Louis Riel (1844-1885), leader of the Métis (people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry in Canada), and widely regarded as the founder of the Canadian province of Manitoba.
The eldest of 11 children, Riel was born in the Red River settlement, a farming community within Rupert’s Land, a vast western colony in North America controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Educated at Saint Boniface College in Red River, Riel attracted the attention of Bishop Alexandre Taché, who chose him to receive further training. His parents sent him to Montréal, Canada East (now Québec), at age 13 to study for the priesthood, but he ended his religious studies when his father died in 1864. Riel briefly studied law but left Montréal without a degree in 1866 to work in the United States. Riel returned to Red River in 1868.
|III||THE RED RIVER REBELLION|
Shortly after Riel returned to the settlement, the people at Red River learned that the Canadian government was planning to buy Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The French Métis anticipated that a flood of English-speaking Protestants from Ontario would come and make them a minority in what they viewed as their homeland. They feared losing religious, language, and property rights, and turned to Riel. As the best educated Métis in the settlement, Riel was a natural leader, and he acted decisively. In December 1869, with the support of 400 armed French Métis, he captured Fort Garry, the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and assumed military control of the settlement. The Red River Rebellion had begun.
Riel proclaimed a provisional government and soon became its president. He quickly gained the cooperation of most of the Red River population, including white settlers and English-speaking Métis, by inviting all residents to communicate their concerns and wishes at conventions at Fort Garry. The people of Red River wanted to be able to join Canada as a self-governing province, and they wanted the federal government to recognize that they had the title to the land they farmed. Canada did not have a way to transport troops to Red River in winter and agreed to meet with Métis representatives in Ottawa, Ontario. In May 1870 the Canadian Parliament agreed to most of the Métis’s terms and approved the Manitoba Act, which established the Red River settlement and a small region around it as the new province of Manitoba. (The rest of Rupert’s Land became part of the Northwest Territories.) Canada promised to recognize Métis land ownership in Manitoba and granted an additional 600,000 hectares (1.4 million acres) of land to the Métis. The Manitoba Act also instituted bilingual institutions and Catholic schools in the province.
However, the establishment of Manitoba proved to be an empty victory for Riel. While the Métis had held Fort Garry, they captured a group of armed Red River settlers who welcomed Canadian annexation, and Riel’s provisional government executed one of their leaders. In August 1870 the Canadian government sent troops to Red River, and hostile British Canadians arrived from Ontario, gradually pushing many of the Métis away from Red River. The Canadian government refused to grant Riel amnesty, and he fled to the United States.
In late 1870 Riel quietly returned to Red River. In 1873 he was elected to the Canadian Parliament, but he was never able to represent the Manitoba voters in Ottawa. In 1875 Parliament finally granted Riel amnesty, but only on the condition that he leave Canada for five years. Riel suffered an apparent nervous breakdown though, and his relatives committed him under an alias to an insane asylum in Montréal. Riel claimed that he was not insane but rather an inspired prophet. He remained in various Montréal mental institutions until 1878.
After his release, Riel traveled to Montana where he joined a group of Métis buffalo hunters. There he planned to invade Canada and establish a confederacy of Métis and Indians in the Canadian Northwest. When this initiative failed to draw support, Riel eventually settled at Saint Peter’s Mission in Sun River, Montana, and became a schoolteacher and in 1883 an American citizen.
By 1884 many of the Métis who were forced from Manitoba had moved west into the Northwest Territories. British Canadians had begun settling there as well. The Métis wanted the Canadian government to secure their land rights, but the government had repeatedly ignored them. The Métis convinced Riel to lead them again against an indifferent Canadian government. Riel believed that he was called to lead the Métis in making their own nation. He demanded that the government negotiate the region’s entrance into the Canadian Confederation with a land grant for the Métis, confirmation of their land titles, responsible government, and representation in Parliament. The Canadian government was slow to respond. With Métis frustrations increasing, Riel established a provisional government at the Batoche settlement in March 1885. Armed Métis and Cree then defeated a detachment of North-West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The Canadian government rushed a large military force to Batoche and crushed what became known as the Northwest Rebellion in May.
Riel surrendered in the hope that a trial would highlight the injustices the Métis had suffered and help justify his actions. In the July 1885 trial at Regina, Northwest Territories, Riel’s lawyers claimed that he was not guilty, by reason of insanity. Riel vehemently opposed this defense and argued that the trial should focus on Métis grievances. The jury found him guilty of treason, and he was hanged on November 16, 1885. The defeat of the Northwest Rebellion and Riel’s execution ended the dream he had cherished of a sovereign Métis nation and marked the end of Métis autonomy in the Canadian West. The rebellion did produce some reforms and a review of Métis land claims in the Northwest. The government also gave the Northwest Territories representation in the federal Parliament.
Since 1885 Riel’s reputation has undergone considerable transformation. At the time of his death, British Canadians widely regarded Riel as a treasonous rebel, while French Canadians regarded him as a martyred patriot for defending the rights of French-speaking Roman Catholics among a majority of Protestant Anglophones. For the Métis, he was and is a hero and an eloquent spokesperson for their aspirations. More recently, Riel has been portrayed as a prophet and religious leader who sought deliverance from colonial domination. Among Canadian Westerners, Riel has come to symbolize resistance to the political and economic power concentrated in Ontario and Québec.