Louis Riel

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What would you do if suddenly your language, culture, and people were told they no longer had the right to exist?

Louis Riel organized. He would be martyred for his efforts.

Louis Riel was Métis. Have you ever heard of such people? Well, neither had I until Louis was nominated as a #HistoryHero.

The Métis were the descendants of French fur-trappers and indigenous Native American tribes who had trapped and farmed the Canadian Prairies (the mostly grassland area now comprising the southern regions of what is now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) since the 17th century. While the Métis spoke French and were devoted Catholics, they were ruled autocratically by the London-based Hudson's Bay Company on behalf of Britain until 1869. That’s when the Company sold the vast region to the new Dominion of Canada without consulting or even informing the local inhabitants. This left the status of Métis farms and language rights unclear.

Riel as a child with his grandmother.

Riel as a child with his grandmother.

Louis was only 25 when this happened, but the Métis of the Red River elected him their leader because he spoke English and had attended college. Riel formed a provisional government, insisting that the Métis had not consented to join Canada. He published a list of demands for the new Canadian government, including recognition of the Métis right to speak French, own the land they inhabited, and be represented in local government.

Before Riel could negotiate a final settlement with Canada, however, new settlers arrived in the Red River region. They were white, English-speaking, and they refused to recognize either Riel’s government or the Métis rights he championed. Armed rebellion ensued, in which a rabidly anti-Catholic settler named Thomas Scott was executed. It was 1869–1870. 

Manitoba's  Métis  Provisional Government. Louis Riel sits at the centre.

Manitoba's Métis Provisional Government. Louis Riel sits at the centre.

Now, the first Prime Minister of Canada was John A. MacDonald. He considered theMétis to be savages and was deeply opposed to a French-speaking, indigenous governing nation in the middle of the Canadian West. So he used the death of Scott as a pretext to invade the Red River.

His army crushed Riel’s provisional government and sent the young leader into hiding. But Riel’s supporters elected him as Member of the Canadian Parliament representing a Métis district. Unfortunately, he was never allowed to take his seat. MacDonald posted police officers and bounty hunters at every door of Parliament with orders to arrest Riel on sight. This forced him to flee again, this time to the United States.

Years later, Riel was tempted back to Canada by a new Métis delegation. Their earlier fears had indeed become reality: the Métis were losing their land to white, English-speaking settlers and suffering discrimination from the new settler-dominated government. Riel returned to Canada and attempted to form a new, multi-racial government in Saskatchewan. He worked tirelessly to force the Canadian government to acknowledge the land and cultural rights of indigenous peoples.

But as with his first attempt, Riel’s new revolt was quickly crushed, and the then re-elected Prime Minister John A. MacDonald ordered Riel’s death. After a series of desperate battles, Riel was captured and accused of treason against a government he’d never recognized.

Riel standing at his trial, 1885

Riel standing at his trial, 1885

On November 16, 1885, Louis Riel mounted the executioner’s scaffold. He was hanged to death for attempting to establish a multi-racial democracy in the Confederation of Canada. His provisional government at Red River had demanded recognition for the Métis as a free people with inalienable rights. He sought to preserve Métis culture as their homelands progressively came under Canadian control. The severe response of the government turned Riel into a lasting symbol of the importance of minority rights and cultural co-operation in modern Canada. His execution had a lasting impact on Canada, polarizing the new nation along ethno-religious lines.

In the 1960s, Riel re-emerged as a national hero for Western Canada: a symbol of defiance against the Canadian government’s policy towards indigenous peoples. He is increasingly celebrated as one of the earliest proponents of multiculturalism. Since 2007, the Province of Manitoba has celebrated “Louis Riel Day,” and the site of Red River now bears a statue to the Métis martyr’s legacy. 

Louis Riel demanded to be recognized as a social and political equal, and fought for his people's legal rights at a time when that was grounds for treason. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Becca McCarthy and Tim Noddings of Gatineau, Quebec, for introducing him to us.

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