Saturday, November 16, 2013

Prophet or Rebel? The Question of Riel

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the execution of Louis Riel. He is one of Canada's more controversial pieces of history.

At one time, the north west portion of Canada, from north of the Great Lakes and Quebec, all the way to Hudson’s Bay and to the Arctic Ocean, and to what is now the Alaska border, was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. They had a charter to trap and hunt and explore this vast territory. In 1869 the Company charter was coming up for renewal, so for a variety of reasons (fear of the Americans moving in being one of them) the young nation of the Dominion of Canada began negotiations to purchase the territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company. They did so, paying out 300,000 English pounds.

The government began to send surveyors there. The people already living in the territory, mostly Native people and trappers, and some settlers, were never really consulted about this process. Among those who lived there were the Metis, a people who grew from the inter-marriage of French settlers and Aboriginal peoples. My great-grandmother was a Metis.

Riel, himself a Metis, and his supporters took issue with what they saw as a rather high-handed way of surveying the land. When the surveyors arrived, Riel and his followers physically barred the way to their entry. This was the beginning of a resistance.

The Metis in the Red River area of present day Manitoba set up a provisional government in Upper Fort Gary. The Dominion government was pre-occupied with other issues, so this action went largely unnoticed. When the new lieutenant governor, William McDougall, tried to enter the region without permission, Riel and 500 armed men escorted him right back out.

Riel had support from white European settlers at this time, but there were some who were quite alarmed by all of the trouble. One such man was Thomas Scott. He was regularly at odds with the Metis provisional government. Eventually he was arrested for threats directed toward Riel and his government. While incarcerated, Scott was alleged to have assaulted a guard and attempted to overthrow the government. He was executed on March 4, 1870. This certainly got the attention of the authorities in Ottawa, and generated a tremendous amount of anti-French sentiment.

The end result of this first conflict was that Manitoba was declared a province in 1870, but because of the controversy surrounding the execution of Scott, Riel fled to the United States.  The trouble was not over, however. Increasing white presence further into the province of Saskatchewan set in motion further struggles between the Metis, the settlers, and the incoming population. The Metis wanted help, so they brought Riel back.

Despite speeches and petitions to Ottawa, Riel’s voice was only vaguely heard by the authorities. Things escalated, culminating in a battle where Riel’s forces engaged with North-West Mounted Police. After only 30 minutes, the police retreated, but there would be more of them to come. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent forces into the area. The battle lines were clearly drawn. Riel set up another provisional government on March 18, 1885. There was considerably less tolerance for such a move this time. Riel’s support was dwindling. Farmers and trappers were supportive when he proceeded through proper channels, but when he chose a violent path, he lost the confidence of others.

The Battle of Batoche, May 12, 1885, saw the Canadian troops defeat Riel’s forces. Riel was tried and convicted of treason on August 1, 1885. He was executed November 16, 1885. The Riel that was hanged was not the one who contributed to the founding of Manitoba. He had grown extreme, and a seemed to have delusions about himself.

 At his trial, he was quoted as saying:

"I cannot fulfill my mission as long as I am looked upon as an insane being…the verdict against me today is proof that maybe I am a prophet."

Riel's resistance in the first case contributed to the founding of Manitoba. His resistance upon his return to Saskatchewan got him hanged. There had been a change in his conduct, and there was a change in what the people of the Dominion of Canada would tolerate. Some historians paint him as insane. Whatever he was, he contributed to the history of the the settlement of Canada.