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1885: Louis Riel, Metis leader

November 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1885, Louis Riel, “the puzzling Messianic figure of Canadian history,” was hanged in Regina for treason.

We have already met in these pages the magnetic, controversial figure of Louis Riel when his Red River Rebellion caused the 1870 execution of Thomas Scott, one of the soldiers sent to suppress it.

Now, after a decade and a half in the political and sometimes literal wilderness, the champion of the Métis had been recalled from the United States to press the rights of his mixed-race French-indigenous people against the Anglo Canadians’ westward march.

It was North America’s familiar clash of civilizations between expanding industrial economies and the traditional ways of life they displaced. (Here’s a good background documentary video, with a Part 2 that gets into the weeds on battlefield events.) Because the Metis were “half-breeds” whose European stock was French, the story’s familiar cocktail of racism had a twist of Canada’s Anglo-French rivalry, too.

Riel declared an independent Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, and the North-West Rebellion was on.

The rebels had some initial successes. But hampered by an inability to make a firm alliance with the more politically realistic Cree, by the non-support of the Catholic Church in view of Riel’s increasingly out-there millenarianism, and by the extension of technological superiority another 15 years’ railroad-building had given the Ottawa government, Riel’s forces soon gave way.

The lightning-rod leader was arrested and repaired to the provincial capital for trial, where he spurned his lawyers’ desperation attempt to plead insanity and cogently vindicated his position.

“Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.”
-Riel

For a man twice a rebel, the hanging sentence was no surprise. Later, juror Edwin Brooks would tell a newspaper “We [the jury] tried Louis Riel for treason but he was hanged for the murder of Thomas Scott.” (Source, via this pdf handbook all about the Metis.)

His hanging was met with outrage in Francophone Quebec, and Louis Riel remains a polarizing figure down to the present day — an emblem of multiple overlapping cultural conflicts never fully resolved. The upcoming year’s 125th anniversary of events profiled here promise a renewed examination of Louis Riel (or at least of his tourism potential).

Below are a few more-or-less obtainable recent books about Riel and the North-West Rebellion, culled from this pdf reading list. Also note the public-domain volume The history of the North-west rebellion of 1885.

Recent considerations of Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Canada,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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3 thoughts on “1885: Louis Riel, Metis leader”

  1. Tom Mitchell says:

    Jason,

    This is a very nicely done account of Rieel and his execution. One factual matter – Thomas Scott was not a soldier sent to suppress the Riel resistance of 1869-70. He was a member of what historians (Canadian) refer to as the Canadian Party – a group of Canadian settlers resident in Red River who opposed Riel’s provisional government. For a biography of scott go here.

    http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=4695&interval=20&&PHPSESSID=2ertoo68gn29uglr4hic7s7tc2

    Tom

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