Louis Riel

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Louis Riel

Louis Riel (1844-1885) was a Canadian rebel who led uprisings in the west in 1870 and 1884-1885 on behalf of the Métis people.

Louis Riel was born at Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, on Oct. 23, 1844, of Métis parents. His quickness of mind was early recognized by the priests at Saint-Boniface, and Riel was sent east to study at the Seminaire de St-Sulpice in Montreal. Riel decided not to become a priest, however, and he returned to the Red River area. In 1869 he became the secretary of the Comité National des Métis, an organization created by the population of Assiniboia, who were of mixed Native American and European heritage. He attempted to preserve their rights when the Canadian west was transferred from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion.

As the brightest and best educated of the Métis, Riel soon became the unchallenged leader of his people, although he was only 25 years old. Proclaiming himself president of the provisional government of the Northwest Territories, he dispatched emissaries to Ottawa to negotiate with the Canadian government, and he was successful in securing the early grant of provincial status for the territory, now named Manitoba, and promises of fair treatment for the Métis. Unfortunately Riel was somewhat overzealous in maintaining order in his domain, and he ordered the execution of Thomas Scott, a troublemaker from Ontario. The execution roused passions in Ontario, a military force was sent to Manitoba, and Riel was forced to flee.

For the next 14 years Riel was in limbo. Although he was three times elected to Parliament by Manitoba constituencies, he was never able to take his seat. In 1875, in fact, he was declared an outlaw. For part of the time he was in an insane asylum, and he was teaching school in the American West in 1884, when events again brought him to the fore.

Riel was approached by representatives of the Métis and other dissident groups in 1884 and asked to return to Canada. He leaped at the chance and was soon leading yet another rebellion against Ottawa. By this time he was clearly mad, believing himself the Messiah and certain that God was on his side. Unfortunately for his rebellion, the Canadian Pacific Railway was on the side of the government, and troops moved west with surprising speed. After a few skirmishes the second Riel rebellion was crushed, and Riel found himself a prisoner.

Soon the rebel was brought to trial by a completely English-speaking court and jury, and predictably Riel was found guilty of high treason. An insanity commission reported that he was sane, the Cabinet refused to commute the sentence, and Riel mounted the gibbet at Regina on Nov. 16, 1885. His death stirred animosity between French and English in Canada to fever pitch, and relations between the two peoples remained strained ever thereafter.

Further Reading

Of the numerous biographies of Riel the best is George F. G. Stanley, Louis Riel (1963). See also Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest (1952), and George F. G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada (1961).

Additional Sources

Charlebois, Peter, The life of Louis Riel, Toronto: NC Press, 1978.

Flanagan, Thomas, Louis 'David' Riel: prophet of the new world, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Neering, Rosemary, Louis Riel, Don Mills, Ont.: Fitzhenry &Whiteside, 1977. □

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Riel, Louis (1844–85) French-Canadian revolutionary, leader of the métis (people of mixed French and native descent) in the Red River rebellion in Manitoba (1869–70). When it collapsed, Riel fled to the USA. In 1884, he led resistance to Canada's western policies in Saskatchewan and set up a rebel government in 1885. He was captured and executed for treason.

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