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RIEL, LOUIS (1844-85) - Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

RIEL, LOUIS (1844-85) - Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

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RIEL, LOUIS (1844-85) - Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
RIEL, LOUIS (1844-85) - Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

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1881-1890 (Volume XI)
, Métis spokesman, regarded as the founder of Manitoba, teacher, and leader of the North-Westrebellion; b. 22 Oct. 1844 in the Red River Settlement (Man.), eldest child of LouisRiel*and Julie Lagimonière,daughter of Jean-BaptisteLagimonière*and Marie-AnneGaboury*; m. in 1881 Marguerite Monet,
Bellehumeur, and they had three children, the youngest of whom died while Riel was awaiting execution;d. 16 Nov. 1885 by hanging at Regina (Sask.).Louis Riel is one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history. To the Métis he is a hero, an eloquentspokesman for their aspirations. In the Canadian west in 1885 the majority of the settlers regarded him avillain; today he is seen there as the founder of those movements which have protested central Canadianpolitical and economic power. French Canadians have always thought him a victim of Ontario religious and racialbigotry, and by no means deserving of the death penalty. Biographers and historians over the years since Riel’sdeath have been influenced by one or other of these attitudes. He remains a mysterious figure in death as inlife.Riel was the eldest of 11 children in a close-knit, devoutly religious, and affectionate family. Both hisparents were westerners, and he is said to have had one-eighth Indian blood, his paternal grandmother being aFranco-Chipewyan Métisse. Louis Sr, an educated man, had obtained land on the Red River where he gained aposition of influence in the Métis community. In 1849 he organized the community to aid Pierre-GuillaumeSayer*, a Métis charged with violating the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trade monopoly. Sayer was released, anaction which resulted in the end of that monopoly. As a child, young Louis would have heard much of hisfather’s exploits.While he was being educated in the Catholic schools in St Boniface, Riel attracted the attention of Bishop Alexandre-AntoninTaché*. Anxious to have bright Métis boys trained for the priesthood, Taché arrangedin 1858 for Riel and three others, including Louis Schmidt, to attend school in Canada. At the Petit Séminaire deMontréal Riel showed himself to be intelligent and studious, with a capacity for charming others, but he couldalso be moody, proud, and irritable.The news of his father’s death, which reached him in February 1864, was a traumatic shock for Riel. Alwaysan introvert, subject to moods of depression, he seems to have lost confidence in his qualifications for thepriesthood and withdrew from the college in March of the following year without graduating. Hoping to supporthis family in Red River, whom Riel Sr had left impoverished and in debt, Louis became a clerk in the Montreallaw firm of Toussaint-Antoine-RodolpheLaflamme*. But the subtleties of the law bored and annoyed Riel and hedecided, in all likelihood in 1866, to return to Red River. He probably worked at odd jobs in Chicago and St Paul(Minn.) before arriving at St Boniface in July 1868.The Red River that Riel had left ten years earlier was an isolated society of English-speaking mixed-bloods(the country-born), Scottish settlers, and the French-speaking, Roman Catholic Métis. During the early 19thcentury the Métis, the largest group, had developed a vigorous sense of nationality based on a distinctiveculture which combined Indian and French Canadian elements. For the most part, the Métis were indifferent tofarming, preferring the excitement of the buffalo hunt far out on the western plains. These annual hunts weresuperbly organized and disciplined affairs under the control of democratically elected leaders, and Métisadherence to the hunt was dramatically reflected in their quasi-military social organization. In contrast to theMétis, the country-born were predominantly Anglican, proud of their English culture, and settled on the land.The Scots settlers had adhered strictly to the Presbyterian church.Riel found many changes on his return. Religious antipathies had become a notable feature of thesettlement. At the same time the political climate was both uncertain and volatile. The settlement, part of theRupert’s Land held by the HBC, was still administered by a governor and the Council of Assiniboia, establishedby the HBC. The need for a new constitutional arrangement was acknowledged, but the issue was far from
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settled. Moreover, the old inhabitants now recognized that although their settlement was still isolated, it wasthe object of expansionist aspirations on the part of both the United States and Canada. Indeed, during Riel’sabsence the settlement had grown to almost 12,000 and the village of Winnipeg had emerged, largelypopulated by Canadians and a handful of Americans. In fact, what Riel found at Red River in July 1868 was anAnglo-Protestant Ontario community, hostile to Roman Catholicism and the social and economic values of theMétis.The most influential and vociferous personality among the Canadians was Dr John ChristianSchultz*, anOntario-born physician, trader, and land speculator. For Schultz and his followers the future of the settlementwas obvious – annexation to Canada. In the early 1850s the annexation of the northwest had become a popularpolitical issue in Canada West as a consequence of the activities of GeorgeBrown*and WilliamMcDougall*, the leaders of the Clear Grits. In French Canada, land seekers had been encouraged to look north in their ownprovince, but their political leaders, by entering the confederation coalition of 1864, had tacitly accepted theidea of acquiring the northwest. This bipartisan understanding was embodied in section 146 of the British NorthAmerica Act of 1867 which provided for transcontinental expansion. Shortly after Riel’s return to the west, itbecame known that Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald*, fearing the Minnesota annexationists, was againnegotiating with the HBC for the transfer of Rupert’s Land, ignoring the population at Red River and the Councilof Assiniboia.Meanwhile, a grasshopper plague in 1867–68 had caused much distress in the settlement. The Canadiangovernment had proposed providing relief by financing the building of a road from Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg)to Lake of the Woods; because the government anticipated that the country would soon be annexed it felt theroad, named “the Dawson Road” after engineer Simon JamesDawson*, would be essential. But the project waspoorly administered, and the survey party assembled in the settlement by John Allan Snow, head of theproject, and CharlesMair*, its paymaster, who arrived together from Ontario in October 1868, included noFrench-speaking members. Mair, a poet and friend of McDougall, now the minister of public works, madehimself thoroughly unpopular in the settlement by a series of articles in Ontario newspapers in January 1869criticizing the Métis. He was opposed to the expedient biculturalism of the Red River Settlement, and, being anadvocate of large-scale Ontario immigration to the northwest, was a natural ally of Dr Schultz, the road party’sagent. ThomasScott*, an Irishman and fervent Orangeman who was reckless, stubborn, and contemptuous of the Métis, joined the work crew in the summer of 1869.At St Vital, an idle Riel had initially decided “to wait on events, quite determined just the same to take partin public affairs when the time should come.” When the substance of Mair’s articles became known to thesettlement, Riel defended the Métis against this unjust criticism in a strong reply published in
Le NouveauMonde
(Montreal) in February 1869. He attended and spoke at a meeting called on 19 July by well-establishedleaders of the Métis community, such as PascalBreland*and William Dease, to discuss growing Métis fearsabout the course of events. Though the meeting underlined the need for concerted action, none was planned.In July 1869 Métis suspicions had increased when McDougall ordered a survey of the settlement. The headof the survey party, Colonel John StoughtonD
, was given specific instructions to respect the river lots of the settlers. Nevertheless, he received a cool reception in Upper Fort Garry and St Boniface after he arrived on20 August, and his close association with Dr Schultz increased Métis fears. WilliamMactavish*, the governor of Assiniboia and of Rupert’s Land, believed that “as soon as the survey commences the Half breeds and Indianswill at once come forward and assert their right to the land and possibly stop the work till their claim issatisfied.” He considered the survey premature and unwise, and he cautioned the Canadian government. RobertMachray*, the Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land, and Bishop Taché, who called at Ottawa on his way to Rome,also warned the government. But all representations were ignored by Macdonald. Indeed, in late Septembermatters worsened when it was announced that McDougall, who with Sir George-ÉtienneCartier*had concludednegotiations between the HBC and Canada in London, would be the first lieutenant governor of the territories.No poorer choice for the post could have been made, in view of the necessity for diplomatic caution in dealingwith the officials of the HBC and with the lay and clerical spokesmen of the various groups at Red River. Thetransfer was to take place on 1 Dec. 1869.As tensions mounted among the Métis it was clear that strong leadership was needed. Riel’s experiencesduring the past ten years had produced a life-style very different from that of the buffalo-hunting Métis, but itwas these people he now aspired to lead. The older, more established leaders had had little success and hadshown little initiative. Riel – ambitious, well-educated, bilingual, young and energetic, eloquent, deeply
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religious, and the bearer of a famous name – was more than willing to provide what the times required.Late in August 1869, from the steps of the St Boniface cathedral, Riel declared the survey a menace. On11 October a group of Métis, including Riel, stopped the survey. A week later, the National Committee, withJohn Bruce as president and Riel as secretary, was formed in St Norbert with the support of the local priest,Joseph-NoëlRitchot*. This association of the clergy and the Métis is not surprising: a people surrounded orthreatened by an alien culture frequently find in their church the chief sustainer of their traditions andaspirations. The able Bishop Taché had already put into print his understanding of and sympathy for the Métisas an integral, and now threatened, part of the settlement.On 25 October Riel was summoned to appear before the Council of Assiniboia to explain his actions. Hedeclared that the National Committee would prevent the entry of McDougall or any other governor unless theunion with Canada was based on negotiations with the Métis and with the population in general. However, by30 October McDougall had reached the border at the village of Pembina (N. Dak.) and, despite a written orderfrom Riel, he proceeded to the HBC Pembina post (West Lynne, Man.). Here on 2 November McDougall was metby an armed Métis patrol, commanded by Ambroise-DydimeLépine*, and ordered to return the next day to theUnited States. Also on the 2nd, Riel, with followers reported as numbering up to 400, who had been recruitedfrom the fur-brigades recently returned to the settlement for the season, took possession of Upper Fort Garrywithout a struggle. It was a brilliant move on Riel’s part – control of the fort symbolized control of all access tothe settlement and the northwest.The month of November 1869 was one of intense activity in the Red River Settlement, as Riel worked tounite its residents including established Métis such as CharlesNolin*and William Dease, who initially opposedhim. On 6 November Riel issued an invitation to the English-speaking inhabitants to elect 12 representativesfrom their parishes to attend a convention with the Métis representatives. Somewhat reluctantly thecountry-born and the Selkirk settlers agreed with the proposal. At the first meeting of the convention little wasaccomplished and the English-speaking delegates, led by JamesRoss*, criticized the exclusion of McDougallfrom the settlement as smacking of rebellion. Riel angrily denied this allegation. Responding to another charge,he stated that he had no intention of invoking American intervention; throughout the resistance he insisted thatthe Métis were loyal subjects of the queen.On 16 November Mactavish, as governor at Red River, issued a proclamation requiring the Métis to laydown their arms. In response Riel proposed a further step to the convention on 23 November: the formation of a provisional government to replace the Council of Assiniboia and to negotiate terms of union with Canada. Hedid not succeed in rallying the English-speaking parishes behind this move. Nor did they approve the “List of Rights” which Riel presented to the convention on 1 December after McDougall issued a proclamation statingthat the northwest was part of Canada as of that day and that he was its lieutenant governor. The “List,” probably composed by Riel, consisted of 14 items. It proposed representation in the Canadian parliament,guarantees of bilingualism in the legislature, a bilingual chief justice, and arrangements for free homesteadsand Indian treaties. When the “List” was later printed and widely distributed many of the English-speakingpopulation were converted to the view that the Métis demands were not unreasonable.More serious opposition was mounted by Schultz, Dennis, and the Canadian element of the settlement.McDougall had requested Dennis to recruit a force to arrest the Métis occupying Upper Fort Garry, a threat Rieltook seriously, but most of the English-speaking settlers refused to respond to Dennis’ call to arms and heretired to Lower Fort Garry. Schultz, on the other hand, had fortified his house and store, and recruited about50 followers as guards. He proposed to Dennis that he be allowed to attack Upper Fort Garry and capture Riel.Before this could happen Riel’s soldiers surrounded Schultz’s store and demanded his surrender. Realizing theirposition was hopeless, on 7 December the Canadians gave in and were imprisoned at Upper Fort Garry. Thenext day Riel established the provisional government, and Bruce was named president. On 18 DecemberMcDougall and Dennis left Pembina for Ontario, having been informed that the Canadian government had infact postponed union until the British government or the HBC could guarantee a peaceable transfer.Macdonald later admitted that under the circumstances the people of the community had had to form agovernment for the protection of life and propertet, in an alcoholic haze or because of urgent political problemsin Canada, he did not, in fact, fully realize at the time the state of affairs in the settlement, and Canadiansgenerally seemed unconcerned. On 6 December, nevertheless, Macdonald had sponsored a proclamation by thegovernor general of an amnesty to all in Red River who would lay down their arms. He also appointed a
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