Riel, Louis
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Louis Riel
Joins the Metis leader on the gallows, as Riel recalls his struggle for his people in the moments before his execution in November, 1885. More
Riel, Louis
Louis Riel, circa 1873 (courtesy Provincial Archives of Manitoba/N-5733).
Riel, Louis, Métis leader, founder of Manitoba, central figure in the NORTH-WEST REBELLION (b at Red River Settlement [Man] 22 Oct 1844; d at Regina 16 Nov 1885). Riel was educated at St Boniface and studied for the priesthood at the Collège de Montréal. In 1865 he studied law with Rodolphe Laflamme, and he is believed to have worked briefly in Chicago, Ill, and St Paul, Minn, returning to St Boniface in 1868.

In 1869, the federal government, anticipating the transfer of Red River and the North-West from the HBC to Canadian jurisdiction, appointed William MCDOUGALL as lieutenant-governor of the new territory and sent survey crews to Red River. The Métis, fearful of the implications of the transfer, wary of the aggressive Anglo-Protestant immigrants from Ontario, and still suffering economically from the grasshopper plague of 1867-68, organized a "National Committee" of which Riel was secretary. Riel's education and his father's history marked him out as an obvious leader. The committee halted the surveys and prevented McDougall from entering Red River. On Nov 2 Ft Garry was seized, HBC officials offering no resistance. The committee then invited the people of Red River, both English and French speaking, to send delegates to Ft Garry. While they were discussing a "List of Rights" prepared by Riel, a group of Canadians, led by John Christian SCHULTZ and John Stoughton DENNIS, organized an armed resistance. Meanwhile, the federal government postponed the transfer, planned for Dec 1, and Dennis and McDougall returned to Canada. When Schultz and his men surrendered to Riel, he imprisoned them in Ft Garry, issued a "Declaration of the People of Rupert's Land and the Northwest," and on Dec 23 became head of the "provisional government" of Red River. The Canadian government sent special commissioners "of goodwill" to Red River: Abbé J.B. Thibault, Col Charles de Salaberry and Donald A. SMITH, chief representative of the HBC in Canada. Smith persuaded Riel to summon a general meeting, at which it was decided to hold a convention of 40 representatives of the settlement, equally divided between English and French speakers. Its first meeting was Jan 26. The delegates debated a new "List of Rights" and endorsed Riel's provisional government. The Canadian prisoners taken in Dec were released (some had escaped earlier) and plans were made to send 3 delegates to Ottawa to negotiate the entry of Red River into CONFEDERATION.

Meanwhile a force of some of the Canadians who had escaped, mustered by Schultz and surveyor Thomas SCOTT and led by Canadian militia officer Charles Boulton, gathered at Portage la Prairie, hoping to enlist support in the Scottish parishes of Red River. The appearance of this armed force alarmed the Métis who promptly rounded them up and imprisoned them again in Ft Garry. The Métis convened a court-martial at which Boulton was condemned to death. Smith intervened, however, and the sentence was remitted. But, at a court-martial presided over by Riel's associate, Ambroise Lépine, the obstreperous Scott was sentenced to death. This time Smith's appeals were rejected and Scott was executed by firing squad on 4 Mar 1870.

Riel, Louis and the Provisional Government
Riel's (centre), first provisional government, 1869 (courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-1039-1).
Bishop A.A. TACHÉ of St Boniface, summoned from the 1870 Ecumenical Council in Rome, reached Red River 4 days after Scott's death, bringing a copy of the federal proclamation of amnesty which he believed included any actions up to that date. Taché persuaded Riel's council to free all prisoners and send the delegates to Ottawa. Despite opposition from the Orange Lodges of Ontario, of which Thomas Scott had been a member, Riel's delegates obtained an agreement, embodied in the MANITOBA ACT passed 12 May 1870, and the transfer was set for July 15. In addition, the federal government agreed to a land grant of 1 400 000 acres (566 580 ha) for the Métis and to bilingual services for the new province. Other than verbal assurances, there was no specific mention of the amnesty, however.

To reassure Ontario and support the administration of the new lieutenant-governor A.G. ARCHIBALD, the federal government sent a military force to Red River under Col Garnet WOLSELEY in the summer of 1870. Though the RED RIVER EXPEDITION was supposed to be "a mission of peace," Riel had reason to fear its arrival and fled to the US. Later he returned quietly to his home at St-Vital and, when the province was threatened with a FENIAN raid from the US in the autumn of 1871, offered a force of Métis cavalry to Archibald.

In Ontario, however, Riel was widely denounced as Thomas Scott's "murderer" and a reward of $5000 was offered for his arrest. In Québec he was regarded as a hero, a defender of the Roman Catholic faith and French culture in Manitoba. Anxious to avoid a political confrontation with the 2 principal provinces of Canada, Sir John A. MACDONALD tried to persuade Riel to remain in voluntary exile in the US, even providing him with funds. But, encouraged by his friends, Riel entered federal politics. Successful in a by-election in 1873 and in the general election of 1874, Riel went to Ottawa and signed the register but was expelled from the House on a motion introduced by the Ontario Orange leader Mackenzie BOWELL. Although re-elected, Riel did not attempt to take his seat again. Meanwhile Ambroise Lépine was arrested, tried and condemned to death for the "murder" of Thomas Scott. Subsequently, his sentence was commuted to 2 years' imprisonment and loss of political rights. In Feb 1875 the federal government finally adopted a motion granting amnesty to Riel and Lépine, conditional on 5 years' banishment from "Her Majesty's dominions."

Shortly after, Riel suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital at Longue Pointe (Montréal) as "Louis R. David," and later transferred to the mental asylum at Beauport, Qué, as "Louis La Rochelle." Always introspective by nature and strongly religious, Riel became obsessed with the idea that his was a religious mission - to establish a new N American Catholicism with Bishop BOURGET of Montréal as Pope of the New World. Released in Jan 1878, he spent some time in Keeseville, NY, and then set out for the Upper Missouri region of Montana territory where he engaged in trade, joined the Republican Party, became an American citizen, and married a Métis, Marguerite Monet, dit Bellehumeur. In 1883 he became a schoolteacher at St Peter's mission on the Sun R and in June 1884 was asked by a group of Canadian Métis to help them obtain their legal rights in the Saskatchewan valley.

Early in July Riel and his family reached BATOCHE, the main centre of Métis settlement in Saskatchewan. He conducted a peaceful agitation, speaking throughout the district and preparing a petition. Sent to Ottawa in Dec, Riel's petition was acknowledged and the federal government promised to appoint a commission to investigate and report on western problems.

Early in 1885, however, Riel encountered opposition in Saskatchewan because of his unorthodox religious views, old memories of Thomas Scott's execution, and his reiteration of his personal claims against the federal government (which he estimated at $35 000) which suggested self-interest as the motive behind his political activity. His exasperation mounted and he began to contemplate direct action. But 1885 was not 1870 when Wolseley had taken several months to lead a military force to Ft Garry. By 1885 the North-West Mounted Police had been established and a railway to the West almost completed. Nevertheless, convinced that God was directing him, and seeing himself as the "Prophet of the New World," on March 19 Riel seized the parish church at Batoche, armed his men, formed a provisional government and demanded the surrender of Ft Carlton. The ensuing fighting lasted scarcely 2 months before Riel surrendered (see NORTH-WEST REBELLION).

On 6 July 1885, a formal charge of treason was laid against him and on 20 July his trial began at Regina. His counsel proposed to defend him on the grounds of insanity, but Riel repudiated that defence and, in the face of damning statements by his cousin, Charles Nolin, who had opposed him in 1870 and deserted him in 1885, the jury found him guilty. However, they recommended clemency. The verdict was appealed to the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba and to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Both appeals were dismissed, but public pressure, particularly from Québec, delayed execution pending an examination of Riel's mental state. The 3 examining physicians found Riel excitable, but only one considered him insane. Owing to questionable excisions, the official version of the report did not reveal any difference of opinion and the federal Cabinet decided in favour of hanging. Riel was executed at Regina 16 Nov 1885. His body was sent to St Boniface and interred in the cemetery in front of the cathedral.

Politically and philosophically, Riel's execution has had a lasting effect on Canadian history. In the West, the immediate result was to depress the lot of the Métis. In central Canada, FRENCH CANADIAN NATIONALISM was strengthened and Honoré MERCIER came to power in Québec in 1886. In the longer term Québec voters moved from their traditional support of the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party led by Wilfrid LAURIER. Even after a century, Riel and his fate excite political debate, particularly in Québec and Manitoba. Riel's execution has remained a contentious issue even today and demands have been made for a retroactive pardon.

See also RED RIVER REBELLION.

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