On October 23, 1844, in Red River Manitoba, Louis Riel Sr and Julie Lagimodiere, devout Christians, brought a young Métis boy into the world. Little did they know, Louis Riel Jr. would grow up to become known to many as “the founder of Manitoba.”
His life was filled with excitement, both political and personal. The question is, were his actions against the government acts of honor and truth, or deception and lies?
Riel Jr.’s political adventures did not begin until he was 25. On November 23, 1869, Riel proposed the formation of a provincial government to replace the Council of Assiniboia because he did not believe that they were not doing their jobs well enough to improve the dull life in Red River. On December 10th his flag flew on the pole at Fort Gary. Riel held a convention of twenty French and twenty English Canadians to draw up a new list of rights. The convention sat a week and finished on February 10th. Riel soon formed another provincial government that was more represented than the last. Three delegates were chosen from the provincial government to present the list of formed rights to the Canadian government: Father Noël Ritchot, Judge Black and Alfred Scott . On March 24th, the three delegates left for Ottawa to negotiate entry into Confederation and discuss the list of rights. Finally on May 12th, 1870, the list of rights, now known as the “Manitoba Act” , was passed by Canadian parliament. One section protected Métis lands, guaranteed the right to their religion, and the use of their language in the legislature and courts, but it seemed not enough. December 16th 1884, Riel dispatched a petition to Ottawa demanding that settlers be given title to the lands they occupied, that the districts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Assiniboia be granted provincial status, that laws be passed to encourage nomadic Indians and Métis to settle on the lands and that they be better treated. On February 11th, 1885, the government answered the petition by promising to appoint a commissioner to investigate the Métis claims and titles. First, a lengthy census would be taken of the Métis. Riel, since little had been accomplished, questioned his own leadership qualities. The Métis reaffirmed their vision of Riel as a leader and asked him to continue as their leader.
Not long after these issues were tabled, a rebellion broke out. It was named the Red River Rebellion. The Métis people had revolted against Manitoba for small issues in their communities that angered them. Riel, caught up in the battle, condemned a man named Thomas Scott as a traitor to the provincial government and shot him. This action enraged the anti-Catholic and anti-French communities. In addition, Riel was elected into the Canadian House of Commons in 1873-74 but was denied his seat. He was pardoned in 1875 on the condition he would leave Canada. Both these incidents influenced Riel to go to the United States, where he taught in Montana at a Jesuit Mission, before being asked by the Métis to present their grievances to the Canadian Government and be their leader once more.
In 1885, another rebellion commenced. The Métis had moved to Saskatchewan and began to fear they would lose their land to new settlers. Riel helped the Métis build a stronger, newer provincial government, which resulted in fighting. Government troops eventually defeated the Métis and Riel soon surrendered to the government. Riel’s trial was an interesting one. Riel’s defense lawyer beseeched him to plead insanity, but Riel proudly refused.
“Your Honors, gentlemen of the jury: It would be easy for me to-day to play insanity, because the circumstances are such as to excite any man, and under the natural excitement of what is taking place to-day (I cannot speak English very well, but am trying to do so, because most of those here speak English), under the excitement which my trial causes me would justify me not to appear as usual, but with my mind out of its ordinary condition. I hope with the help of God I will maintain calmness and decorum as suits this honorable court, this honorable jury…If you take the plea of the defense that I am not responsible for my acts, acquit me completely since I have been quarrelling with an insane and irresponsible Government. If you pronounce in favor of the Crown, which contends that I am responsible, acquit me all the same.”
Riel’s speeches were long but nonetheless touching. He spoke of what inspired him to help his people, while still flattering the white people of the court.
“…I found the Indians suffering. I found the half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day…I saw they were deprived of responsible government, I saw that they were deprived of their public liberties. I remembered that half-breed meant white and Indian, and while I paid attention to the suffering Indians and the half-breeds, I remembered that the greatest part of my heart and blood was white and I have directed my attention to help the Indians, to help the half-breeds and to help the whites to the best of my ability.”
After the trial, Riel gratefully thanked the court, only to find out on August 1st, 1885, a jury of English-speaking Protestants found him guilty. Riel was hung on November 16th 1885. Riel’s death caused an outburst of racial hatred between French and English-speaking Canadians, which weakened Canadian unity. While Canada eventually won the west, unfortunately, the Métis never overcame their defeat.
Were Riel’s efforts worth it? Currently there are no Métis reservations in Canada and the Métis are still as underprivileged and dispossessed as ever. As for Riel’s seat in the House of Commons, why was he denied his seat? Was it because he was a Métis? Or perhaps the government feared him? Whatever the reason, it was wrong. No man can be exiled without a clear, good reason , says the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This Charter was established in 1872. Long before the trial. Riel’s exile is one of the main reason Riel was viewed as a traitor: not good enough for Canada. It appears that Riel’s treacherous deeds were merely a myth, brought upon by the government to stir fear in the heart of Riel followers.
So to answer the question of “truth or treason?” I say truth. Riel began his own provincial government, improving it as time went on; even in a weak moment of question, his people supported him. When battle and political issues drove him from his home, he did it with grace; yet, when he returned he spoke eloquently on the subject. Even during his trial, he spoke with all the dignity and honor of a gentleman and a hero. His death was for his people.
If that does not prove his honor, I do not know what does. Riel’s life and troubles have taught us much. In the future, we must not allow the government to control whom we believe in. We cannot allow another honorable person to die because he or she are seen as a threat.