Louis Riel; Freedom Fighter

Louis Riel is still a divisive character in Canadian history, and his legacy has had a significant impact on defining Canadian politics in the past, present, and maybe in the future. While he was vilified as a fanatic and agitator throughout his lifetime and at the time of his death, many historians have recast him as a just man who fought for a just cause. An analysis of his life and legacy can either justify him or call into question both his motivations and his participation in the historic events that surround him. The duality is not surprising when one examines colonial history, especially when taking into account the callous attitudes of colonial powers to indigenous people. The fact that attempts are still being made to soften the image of colonizing powers or to gloss over the crimes committed in their name as unscrupulous trading companies or unsympathetic governments conducted widespread campaigns of plunder and atrocities against the native population. The examples set by the Old-World governments shaped the attitudes of the white immigrants who later gained power and formed autonomous or semi-autonomous governments in the New World.

The nature of the earliest English and French charters providing trading companies with almost absolute rights of government and providing virtually no civil liberties. Along with the initial settlers treatment of both the indigenous inhabitants and the Metis, people of mixed Indian and French parentage, and the subsequent uses that they were put to in the various inter-colonial disputes and altercations had already laid the foundation for the powder keg that the northwest would become during Riel’s time. Combining with policies that resulted in the increase of the Metis population and extreme discouragement of immigrants unrelated to the trading companies who held complete sway over the lives of the continents inhabitants and it is not surprising that the inhabitants of the newly annexed territories that included Riel’s homeland did not trust the representative of Dominion government either even though it was their complaints against the companies that had brought about the annexation in the first place (Rambaut 137). In such an atmosphere of distrust and dissent, it is not impossible to believe that a watershed moment would have occurred even without the existence of some central rallying figure such as Louis Riel. The part that he played in subsequent events is what must be carefully examined to determine his exact role and motivation and to decide on which side of history he stands.

Early Life

Louis Riel was born the eldest son of a well respected and politically active Metis Catholic family in the Red River settlement in 1844. His father, Riel Sr. had been a central figure in previous agitations against the practices of the Hudson Bay Company, and so it is not surprising that the son imbibed his father’s political beliefs. His earliest education was undertaken by the Catholic priests of St Boniface, and since Riel was a promising student, he was inducted into the Petit Semiaire in the College of Montreal.

Reil was noted to be an outstanding student but known to be frequently moody. The quiet of his studies was finally broken by news of the death of his father in 1864, and he lost interest in the priesthood (Owram 321). The change in his family’s circumstances seemed to have affected him since even when he continued his studies as a day scholar, he was soon asked to leave as a breach of discipline. After beginning employment as a law clerk, he became engaged to a young woman whose family was opposed to their marriage by his Metis race. This was perhaps one more bitter reminder of the racism prevalent in his country and pushed Riel away from his job and his home so that he moved to Chicago, Illinois and lived the poet Lois-Honore Frechette while doing odd jobs before finally returning to his home, the Red River Settlement in1868 (Stanley 18).

Red River Rebellion and Exile

Riel’s return occurred at a time of intense political changes and racial tensions were at an all-time high. As the Canadian Government prepared to induct the Red River settlements into the Dominion without first taking into account the political background of the area, the Metis were worried about a sudden influx of English speaking residents and the fact that their land was not in their names because of the rules of the Company Charter. As the Canadian government sent a team to survey the territories, Riel denounced the move in a speech and disrupted the survey's work with a group of Metis.

Despite attempts and negotiations in which Riel demanded that the Metis be included in the settlement process, no solution could be reached and when the government attempted to force a settlement, Riel and his followers took over Fort Garry. Reil was not against working with Anglophones and gave a list of rights demanded by the Metis as a condition for the union. Just as his struggles were about to bear fruit, the English-speaking community had allowed that most of his demands were precisely, a group of pro-Canadians organized their own Party. However, they were unable to gain much widespread support and were soon overpowered and imprisoned by Riel’s men.

Riel established provisional government in December of that year, making himself its president and his subsequent treatment of the new delegations from the Canadian government under Smith are a testament to his desire to find a peaceful and above all fair solution to the problem. Both sides were able to agree on the need to send an equal representation to Ottawa to plead the Metis case. The agreement points, overall, to the fact that the Metis demands were not onerous and that the negotiations had been civilized.

The instigators of hostility were, in fact, the Canadian Party who continued to plot against the new provisional government and had to be rounded up by Riel's men. Riel committed the first of those actions that make him such a problematic figure in history. He pardoned one of the Party’s leaders at the insistence of his followers but was adamant about putting Thomas Scott to death (Anastakis 26). His motives stemmed not only from the fact that this would make a point about the seriousness of the Metis cause, but it was possibly Scott's behaviour and his racist contempt for the Metis that led to his eventual execution by firing squad. Riel's critics and point to this as a symbol of his heavy-handedness, and it is true that the execution galvanized Protestant Canadians against him where previous appeals from the Canadian Party had failed. Conversely, the intense backlash has influenced Catholics to support him to the present day (Dick 9).

The delegations to Ottawa were, meanwhile, able to negotiate the creation of the Manitoba province while being able to enshrine their list of demands into the act that created it. They were unable to negotiate amnesty for the provincial government, however, primarily due to anger over Scott’s execution. As steps were being taken to use military force against him, Riel went into hiding, marking the end of the Red River Revolution.

However, the effects of the revolution were far from over. Despite severe opposition and even threats to life and limb, its momentum allowed Riel's supporters to gain significant power during the first provincial elections. Riel was able to appear publically during the marshaling of armed horsemen during the Fenian raids. The federal government, however, was reluctant to offer him amnesty for fear of angering the Canada First Movement, a new face of the Canada Party, and offered him bribes to go into exile. None of this could stall Riel’s political ascent as he was elected to parliament thrice despite being unable, even under a liberal government, to take up his seat in the House of Commons (Osborne 311). This ultimately points to the legitimacy of Riel’s struggle and the overwhelming public support he continued to enjoy despite the issue of Scott. However, the federal government continued to act against him to appease anti-Metis elements until they were forced to find a middle ground by promising to secure him amnesty in return for five years of exile.

It was during his time of exile beginning from1875 that another problematic aspect emerged; Riel became increasingly drawn to religious matters until he became obsessed with the idea of being a chosen leader and prophet for the Metis people (Bowsfield 70). After a deterioration of his mental state he was admitted into a mental asylum (Flanagan 54). The phase in Riel's life is another point of attack for critics who insist that he was, in fact, a megalomaniac with dangerous delusions. However, the period of mental prostration was short. In 1878 Riel moved westward to Montana to start a new life where he married and was for a time even actively involved in the politics of Montana, ultimately becoming a naturalized US citizen to further the end. The starting of a family and then the participation in politics amongst new and unfamiliar people cannot be possible for a man suffering from severe mental impairments.

The North-West Rebellion

During Riel's exile, the condition of the Metis and indigenous peoples had severely deteriorated. The buffalo herds on which their lives depended were now becoming scarce and faced with starvation they moved westwards and began to turn to agriculture. They faced challenges in the form of having to compete for land with new European settlers who now arrived in large numbers since there were no trading companies to deter them.

All parties suffered from complex land claim issues, a reduction in government assistance and a failure of the Federal Government from honoring its treaty obligations. It was during the time of tribulation that not only the Metis but also the settlers decided to ask Riel to return and present their grievances in Ottawa, this being a proof of the trust people still placed in him despite his years in exile.

Thus Riel returned to Batoche in 1884 with initial responses to him being favorable as he began by preaching moderation and held meetings with indigenous peoples in an attempt to find common ground, but no settlement could be reached. As Riel’s supporters began to attempt to marshal the grievances of all parties into a single objective, Riel himself is reported to lose support over his increasingly heretical pronouncements slowly. However, it is important to note that at this point there began a system of turning the press against Riel using bribery and it is possible that his opinions might have been exaggerated.

Despite the hurdles, a petition was dispatched to Ottawa with the suggestion that a committee might be dispatched after it for further negotiations and it is a telling fact that the Prime Minister of the time refused to acknowledge that he had ever received it. Meanwhile, Riel's increasing convictions of his role as a chosen messiah of the Metis and his criticism of the Roman Catholic dogma led to him losing the support of the clergy entirely. There was a point that he was considered ineligible for the sacrament the Anglophones deserted when the Government proposed a census and a commission to investigate grievances and Riel, and his supporters denounced this as merely a delaying tactic. He still retained a base of some few hundred Metis who, inspired by his speeches, or because of complete disenchantment with the current state of affairs continued to support him (Miller 54).

Things came to a head in March when rumors of incoming heavily armed Federal troops precipitated Riel's followers to seize arms, take hostages and cut telegraph lines from Batoche. A provisional government was declared for Saskatchewan with Riel as the political and spiritual leader, and attempts were made to bring the Indians over their side. The situation became even more critical when members of Riel's militia encountered and overpowered a party of soldiers from Fort Carlton, and the news of the victory caused the Indians to throw in their support for Riel.

The undoing of the North West Rebellion was Riel’s underestimation of the speed with which the Federal government could send troops to the North West using the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Rebellion may have exhausted these troops or perhaps delayed them using guerrilla-style warfare, indeed as one of Riel's supporters was able to do, but Riel himself insisted on retreating to and then defending Batoche. A fatal mistake as Canadian Forces was able to entirely route a combination of Metis and indigenous army, forcing Riel to surrender to them on 15th May.

Execution and Legacy

From the very onset, the circumstances of Riel's trial were manipulated to make sure that he was found guilty. The location of the trial, for example, was moved to ensure that Riel would not get an ethnically mixed or otherwise overly sympathetic jury (Basson 66). In the end, his jury consisted of 6 English and Scottish Protestants, the very people who held the strongest vendetta against him. They naturally found him guilty but were moved to recommend mercy, despite this, the presiding judge sentenced him to death. It is argued that it the primary impetus for his was not the act of treason at all, but rather the killing of Scott and this gives his trial its racist undertones. Requests for an appeal and a retrial were both denied, and Riel was executed by hanging on 16th November 1886. He had, by that time, made his peace with the Catholic Church as well.

The reverberations of Riel’s actions and especially his execution are felt to this day. The immediate effect of his agitation was the resurveying of Metis river lots and the provision of land grants to the Metis according to their wishes by the government as early as 1887. Despite this, the fortunes of the Metis and indeed all indigenous people in Canada continued to decline along with both the French language and the Roman Catholic religion facing increasing marginalization. A new champion did not rise for these causes after the killing of the old one.

Politically, his execution granted Riel the status of a martyr and gave rise to the Quebec nationalism that still marks the province out as an entity separate from the rest of the Canadian nation. He was used as a symbol by his supporters to win the 1886 Quebec election as the expense of the Conservative party. The Federal elections of 1896 also saw significant Liberal gains and heralded the beginning of Liberal dominion over Canadian politics for the rest of the 20th century.


The systematic oppression of the Indigenous people and the racism against the Metis population had created a volatile environment what was ripe for the appearance of some rallying figure or leader who would bring their grievances to the forefront of both public and government attention.

A testament to the necessity of Riel’s struggles is the treatment of the Metis after his death who, despite the land grants, remained without treaty status and were eventually relegated to the shadows of native reservations. He was not the first man to take issue with the Roman Catholic Church and its dogma and without him, but he was the only champion that the Church would have for years on Canadian soil. His issues with mental health resurface in any argument against him, but it cannot be denied that his stand for the Metis people was a just one.

As academics and historians continue to study his life and legacy without the blinders of racial and religious prejudice. The conviction has slowly arisen that the matters of his trial and the events leading up to his execution show an indecent haste on the part of elements that wished to be rid of a troublemaker finally and also wished to simply exact revenge for the execution of Scott rather than punish him for crimes against the government.

Riel influence and charisma cannot be denied when one takes into account the momentous changes that he was able to bring about, not only in his lifetime but also years after his death. Demands for his retroactive pardon continue to make to this day as he is now considered to not only be the founder of the Manitoba province but also as someone who laid the foundation for eventual recognition of Saskatchewan. He has been lauded as the Father of the Confederation, a wronged man, a defender of his people and a champion of minority rights. The indirect result of his legacy is the embrace of Liberal politics in Canada that make it such a stark political and social contrast to its closest neighbors.

Work Cited

Anastakis, Dimitry. Death in the Peaceable Kingdom: Canadian History Since 1867 Through

Murder, Execution, Assassination, and Suicide. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Basson, Lauren L. White enough to be American?: Race mixing, indigenous people, and the

boundaries of state and nation. UNC Press Books, 2012.

Bowsfield, Hartwell. "Louis Riel's Letter to President Grant, 1875." Saskatchewan History 21.2

(1968): 67-75.

Dick, Lyle. "Nationalism and visual media in Canada: the case of Thomas Scott's

execution." Manitoba History 48 (2004): 2-19.

Flanagan, T. "Louis ‘David’ Riel: Prophet of the new world." (1996).

Miller, James Rodger. Reflections on Native-newcomer relations: Selected essays. University of

Toronto Press, 2004.

Osborne, Brian S. "Corporeal Politics and the Body Politic: the re-presentation of Louis Riel in

Canadian identity." International Journal of Heritage Studies 8.4 (2002): 303-322.

Owram, Douglas. "The Myth of Louis Riel." Canadian Historical Review 63.3 (1982): 315-336.

Rambaut, Thomas D. "The Hudson's Bay Half-Breeds and Louis Riel's Rebellions." Political

Science Quarterly 2.1 (1887): 135-167.

Stanley, George FG. The Birth of Western Canada: a history of the Riel rebellions. University of

Toronto Press, 1992.

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