Remembering Louis Riel

On Presidents Day (that was Washington’s Birthday in my youth) I read and realized that day, in Manitoba, memorializes Louis Riel.  Living adjacent to Canada, we need to take the time to learn a bit of our northern neighbor’s history – and Louis Riel looms large in Canadian history, and even had a small role in Montana history.

Wikipedia opens its description of Riel with “Louis Riel; 22 October 1844 – 16 November 1885) was a Canadian politician, a founder of the province of Manitoba, and a political leader of the Métis people. He led two resistance movements against the Government of Canada and its first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Riel sought to defend Métis rights and identity as the Northwest Territories came progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence.”

True, so far as it goes – but Riel’s story not only could fill books – it does fill books.  Strange Empire: Louis Riel and the Metis People, by Joseph Kinsey Howard remains available and in print – durable for a book that I first read almost 60 years ago.

There is a tendency to view the Metis as the children of French trappers and Indian women who lived among the tribes – but that simplified view ignores the Scots and English who moved the fur trade west with the Northwest Company – men who imported teachers from Scotland to run finishing schools for their daughters.  Education was expected for their sons – and, while some of the Metis lived among the tribes, many were educated men who lived in two cultures as “civilization” moved west.  Louis Riel was one – he was from the Red River community, attended school there, and at 14 was sent to the seminary in Montreal.  He left the seminary (broke) at his father’s death, found a job as a law clerk, decided he didn’t like the idea of law as a profession, and returned to the Red River community, just as surveyors arrived to put it on the rectangular coordinate system (yeah, US surveyors using the system they were accustomed to using).  The metis (including Riel) stopped the survey, and, by the time it was over, formed their own government – Assiniboia – which operated for about 3 months with Louis Riel as president.  Delegates went to Ottawa, met with the Prime Minister, and hashed out an agreement for the province of Manitoba. 

Unfortunately, in his brief term as president, Riel had authorized a firing squad for a Canadian named Thomas Scott – and his delegates hadn’t managed to get an amnesty included in the act creating Manitoba.  Riel found it safer to go south and avoid the Canadian militia.

There has to be an Irish influence in most Metis stories – in this case, it was the threat of Fenians invading from North Dakota that got the authorities to rescind the hit, and brought Louis Riel back to raise a couple companies of Metis to hold off a Fenian invasion.  A grateful Canada kept the warrant open and sent him back stateside with $1,000.  He didn’t stay south of 49, returned to Red River, and was elected to parliament.  Since the premier of Ontario funded a $5,000 reward for his arrest, Louis Riel chose not to sit in Parliament.  In 1875, he was offered a pardon for Scott’s killing if he would stay out of Canada – which is where his Montana connection comes in – he taught school in northeast Montana, married, became a Republican, sued the democrats for election fraud, and became a US citizen.  These accomplishments are not necessarily in order because it’s over half a century since I read the book.

By 1884, the buffalo were gone, the Metis were hungry and in rebellion, and they sent for Louis Riel to return north.  In 1885, they declared the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, with Louis Riel as civilian leader and Gabriel Dumont as military head. 

I’ll end with a quote from wiki – my memory of the section on his trial isn’t that solid:

“Several individuals closely tied to the government requested that the trial be held in Winnipeg in July 1885. Some historians contend that the trial was moved to Regina because of concerns with the possibility of an ethnically mixed and sympathetic jury.  Prime Minister Macdonald ordered the trial to be convened in Regina, where Riel was tried before a jury of six Anglophone Protestants. The trial began on 20 July 1885.

Riel delivered two long speeches during his trial, defending his own actions and affirming the rights of the Métis people. He rejected his lawyers’ attempt to argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy; nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death on 1 August 1885, with the date of his execution initially set for 18 September 1885. “We tried Riel for treason,” one juror later said, “And he was hanged for the murder of Scott.” Lewis Thomas notes that “the government’s conduct of the case was to be a travesty of justice”.”

It’s probably enough to say that they didn’t give him a good drop. 

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