Author Topic: Louis Riel  (Read 80 times)


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Louis Riel
« on: November 07, 2021, 10:12:11 am »
The Indigenous Rebel Who Took the Fight to White Settlers
As colonists spread across North America, Louis Riel took up arms — and was demonized in Canada’s history books. After 150 years, it’s time to reevaluate his legacy.
On March 5, 1885, a group of 11 Indigenous men gathered in secrecy in the Saskatchewan Valley, a forested stretch of central Canada. Their leader, Louis Riel — a white-passing 40-year-old Indigenous man with a prominent mustache — had the militant men sign an oath pledging to “save our country by taking up arms if necessary.”

The country he referenced was the wide swathe of Canada that Indigenous people like him had called home for centuries, and that, like most of North America at the time, was now under threat from white settlers. In the 1880s, pamphlets were being distributed across eastern Canada (and also in England) encouraging people to settle in the Saskatchewan Valley, where their pioneering spirit would be rewarded with free homesteads of “wheat and grazing land.” The problem, however, was that Indigenous people like Riel were already living on the land that settlers were being told they could take for free.

The oath that Riel and his men took would help trigger the North-West Rebellion, an act of Indigenous resistance that attempted to establish sovereignty for the Métis people in the prairies of Canada. The Métis people, who share mixed Indigenous and European ancestry, have a culture and traditions that are distinct from those of other Indigenous groups in Canada, as well as those of European settlers. Their ancestral homeland stretches across Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as into parts of other provinces and the northern United States. According to a 2016 count, there are approximately 587,500 Métis in Canada, accounting for 1.7 percent of the country’s total population.

The rebellion would lead to Riel’s downfall, but it would also have a lasting impact on Canadian politics and Indigenous rights. Riel remains one of the most controversial figures in Canada’s history. In most accounts of the country’s history, he has been presented as a villain — a violent Indigenous rebel who challenged the Canadian government. But now, as Manitoba, the province he helped found, reaches its 150th anniversary this month, and as activists put a spotlight on Canada’s suppression of Indigenous rights — like their recent attempt to shut down and arrest Indigenous people protesting a pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land — the time has come for a reexamining of Louis Riel’s legacy.

Louis Riel was born on October 22, 1844, in the Red River Colony, in what is now known as Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, to a Métis father and a white mother. Louis Riel Sr. was a miller and farmer, and as Thomas Flanagan wrote in his book Louis Riel, “an outspoken advocate of Métis rights,” just like his son would be. Riel’s mother, Julie Lagimodière, was the daughter of the first white woman to live permanently in the North-Western Territory, which stretched from what is now Manitoba to British Columbia.
Lagimodière was extremely passionate about religion, an interest she passed down to her intelligent young son. At age 14, Riel was sent to Petit Séminaire of the Collège de Montréal to study to become a priest. At age 20, his father died prematurely, and Riel he stopped his training in order to support his family by being a law clerk.

Much about Riel’s young adulthood is unknown, but he may have moved to Minnesota, where his uncle lived. During this time, a drought ravaged the prairies, where Riel’s mother still lived with his eight siblings. In 1868, at the age of 23, Riel returned to his native Red River Colony to help his family. His return to Red River coincided with the development of what Flanagan describes as Riel’s “vaulting ambition and radical politics” and desire “to atone for” leaving his family during periods of hardships. His actions a year later would cement his place in Canadian history.

At the time of Riel’s rebellion, the Canadian government was extremely new, and its power was fragile. Like the United States, Canada had separated from England, becoming its own country on July 1, 1867. However, Canada remained part of the Commonwealth of England, and it relied on the support of the Crown even after independence. But the dominant power in Rupert’s Land — a region that included what is now Manitoba — was neither the Canadian government nor the Crown, but rather a private business.

The leading player in the fur-trading industry, the Scottish-owned Hudson’s Bay Company — which today owns and operates stores across Canada — was so all-powerful in the region that when Canada sought to expand westward, the government needed to negotiate with Hudson’s Bay. According to journalist Alexander Begg’s 1871 book The Creation of Manitoba: Or, A History of the Red River Troubles, the lieutenant-governor of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory traveled to England to speak to Queen Victoria to get her assistance in convincing Hudson’s Bay Company to “relinquish their claim to the country.”
Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell the land to Canada under the Rupert’s Land Act, in exchange for 300,000 pounds sterling, which is approximately 36 million pound sterling — or $45 million — in 2020. Many Métis people worked in the fur-trading industry and had a largely amicable relationship with Hudson’s Bay Company. But according to Begg, in the discussions between Hudson’s Bay and Canada over the future of Rupert’s Land, “not a word was spoken regarding the inhabitants of the country.”

With the land transfer date of December 1, 1869, looming, the Métis began to organize a resistance to the Canadian government, as they were afraid that they would lose title to their home. Riel started to hold meetings with other Métis leaders in Fort Garry, a trading post in what is now downtown Winnipeg. Begg wrote that “some three or four hundred men assembled together at the barrier [of the fort] with the avowed object of keeping Mr. McDougall [the lieutenant-governor] out at all hazards.” According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, there were a series of meetings between the Métis and those locals who remained loyal to the Crown, during which “one of the Queen’s soldiers” criticized the resistance movement and reported (perhaps exaggeratedly at this point) that “the country was in a state of armed rebellion.”

Seven days after the land transfer, the Métis defied the Rupert’s Land Act by forming their own provisional government at the Red River Colony. John Bruce was named its first president, and Riel its secretary. Bruce soon fell ill and stepped down as president on December 27, replaced by the 25-year-old Riel, who the Inquirer described as “the most active spirit” of the Métis.

By the start of 1870, it was no longer a question of if the Métis would fight against the Canadian government, but when. Newspapers across Canada, the United States and England were abuzz with speculation about what would happen to Rupert’s Land. There was no shortage of attempts to discredit Riel and his movement. In a letter published by The Examiner and London Review on January 22, 1870, English journalist F.W. Chesson, who was best known as an anti-slavery campaigner, attempted to discredit Riel by claiming that “the insurgent Commander-in-Chief is a pure French Canadian” and that the fight for Métis sovereignty was then “a Colonial and not an aboriginal one.”
Despite attempts to mar Riel and the new provisional government, the Métis continued with their mission of obtaining sovereignty over their land. On February 17, a group of 48 armed Canadians were taken prisoners by the Métis. A little less than a month later, Riel ordered one of the prisoners, Thomas Scott, to be executed by firing squad, infuriating Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Scott was allegedly singled out for taunting Métis guards with racist comments while he was imprisoned.

In May, the Canadian government took two major and seemingly contradictory actions. On May 12, the Canadian Parliament passed the Manitoba Act, which created the province of Manitoba, while meeting two main demands of the resistance: The Métis people were given title to the land where they lived, and they would be allowed to have publicly funded Roman-Catholic schools, in accordance with their religious practices. Yet during this same period, Prime Minister Macdonald authorized Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley to seize control over Fort Garry, by any means necessary, in retaliation for the killing of Scott.

In a letter published in Begg’s book, Wolseley addressed “the loyal inhabitants of Manitoba” and told them that his “mission is one of peace, and the sole object of the expedition is to secure Her Majesty’s sovereign authority.” Wolseley’s expedition with the Royal American Regiment began in August.

George Lightfoot Huyshe, a soldier who wrote an account of the expedition in the 1871 book The Red River Expedition, claimed that he had heard that Riel called a meeting with 600 men to “organize an armed resistance to the entry of the troops,” but that the Métis and other residents of Fort Garry rebuked Riel’s idea. They simply did not have the resources to wage a serious fight against Wolseley’s troops.

Without much bloodshed, the Red River Rebellion was finished. Mere months after the Manitoba Act had theoretically granted them title to their own land, the Métis had been pushed out by force. Riel fled to Montana.

The next 14 years of Riel’s life would be extremely tumultuous, marked by frequent moves and worsening mental health problems. According to Jill Mahoney’s article in The Globe and Mail, Riel returned to Manitoba in May of 1871, but the following year left for the United States again, at the request of Prime Minister Macdonald, who sought to reduce tensions between Riel’s supporters and the government.

Between October 1873 and September 1874, Riel was elected three times to the Canadian Parliament in by-elections, but he never took his seat, in part because there was a bounty placed on his head by the premier of Ontario, which prevented him from returning to Canada.
In 1875, Riel started to refer to himself as a prophet of the Métis people, which would coincide with concerning conduct, such as incidents in which he reportedly tore off his clothes and started roaring like a bull. For a period of time, he was confined (under a false name) to the St. Jean-de-Dieu asylum in Montréal, where he was diagnosed with “delusions of grandeur.”

Critics of Riel have long pointed to his mental health problems as an issue that should sink his credibility. Canadian journalist Maggie Siggins, author of the biography Riel: A Life in Revolution, counters that his mental collapse was understandable, stating in a 1994 CBC radio interview that “he had been hounded for five years with a $5,000 price tag on his head, being almost assassinated several times, and he was watching the politics of Manitoba and Canada unfold, and he was no longer part of it. It was a horrible disappointment.”
In the 1990s, Riel’s legacy began to shift. In 1992, after years of advocacy from Métis groups, the Canadian Parliament recognized Riel as a founder of Manitoba. In a radio interview with CBC, Yvon Dumont, who would later become the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, described this action as a step in the right direction, saying that Métis groups sought to persuade the Canadian government “to promote the role of Louis Riel and the role of the Métis in the development of Canada.”

In the 28 years since then, several members of the Canadian Parliament have introduced bills attempting to exonerate Riel, but they have all failed. Manitoba now celebrates Louis Riel Day, on the third Monday of February, but he is not celebrated on a federal level.

May 12, 2020, marks the 150th anniversary of the Manitoba Act, when the Canadian government made a false promise to the Métis people. While Canada has transformed in many ways since then, the national government’s views toward the self-determination of Indigenous peoples continue to differ in action from what they claim at face value. Over the past year, members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation faced police brutality at the hands of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as they defend their land from a pipeline that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau originally authorized without significant consultations with Indigenous communities.

As Riel awaited trial, his fate already all but certain, he expressed hope that one day the Métis would be able to reclaim what belonged to them. He wrote of the power of art in the Indigenous community, likely referring to the oral tradition of storytelling that has survived throughout so many centuries of trauma. “My people will sleep for one hundred years,” Riel wrote, “but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
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