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People_John_Alexander_Macdonal





It is the infelicity of statesmen that one difficulty is no sooner overcome than another arises to take its place. And so it now happened. In 1885 Louis Riel led an armed rebellion of half-breeds on the banks of the Saskatchewan, as fifteen years earlier he had led one on the banks of the Red River. The causes were similar. The half-breeds were alarmed at the incoming of new life, and could not get from the Government a title to the lands they occupied that they regarded as secure. The rebellion was quickly crushed and Riel was taken prisoner. This opened up a fresh chapter of embarrassments for the Ministry. From the first there could be no doubt as to the course which should be pursued with regard to the unfortunate man. His offences of fifteen years before had been suffered to pass into oblivion. Even his great {127} crime—the atrocious murder of Thomas Scott—had gone unwhipped of justice. His subsequent effrontery in offering himself for election and attempting to take his seat in parliament had been visited with no greater punishment than expulsion from the House of Commons. Now he had suddenly emerged from his obscurity in the United States to lead the half-breeds along the Saskatchewan river in an armed revolt against the Government. At the same time—and this was incomparably his worst offence—he had deliberately incited the Indians to murder and pillage. He had caused much bloodshed, the expenditure of large sums of money, and the disturbance of an extensive region of the North-West.

Riel had been caught red-handed. Whatever excuses might be put forward, on behalf of his unfortunate dupes, that the Government had refused to heed their just demands, it is certain that Riel himself could plead no such excuses, for he was not at the time even a resident of the country. But, unfortunately, his case gave the opportunity of making political capital against the Government. Since he was of French origin the way was open for an appeal to racial passions. The French-Canadian habitant, {128} recalling the rebellion of 1837-38, saw in Riel another Papineau. A wretched malefactor, thus elevated to the rank of a patriot, became a martyr in the eyes of many of his compatriots. Sir John Macdonald fully realized the danger of the situation, but from the first he was resolved, whatever the political outcome, that if proved a culprit Riel should not a second time escape. There should be a fair trial and no more clemency, but rigorous justice, for the man who had added new crimes to the murder of Scott fifteen years earlier. Four able lawyers, including Sir Charles Fitzpatrick, the present chief justice of Canada, were assigned to Riel's defence. The trial opened at Regina on July 20, 1885, and on August 1 Riel was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hanged on September 18. In deference to those who professed to doubt Riel's sanity, a stay of execution was granted. Sir John Macdonald sent to Regina two medical men, who, with the surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police, were instructed to examine into Riel's mental condition. They reported that, except in regard to certain religious matters on which he appeared to hold eccentric and foolish views, he was quite able to distinguish between right and wrong and that he {129} was entirely responsible for his actions. On November 16, 1885, Riel paid upon the scaffold the last penalty for his crimes.

During Riel's imprisonment Sir John Macdonald received from him several letters. From various other quarters he was informed of the blasphemies, outrages, and murders of which Riel had been guilty. There were many petitions, some for justice, others for mercy, chiefly from people living in the eastern provinces. These, however, counted for little, since for the most part they merely represented the political or racial sympathies of the writers. But there are among Macdonald's papers some original statements in respect to Riel of the highest importance, from those of his fellow-countrymen who best knew him. The Catholic missionaries living in the districts specially affected by the rebellion—St Laurent, Batoche, and Duck Lake—in a collective letter dated March 12, 1885, denounced in the strongest language 'the miscreant Louis David Riel' who had led astray their people. The venerable bishop of St Albert, while pleading for Riel's dupes, had no word of pity for the 'miserable individual' himself. Under date July 11, 1885, the bishop writes thus to Sir John Macdonald:

"These poor halfbreeds would never have taken up arms against the Government had not a miscreant of their own nation [Riel], profiting by their discontent, excited them thereto. He gained their confidence by a false and hypocritical piety, and having drawn them from the beneficent influence of their clergy, he brought them to look upon himself as a prophet, a man inspired by God and specially charged with a mission in their favour, and forced them to take up arms."

Riel's own letters disclose no appreciation on his part of the enormity of his offences, or of the grave peril in which he stood. The whole collection produces a most unfavourable impression of the man, and one rises from its examination with a wish that those who were wont to proclaim Riel a patriot and hero could see for themselves what manner of man he really was. The papers will ultimately find their resting-place in the Dominion Archives and will become available to future historians.

The political effect of the execution of Riel was quite in accordance with Sir John Macdonald's expectations. In the province of Quebec the greatest excitement prevailed. {131} At many meetings the prime minister and his French-Canadian colleagues were burned in effigy. Sir John had postponed an intended visit to England until after the execution. So intense was the popular feeling, that when the time came for sailing he thought it prudent to avoid Montreal and Quebec and to board his ship at Rimouski. This circumstance afforded material to the editor of the Mail, Mr Edward Farrer, for an amusing article, bearing the alliterative title, 'The Murderer's Midnight Mizzle, or the Ruffian's Race for Rimouski.'

The Day of Sir John Macdonald, by Joseph Pope (Primary source documents -- Timeline)



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