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Book review of The Trial of Louis Riel:
Justice and Mercy Denied


Prof. Michael Rustad

Professor of Law and Director of High TechnologyLaw,
Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA

The Trial of Louis Riel: Justice & Mercy Denied: ACritical Legal and Political Analysis, Calgary, Alberta: Tellwell Publishing,1999, ISBN: 0-9685489-0-3, $19.95 (Canadian)

I grew up in Northwest Minnesota on a farm eight milesfrom the Manitoba border and eight miles from the North Dakota border. Ipicked up this book about the Louis Riel trial because of having very littleknowledge about the Red River uprising. I knew that Riel was the leaderof the Metis and that there were a great number of Metis families in KittsonCounty (Minn.) and Pembina County (N.D.) The French and Indians freely intermarriedand the Metis people were a product of those marriages. The descendantsof the Andre Jerome family share the Metis heritage. Andre Jerome was oneof the great Metis leaders in Kittson County. Later, Jerome served as aguide and was reported to have appeared with Buffalo Bill. Thanks to Goulet'sstudy, we now know a great deal about Riel injustice.

In the 1840s-1880s, the Metis served as guides and furtraders in the trafficking of furs from Pembina to St. Paul. The furs weretransported on giant Ox Carts.

Hudson Bay was the leading fur trading company and theRiel trial needs to be understood in the context of the fur trade as wellas Canadian society and the founding of Manitoba. There was considerableconflict between the Scots/English contingent and the French-Canadians.

The conflict between these groups reflects the very differentpictures of Riel. The dominant English historians viewed him as a criminalwhereas he was a mythic heroe to the French.

Goulet describes Louis Riel as a charismatic leader, awunderkind, a rara anis. Riel was elected to Parliament but could nevertake his seat due to his politics. His principal leadership was to champion,the Metis, in having their grievances remedied Riel was well educated andwas conversant with the prophets from his days studying for the priesthoodin Montreal. The "half-brees viewed him as a prophet." Riel wasthe first populist of the praririe prefiguring the Progressive movementsthat swept the U.S. a few decades later.

Louis Riel is finally getting recognition as the MartinLuther King of the Metis people. The CBC television network recently featuredhim as one of the most important leaders of the prarie provinces. Therewas evan an opera written about him performed at the Kennedy Center (p.10).The upper Red River Valley should be retitled the Great Northwest for itscentral role in the Riel saga.

Louis Riel is a product of the Red River Valley. The homeof the Riel family is located in St. Vital, a Winnipeg suburb (id). A statuteof Riel has been erected between the Manitoba legaislative building andthe great Red River bank. The plaque on the statute states: "In 1992,the Parliment of Canada and the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba formallyrecognized Riel's contribution to the development of the Canadian Confederationand his role, and that of the Metis, as founders of Manitoba."

The Trial of Louis Riel provides insights into the legaland political analysis of a political trial and execution. Goulet arguesthat Riel's mistreatment "at the hand of his own counsel, the seirousdeficiencies exhibited by these same counsel, and Riel's address to thejury" were proximate causes of his sentence of death.

This book is a critical analysis of Louis Riel's 1885 trialfor high treason. Riel, was a founder of the province of Manitoba, and placedon trial for his role in the great Northwest uprising of the 1880s. Rielws executed under a 534 year old English statute for high treason. Thisbook is primarily a study of the trial, jury, legal procedures, witnesses,and performance of the Crown and defense counsel. The author is George R.D.Goulet born in St. Boniface, Manitoba. Mr. Goulet is a retired attorneywho is also author of a book on the Canadian stock exchange. Mr. Gouletbecame interested in the Louis Riel treaty through family history. His greatgrandfather was a member of Louis Riel's Provisional Government in Manitobain 1869-70. He was also the grand nephew of another Manitoba martyr, ElzearGoulet, a friend of Louis Riel murdered by government agents. Goulet isan apologist for Riel who acknowledges that it is impossible to write avalue-free history

Goulet's judgment is that Riel is a legend, "our Hamlet"and a great Canadian. Goulet reads from Riel's address to the jury:

"I will perhaps be one day acknowledged as more thana leader of the half-breeds, and if I am I will have an opportunity of beingacknowledged as a leader of good in this great country."

Goulet recounts the early life of Riel in Chapter 2. Rielwas born in the Red River Settlement on October 22, 1844. He inherited Chipwyanblood from his grandmother. Riel was raised on his parent's farm in theparish of St. Vital. The area was near the forks of the Red and AssiniboineRivers. During Riel's childhood, Winnipeg was a mixed population of only10,000 Metis, Indians and whites (English and Scotch mixed bloods (half-breeds.Today, Winnipeg has over 600,000 people.

The Selkirks were a key stakeholder of the upper Red RiverValley coming as settlers "at the instigation of Lord Selkirk...whocame from an aristocratic family, in Scotland. The Scottish and Englishhalf-breeds were products of "Hudson Bay Company employees and theirIndian wives." Most of the Scot/English half-breeds spoke English andwere Protestants.

A second stakeholder of the upper Red River Valley wasthe Metis. The "Metis were the descendants of the French Canadian furtraders, coureurs de bois, voyageurs and aventirers and their Indian mates."The Metis viewed themselves as a "New Nation" based upon theirshared cultural and occupation roles of fur trading and buffalo hunts. TheNorth West Company (rival to Hudson Bay) encouraged the Metis to see themselvesas separate from the Selkirk settlers.

The Metis, for example, shared a native democracy basedon the democracy of the buffalo hunt. Goulet's book was primarily on thetrial not the culture of the Metis. However, Goulet recommends John Foster'sbook: The Metis: The People and the Term as well as A.S. Lussier, editor,Louis Riel and the Metis for for readers interested in learning about howthe Metis lived in the Red River Valley Settlement.

Riel was born in 1844 into a society split between theMetis group and the descendants of Lord Selkirk. The Hudson Bay Company(HBC) effecively controlled the politics of the region though the Councilof Assiniboia. The HBC was created by King Charles II in 1670 by a royalcharter. The HBC was granted a broad monopoly over the Prarie Provinceswhich included the right for land tracts and to build forts.

Riel was born in the agricultural colony. Lord Selkirkgranted 16,000 squre miles in the RRV known as Assinboia to establish farming.The Selkirk settlers arrived around 1812 only a few decades before Rielwas born. Goulet notes that by Riel's birth, there was great dissatisfactionabout the HBC monopoly. Goulet writes: "For example, to enforce itsmonopolgy the HBC searched trains of Red River carts travelling to and fromPembina and St. Paul, and settler's homes for contraband furs and even checkthe mails." As with other monopolies, there was also a problem withlow prices paid for furs.

The Metis tried to evade the HBC monopoly by illegallytrading in fur. When Riel was 9 in 1849, there was a trial of Metis furtradders. Louis' father organized a demonstration at the coutrhouse with"hundreds of armed Metis show[ing] up at the courthouse." TheSelkirk dominated court freed the traders: finding them guilty but imposingno punishment! The Metis slogan at the trial was: "Le comemce est libre,Commerce is free, long live liberty"

Riel was educated by Catholic priests at St. Boniface.Riel received a scholarship to attend college in Montreal to become a priest.Goulet desribed Louis as a handomse 14 year old with "piercing browneyes and dark brown naturally wavy hair." Riel's father died in 1864and he returned home losing interest in the priesthood.

Riel worked in St. Paul and made a number of contacts withMetis fur transporters who transported the furs from Pembina, North Dakotato St. Paul for HBC. Louis Riel returned home to the RRV in 1868 The Metishad long been dissatisfied with the HBC dominatd government. There werea number of insurgencies by the Metis against Prime Minister John MacDonald'sgovernment.

The Metis formed a National Committee and took controlof Fort Garry which was HBC's chief fort in the RRV. Riel sought to forma provisional government for the "our ptoection and to treat with Canada."There were a number of events of the 1860s that centered in Pembina, NorthDakota. The Lt. Governor of Canada --William McDouglass, was detained inPembina waiting to cross the border. Goulet describes how the governmenttried to annex the RRV land: "He stepped across the border (at Pembina),and, in bone-chilling cold and snowy weather, he read the false proclamationto the inhuman elements after which he hied himself back across the borderto Pembina. However beside being asinine and comical, McDouglass's act wereillegal."

Riel formed a provisional government "for the protectionof life and property." MacDonald sent emissaries to bribe some of theMetis to desert Riel. The provisional government elected Riel as Presidentwith 12 French and 12 English-speaking membes.

The MacDonald government struck back and killed a key Rielfollower. Riel fled to Montrea and became an exile in the United States.He even had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant. Riel was banishedfrom Canada and served as a school teacher in Montana. A group of Metisconvinced Riel to go back to Canada and help his Metis people in 1884. Rielled Metis troups briefly and surrendered in 1885. Riel was promptly arraignedfor treason and viewed the trial as an opportunity to express grievancesfor his beloved Metis people.

Riel was transported to Winnipeg and his trial held ina courtrrom owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway. PrimeMinister John Macdonald moved the trial from Winnipeg to Regina. MacDonald'sworry was that Riel would be entitled to a jury of 12 and the distinct possibilityof a mixed jury.

The Regina trial venue was essentially a preordained resultof a trial before all English/Scot jurors. Mr. Goulet argues that the juryselection was biased against Riel from the first. Louis Riel, was a FrenchCanadian. His jury was all composed entirely of Scots and English.

Another difficulty for Riel's attorneys was that the criminalprocedures were less favorable in Regina than in Winnipeg. The change invenue "was another telltable sign which made manifest the politicalnature of the impending trial and the determination of the Prime Ministerto ensure that no stone was left unturned which would assist in the convictionand hanging of the prarie rebel." The rest of the book is the Trialof Louis Riel that culminated in his execution by hanging in 1885.

The Trial of Louis Riel is one of the few critical historiesof a political trial that shaped the Upper Midwest as well as the PrarieProvinces. It is a careful study of the trial from jury selection to magistrate'scharges to the jury's unanimous recommendation of mercy for Riel. The bookis a must-read for anyone interested in Red River Valley frontier justice.It is highly recommended for law students interested in the politics oflaw as Native American legal history.

el. The bookis a must-read for anyone interested in Red River Valley frontier justice.It is highly recommended for law students interested in the politics oflaw as Native American legal history.