In history there are certain figures that live such bewildering and profound lives that it is hard to construct a simple narrative about who they were, and what they accomplished. Sometimes because of lack of sources or provable facts, stories circulate and create legendary or even mythical accounts of the person. It is a singularly amazing occurrence when new countries or nations are formed, new cultures are birthed, and ways of living and interacting with this world and with others becomes a unique event in its time and place. The story of humanity is filled with these kinds of points of evolution, whether physically, psychologically, or spiritually. One person who is a great example of the epicentre for such a moment, is Louis Riel, the leader of the Metis and father of Manitoba.
Louis Riel was born in the Red River Settlement in 1844. It was a unique area that had many mixed race people, referring to themselves as the Metis. There were also First Nation tribes here as well, and as so, it was a beautifully diverse and complex environment for a child to grow up in and engage with. Showing promise as a student, Riel was afforded the opportunity to take higher studies in Montreal after his early training by Catholic Priests, as a potential for joining the Priesthood. After his father died in 1864, his concerns turned elsewhere and he left, pursuing various employment and travel before finally returning to Manitoba.
When he arrived back in the Red River area, new tensions had emerged from the settlement of Anglophone populations which were coming from Ontario. Because of the threat to Riel’s culture and community seen in these tensions, he set up a provisional government and began to fight for the rights of land, culture, and self-determination. This was immediately met with distaste by John A. McDonald, who was filling the newly created Prime Minister role. There were pressures being sent from Ottawa to quell this recently formed government that stood in the ways of the interests of the Anglophone Protestants, who looked down on the Metis communities which were Catholic and partially if not deeply Native. Such attempts at intimidation were met with rising movements from the Metis to physically defend their rights and land.
After the victory of the Red River Rebellion, many difficult interactions occurred between the Metis and their opponents. One case was when Louis Riel caught and tried three men and executed one of them. This further maligned the government’s view on Louis Riel. Through the Rebellion the Metis received recognition for their newly created self-governance and sent delegates to Ottawa, where they would soon bring Manitoba into the Canadian Confederation. Riel, on the other hand, fled the country, as information reached him that a military expedition, which was being sent to that area to help defend against possible American expansionists, were intending to lynch him.
The next period of Riel’s life was varied and difficult, with many uncertainties, and he also began to suffer from mental disturbances which caused him to be entered into an asylum. Much argument over Riel’s position in Canadian Politics was being ferociously discussed in Parliament at this time, where an amnesty was being proposed to allow him to return to The House of Commons and take the seat he had won while in exile.
Not long after he returned home again with hope to engage in political measures at insuring his people’s self-determination, he found himself motivated to have another armed rebellion. This time it did not work out as the first, and his forces were smashed, he was captured and sent to trial, where with swiftness he was found guilty and hung for the ‘murder’ of Scott, the unfortunate man he had executed at the end of the Red River Rebellion, after the trial of him and two of his cohorts.
Throughout the years Louis Riel has been called a radical, an upstart, and given to megalomania because of his unstable mental state which lead him to violent rebellion against the Canadian Government. He has been called a hero, so aware of the tensions of his time which were already present in Canada between language and culture groups, particularly French vs. English, Native vs. Colonist, and Protestant vs. Catholic, that he sought political recognition for a minority group (his own) that was being dismissed and pushed out of their claim to land their had occupied for many years.
Though historians are often in disagreement about his motivations, actions, and accomplishments, today in Canada there are schools, streets, and landmarks named in his honour. He has been recognized as the founder of Manitoba and father of its movement into confederation. In Manitoba they celebrate Louis Riel Day on the 3rd Monday of every February as a Statutory Holiday, and throughout Canadian Media he is represented and talked about again and again. There has even been an attempt to try and have him exonerated for the crimes that he was hung for, which is still active today.
In this way Louis Riel stands like so many important figures of great movements in their spirits, minds, and communities, for those who would not allow themselves to be trampled under the machine of progress and the pride of imperial notions. He remains one of Canada’s most talked about and controversial figures. Louis Riel died for a cause he was compelled to champion throughout most of his life, and for this he gave something that will forever be remembered by an entire country; a legacy of visionary understanding of the wrongs done in his times and the eternal rights of human beings.
Author: Jonathan M. Bessette