Louis Reil was a fiery leader in the Metis

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Louis Reil

Louis Reil was a fiery leader in the Metis battle against the westward expansion in Canada. Born in 1844 in the French-speaking Metis settlement of St. Boniface, Reil became a vehement defender of his people, and his actions embroiled all of Canada in the controversy. However, Reil's cause was doomed to failure, and he was eventually found guilty of treason.

The Metis

The name "Metis" is derived from the French word for "mixed." For years, French and English fur traders infiltrated the wilderness of Canada and lived alongside the First Nations. Many of these Europeans married native women, and their descendents called themselves the Metis. In the 1800's, most of the Metis lived around the Red River in the present-day province of Manitoba. This region, known as Rupert's Land, was owned by the Hudson Bay Company.

The Metis way of life was as unique as their heritage. The majority of the Metis were French-speaking, though some knew English as well. They organized land claims into rectangular plots, just as the French had done in New France, and they made their living by farming and hunting buffalo. Summer buffalo hunts were a community endeavor. The Metis would leave their farms for an extended period of time and hunt in-groups, just as their First Nations forebears had done. These groups elected temporary leaders to make decisions during the hunt.

Reil's Early Life

Reil was not a typical Metis. A precious young boy, Reil preferred reading books to hunting and fishing. A wealthy Metis recognized Reil's intellectual potential and paid for the boy's education in Montreal. At the age of 14, Reil left for Montreal in 1858. He attended Sulpician College where he studied to become a Catholic priest.

Reil did not enter the priesthood after he finished school. Instead, he returned home to the Red River regions in 1868. Reil was very unhappy at home because he could not find a job that suited his education. This situation only aggravated Reil's petulant and hot-tempered personality. The political and social issues that threatened the Metis' land also frustrated Reil. Both Canada and the US wanted to obtain Rupert's Land from the Hudson Bay Company. The Metis argued amongst themselves; some supported the coming of the Canadians, while others argued that they should become part of the United States. Most Metis understood that, no matter who took over Rupert's Land, numerous settlers would overrun the region and change the Metis way of life.

The Rebellion

The Canadian government recognized that the Americans were waiting for their chance to obtain Rupert's Land. Supporters of Canadian westward expansion, including Parliament member William McDougall, pressed for the incorporation of Rupert's Land.

The Metis' people mattered little to Ottawa, and many Canadians in the east demonstrated their apathy in the "Canada First" movement. Supporters of the movement wanted Rupert's Land purchased and annexed to allow for westward expansion. They believed settlement of the western prairies would prosper Canada. They thought the Metis were merely a small obstacle on the road to Canada's development.

Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and his government managed to buy Rupert's Land from the Hudson Bay Company in 1869. The Metis did not learn of the purchase until after it had been completed. Reil was just one of the many Metis who were angered by this turn of events. They feared that the Canadian government would have no regard for the Metis' land ownership and way of life.

McDougall was made governor of the new territory. Even before he was to officially assume his office on December 1, the eager man began his work. He sent a number of surveyors to reorganize and reduce the Metis' strip farms into smaller square plots. The Metis, outraged by McDougall's disregard for their claim on the land, chose to rise up against the changes. An ardent supporter of the protest, Reil's passionate speeches convinced the Metis to follow him as the leader of the rebellion.

Reil and his men took possession of the Hudson Bay Company's Fort Garry. Several Canada Firsters were captured and held in the fort. The Metis then kept McDougall from crossing into the Red River region so that he could not assume his position as governor.

These acts of defiance forced Ottawa to negotiate with Reil. He received guarantees from the Canadian government that the Metis land, language and way of life would be protected, and was also granted permission to set up a provisional government.

After the formation of the Metis government in February 1870, Reil allowed the Canada First prisoners to leave Fort Garry unharmed, but Reil's charity ended here. A few days later, a number of prisoners who had escaped were recaptured and imprisoned once again.

Thomas Scott, a fierce man and a staunch supporter of the Canada First movement, was among those who were recaptured. Reil went to visit Scott in his cell in Fort Garry, hoping that he could talk some sense into the captive. Their discussion quickly turned into a heated argument. According to Reil, Scott threatened the Metis leader and then attempted to attack him.

Scott was immediately brought to trial before a Metis jury. Reil himself testified against the Canada Firster. The jury found Scott guilty of attempting to bear arms against the state and he was sentenced to death. His punishment was carried out the next day by a firing squad.

The Manitoba Act

Many of the people in Ontario were outraged by the execution of a fellow Canada Firster. They believed that Reil should be punished for the heavy-handed act. Many French Canadians in Quebec, who already supported the Metis because of the close French relations, defended the execution. The Quebecers believed Reil deserved amnesty.

In June 1870, Parliament passed the Manitoba Act, which established Manitoba as a new province, although the boundaries of the territory did not reach as far north as they do today. As part of the legislation, Ottawa reserved the right to parcel out lands that were unoccupied by the Metis to new settlers. They also sent a force of troops to keep the peace.

Reil was forced to flee Canada soon after Manitoba became a province. He found asylum in the United States. In 1875, the government officially pardoned Reil when he promised not to return to Canada until 1880.

During Reil's exile, settlers began to flood Manitoba. Many staked their claims on empty land. Others stole Metis farms while the Metis were away hunting buffalo. Despite promises made by the Canadian government, the Metis found themselves evicted from their own homes, and they were forced to move west. They headed for the less populated lands of what would one day be the province of Saskatchewan. They worked hard to break the new land and reestablish themselves. During the 1870's and 80's, Canada experienced a number changes that resulted from the westward expansion. The construction of a transcontinental railway began. This railway line connected the new western province of British Columbia to the eastern provinces. The North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was established to keep the peace and maintain the law in the lands that were being settled.

By the 1880's more settlers began to sprawl into Metis territory in Saskatchewan. At the same time, crops all across the prairies were destroyed by severe drought and grasshopper plagues. The Metis were desperately trying to survive this turmoil in the west. Reil was teaching school in Montana when the Metis begged him to come to Saskatchewan in 1885 and lead a revolt against the Canadian government. Reil willing answered their call and returned to Canada.

Reil Returns

Reil consolidated his power with Metis and Plains Indians. With the help of his friend and able soldier, Gabriel Dumont, the Metis began military training. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald heard of this military build up and training among the Metis. He wanted to send Canadian soldiers by train to Saskatchewan to stop the Metis. However, the transcontinental railway had to be finished before his plan could be implemented. The Canadian government scrambled for funding and, in frigid winter temperatures, the tracks were completed.

Before the Canadian soldiers could arrive to stop the Metis' uprising, Reil made his first move. The NWMP, which was the only law enforcing body in Saskatchewan, met Reil and his army at Duck Lake. Several Mounties were killed and the NWMP were forced to retreat.

Major General Fredrick Middleton and his Canadian soldiers finally made it to Saskatchewan and began their advance toward Batoche, Reil's capital. The Metis eluded the Canadians for a while, but the small Metis forces were no match for the larger army. Finally, on May 15, 1885, Reil surrendered, hoping to continue to fight for the Metis in court.

The leaders of the North West Rebellion were tried in the capital city of Regina. Reil soon discovered that resentment against him for the execution of Scott had not died down over the years. A jury made up of all English-speaking people was chosen to try Reil. The French-Canadians protested, but to not avail. Reil was found guilty of High Treason and was sentenced to death for taking up arms against Canada.

On November 16, 1885, Louis Reil was hanged in Regina. He became a martyr for the lost cause of Metis self-determination. Despite his fight to help the Metis preserve their homes and way of life, they were ultimately defeated.


By Sara Ann McGill
Source: Louis Reil, 2005, p1, 2p

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