Every once in a while, almost in spite of itself, Canada’s Parliament does something worthwhile. That was the case last week when the House of Commons granted speedy approval to Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark’s motion recognizing Louis Riel’s “unique and historic role as a founder of Manitoba.”
Clark went on to salute the Métis leader for “deep devotion to his people and his willingness to pay the ultimate price of his life,” pointing out that recognition of Riel’s crucial role in Canadian history is “an indication that we have matured as a nation.”
True enough. When Riel was sentenced to be hanged in Regina in 1885, Sir John A. Macdonald, the Tory Prime Minister—who was not above playing up to the anti-Catholic voters of Protestant Ontario—told a friend who had requested clemency for the Métis leader: “He shall hang, though every dog in Quebec bark in his favor.”
Hang he did, but Riel’s strange saga— particularly his refusal to hide behind a justified plea of insanity that might have saved his life— remains Canada’s most enduring myth. A compelling rebel in a nation of cloying conformists, Riel remains the perfect Canadian martyr: a well-meaning yet deluded mystic who died prematurely by pretending to be sane.
In his time, Riel inspired hero worship and contempt in almost equal measure, being condemned by English-Canadians as a traitor who well deserved to be hanged while he was worshipped in French Canada as a victim of AngloSaxon racial prejudice. The conflict that swirled around him, then and now, is as ancient and as contemporary as Canada itself—the clash between the semi-articulated collective demands of the Métis and the stubbornly held belief in individual rights of English-Canadians.
Despite his humiliating defeat and death at the age of 41, Riel’s defiance salvaged the French-Canadian fact in Canada’s North West, and in the process bestowed on the Métis a degree of self-confidence and self-assertion
they had never possessed. “His name marks a deep furrow in the soil of our young country,” editorialized Montreal’s La Minerve the day after Riel’s hanging. “The hand that placed the gallows rope around his neck wounded a whole people.”
At the time of Riel’s exploits, the Métis around the Red River (the site of modem Winnipeg) had grown restless because their main sources of livelihood—the fur trade and buffalo hunt—were drying up. Possessed by the fierce pride of pioneers—they had, after all, opened up Western Canada—they felt left out of things, recognizing that the newly evolving circumstances would neither restore their past nor validate their future. That was when, led by Riel, they decided to draw on their French and Indian roots to fashion a peculiar world of their own—a new nation, theirnation.
Riel captured the local Hudson’s Bay Co. post and declared himself President of the Provisional Government of Rupert’s Land and the North West, covering most of the Prairies and the North. At the time, his republic was the world’s second largest, exceeded in size only by the United States. He chose as his flag Samuel de Champlain’s golden fleur-de-lys and a green shamrock (to honor the new government’s
treasurer, a professional Irishman named W. B. O’Donoghue) on a white background. For eight months, he governed his people with enlightened grace—and some considerable ambiguity.
Like some 19th-century Robert Bourassa, he was caught between his French nationalism and loyalty to the idea of a British Canada, never able to let go of either emotion, eventually becoming trapped in a polarization of his own making. While restlessly championing the rights of his people, he was just as insistent on gaining “our rights as British subjects.” Riel calmly negotiated the terms for Manitoba’s entry into Confederation and told his tiny legislature how proud he was of the people of the North West for “having trust enough in the Crown of England to believe that ultimately they would obtain their rights.” Nonetheless, Macdonald soon dispatched an army brigade to bring the rebel to heel.
His greatest error was executing a boisterous Irish Protestant drifter named Thomas Scott, a marginal frontier character who had amply demonstrated his anti-Métis prejudices. Although Scott’s only recorded crime was yelling abuses at his Métis captors, he was sentenced to death, and the sole explanation Riel offered at the time was, “We must make Canada respect us.” It was that senseless execution which empowered the violent antiRiel reaction in Orange Ontario.
Even Riel’s dress symbolized his split in loyalties. During the time he was president of his own republic, Riel received visitors wearing a Victorian frock coat and hand-sewn moccasins. He drilled a Métis guard of honor to welcome the British troops and planned to preside at the ceremony turning the western territories over to Canada, but was instead chased out of the country.
Macdonald bribed him to stay away, but Riel returned and twice ran successfully for the House of Commons as an Independent from Provencher—a riding now held by Energy Minister Jake Epp—though he never took his seat. After a nervous breakdown and a lengthy spell in a mental asylum at Beauport, Que., he moved to Montana, but returned in 1884 to lead the last rebellion fought on Canadian soil. This was not the dreamy statesman of his Manitoba period, but a hard-edged religious fanatic, proclaiming himself to be the “Prophet of the New World.” Riel set up another provisional Métis government in Batoche, a fording place on the South Saskatchewan River 44 km southwest of Prince Albert. It was there that the Métis nation was defeated by a volunteer Canadian army; Riel was arrested and shipped to Regina for trial. (He was first taken to Winnipeg, but when the authorities discovered that under Manitoba law half the jury could be Frenchspeaking, Riel was transferred to the territories court in Regina, which had no such provision.)
It’s very Canadian that last week’s posthumous sainthood was bestowed on Riel, the tame administrator at Red River, rather than Riel, the untamed rebel at Batoche. But at least we recognized him as one of our founding fathers, an eternal reminder of this country’s divided soul.
The Métis leader is the perfect Canadian martyra wellmeaning mystic who died prematurely by pretending to be sane
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