Louis Riel (1844-1885)
Born into a metis family
Riel was born in 1844 into a Roman Catholic metis family in St Boniface in what is now Manitoba. He followed his father into opposing the implementation of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s decision to surrender their land rights to the new dominion, seeing this as the beginning of an erosion of rights of the metis people. In recent years Riel has become a hero figure for Catholic nationalists, native rights campaigners and the New Left student movement.
In November 1869 Riel led a rebellion at the Red River settlement, intent on setting up an independent republic outside British control. The arrival of General Wolseley’s force caused Riel to flee and go into hiding. When he rejected the advances of the Irish Fenians in America to start up another rebellion the federal government offered an amnesty to the former rebels, including Riel who entered the federal parliament in October 1873. Riel took the oath but never took his seat and in April 1874 was denied his seat by a group of Protestant members from Ontario who succeeded in getting him expelled.
Elected to the House of Commons
He was elected again in September 1874 but outlawed in February 1875 and went into exile in the USA. Riel suffered a mental breakdown four years later but remained a popular hero to metis and to many Indians, concerned at the number of new settlers entering the territory. In 1885 Riel was talked in to leading a further armed rebellion on behalf of Metis leaders who believed their land rights to be in danger. This ‘north west’ rebellion coincided with Cree Indian attacks on settlements along the North Saskatchewan River. Canadian army units, using the new rail lines to send in thousands of troops, crushed the rebellion and Riel was arrested and taken to Regina where he was sentenced to high treason. Despite pleas for clemency from Roman Catholics, Riel was hanged on 16 November 1885. His execution had a lasting impact on Canadian politics polarizing views along ethnic lines but his death and the failure of his rebellions ensured the Prairie provinces would be dominated by the Anglophones rather than by the Francophones. He has been portrayed as a religious fanatic on the one hand and also a rebel against the Canadian nation but in modern times is seen as a proponent of multiculturalism and Metis nationalism and a heroic rebel who fought to protect his heritage.
Peter Crowhurst, June 2020
Sir Garnet Wolseley by Halik Kochanski, 1999
Dictionary of British Empire & Commonwealth, 1996