Watch Joseph Boyden, author of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, in conversation with Allan Gregg. From YouTube.
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.
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.
Louis Riel, author
Reflecting his life as a political leader, Louis Riel's work has been relegated to the "great exiles of New World literature," according to one of his most ardent supporters, Québec writer Jean Morisset, who has written extensively on Riel as an American writer ("Louis Riel, écrivain des Amériques,"Nuit Blanche, spring 1985) and the "first 'Quebecois' poet of international stature." Throughout his short life, Riel experimented with many genres, compiling a considerable oeuvre.
As a student (1864-65) Riel was drawn to poetry. He was influenced by the great French classics, and his works reveal a passionate nature. His biographers Gilles Martel, Glen Campbell and Thomas Flanagan collected his poetry under the title Poésies de Jeunesse (1977).
With his official entry into politics (1869), Riel used verse to defend the interests of his people and give expression to his bitterness, disillusionment and anger. With the growing hostility of the political climate, Riel's tone became sardonic, mocking, increasingly vehement and virulent. His remarks were aimed primarily at his mortal enemy Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, as well as all the representatives of imperial Britain. Riel advanced his concerns in his essay L'Amnestie. Mémoire sur les causes des troubles du Nord-Ouest (1874), in which he denounced the Canadian authorities' abuse of power and the destitution of which his people were victim. Les Métis du Nord-Ouest (1885) reaffirmed native rights, and condemned the government's oppression.
After 1875 his writings attained a religious fervour, breaking out into hymns, prayers, litanies, prophesies, meditations and apologies from members of the clergy. This zeal overflowed in the Journal de Batoche (1885), a kind of testament, teeming with images, symbols, visions, biblical allusions and dreams. But Riel never appeared so shattered by humanity as in the Journal de Régina (1885), written in prison, revealing his daily struggle with his fear of death and imploring heaven to his aid. The Manitoba writer Rossel Vien (1929-92) brought it to public attention in 1962 (Journal de Prison).
On 16 November 1885 Riel's execution left his novel unfinished. Massinahican (1880-81), a word of Cree origin meaning "the book," was something of a mixture of "Métis bible" and native mythology. Claiming "divine inspiration," Riel brought together his beliefs and his religious, political and philosophical thoughts, and proposed a new cosmology that provoked the wrath of the church. Only a few fragments remain.
Author GEORGE F.G. STANLEY
P. Charlebois, The Life of Louis Riel (1975); W.M. Davidson, Louis Riel (1955); T.E. Flanagan, Louis "David" Riel: Prophet of the New World (1979) and Riel and the Rebellion, 1885 Reconsidered (1983); George F.G. Stanley et al, eds, Les Éditions complètes de Louis Riel/The Collected Works of Louis Riel (5 vols, 1985); J.K. Howard, Strange Empire (1952); George F.G. Stanley, Louis Riel (1963); Thomas Flanagan, ed, The Diaries of Louis Riel (1976); Jean Morisset (transl), Louis Riel : poèmes amériquains (1997); Gilles Martel, et al, Louis Riel, poésies de jeunesse (1977); Glen Campbell, ed, The Selected Poetry of Louis Riel (1993); Saskatchewan Archives Board, Riel's 1885 Diary (1985).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
A collection of video and audio features focusing on the life and times of Métis leader Louis Riel.
This Riel Business
View a documentary short based on "Tales from a Prairie Drifter," a stage comedy about the Northwest Rebellion performed by the Globe Theatre in Regina. From the National Film Board of Canada.
Watch the Heritage Minute about legendary Métis leader Louis Riel from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
See a detailed, illustrated biography of Louis Riel from the website of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
This illustrated Parks Canada website describes the historical features of Riel House National Historic Site of Canada.
Batoche National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada website offers a brief review of the historic Battle of Batoche, last battlefield in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.
A biography of Louis Riel from the “Canadian Confederation” website. Includes photographs and other archival resources. From Library and Archives Canada.
This biography of Alexandre-Antonin Taché is part of the “Canadian Confederation” website. Includes photographs and other archival resources. From Library and Archives Canada.
The Société Historique de Saint-Boniface
The Heritage Centre conserves and promotes resources which have cultural, heritage, judicial, and historical value; the product of Francophone presence in Western Canada and Manitoba for over the past 250 years. Their website is a great source for information about Louis Riel, Le "Voyageur," and other Manitoba history topics.
A biography of Louis Riel, the influential 19th century Métis leader. From the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography."
An extensive biography of Edgar Dewdney, civil engineer, contractor, politician, office holder, and lieutenant governor. Provides details about his involvement with Indian and Métis communities in the North-West Territories, the settlement of the West, the construction of the transcontinental railway, and related events. From the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.”
Red River Resistance
The text of a brochure which marks the 125th anniversary of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. Offers a summary of the pivotal events of 1869-1970 and provides information on a number of sites in and around Winnipeg associated with the Resistance. From the website for the Manitoba Historical Society.
Louis Riel Day
An information page about Manitoba's "Louis Riel Day." Check out the menu on the left side of the page for more on the origins of this holiday. From the website for the Government of Manitoba.
“Kootenai” Brown in the Red River Valley
A biography of frontiersman John George ‘Kootenai’ Brown, who became the first Park Superintendent of Waterton Lakes National Park. From the website for the Manitoba Historical Society.
Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont
A brief synopsis of Joseph Boyden's book about Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, from the Penguin Books' series of biographies "Extraordinary Canadians."
Red River Cartes de Visite
View a collection of vintage photos of Louis Riel and the Red River settlement. From the University of Manitoba Libraries website.