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Louis Riel: Founding father or heretic?

November 17, 2020 Shelley Magnusson, ATA Executive Staff Officer


Métis event a time for celebration and reflection


On Nov. 16, the Métis Nation of Alberta celebrated Louis Riel Day, and although this year the festivities were virtual, it was still a time for celebration and reflection. In the 135 years since Louis Riel’s execution, historians continue to debate the Riel case so often and so passionately that he is the most written about person in all of Canadian history. And, once again, a national coalition of Métis leaders from across Canada are calling for the exoneration of Louis Riel.

Riel is considered by some to be the “Father of Manitoba” and an impassioned activist for Métis rights, while others consider him a heretic and murderer. No matter where you stand on this debate, what cannot be argued is that Louis Riel had a profound and lasting effect on Canada.

In March 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to the Dominion of Canada. The federal government appointed William McDougall as lieutenant-governor of the new territory, and, in August, sent survey crews to Red River to assess and re-stake the lands. Concerned that an influx of Anglo-Protestant immigrants from Ontario would follow, the Métis organized the Métis National Committee in order to protect the social, cultural and political status of the Métis in Red River and the northwest more generally.


With Riel at its helm, the new provisional government issued the Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North-West, which rejected Canada’s authority and proposed a negotiated settlement between Canada and the new provisional government.

Despite apparent progress on the political front, the federal government continued to plot against the provisional government. The federal government suffered a setback when 48 men, including Thomas Scott, were arrested near Fort Garry. Scott was court-marshalled and executed on March 4, 1869. The execution radicalized Protestant Ontario, which from this point onward sought retribution from Riel for Scott’s death.

Despite opposition from Ontario, the Canadian government agreed to negotiate with the provisional government, and on May 12, 1870, the Manitoba Act was passed, creating the province of Manitoba. Central to this agreement, the federal government agreed to reserve 1.4 million acres for the children of Métis residents of Manitoba and ensured that the province would be officially bilingual.

Because of his role in Scott’s execution, Riel fled to the United States, where he lived and worked for 15 years before being called back to once again lead the Métis, this time in Saskatchewan.

The North-West Rebellion differed from the Red River Rebellion in many ways, not the least of which was the questionable mental health of its leader, Louis Riel. But the other more significant difference was the railroad. By 1885, the railway had made significant progress westward, enabling the quick movement of troops, which played a significant role in the final outcome.

Some historians have hypothesized that the Canadian government refused to negotiate with Métis and Indigenous leaders to goad them into taking up arms so that Prime Minister John A. MacDonald could send in troops, prove the worth of the railway and, therefore, convince Parliament to fund the railway’s completion. Despite some early victories at Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Cut Knife, the rebellion was quashed when overwhelming government forces and a critical shortage of supplies brought about the Métis defeat in the four-day Battle of Batoche.

Widespread impact

Ninety-one people died in the battles that took place that spring. Chief Poundmaker and Big Bear, who had supported Riel, were arrested, charged and imprisoned for three years. Eight others were hanged in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. These individuals, found guilty of killing outside of the military conflict, were Wandering Spirit, (Kapapamahchakwew) a Plains Cree war chief, Little Bear (Apaschiskoos), Walking the Sky (Round the Sky), Bad Arrow, Miserable Man, Iron Body, Itka (Crooked Leg) and Man Without Blood, for murders committed at Frog Lake and at Battleford.

Louis Riel was charged with high treason, found guilty and was subsequently hanged in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885. In the immediate aftermath, the Canadian government sent much needed food and supplies to the Métis at Batoche. The North-West Territories election of 1885 was held. The Scrip Commission was dispatched to the District of Saskatchewan and to present-day Alberta to address Métis land claims.

The rebellion was Canada’s first independent military action. It cost $5 million, lost the Conservative Party most of its support in Quebec and guaranteed anglophone control of the Prairies. Riel’s trial and Macdonald’s refusal to commute his sentence caused lasting upset in Quebec, and led to a fundamental francophone distrust of anglophone politicians.

After the rebellion, many Métis moved from Batoche into what is now Alberta. For many years, the Métis were a forgotten people with little recognition of their history and rights. However, 1938 saw the formation of L’Association des Métis d’Alberta et les Territories du Nord-Ouest to fight for the recognition and formal establishment of the Métis Settlements.

In June 2019, 150 years after Louis Riel first started the fight to recognize the rights of the Métis in Canada, the Government of Canada signed the Métis Government Recognition and Self-Government Agreement with the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA), by which Canada recognized that the Métis Nation within Alberta has an inherent right to self-government and that it has mandated the MNA to implement this right. ❚


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