1885: Louis Riel, Metis leader

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.”

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

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1870: Thomas Scott, “take me out of here or kill me”

On this date in 1870, a troublesome Anglophone was shot in Fort Garry by the rebellious Metis provisional government.

The Red River “Rebellion” pitted the Métis people — Francophone mixed-race descendants of Europeans and natives, constantly referred to as “half-breeds” in the period’s literature — of the inland plains against the Canadian government that had just bought the rights to their land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Needless to say, this sale was not effected with reference to the consent of said land’s inhabitants, which makes the term “rebellion” something of a misnomer — rightful authority was not clearly constituted, and in this period it would be negotiated on the fly.

Distrustful of the Ontario government and the Red River Settlement’s own minority of Anglo settlers, Louis Riel led a headquarters in Upper Fort Garry.* Riel’s negotiations with Canadian authorities set the parameters for the future province of Manitoba.

Parallel to the diplomatic overtures, however, were skirmish-level military hostilities.

Scott, an Irish-born Orangeman of fiercely anti-Catholic disposition, was captured with a few dozen Anglos attempting to mount an assault on Metis holdings and imprisoned in Fort Garry. He escaped with some of the other prisoners, but was re-arrested making a return trip to attack the fort again and liberate the remaining captives.

Scott’s execution this day helped inflame anti-Metis sentiment and contributed to the Riel government’s collapse a few months later.** But the guy makes a bit of a problematic martyr because — and we want to be fair here — he seems to have been an unmitigated prick.

The leader of Scott’s fatal expedition, Charles Boulton, was likewise condemned by the Metis, but Riel pardoned Boulton and even offered to bring him into Riel’s own government. Scott, by contrast, let no one be mistaken about his contempt for the half-breeds and abused his captors; his particular sentence was procured on the grounds of having defied the provisional government’s authority and threatened Riel.

Since Riel was looking for someone to make an example of, he was the guy.

As so often with firing squads, the execution was a botch … and upon that botch was laid, according to the testimony of a Metis opponent of Riel quoted by Boulton, a downright sadistic final chapter. (It must be noted that both the original source and the man citing it have an interest in maximizing the alleged brutality of Riel.)

Six soldiers had been chosen to shoot Scott. I have here again to write the name of a man whose behaviour in that circumstance reflects on him the greatest honour. Augustin Parisien, one of the six soldiers, declared openly that he would not shoot at Scott; in fact, he took off the cap from his gun before the word of command ‘present’ was given. Of the five balls remaining, only two hit the poor victim, one on the left shoulder, and the other in the upper part of the chest above the heart. Had the other soldiers missed the mark undesignedly, or had they intentionally aimed away from Riel’s victim, it is not known. However that may be, as the two wounds were not sufficient to cause death, at least sudden death, a man, named Guillemette stepped forward and discharged the contents of a pistol close to Scott’s head while he was lying on the ground. This ball, however, took a wrong direction. It penetrated the upper part of the left cheek and came out somewhere about the cartilage of the nose. Scott was still not dead, but that did not prevent his butchers from placing him alive and still speaking, in a kind of coffin made of four rough boards. It was nailed and plated in the south-eastern bastion, and an armed soldier was placed at the door. This would seem like a story made at one’s ease, if there were not several credible witnesses who, between the hours of five and six in the evening, heard the unfortunate Scott speaking from under the lid of his coffin, and it was known that he had been shot at half-past twelve. What a long and horrible agony, and what ferocious cruelty was this on the part of his butchers. The words heard and understood by the French Metis were only these ‘My God, My God!’ Some English Metis, and those understanding English, heard distinctly these words: ‘For God’s sake take me out of here or kill me.’ Towards 11 o’clock — that is, after ten and a half hours of frightful agony — a person, whose name I shalt withhold for the present, went into the bastion, and, according to some, gave him the finishing stroke with a butcher’s knife, with a pistol, according to others. After having inflicted the last blow on poor Scott, that person said, as he was coming back from the bastion: ‘He is dead this time!’ The corpse was left for a few days in the south-eastern bastion, being guarded by the soldiers, relieving each other in turn.

* The site — most of the fort is demolished — is now in downtown Winnipeg.

** Riel himself had a colorful career ahead of him, which ultimately delivered him too to the annals of the executioner.

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