Louis Riel remains one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history. In 1870 he was hailed by many Red River settlers as the founder of the province of Manitoba and a protector of bilingual rights and freedoms. By 1885, however, he was seen by many former supporters and by much of English Canada as a murderer and a traitor. In November of that year Riel was hanged by the Canadian Government for treason.
Louis David Riel was born in the Red River Valley in 1844. The Red River Valley is located in the southeastern corner of present-day Manitoba. Riel was born to Métis parents. The Métis were people of mixed French and Native ancestry. The Métis had lived in the Valley for generations and co-existed peacefully with their Scottish and English neighbours.
As a young boy Riel was sent to Montreal for higher education. When he returned to the Red River Valley several years later he found it simmering with hostility. The Canadian Government had recently purchased all of Rupert’s Land, which included the Red River Valley, and was preparing the area for settlement. The Métis were very upset because they already lived on the land that was to be re-surveyed and parceled off to settlers.
In 1869 the Métis appointed Riel to lead them against the government. Riel’s first action was to establish the Comité National des Métis (the National Committee of the Métis) to defend the rights of the Métis people. In October the National Committee stopped government surveyors from finishing their work in the Red River Valley. The National Committee then prevented William McDougall, the new lieutenant-governor, from entering the Red River area. McDougall wanted to claim Red River for the Canadian Government two months before it was to become part of Canada. The Métis were not about to let this happen.
The National Committee then seized the Hudson’s Bay Company’s headquarters at Fort Garry. They demanded a temporary government be set up in the Red River Valley until their complaints could be heard and resolved. The Métis then submitted a List of Rights that included property, religious, and language protection. Riel’s Red River Rebellion was partly successful. In 1870, the Canadian Government passed the Manitoba Act enshrining, at least temporarily, many of the rights and freedoms proposed by Riel.
The Death of Thomas Scott
Unfortunately, Riel’s triumph was marred by one extreme act, the execution in 1869 of Thomas Scott. Scott was strongly opposed to the Métis Rebellion and was captured by Riel’s supporters. He was executed for harassing his captors and for threatening to kill Riel.
Scott’s execution caused a great deal of controversy in eastern Canada. French Canadiens believed it was an unfortunate but necessary act which showed the Métis were serious about protecting their rights. English Canadians saw things differently. To them Scott’s death was cold-blooded murder, and they demanded justice.
Bowing to pressure from English Canada, Prime Minister Macdonald sent troops to Red River to arrest Riel. However, Riel fled to the United States before they arrived. The troops remained in Red River to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to the provincial government.
Condemnation of Scott's execution faded away, but anti-Riel political elements in the Canadian Government never forgot what they regarded as a blatant act of murder. Despite being elected three times to the Parliament of Canada, Riel never took his seat. Instead, he retreated to the United States to avoid prosecution. There, his life-long religious devotion developed into a full-blown religious mania. Riel began to regard himself as the spiritual prophet of a new and mighty Métis nation. His delusions led to prolonged hospitalization in a Quebec asylum. After leaving the hospital, Riel lived quietly for some time in Montana. Here he worked as a trader and an interpreter.
On June 4, 1884, a four man Métis delegation arrived at Riel's home in Montana. These men remembered how Riel had protected the rights of the people of Red River years earlier, and hoped he could do the same thing for the people of the North West. Riel returned to Canada to lead his people once more.
After the passage of the Manitoba Act in 1870, many Métis moved further west and resumed their traditional ways of life. Yet by 1884 many of the things that had prompted the Métis to leave Manitoba were present again, such as the encroachment of government land surveyors and the loss of the buffalo herds.
The Métis were not the only people with grievances in the North West. Many First Nations' people were unhappy with the land treaties they had signed with the Canadian Government in the 1870s. They found themselves on reservations, consisting of marginal farmland, where they were forced to scratch out a living with minimal government assistance. In some cases, the assistance promised (e.g., farm animals, wagons, horses, tools, and equipment) was never provided. Diseases brought by European settlers had also decimated many tribes. The First Peoples wanted to renegotiate their treaties, but their requests had so far fallen on deaf ears.
European settlers in the North West were also unhappy. One of their main complaints was that American goods, which were usually cheaper than Canadian ones, were subject to tariffs when they were brought into Canada. This made American goods more expensive. The European settlers wanted these tariffs removed so they could buy the cheapest products possible. The white settlers also wanted a greater say in the political affairs of the region. Unlike the provinces, the North West Territories did not have responsible government, nor did it have any elected Members of Parliament in Ottawa to speak on their behalf.
Riel prepared a list of the rights and demands of the people of the North West. This list included the concerns of the Métis, the First Nations, and the European settlers. The government was unwilling to negotiate with Riel this time. Many people were still very bitter about the Thomas Scott affair and held Riel responsible.
Frustrated with the Government’s inaction, Riel and other Métis leaders established a provisional government. The North West Mounted Police were ordered to leave the area or face a “war of extermination”. This time, though, Riel's rebellion was unsuccessful. After two bloody battles with the North West Mounted Police, the rebellion was crushed and Riel was captured.
Louis Riel on Trial
Louis Riel was put on trial in Regina on July 20, 1885. The charge: treason against the Government of Canada. After a quick trial by an all-white, English-speaking judge and jury, Riel was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Riel's lawyer had failed to convince the jury that Riel was insane, and therefore not criminally responsible for his actions. The verdict was appealed all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the highest court in the British Empire, but it was upheld.
The decision to hang Riel caused great controversy. English-speaking Canadians favoured the sentence; they saw Riel as a traitor who deserved to be punished for his crimes, especially the murder of Thomas Scott in 1870. French-speaking Canadians saw Riel as a hero. He was a man willing to fight for the rights of his people and should be pardoned.
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald found himself in a predicament. He had the power to overrule the court’s decision and spare Riel’s life, but he knew this would infuriate the English. However, if Macdonald allowed the execution to proceed he would upset the people of Quebec. No matter what he decided, Macdonald risked offending a large group of voters.
Macdonald decided to let the Riel verdict stand. Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885. As expected, Macdonald’s decision cost him much popular support in Quebec. It also strained already-fragile French-English relations in Canada for years to come.