aside so that Cartier-on record as being in favor of amnesty for Riel-might secure a seat. Cartier won by acclamation, but Riel's hopes for a swift resolution to the amnesty question were dashed following Cartier's death on May 20, 1873.
In the ensuing by-election in October 1873, Riel ran unopposed as an Independent, although he had once again fled in response to a warrant having been issued for his arrest in September. Lépine was not so lucky; he was captured and faced trial. Riel made his way to Montreal and, fearing arrest or assassination, vacillated as to whether he should attempt to take up his seat in the House of Commons-Edward Blake, the Premier of Ontario, had announced a bounty of $5,000 for his arrest.8
Famously, Riel was the only Member of Parliament who was not present for the great Pacific Scandal debate of 1873 that led to the resignation of the Macdonald government in November. Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie became the interim Prime Minister of Canada, and a general election was held in February 1874. Although the Liberals under Mackenzie formed the new government, Riel easily retained his seat. Formally, Riel had to sign a register book at least once upon being elected, and he did so under disguise in late January. He was nevertheless stricken from the rolls following a motion supported by Schultz, who had become the member for the electoral district of Lisgar. Undeterred, Riel prevailed once again in the resulting by-election of October 1874, and although once again expelled, his symbolic point had been made and public opinion in Quebec was strongly tipped in his favor.
Exile and allegations of mental illness
During this period, Riel had been staying with priests of the Oblate order in Plattsburgh, New York who introduced him to Father Fabien Martin dit Barnabé in the nearby village of Keeseville. It was here that he received news of Lépine's fate: following his trial for the murder of Scott, which had begun on October 13, 1874, Lépine was found guilty and sentenced to death. This sparked outrage in the sympathetic Quebec press, and calls for amnesty for both Lépine and Riel were renewed. This presented a severe political difficulty for Mackenzie, who was hopelessly caught between the demands of Quebec and Ontario. However, a solution was forthcoming when, acting on his own initiative, the Governor General Lord Dufferin commuted Lépine's sentence in January 1875. This opened the door for Mackenzie to secure from parliament an amnesty for Riel, on that the condition that he remain in exile for five years.
During his time of exile, Riel was primarily concerned with religious rather than political matters. Spurred on by a sympathetic Roman Catholic priest in Quebec, he was increasingly influenced by his belief that he was a divinely chosen leader of the Métis.
During this period his mental state deteriorated, and following a violent outburst he was taken to Montreal, where he was put under the care of his uncle, John Lee, for a few months. But after Riel disrupted a religious service, Lee arranged to have him committed in an asylum in Longue-Pointe on March 6, 1876 under the assumed name "Louis R. David." Fearing discovery, his doctors soon transferred him to the Beauport Asylum near Quebec City under the name "Louis Larochelle." While he suffered from sporadic irrational outbursts, he continued his religious writing, composing theological tracts with an admixture of Christian and Judaic ideas. He began calling himself Louis "David" Riel, prophet of the new world, and he would pray (standing) for hours, having servants help him to hold his arms in the shape of a cross. Eventually, Riel was considered "recovered" and was released from the asylum on January 23, 1878 with an admonition to lead a quiet life.9
Montana and family lifeJean-Louis and Marie-Angélique Riel, children of Louis Riel
In the fall of 1878, Riel returned to St. Paul, and briefly visited his friends and family. This was a time of rapid change for the Métis of the Red River-the buffalo on which they depended were becoming increasingly scarce, the influx of settlers was ever-increasing, and lots of land were sold to unscrupulous land speculators. Like other Red River Métis who had left Manitoba, Riel headed further west in an attempt to begin life anew. Traveling to the Montana Territory, he became a trader and interpreter in the area surrounding Fort Benton. Observing rampant alcoholism and its detrimental impact on the Native American and Métis people, he engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to curtail the whisky trade.
In 1881, he married Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur (1861-1886), a young Métis, "in the fashion of the country" on April 28, an arrangement that was solemnized the following March. They would go on to have three children: Jean-Louis (1882-1908); Marie-Angélique (1883-1897); and a boy who was born and died on October 21, 1885, less than one month before Riel's death.
Riel soon became involved in the politics of Montana, and in 1882, actively campaigned on behalf of the Republican Party. He brought a suit against a Democrat for rigging a vote, but was then himself accused of fraudulently inducing British subjects to take part in the election. In response, Riel applied for United States citizenship and was naturalized on March 16, 1883.10 With two young children, he had by 1884 settled down and was teaching school at the St. Peter's Jesuit mission in the Sun River district of Montana.
The North-West Rebellion
Grievances in the Saskatchewan territory
Following the Red River Rebellion, Métis travelled west and settled in the Saskatchewan Valley, especially along the south branch of the river in the country surrounding the Saint-Laurent mission (near modern St. Laurent de Grandin, Saskatchewan). But by the 1880s, it had become clear that westward migration was no panacea for the troubles of the Métis and the plains Indians. The rapid collapse of the buffalo herd was causing near starvation among the Plains Cree and Blackfoot First Nations. This was exacerbated by a reduction in government assistance in 1883, and by a general failure of Ottawa to live up to its treaty obligations. The Métis were likewise obliged to give up the hunt and take up agriculture-but this transition was accompanied by complex issues surrounding land claims similar to those that had previously arisen in Manitoba. Moreover, settlers from Europe and the eastern provinces were also moving into the Saskatchewan territories, and they too had complaints related to the administration of the territories. Virtually all parties therefore had grievances, and by 1884 English settlers, Anglo-Métis and Métis communities were holding meetings and petitioning a largely unresponsive government for redress. In the electoral district of Lorne, a meeting of the south branch Métis was held in the village of Batoche on March 24th, and thirty representatives voted to ask Riel to return and represent their cause. On May 6th a joint "Settler's Union" meeting was attended by both the Métis and English-speaking representatives from Prince Albert, including William Henry Jackson, an Ontario settler sympathetic to the Métis and known to them as Honoré Jackson, and James Isbister of the Anglo-Métis. It was here resolved to send a delegation to ask Riel's assistance in presenting their grievances to the Canadian government.
Return of Riel
The head of the delegation to Riel was Gabriel Dumont, a respected buffalo hunter and leader of the Saint-Laurent Métis who had known Riel in Manitoba. James Isbister was the lone Anglo-Métis delegate. Riel was easily swayed to support their cause-which was perhaps not surprising in view of his continuing conviction of his role to lead the Métis as prophet. He also saw the benefit of using the new position of influence to pursue his own land claims in Manitoba. The party departed June 4th, and arrived at Batoche on July 5th. Upon his arrival Métis and English settlers alike formed an initially favorable impression of Riel following a series of speeches in which he advocated moderation and a reasoned approach.
During June 1884, the Plains Cree leaders Big Bear and Poundmaker were independently formulating their complaints, and subsequently held meetings with Riel. However, the Indians' grievances were quite different from those of the settlers, and nothing was then resolved. Inspired by Riel, Honoré Jackson and representatives of other communities set about drafting a petition,11 and Jackson on July 28th released a manifesto detailing grievances and the settler's objectives. A joint English-Métis central committee with Jackson acting as secretary worked to reconcile proposals from different communities.
In the interim, Riel's support began to waver. As Riel's religious pronouncements became increasingly removed from Roman Catholicism, the clergy began to distance themselves, and Father Alexis André cautioned Riel against mixing religion and politics. Also, in response to bribes by territorial lieutenant-governor and Indian commissioner Edgar Dewdney, local English language newspapers adopted an editorial stance critical of Riel. Nevertheless, the work continued, and on December 16 Riel forwarded the committee's petition to the government, along with the suggestion that delegates be sent to Ottawa to engage in direct negotiation. Receipt of the petition was acknowledged by Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, Macdonald's Secretary of State, although Macdonald himself would later deny having ever seen it. 5
While Riel awaited news from Ottawa he considered returning to Montana, but had by February resolved to stay. During this time his relationship with the Catholic Church further deteriorated, as he began to speak out publicly with what the church hierarchy considered an increasingly heretical doctrine.
On February 11, 1885, a response to the petition was received. The government proposed to take a census of the North-West Territories, and to form a commission to investigate grievances. This angered the Métis, who interpreted this as a mere delaying tactic, and a faction emerged that favored taking up arms at once. This was not supported by the Church, the majority of the English-speaking community, or, indeed, by the Métis faction supporting local leader Charles Nolin. But Riel became increasingly supportive of this course of action. Disenchanted with the status quo, and swayed by Riel's charisma and eloquent rhetoric, Métis remained loyal to Riel, despite his outspokenness against church leadership and differing religious views.
On March 18 it became known that the North-West Mounted Police garrison at Battleford was being reinforced. Although only 100 men had been sent, a rumor began to circulate that 500 heavily armed troops were advancing on the territory. Métis patience was exhausted, and Riel's followers seized arms, took hostages, and cut the telegraph lines between Batoche and Battleford. The Provisional Government of Saskatchewan was declared at Batoche on March 19, with Riel as the political and spiritual leader and with Dumont assuming responsibility for military affairs. Riel formed a council called the Exovedate12 (meaning "those who have left the flock"), and sent representatives to court Poundmaker and Big Bear. On March 21, Riel's emissaries demanded that Crozier surrender Fort Carlton, but this was refused. The situation was becoming critical, and on March 23 Dewdney sent a telegraph to Macdonald indicating that military intervention might be necessary. Scouting near Duck Lake on March 26, a force led by Gabriel Dumont unexpectedly chanced upon a party from Fort Carlton. In the ensuing Battle of Duck Lake, the police were routed, and the Indians also rose up once the news became known. The die was cast for a violent outcome, and the North-West Rebellion was begun in earnest.Louis Riel imprisoned in Middleton's camp at Batoche, May 16, 1885
Riel had counted on the Canadian government being unable to effectively respond to another uprising in the distant North-West Territories, thereby forcing them to accept political negotiation. This was essentially the same strategy that had worked to such great effect during the 1870 rebellion. But in that instance, the first troops did not arrive until three months after Riel seized control. However, Riel had completely overlooked the significance of the nascent Canadian Pacific Railway. Despite major gaps in railway construction, the first Canadian regular and militia units, under the command of Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton, arrived in Duck Lake less than two weeks after Riel had made his demands. Knowing that he could not defeat the Canadians in direct confrontation, Dumont had hoped to force the Canadians to negotiate by engaging in a long-drawn out campaign of guerrilla warfare; Dumont realized a modest success along these lines at the Battle of Fish Creek on April 24, 1885. Riel, however, insisted on concentrating forces at Batoche in order to defend his "City of God." The outcome of the ensuing Battle of Batoche which took place from May 9 - 12 was never in doubt, and on May 15 a disheveled Riel surrendered to Canadian forces. Although Big Bear's forces managed to hold out until the Battle of Loon Lake on June 3, the rebellion was a dismal failure for Métis and Native alike, with most surrendering or fleeing.
TrialLouis Riel testifies at his trial
The Trial of Louis Riel was arguably the most famous trial in the history of Canada.
Historian Thomas Flanagan states that amendments of the North-West Territories Act (which dropped the provision that trials with crimes punishable by death should be tried in Manitoba), compelled Prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald to convene the trial within the North-West Territories.13 Other historians contend that the trial was moved to Regina due to the likelihood that Riel would there obtain an ethnically mixed and sympathetic jury.14 In any case, it seems clear that holding the trial in Regina proved advantageous to the government: while Manitoba law guaranteed an independent superior court judge, Territorial law provided for only a trial presided over by a stipediary magistrate who was essentially a federal employee that could be discharged at the whim of the government. Moreover, while Manitoba law specified a 12-man jury and assurances of bilingual rights, Territorial law provided for only a 6-man jury, and had no protections for native French-speakers.
Riel was indicted by Judge Hugh Richardson on six counts of treason on July 20th. Critics say that the repeated charges are major clues as to the bias of the government, as this obvious misconduct should have warranted a second trial at the very least. Riel's counsel immediately challenged the court's jurisdiction, but these motions were denied. Riel then pleaded not guilty to all charges. Riel's lawyers argued for a delay for the defense to obtain witnesses. It was granted and the trial began on July 28, 1885, lasting only five days.15
Tellingly, of the 36 people receiving jury duty summons, only one spoke French - and he was in any case unable to attend. Moreover, the only Roman Catholic (an Irishman) in the jury pool was challenged by the prosecution for not being of British stock and excluded. In the event, Riel was tried before a jury of six composed entirely of English and Scottish Protestants, all from the area immediately surrounding Regina.
Riel delivered two long speeches during his trial, defending his own actions and affirming the rights of the Métis people. He rejected his lawyer's attempt to argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, asserting,
|“||Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.16||”|
The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy; nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death, with the date of his execution initially set for September 18, 1885.
Boulton writes in his memoirs that, as the date of his execution approached, Riel regretted his opposition to the defense of insanity and vainly attempted to provide evidence that he was not sane. Requests for a retrial and an appeal to the Privy Council in England were denied. Sir John A. Macdonald, who was instrumental in upholding Riel's sentence, is famously quoted as saying:
"He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour."17
Prior to his execution, Riel was reconciled with the Catholic Church, and assigned Father André as his spiritual advisor.
The sentence of Louis Riel was carried out on November 16, 1885, when he was hanged for treason.Riel's tombstone at the St. Boniface Cathedral
Boulton writes of Riel's final moments,
Père André, after explaining to Riel that the end was at hand, asked him if he was at peace with men. Riel answered "Yes." The next question was, "Do you forgive all your enemies?" "Yes." Riel then asked him if he might speak. Father André advised him not to do so. He then received the kiss of peace from both the priests, and Father André exclaimed in French, "Alors, allez au ciel!" meaning "so, to heaven!"
Père Andre and Father McWilliams prayed constantly, and Riel exclaimed as he took his stand on the platform, "I ask the forgiveness of all men, and forgive all my enemies."
The cap was pulled down, and while he was praying the trap was pulled. The result of the post mortem made by Dr. Jukes was as follows: "The execution was most cleverly performed. From the moment he fell, judging from the nature of the injuries received, he must have been entirely without sensation. The neck was entirely dislocated from the bone of the two upper joints of vertebrae, thus paralyzing all the lower portion of the body. He could have felt no pain whatever. The circulation ceased in four minutes."
The body was to have been interred inside the gallows' enclosure, and the grav