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Young Louis Riel

Louis Riel (1844-1885) was the leader of the Métis, who are the descendants of the indigenous (Indian) population and especially French immigrants. He is now widely recognized as the founder of the Canadian province of Manitoba.

He was born in the Red River colony, as the eldest of eleven children. This settlement was located in Rupert's Land, which was controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company.

At the St Boniface College of Red River, he attracted the attention of Bishop Alexandre Taché by his unmistakable intellectual gifts and his deep religious conviction. The bishop selected him for higher studies, and possibly to be ordained as a priest. At age thirteen, he was sent to the Montreal seminary, but in 1864 he broke off his studies when his father died, with whom he had a very close relationship.

He continued his education as a lawyer, but two years later he encountered another personal tragedy, when his fiancee passed away. He stopped his studies and went to work in the United States. In 1868, he returned to Red River, at the age of 24.

The Red River rebellion

Shortly after his return, the settlement discovered that the Canadian government intended to buy Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company. The French Métis foresaw that a flood of English Protestants would come from Ontario, and that this would make them a minority in what they saw as their homeland. Until then, they represented 89% of the population in this fertile agricultural area.

Knowing well the English mentality, they feared that, like the Indians, they would lose all of their religious, linguistic and property rights. They chose Riel as spokesman, given his obvious intellect and his large education.

Louis Riel 1He turned out to be a born leader, and in December 1869, with 400 French Métis, he captured Fort Garry, the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company.

After this "Red River Rebellion", he assumed the military administration of the settlement. Riel proclaimed a provisional government, and soon became its president. He obtained the cooperation of nearly all the Red River settlers, including the whites and the English-speaking Métis (a cross between Scottish and Irish with the indigenous population), by inviting them to several conventions in Fort Garry, whereby they could explain their problems and their wishes.

The Red River community wanted to join Canada as an independent province, and it asked the federal government to recognize their property rights to the lands that they had cultivated for years.

The Manitoba Act

This of course represented a major setback for the English politicians and financial circles in Ottawa, as they had counted on large and quick profits through the sale of "new territory", as had happened before with Indian lands. Another important consideration was that the British considered the Métis to be an inferior race, that furthermore was predominantly French and Catholic...

At that time, the federal government didn't have the means to send troops to the area in the winter, and therefore they accepted, with obvious reluctance, to receive the Métis delegates in Ottawa.

Louis Riel 2In May 1870, the Canadian Parliament accepted most of the Métis proposals, and it passed the Manitoba Act, that recognized the Red River settlement and a territory of 600,000 hectares around it as the new province of Manitoba. The Canadian government, much against its will, solemnly promised to recognize all Métis property rights and to allow bilingual institutions and Catholic schools. The rest of Rupert's Land became part of the Northwest Territories.

However, the Manitoba Act proved to be an empty victory for the Métis. In secret, the Canadian government already conspired to retract all its promises ! Even while the Métis delegates negotiated in Ottawa, new and armed (British) troops and settlers were sent to the Red River area.

These immediately rebelled and asked for a complete annexation by Canada, after the well-rehearsed examples of Florida and Texas. However, the Métis interim government caught them, and after a trial, their leader was executed. This incident provided the perfect opportunity for the British Ottawa politicians to scream bloody murder about the vicious Métis, who had "murdered" a perfectly innocent and completely disinterested "Patriot"...

In August 1870, or less than three months after the treaty, the federal government sent 12,000 troops and British settlers from Ontario to the area, and gradually they expelled most of the Métis from their lands. Exactly as had happened before with the Indians, and without any respect for their own Manitoba Act... Riel was declared a traitor, and he fled to the United States.

Riel in parliament

In December 1870, Riel quietly returned to Red River. In 1873, he was again elected by the local population to represent them in the Canadian Parliament. The political caste in Ottawa was forced to admit him as a democratically elected representative, but he was not allowed to represent his constituents ! Whom exactly he was then representing, was momentarily not to be taken into consideration... Truly political fuzzy logic !

Louis Riel 3Under intense pressure from the population, parliament finally granted him a full amnesty in 1875, but only on condition that he would leave Canada for five years. Which was another clever ruse, to remove him from the political scene and to estrange him from his voters. Meanwhile, the local population could be further watered down with English immigrants.

The conspiracy worked perfectly. By 1882, the Red River population had increased fivefold, and by then, the original francophone Métis represented only a minority. Auf Wiedersehen, Riel !...

All these tensions were too much for Riel, who despite his high intellect was rather mentally unstable. In 1875 he had a major nervous breakdown, and his family put him in an asylum in Montreal for three years, under an assumed name. Riel himself insisted that he wasn't irrational at all, but that he was an inspired prophet, who had a divine mission on earth... By his remarkable religious statements, he also clashed with the Catholic Church. He remained in various institutions until 1878.

Riel went to Montana, where he joined a group of Métis buffalo hunters. However, his ambitions had not decreased after all his experiences. He almost immediately made new plans to invade Canada, and to set up a new confederation of Métis and Indians in the northwest. However, his grand plans didn't receive too much acclaim, and eventually he settled in the St. Peter's Mission in Sun River, Montana, where he became a teacher. In 1883 he became an American citizen.

The Northwest rebellion

In 1884, many Métis who had been expelled from Manitoba had settled in the Northwest Territories. But again British Canadians appeared, who once again expelled them from their lands. History repeated itself. The Métis wanted official recognition of their property rights, but the federal government simply never responded to what they considered to be a difficult group of half-breeds...

The Métis united, and again they asked Riel to represent them against this hostile federal government. Riel was still convinced that he had a divine mission to establish a Métis nation, and he asked the Ottawa government to negotiate the inclusion of the territory in the Canadian Confederation.

His requests were exactly the same as before ; land and recognition of property rights for the Métis, self-governance and representation in the Canadian Parliament. The federal government once again turned a blind eye on their demands.

After Métis tensions rose, in March 1885, Riel again formed a provisional government in the Batoche settlement. The government immediately sent a detachment of the Northwest Mounted Police to clamp down on this new "Northwest Rebellion", but an alliance of Métis and Cree defeated them.

Then the Canadian government sent massive forces to the area, as it was now easily accessible by the construction of the new railroad. In May, after heavy fighting, the uprising was bloodily crushed.

The elimination of Louis Riel and the Métis

Riel's supporters asked him to flee to the United States, but in Ottawa a diabolical political plot was hatched, designed to get rid of him once and for all.

Bishop Taché, his old mentor, was recruited in good faith to negotiate with Riel, with the solemn promise that he would receive a full amnesty, if only he would stand trial. Riel surrendered and looked forward to the trial to publicly expose the injustice in the government relations with the Métis. In July 1885, the trial took place in Regina, Saskatchewan, but the promised amnesty seemed to have evaporated...

Louis Riel 4 - the trialThe lawyers that were assigned to him refused to plead the case of the Métis, or any case for that matter, and they simply declared Riel to be insane. He strongly opposed his lawyer's point of view, but he was not allowed to defend himself, or even raise the subject of the Métis !

The jury immediately found him guilty of high treason, armed rebellion and murder of an "innocent" British settler in Red River (facts for which he had previously received a full amnesty...), and sentenced him to be hanged, insane or not... On November 16, 1885, he was hanged.

Finally, the English Protestant politicians had a free reign, and the influential eastern financial circles, together with the allmighty Canadian Pacific Railway, were able to pursue their greedy chase of quick profits.

Bishop Taché made strong public statements about political deception and treachery, but he was summoned by his religious superiors and was rebuked for publicly expressing his views... The Métis, the French-Catholic population group that had made up the great majority of the inhabitants of the area for nearly two hundred years, were almost completely expelled or exterminated. In 1890, French was banned, and all French and Catholic institutions were closed !

Riel's legacy

Louis Riel 5 - headstoneThe person of Riel is viewed in different ways, depending on the population group.

  • To the British colonists he is a traitorous rebel
  • to the French Canadians he is a martyr, who stood up for the rights of a French Catholic minority, in a majority of Protestant Anglophiles
  • to the Métis he is a hero, a leader, and an expert representative
  • to the Western Canadians he symbolizes the resistance of the little man against powerful but anonymous political and economic forces in Ontario and Quebec.

More recently, Riel is also depicted as a leader, who resisted the still medieval mentality of British colonial domination.

In a way, he summarizes the many underlying tensions in Canada : English versus French, Protestant versus Catholic, white versus native, and east versus west !

Video : the trial of Louis Riel

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