Louis Riel

by

Linda Buciak

 

Indians! A frightening word for any white settler to hear.To Jean Baptiste Lagimoniere, however, the warning went unheeded. One day,probably in the summer of l810, the French Canadian hunter and his wife,Marie Anne Gaboury, settled in the western prairie lands of southern Canada.Marie was one of the first white women to settle in the plains. Her firstbaby was born in an Indian tepee, a girl who was to become the mother ofLouis Riel. Louis Riel's father had been a leader among the metis peopleat one time during his life.

Louis Riel, who in turn became a Canadian insurgent leader,was born in St, Boniface, Assiniboia on October 23, l844. He was a vain,ambitious, and violent man, educated at St. Boniface. Between 1858 and 1866he attended the Sulpician College de Montreal. Riel had many occupationswhich included buffalo hunting, working in various mills, studying law andreligion, and becoming a farmer. Finally, in 1869 and 1885, he led two rebellionsand became president of the metis' provisional governments. This is whathe is remembered for.

We are now going to step back in history a few years tothe year 1910 and enter the thoughts of an Indian chief, Chief Save-my-Land,an authority on all Indian history and culture.

It has been twenty-five years now since Louis Riel wasexecuted. To the metis people, he was a great man and even to us "full-bloods"he is remembered. It all goes back to the year 1811, long before Riel wasborn.

In 1811, the first attempt to establish a colony in Assiniboiawas made by Thomas Douglas, 5th earl of Selkirk. The colony was in the areathat the North West Company drew its provisions. The metis did not likeit, they felt it was a move on the part of the Hudson's Bay Company to stiflethe Canadian Company. The Canadian Company convinced the metis that Selkirk'sScottish settlers had come to steal their lands; so in 1816 an armed attacktook place between the settlers and a band of metis led by Cuthbert Grant.Twenty-two settlers and one metis were killed. This was called the Massacreof Seven Oaks or La Grenovillere. After that there was no more trouble andthe metis lived in peace and harmony until 1869.

The metis were numerous and transplanted the customs oftheir forefathers. They also built homes and cultivated farm plots. Theirmajor activities, though, centered around trapping, hunting, and serviceto the Hudson's Bay and other fur companies.

They had been permitted to settle on small tracts of landduring the reign of the Hudson's Bay Company and lived for many decadesin peace. The company ruled with a firm hand, maintained their own justicecourts, coined their own money and actually governed its domain with littleinterference on the part of the British government. They had been isolatedfor over 500 years and had developed a distinctive way of life for themselves.

The metis (or half-breeds) and "full-blood" Indiansmake up the Plains-Ojibway tribe now known as the Turtle Mountain Band ofChippewa Indians. They are two very distinct ethnic groups of people. Theterm "full-blood" can be applied sociologically and does not meanthat the group is made up entirely of people of pure Indian descent. Itmeans that these people prefer to cling to the Indian way of life. "Mechif"(singular) is the Indian twist of the French word metis. Many members ofthe group show a good quantity of European ancestry and bear French, Scotch,and other European nationality surnames.

At the present time, the metis are still a group apartfrom the whites and the Indians. They are, what you call, of marginal nature.That is, they are on the borderline between Indian and white man. A largepercentage of them, however, can be classified as being almost like thewhite man. In general, almost all of the metis never take part in Indianceremonies, except as spectators. They always look upon the "full-blood"Indians with contempt and consider them savages. They are mostly Roman Catholicin faith. Some of the younger generation of metis, now, have changed theirattitudes and have become more conscious of, and have respect for, theirIndian blood.

"The metis were mainly buffalo hunters and voyageurs,a proud people who thought of themselves as a 'nation' with rights in thenorthwest" (1). In 1869, trouble broke out in the Red River country.Arrangements had been made for the transfer of the Hudson's Bay Companyterritories to Canada. William Mactavish, governor of the Hudson Bay Company,sent in a road building party and a survey party. This had all been donewithout informing the people settled there. Furthermore, the Canadian governmenthad not even acknowledged the transfer yet. The metis did not welcome thesurveyors and they were angered because the "robbers" were runningtheir lines through their farm tracts, paying no attention to their "squatters'rights" and the accepted boundary lines. The change of administrationcaused radical changes in the government of the region. It also meant thatthe country would be opened to settlement and the whites would soon introducetheir restrictions and regulations of civilization. The metis feared thattheir heritage and life would be threatened, and they resented not beingtold of the transfer. Therefore, they found a leader in one of their ownpeople, Louis Riel, the "Messiah of the Metis."

Under Riel, the metis organized a council of war, and thusthe first Riel Rebellion or the Red River Rebellion, broke loose. The surveyorsaccomplished little. Barricades were set up at Scratching river in the valleysome distance north of the border, and surveyors, Dominion government officialsand others were ordered back. When the new lieutenant governor, WilliamMcDougall arrived at:the border of Rupert's Land, he was not allowed toenter the territory. Riel then siezed Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), establisheda provisional government and became president. McDougall had attempted toexercise his authority and raise an army, without knowing that the Canadiangovernment had not completed the transfer because of the uprising. He onlyfound a few men and they were promptly arrested and imprisoned by Riel."Riel began to strut about, apparently fancying himself a second Napoleon."(2)

As soon as he learned about the uprising, the Canadianprime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, sent three emissaries to the Redriver to negotiate some kind of settlement. A meeting of the representativesof the Red River parishes drafted a list of rights and confirmed Riel aspresident. These negotiations ended in the passing of the Manitoba Act bythe Canadian Parliament, by which the territory formally became part ofthe Canadian federation as the Province of Manitoba on July 15, 1870.

A contract was drawn up and stated that 240 acres of Manitobaland was to be given to each dissatisfied metis. At first they were satisfied,then settlers came from eastern Canada. Many gave up their land grants anddrifted westward to the Saskatchewan River Valley.

In the meantime, there was an uprising in Ontario, andit was in order to preserve peace that the Canadian government sent a militaryexpedition to Red River under the command of Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley.Riel, fearing for his life, fled on August 24, 1870.He was said to havebeen seen in Pembina, Walhalla and St. Joseph, North Dakota. It was alsorumored that the American government was on his side.

Amnesty had been promised to the insurgents; however, theCanadian government was reluctant to grant it because of the trouble thathad been caused in Quebec and Ontario during the insurrection. Finally,in 1874, the trial and conviction of one of Riel's lieutenants, AmbroiusDydime Lepine, brought the amnesty issue to a head. In January 1875, Lepine'ssentence was lowered to two years imprisonment.

In 1873 and 1874, Riel was elected to the federal parliamentfor the district of Provencher. He refused to take his seat, so he was expelledfrom office. In February 1875, he was banished for a period of five years.

During 1876 - 1878, he was committed to the asylums ofLongue Pointe and Beauport in the Province of Quebec. He lived for a whilein Keeseviller, New York and then returned to the west. In 1883, Riel becamea United States citizen and settled down to teach at a mission school inMontana. He also organized the American metis to support the RepublicanParty.

In June 1884, the metis of the Saskatchewan Valley secretlysent for Riel because they were upset at the westward expansion of Canadiansettlements. The Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the Saskatchewanregion in 1882 and 1883. This opened the region to agricultural settlements.The metis feared that the settlers would destroy buffalo herds. They hadno legal titles to their lands and thought that they would lose their homesto white settlers. They resented government rule and objected to taxations,land regulations and other restrictions of orderly government. In otherwords, they found themselves facing the same problems that they had wantedto escape by leaving Manitoba. The Indian tribes were uneasy too; becausethe government was confining them to reservations, Many of the recentlyarrived white settlers were also discontented; due to the early frosts,poor crops, and the depressed price of grain.

Petitions to Ottawa brought no response, so all of thesepeople united under the leadership of Riel, in a campaign for the redressof grievances. Thus the Second Riel Rebellion or the Northwest Rebellionbegan.

During December of 1884, he had sent a petition to Ottawademanding more liberal treatment for the Indians, land patents and scriptfor the half-breeds, and responsible government and more liberal home-steadlaws for the whites. The petition was acknowledged and an investigationwas promised; but there was no action.

Riel was becoming more and more irrational.in his actions.in 1885, he organized a provisional government and broke with the RomanCatholic church. On March 26, the metis, led by Gabriel Dumont, ambusheda force of North West Mounted Police at Duck Lake. The police abandonedFort Careton and went to Prince Albert. A few days later, Cree Indians,under the leadership of Big Bear, murdered nine men at Frog Lake. The Creesthen went to North Saskatchewan and captured Fort Pitt after its inhabitantssurrendered.

The Canadian government promptly took action. The NorthWest Field Force was sent to the west under Major General Frederick DobsonMiddleton. Three columns of troops were formed from the Force. Middletonled the first column against Riel's force; Lieutenant Col. William D. Otterwent out against the white men; and Major General Thomas B. Strange leda force from Calgary and Edmonton and down the Saskatchewan River againstBig Bear. Faced with these developments, Riel thought the best thing todo was concentrate his forces. He told Poundmaker and Big Bear, leadersof the Indian forces, to join him at Batoche, where he was stationed. Beforethe Indians could respond, they were attacked separately by Otter and Strange.At Cut Knife Hill on May 2, Otter fought against Poundmaker, on May 28,Strange encountered Big Bear at Frenchman's Butte. Meanwhile, on April 24,Middleton had had an indecisive battle with Dumont at Fish Creek beforeattacking Riel at Batoche. After four days, Middleton's men captured Riel'sheadquarters on May 12. On May 15, Riel gave himself up. As a result,Poundmaker surrendered on May 26. Big Bear fled to the north while beingpursued by Middleton and Strange. On July 2 he surrendered at Fort Carlton.

The Canadian loss amounted to thirty-eight killed and 115wounded. The metis and Indian losses have never been accurately computed.

The leaders of the rebellion were tried and the resultsare as follows: Eighteen half-breeds were sentenced to terms of imprisonmentand eight Indians were hanged for murder. Big Bear and Poundmaker were givenprison sentences and two white men were tried and discharged. Louis Rielwas charged with treason. He pleaded insanity, but nevertheless, was sentencedto hang. As the date for his execution approached, the feelings of the peoplein Ontario and Quebec became intense. The execution was postponed and amedical commission was sent to look into the question of his insanity. Finally,on November 16, 1885, the death sentence was carried out. When asked ifhe had anything to leave his people, he replied, "On1y my heart, andI gave that to my people fifteen years ago." (3) In 1886, a generalamnesty was granted to all who were not actually under sentence. Soon BigBear and Poundmaker were released from prison."Riel's death increasedracial and religious tensions in Canada, severely damaged the conservativeparty in Quebec, and gave rise to a French-Canadian 'nationality' movementunder Honore Mercier." (4) Riel became the symbol of the traditionalFrench~English ethnic problem in Canada, particularly in Quebec and Ontario.In summary:

The dark threads of classic tragedy form the fabric of the Riel story. This strange intense man with the brooding spirit went to his death on the scaffold after a swift fifteen year span of events which changed the history of Canada. In that time - a decade of it spent in exile - Riel's name fired the north west like a prairie fire. He sparked two rebellions, marked by massacre, prayer, cannon war, and execution, twice set up provisional governments with himself as president, ran successfully for federal parliament while a hunted fugitive with a price on his head, went insane, recovered, taught school, wrote poetry and in effect, fathered the new province of Manitoba.(5)

 

So, even after being dead for twenty-five years, LouisRiel is still remembered and honored by the metis people.

(1) "Canada," Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 4,pp. 738~739.

(2) "Riel Rebellions in Canada Mark Unique Chaptersin History" Kittson County Enterprise, Anniversary Edition, p. 8.

(3) R. L. Gordon, Canada, (Macmillim Co. NY), p. 26.

(4) "Riel, Louis," Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol.19, pp. 323.

(5) R. L. Gordon; loc. cit.

 

Bibliography

"Canada," Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 4, pp.476,738,739.

Gordon, R. L. Canada. Macmillim Co. New York, p. 26.

Gourneau, Patrick. History of the Turtle Mountain Bandof Chippewa Indians, pp. 11, 12

Healy, W. S. Women of the Red River. Peguis Publishers,Winnipeg, 1923, pp. 221 - 223

Peck, Anne M. The Pageant of Canadian History. David McKayand Co., Inc., 1963.

"Riel, Louis," Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol,19, p. 323.

"Riel Rebellions in Canada Mark Unique Chapters inHistory." Kittson County Enterprise. Anniversary Edition. J. E. Bouvetteand Sons, 1931, pp. 8, 12

Stanley, George F. G. "Riel, Louis," EncyclopediaAmericana. Vol. 23 1964, p. 514.bellions in Canada Mark Unique Chapters inHistory." Kittson County Enterprise. Anniversary Edition. J. E. Bouvetteand Sons, 1931, pp. 8, 12

Stanley, George F. G. "Riel, Louis," EncyclopediaAmericana. Vol. 23 1964, p. 514.