Widely considered the father of Manitoba, Louis Riel has long been among the most controversial figures in Canadian history. The eldest son of a prominent Métis family, Riel was born in St. Boniface in 1844



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LOUIS RIEL
Widely considered the father of Manitoba, Louis Riel has long been among the most controversial figures in Canadian history. The eldest son of a prominent Métis family, Riel was born in St. Boniface in 1844. At 14, he was sent to Montreal to be educated as a priest. After six years, he withdrew from college to help support his widowed mother and siblings. By 1868, he had worked his way back to St. Boniface.
Given no voice in Canada’s negotiations with the Hudson Bay Company to annex Rupert’s Land, the people of the Red River colony had become deeply divided. English Protestants looked forward to the economic potential of the deal, French Catholic Métis feared losing traditional lands and a handful of Canadians and Americans feared each other’s expansionist intentions.
An 1869, land surveying became a flashpoint that stimulated Riel to help form the National Committee. This Métis militia turned back a survey party at the U.S. border and, led by Riel, took possession of Upper Fort Garry at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Riel worked peacefully to bring Red River residents together in a provisional government that prepared a list of rights and presented it in Ottawa during the winter of 1870. On May 12, Canada passed the Manitoba Act of 1870. The act won unanimous approval from Riel’s provisional government on June 24 and came into effect July 15. At just 26 years of age, Louis Riel had successfully led the people of Red River colony in creating a new province.
Unfortunately, the tenure of Riel’s provisional government was marred by an event that saw a Canadian agitator, who had attempted to set off civil war in the Red River settlement, tried for insubordination and executed. Riel was vilified in eastern Canada for allowing the execution. Fearing being lynched as a murderer, he fled to the United States just as the Wolseley expedition arrived at Red River to establish order and peace in the new province.
During the next dozen years, Riel experienced many turns of fate and fortune. He was repeatedly elected a federal representative to Ottawa and denied his seat. He was granted amnesty on a conviction of murder in the 1870 execution of the agitator at Red River, but was exiled for a period of five years. He was committed to a mental institution as delusional for a period. By 1881, now married, he was living in Montana, earning a meagre living as a teacher. He even became involved briefly in state politics, becoming an American citizen in 1883.
The most fateful turn of Riel’s career was in 1884. He accepted an invitation to lead Métis people of Saskatchewan territory in addressing the same grievances dealt with at Red River 14 years earlier. Riel saw it as an opportunity to create a Métis homeland but, this time, his petitions were not met peacefully. The Métis suffered a decisive loss in the Riel Rebellion at Batoche from May 9 to 12, 1885. Taken to Regina, Riel was found guilty of high treason against the federal government and executed on November 16, 1885. His remains now lie in the cemetery of St. Boniface Cathedral.


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