The Remarkable Life of Louis Riel
By Ron. F. Laliberte
with permission from
On November 16th 1885, Louis Riel was hung after being found guilty of treason by a Canadian court of justice. Eurocentric interpretations of Riel's role in the Resistance of 1885 remain etched in the written history of Canada. All too little is written about the contributions Riel made to ensuring Manitoba's entrance into the confederation as a province. Even less is known about Riel as a family man, and as a man whose life was dedicated to securing rights for the Metis people. In November, a time when we remember our veterans and all those who gave up their lives for freedom and peace we pay tribute to Louis Riel and remember his fight for the freedom of the Metis people.
Much of what has been written about Louis Riel focuses on his role in the Metis resistances of 1869/70 and 1885. Most of this literature is derived from non-Aboriginal writers who present a Eurocentric perspective of events surrounding Riel's life and times. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that these writers tend to conveniently dismiss Riel as an egotistical madman or religious fanatic. It would be an understatement to say few Metis people buy into such "trash talk" about Riel. For anyone who cares to dig deeper into the life of Riel, it soon becomes crystal clear that he was, indeed, a complex man who was driven by a strong sense of justice and a passion to help the downtrodden.
Louis Riel was born on October 22, 1844 at the point of land where Manitoba's Red River meets the Seine River. He was the eldest of nine children born to Julie Lagimodiere and Louis Riel Sr. Since both of his parents were devout Roman Catholics, as a youth Riel received a strong religious upbringing which influenced him throughout his life.
The first event that had a profound effect on Riel was the Sayer Trial of 1849. At the time, the HBC monopoly on trade restricted the Metis from trading with the Americans. Nevertheless, the Metis felt that as original inhabitants of the territory they possessed the right to trade freely and so they disregarded the Company rule. However, in an attempt to enforce its trade monopoly, the HBC arrested Guillaume Sayer and three other Metis and charged them with illegal trade. And, although Sayer was found guilty by the court, no penalty was imposed. This judgement becomes understandable in light of the fact that outside of the courthouse Louis Riel Sr. had assembled 300 Metis who were armed and ready to take action if the penalty imposed on Sayer was too harsh. Upon hearing the court's decision, the Metis declared free trade and in effect broke the HBC monopoly on trade.
Although Riel was very young at the time of the event, the heroic action of his father instilled in the young Riel the will to fight against oppression and to fight for justice. At an early age, Riel demonstrated that he was a gifted student. When he was thirteen, Riel won a scholarship to attend one of the best colleges in Quebec. A year later, in 1858, Riel entered the College of Montreal where he studied literature, philosophy, Latin and mathematics. While in college, Riel also wrote poetry. Most of his poems took the form of moral tales and fables where virtue always won over vice or where opressors always met their downfall.
Undoubtedly, the fertile and volatile political climate of the east had a great impact on Riel's thinking and helped prepare him for upcoming events in the northwest. For instance, Riel was immersed in the debates surrounding Confederation and the French nationalist movement in Quebec to preserve the French language and traditions against the onslaught of the dominant English culture.
Also, Riel was also exposed to the most influential and leading politicians, poets and thinkers of the day. He was familiar with the radical ideas of Louis-Joseph Papillae who was a revolutinary separatist. Riel knew George Cartier and the struggles he waged to protect minorities rights in Quebec. And, after leaving college Riel worked in the Montreal law office of Rodlophe Laflamme, a leading lawyer of the time, law professor and a strong advocate of Quebec nationalism. In 1867, Riel went to Chicago and stayed at the home of Louis Frechette who was a poet and journalist originally from Quebec. As a result, Riel was influenced by American politics concerning the civil war and the annexation of Canada's northwest.
As it turned out, Riel returned to the northwest in July, 1968 at the time when the Settlement was embedded in the debates over the transfer of Rupert's Land to the new Dominion of Canada. The Metis were not consulted about the transfer and because they comprised the majority of the population in the Settlement, they demanded negotiation of their rights before they would join in Confederation.
To secure their demands, the Metis called upon Riel to lead them in establishing a provisional government and drawing up a list of rights. Riel succeeded in satisfying the desires of his people by negotiating the Manitoba Act of 1870 which incorporated many of the Metis demands such as language rights, denominational schools and land grants. Riel was able to accomplish the objectives of the Metis because of his knowledge of the legal and constitutional process. As a result of Riel's efforts, it was recognized in the Manitoba Act, Sec. 31 that the Metis had an interest in the land which had to be extinguished before the government could lay claim to it. And, because Riel negotiated the terms upon which the Settlement entered into Canada as a province, he should be recognized as the "Founder of Manitoba" and a "Father of Confederation."
A month after Rupert's Land was transferred, troops from Canada arrived in Manitoba and unleashed a reign of terror against the Metis. Riel was forced to flee from the troops and for years thereafter he lived in fear of being assassinated. Nevertheless, the Metis in Manitoba elected Riel to represent them in the House of Commons in Ottawa on three different occasions in the early 1870s which stands as testimony to the unshaken and enduring respect they had for Riel. In 1875, however, Riel was exiled from Canada for five years.
Following his exile, Riel moved to Montana and spent a great deal of time helping Metis and Indian people with their grievances against the government by writing petitions on their behalf and by lobbying politicians. Then, in 1881 he married Margeurite Monet dit Bellehumer, a young Metis woman. Together they had two children; a boy Jean and a girl, Angelique. In 1883 Riel settled down and took up a position as a school teacher at St. Peter's mission in Montana. He remained in this position until 1884 when Gabriel Dumont came and requested that he return to the northwest to once again lead the Metis in their grievances against the government.
Prior to the outbreak of violence in 1885, all groups in the northwest condemned the oppressive policies of the Conservative government and threatened action if their grievances were not addressed. Riel became the spokesperson for not only the Metis but for Euro-Canadian farmers as well. Under his guidance, numerous petitions were sent to Macdonald but they received no response. On the eve of the outbreak of violence in the northwest, Macdonald addressed the grievances of farmers but not those of the Metis around the south branch of the Saskatchewan. Instead, his solution to the land grievances of the Metis was to send in the troops and defeat them militarily.
Following the Battle of Batoche, Riel could have escaped with Gabriel Dumont to the United States. Instead, he chose to stay believing that once he was put on trial and Canada learned of the gross injustices against the Metis that he would be exonerated. However, Riel was found guilty of treason against Canada and hanged on November 16, 1885 in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Still, Riel's dreams and aspirations for the Metis live on. We have never wavered in our quest to secure a land-base and self-governance for the Metis Nation; we will not rest until we do. This determination of the Metis owes a great deal to the efforts of Riel. When Metis people look back at the struggles of Riel during those turbulent times, we see a compassionate person of principle and integrity who made the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs. It is fitting that today many of our leaders, organizations and institutions have declared November 16 a holiday to commemorate the remarkable life of Louis Riel.
Links: (click on X in top right corner of outside link to return to photo gallery)