Louis Riel, a man of mixed Native American (Ojibway) and French descent (Metis), sought to preserve Native land rights against an expanding Canadian government. The Canadian government wanted to assert its authority over the territory acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869. This agenda conflicted with the aspirations of the Metis, as they attempted to assert their right to self-government through the Council of Assiniboia, established in 1835 by the Hudson’s Bay Company and a Metis provincial government that assumed power in 1869. The legacy of Riel is a difficult one to ascertain as he has been depicted by historians as both a traitor of and a martyr for Native rights.
Riel was born in 1844 into a family that was well respected and possessed a history of protesting injustices committed against Natives. Jean-Louis Riel, Louis Riel’s father, led a protest against charges imposed on PierreGuillaume Sawyer, a man of mixed descent, for the illegal trading of furs. Even though Sawyer was found guilty by a jury, he escaped punishment for this crime, partially due to Riel’s protests.
Louis Riel studied at the College de Montreal a curriculum similar to that used in 17th-century France. He ended his pursuit of the priesthood in 1864, in part because he fell in love with Marie Guernon, whom he married on June 12, 1866.
Riel continued his father’s policies in fighting against infringements on Metis rights by protesting against surveys conducted on local land. In 1869 Riel followed up his protests against the Canadian government by confronting surveyors sent to Andre Nault’s farmland. The Council of Assiniboia questioned the wisdom of Riel and the Metis, but Riel professed his loyalty to the council.
Riel and the Metis followed up with armed force, taking Upper Fort Garry, a fort controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Riel and others created a list of rights that demanded that an elected body of Metis people be able to formulate and enact local laws, possess the right to veto, and the right to approve all laws passed by the Canadian government. This list proposed that the Metis be entitled to elect representatives to the Canadian parliament.
On December 7, 1869, Riel and a band of Metis took possession of a store owned by Dr. John Christian Schultz and imprisoned Schultz and 48 other individuals in Fort Garry. Riel dissolved the Council of Assiniboia and formed a provisional government, assumed the presidency, and attempted to open talks with the Canadian government regarding the entrance of the Red River settlement. Riel was able to use the authority of the provisional government to keep the English and the French mixed bloods together in order to maintain unity and order in the Red River region.
Riel continued to follow a policy of aggression as he executed Thomas Scott, a prisoner involved in the Orange Order, on March 4, 1870. It is difficult to assess the impact that Scott’s execution had on the Canadian government, but it acceded to many of the Metis’s demands. The talks between the Metis representative and the Canadian government resulted in 1870 in the passage of the Manitoba Act, which provided 1,400,000 acres for the Metis and guaranteed bilingualism in the province. The government refused to give amnesty to Riel and the others involved in the execution of Scott. Riel left for the United States when Colonel Garnet Wolseley approached Fort Garry to take possession of the fort.
John A. Macdonald, the prime minister of Canada, intended to keep the Metis calm until he could send enough settlers out to the Red River area to assimilate them. The Metis only received 500,000 acres of the land they were promised. More settlers from eastern Canada started to settle in these regions, leading to further land surveys. The Metis in the Qu’Appelle settlement attempted to seek redress from the government by issuing demands for representation in the Canadian parliament and reforming the land laws. These demands were followed by a bill of rights, but the Metis requests were turned down by the Canadian government. Concerned for the future of Metis settlements, the Metis asked Riel to return to Canada to represent their interests, which he did in 1884.
Riel acted on his decision to use armed conflict and demanded the surrender of Fort Carleton in March 1885, but Superintendent L. N. F. Crozier refused. This led Gabriel Dumont, an ally of Riel, to confront a small detachment of mounted police moving toward Fort Carleton. This action forced Crozier to confront the Metis at Duck Lake. A short battle ensued in which the numerically superior Metis forced the mounted police to withdraw from the area. MacDonald was eager to put down this resistance, which led to further armed conflict in the area. A brief battle ensued at Batoche, as 800 Canadian soldiers overwhelmed 200 Metis, leading to the capture of Riel.
Riel was formally charged with treason on July 6, 1885, despite the fact that he possessed American citizenship. His execution on November 16, 1885, had a tremendous impact on the unity of Canada and the Quebecois’s perception of him. The French-Canadian and the Metis depicted Riel as a martyr who fought against the attempts of Anglo-Saxons to control the country.
- Bumsted, J. M. The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004;
- Finkel, Alvin, and Margaret Conrad. History of the Canadian Peoples, Vol. 2, 1867 to the Present. Toronto: Copp Clark Ltd., 1998;
- Flanagan, Thomas. Louis ‘David’ Riel: ‘Prophet of the New World.’ Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979;
- Laliberte, Ron, et al., ed. Expressions in Canadian Native Studies. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Extension Press, 2000;
- Siggins, Maggie. Riel: a Life of Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994;
- Stanley, George. The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963.