Louis Riel (1844-1885) was a Métis Canadian political leader who led his people in a revolt against the Canadian government. This rebellion led to the creation of a separate Manitoba province and turned Riel into possibly the most controversial figure in Canadian history. To this day, some see Riel as a rebellious troublemaker and killer while others hail him as a hero.
Riel was born in the Red River Settlement in 1844. He was named after his father, a French-Ojibway political and community leader. Riel's mother, Julie Lagimodiere, was French and descended from the earliest white settlers in the Red River region. The Reils and their twelve children were a close family; they were also well-respected and devoutly Catholic. Riel's father was known for helping to free a man imprisoned for standing up to the trade monopoly enjoyed by the Hudson's Bay Company.
Riel was first educated in St. Boniface, Manitoba, then continued his schooling at the urging of the Bishop of St. Boniface, at Montréal's Petit Séminaire of the Colleège de Montréal. Riel studied a wide variety of subjects including mathematics, languages, philosophy, sciences, and law. He was a good student, but some who knew him commented on his moodiness.
Riel's father died in 1864, and Riel withdrew from college a year later, no longer intending to become a priest. Riel studied briefly at the convent of the Grey Nuns, but discipline problems resulted in him being asked to withdraw from the school. Destitute after his father's death, Riel lived briefly with his aunt in Montréal and then became a law clerk.
Riel was not entirely satisfied with his law work, and romantic problems compounded his unhappiness. Riel was engaged to Marie-Julie Guernon, but because her parents were concerned about Riel's Métis heritage, the engagement was eventually broken off. Riel left Québec and traveled to Chicago and St. Paul in the United States. On July 26, 1868, Riel came home to Red River.
The Red River Rebellion
When Riel returned home, he found his community in a state of unrest. English-speaking Protestants from Ontario and other areas had moved into the area, which had once been inhabited primarily by the native groups and Métis. The inclusion of the land into Canada also created problems. Canada had not even informed the residents of the new transfer of land and many worried that English speakers in Canada would overrun the Métis and native communities. Tensions climaxed when surveyors arrived in the area on August 20, 1869, intending to survey the land for Canada.
On October 11, 1869, Riel spoke out publicly against the surveying work. He also organized a group of Métis to stop the surveyors. By October 16, this group was calling itself the "Métis National Committee." John Bruce was president of the group and Riel was secretary. Riel and the group began demanding that Ottawa negotiate with the Métis over the land.
Riel invited English-speaking groups as well as Métis to develop a plan of action and a list of conditions that needed to be met before the area joined Canada. While the Métis were able to agree on several points, opposition was voiced by some pro-Canadian individuals
By 1870, the Métis National Committee declared a provisional government and Riel was chosen to be president. The new provisional government tried to negotiate with Ottawa, and Riel even sent representatives to the capital to continue talks. In the settlement, however, a pro-Canadian group meanwhile continued to agitate against Riel and his supporters. Some members of the group were arrested for interfering with the provisional government. All were pardoned except Thomas Scott, who hated the Métis and argued with his guards. Scott was sentenced to death and executed on March 4, 1870.
The execution made work harder for Riel's delegates in Canada, but they continued negotiating and on May 12, 1870, the Manitoba Act was passed, which brought Manitoba into Canada as a province. Canada sent a military expedition to the new province to secure the new area for Canada, but Riel, being told that members of the cavalry were on their way to lynch him, fled Canada and exiled himself in the United States.
Riel returns to Canada and Becomes a Politician
In 1871, United States' Fenian raids, attacks by members of the Fenian Brotherhood on British army forts, began to threaten Canada. This spurred Riel to organize the Métis to defend the province of Manitoba. The governor of Manitoba, Sir John A. Macdonald, thanked him publicly but anonymously as Riel was still considered a controversial figure. In fact, Macdonald gave Riel money, hoping that Riel would go back to the United States. Anti-Riel sentiment in Ottawa made Macdonald nervous, so rather than face more French-English tensions, he attempted to get rid of the man who seemed to polarize the two sides.
Since Riel could scarcely afford to reject the money, he did leave for a short time. He soon returned to Manitoba, though, and was encouraged to launch a political career. Riel was elected to the House of Commons in 1873. However, he still had no amnesty for the execution of Scott. Riel was unable to take his seat in the House of Commons because he had to flee arrest and prosecution. When he was reelected in 1874 a motion was made to expel Riel from the House. In 1875, Riel was granted amnesty, on the condition that he exile himself for five years.
The Later Years
Riel suffered a mental collapse and was sent to a Québec asylum. Because of his illness, he was not able to leave for the United States until 1878. Upon his arrival there, he became a schoolteacher. In 1885, Riel again became involved in a rebellion, this time in Saskatchewan. The Métis, many of whom had moved west from Manitoba, were finding that Ottawa was not meeting its promises regarding land and assistance. Many people were starving. They begged Riel for help, and Riel agreed once more to assist them. Riel was pursued for treason because his group used guerrilla tactics in opposing the unresponsive Canadian government. Riel surrendered and was tried in 1885.
Riel could have pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but he refused to do so. Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885 for his involvement in the rebellion. He continues to be seen as a hero by many, and a movement was made in the 1980s to officially pardon him. In 1994, Bill C-228 was introduced in Ottawa to pardon Riel, but it proved unsuccessful, perhaps once again proving that Riel still tends to be a polarizing force in Canadian culture and politics. Several other bills which sought to reverse his conviction and establish a public holiday in his honor were introduced into the Canadian parliament over the course of the next ten years. While such efforts were unsuccessful on a national level, in 2007 his home province of Manitoba created Louis Riel Day, which is celebrated on the second Monday of February every year.
Legacy and Popular Culture Representations of Riel in Contemporary Canada
After his death, Riel became a martyr to many minority groups throughout Canada, including the Métis, the First Nation tribes, and French Canadians. As a result, there are statues dedicated to Riel in many cities in Manitoba, and he remains one of the best-known native sons of the province. Since 2006, his image has appeared on a popular line of t-shirts designed by graphic artist Brendon Ehringer. He is also remembered in various other forms of popular culture media. Perhaps most famous among these is a comic titled Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by illustrator Chester Brown. Initially published as a serialized ten-issue comic book from 1999 to 2003, it charted both Reil's often difficult relationship with Canadian officials and his reputed psychological issues. In 2003 it was republished as a standalone graphic novel that was recognized with three Harvey Awards—a series of awards that honor the best in comic books. It also went on to become a bestseller in both Canada and abroad.
Riel was also the subject of a popular opera composed by composer Harry Somers in 1967 called, simply Louis Riel. Originally created in honor of Canada's centennial, it features a libretto sung in English, French, and Cree. In 1969, an adapted version of the opera was mounted for Canadian television. For the 2016-2017 season of the Canadian Opera Company, a fiftieth anniversary production of the opera is being staged in April 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre of the Performing Arts in Toronto.
Riel has been commemorated in other fashions as well. A student residence house at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia honors Riel, as does the student centre and campus pub at the University of Saskatchewan. In addition, a section of Highway 11 between Regina and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan has been given the honorific title of the Louis Riel Trail.
Riel is also remembered on a provincial level throughout Manitoba. In 1971, a statue by Etienne Gaboury and Marcien Lemay called Tortured was erected outside of the Manitoba Provincial Legislative Building. Abstract in form, it portrayed a naked Riel as having a highly twisted body that was supposed to symbolically depict Riel's tortured soul. However, the statue was, like Riel himself, a source of controversy as several Métis groups found it to be offensive. As a result, the statue was moved to St. Boniface College, and a new, more conventional statue by Miguel Joyal depicting Riel as a statesman was erected in its place. Several other dedications to Riel exist in Manitoba, such as the Esplanade Riel, a footbridge in Winnipeg. In 1976, the house that Riel and his siblings grew up in was converted to the Riel House, which honors both Riel and Métis families, and sits on Canada's list of National Historic Sites.