QUEBEC-RESEARCH-L ArchivesArchiver > QUEBEC-RESEARCH > 2004-10 > 1098453172
Subject: Excerpt Of History
Date: Fri, 22 Oct 2004 09:52:55 EDT
Louis David Riel (October 22, 1844 - November 16, 1885), sometimes called
the "Father of Manitoba", was a Canadian politician and Métis leader. He led a
resistance against the Canadian government in the Canadian Northwest which
ended in his arrest and execution for treason. He is the subject of controversy
to this day.
The eldest son in a French Canadian-Métis family, Louis David Riel was born
in the Red River Settlement (now the area around Winnipeg, Manitoba) in 1844
to Louis Riel Sr. and Julie Lagimodière. His father, Louis Riel Sr. (père) was
a prominent member of the Métis community in Red River, who helped organize
the group that supported Guilleume Sayer. His mother, Julie, was the daughter
of Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière and Marie Gaboury, one of the the earliest
white families to settle in the Red River Settlement in 1806. He married
Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur in 1881 and had three children: Jean-Louis,
Marie-Angélique and a third child who died in infancy.
He was first educated by priests at St. Boniface and at age 13 he won a
scholarship to study in Montreal, Quebec to join the priesthood. After a failed
romance (the family of his fiancée Marie-Julie Guernon opposed the marriage b
ecause he was half-blood) and his father's early death in 1864, Riel lost
interest in the priesthood and withdrew from college to work as a law clerk in
the Montreal office of Rodolphe Laflamme. He returned to Red River in 1868,
after working odd jobs in Chicago, Illinois and St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Red River Rebellion
By 1868, Riel had returned from Montreal to the Red River area, where he
became a leader of the Métis. Over the next two years, he took advantage of a
gap between the departure of the Hudson's Bay Company and the appointment of a
Canadian governor to organize and head a provisional government, which
eventually negotiated the Manitoba Act with the Canadian government. The act
established Manitoba — previously part of the Northwest Territories — as a
province, and provided some protection for French language rights, an important
issue for the largely French-speaking Métis.
Before this, however, the Canadian government appointed a notoriously
anti-French governor, William McDougall. Riel's provisional government expelled
McDougall (whose term had not officially begun) from the province (October
1869), and took control of Fort Garry (Winnipeg). While in control of the fort, he
arrested a Canadian armed force of 48 men led by Major Boulton, including a
previously escaped prisoner, Thomas Scott. Major Boulton was sentenced to
death for interfering with the provisional government, but intercessions on his
behalf by Donald Smith, a representative of the Canadian government, and
others resulted in his pardon.
Thomas Scott, an Orangeman, was found guilty of defying the authority of the
provisional government, fighting with his guards, and insulting the president
— crimes not usually considered capital at the time — and sentenced to
death. Donald Smith and Major Boulton were among those who asked Riel to commute
the sentence, but Donald Smith reported Riel responding 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."
Scott was executed by a firing squad on March 4, 1870. The precise details of
Scott's execution are not known, but Boulton's memoirs of the North West
Rebellions cite John Bruce, a Métis and the first president of Riel's provisional
government, as claiming that only two bullets from the firing squad hit
Scott; one bullet hit his left shoulder, and the other his upper chest. A man
stepped forward and discharged his pistol close to Scott's head, but the bullet
penetrated the upper part of the left cheek and came out somewhere near the
cartilage of the nose. Still not dead, Scott was placed in a kind of coffin,
from which he was later reported to cry, "For God's sake take me out of here
or kill me."
Canada and Riel's government reached an agreement for the admission of
Manitoba to the Canadian confederation. Part of the agreement was that a Canadian
military expedition under Colonel Garnet Wolseley would be sent to the Red
River to provide a means of exercising Canadian authority. However, anger over
Scott's execution was growing rapidly in Ontario, and many Ontarians looked
on the purpose of the Wolseley expedition as suppression of rebellion. Riel
fled as the expedition approached the Red River. These events came to be known
as the Red River Rebellion.
The North-West Rebellion
In 1875 Riel was formally exiled from Canada for five years. He was elected
to the Canadian parliament three times while in exile, but never took his
seat. Formally, Riel had to sign a register book at least once upon being
elected; he did so under disguise, much to the consternation of Prime Minister John
A. Macdonald, who was looking for any excuse to relieve Riel of his seat.
Riel became an American citizen in 1883. The following year, he was teaching
at a Jesuit mission in St. Paul, Montana. A delegation from the community of
Métis from the south branch of the Saskatchewan River asked him to represent
them and present their grievances to the Canadian government. He did so, but
received no response. By March of 1885, Métis patience was exhausted and a
provisional government was declared.
Riel was the political and spiritual leader of the North-West Rebellion, also
known as the North-West Resistance. He was increasingly influenced by his
belief that he was divinely chosen as leader of the Métis. The Rebellion was a
dismal failure for the Métis, with most fleeing or surrendering to General
Middleton's troops. On May 15, Riel surrendered to Canadian forces, and was
tried for treason.
Execution for treason
Jury of six of Louis Riel's trial
Riel's trial was initially to be held in Winnipeg in a courtroom owned by a
subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Concerned with the possibility of
an ethnically mixed and sympathetic jury, prime minister Sir John A.
Macdonald had the trial moved to Regina, where Riel was tried before a jury composed
entirely of English and Scottish Protestants.
Riel delivered two lengthy 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, arguing, ""Life,
without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having." The jury
found him guilty but recommended mercy; nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson
sentenced him to death, with the date of his execution set for September 18th,
1885. Fifty years later one of the jurors, Edwin Brooks, said that Riel was
tried for treason but hanged for the murder of Thomas Scott.
Prior to his execution, Riel was asigned a spiritual advisor in Father André,
and was given writing materials so that he could employ his time in prison
to write a book. Boulton writes in his memoires 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. After several
requests for a retrial and an appeal to the Privy Council in England were
denied, Louis Riel was hanged for treason on November 16, 1885.
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
...[Riel's] last words were to say good-bye to Dr. Jukes and thank him for
his kindness, and just before the white cap was pulled over his face he said,
"Remerciez, Madame Forget." The cap was pulled down, and while he was praying
the trap was pulled. Death was instantaneous. His pulse ceased beating four
minutes after the trap-door fell. The body was to have been interred inside
the gallows' enclosure, and the grave was commenced, but an order came from
the Lieutenant-Governor to hand the body over to Sheriff Chapleau which was
accordingly done that night. Previously however, to handing it over, Colonel
Irvine, in presence of Dr. Jukes, Colonel McLeod and others, had the coffin
opened to inspect the body, in consequence of reports which had spread, and which
had even got into the papers, that Riel's body had been mutilated. The
mutilations consisted in Father McWilliams having cut off a lock of his hair and
beard, and in taking off his moccasin. The other moccasin and other locks of
his hair had been distributed among some of his friends. Next day he was
interred beneath the Roman Catholic Church in Regina. Subsequently his body was
removed to his mother's house, near Winnipeg, and there in presence of a large
number of people was interred at St. Boniface.
The prime minister, 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." Riel's execution caused lasting upset in
Ironically, Riel was inadvertently responsible for the successful fulfilment
of John A. Macdonald's National Dream, the building of the Canadian Pacific
Railway. At the time when Riel's second rebellion occurred, the railway was
deep financial trouble and headed for collapse. After the opening of
hostilities, the CPR played a critical role in transporting troops to the area in only
nine days as opposed to the three-month journey necessary for the Red River
Rebellion. This feat garnered sufficient political support to supply
sufficient funds to successfully complete the line.
The Saskatchewan Métis' requested land grants were all provided by the
government by the end of 1887, and the government resurveyed the Métis river lots
in accorance with their wishes. The Métis did not understand the long term
value of their new land, however, and it was soon bought by speculators who
later turned huge profits from it.
The non-Métis perception of Louis Riel as an insane traitor modified somewhat
in the 20th century. Many now view Riel as a hero who stood up for his
people in the face of a racist government. In the 1960s, the Quebec terrorist
group, the Front de libération du Québec, adopted the Louis Riel name for one of
its terrorist cells. A statue of Riel now stands on Parliament Hill in
Ottawa. Two statues of Louis Riel are located in Winnipeg. The first statue, a
depiction of Riel as a naked, tortured figure designed by Marcien Lemay, was
unveiled in 1971 and stood on the grounds of the provincial legislature for 23
years. After much outcry (especially from the Métis community) that the statue
was an undignified and gross representation of Riel, the statue was removed
and placed at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface. It was replaced in
1994 with a statue designed by Miguel Joyal showing Riel as a dignified
statesman. The student centre and campus pub at the University of Saskatchewan in
Saskatoon are named after Riel.
In numerous Saskatchewan communities, Riel is remembered in the names of
streets, schools, and other buildings. Highway 11, stretching from Regina to
just south of Prince Albert, has been named "Louis Riel Trail" by the provincial
government; the roadway passes near many of the locations of the 1885
rebellion. From the late 1960s until the early 1990s, Saskatoon hosted Louis Riel
Day, a summer celebration that included a relay race that combined running,
backpack carrying, canoeing, hill climbing, and horseback riding, as well as a
controversial cabbage roll eating contest.
As J. M. S. Careless has observed, it is possible that Riel was both a
murderer and a hero. It is also possible that he was a man whose one foolish
action drastically altered the history of his people. For example, shortly after
the Red River Rebellion the Canadian government began a program which
speculators and other non-Métis exploited to dispossess the Métis of their land; had
Scott not been executed, the government might well have supervised the
program more rigorously, given the good relations between Canada and the Métis
until that time.
On October 22, 2002, CBC Newsworld and its French-language equivalent, Réseau
de l'information, staged a condensed one-hour historical re-creation of a
retrial of Riel, with Canadian viewers invited to vote guilty or not guilty
over the Internet. The poll received 10 000 votes with 87 per cent voting not
guilty. The results of this straw poll have led to the suggestion that Riel be
pardoned by the government.
Raoul McKay and other Métis scholars have noted that Riel is a more important
figure to non-Métis than to Métis (perhaps because he is the only Métis
figure most non-Métis are aware of).