So we’re coming up on a part of the novel that’s going to deal in some detail with Louis Riel, the Métis Leader, rebel, mystic, and (not paradoxically) Father of Confederation.  Since there’s people reading this blog from all over the world (hey everyone!) I figured I’d provide a quick, condensed history of Louis Riel and his place in Canadian history.

Just to be clear, this is meant to be the brief, textbook entry on his life.  I’ll be getting into the nuance and complex analysis as we move on.  The purpose here is to provide a bare-bones outline of events so that we’re on the same page regarding people, places, and dates.  Among other sources, I have been using The Canadian Encyclopedia as a reference for purposes of double checking dates and spellings.

Louis Riel was a Métis man born in 1844 in the Red River settlement in what was then called Rupert’s Land  (now called Manitoba) which was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Because he was a bright, precocious child, he was sent away to get a higher education, attending seminary in Montreal before returning home in the late 1860s. His return came at a tumultuous time as Canada was beginning to expand westward and the HBC was looking to sell its claim on Rupert’s Land. This sale, which would have directly impacted every Métis person in the region, was being made without any consultation, and for the most part the locals weren’t happy.

Until this point in Canada, the term Métis was a descriptive term for a person with both Indigenous and European ancestry (usually French).  In the territory of Rupert’s Land and further west, however, there were thousands of Métis who had, over generations, coalesced into a coherent ethnic group.  By this point they had their own dialects, traditions, religious perspectives (a variation of Roman Catholicism) and beliefs.  Although they weren’t officially recognized as a distinct nation (yet), the Métis of Rupert’s Land were a community unto themselves.  By 1870, they had begun organizing to make a stand for their rights. Louis Riel joined this movement, and because of his educational background, quickly became a leader[1].

Things came to a head when a group of Métis chased out a team of surveyors that was mapping out parcels of land for sale, then blocked the arrival of the appointed Governor of the new territory. They then proclaimed themselves a sovereign state and demanded the right to negotiate their entry into Canada on their own terms.  The basis of this claim came from a legal technicality. The HBC ceded control of the territory a month before Canada was to take possession. That left a period of time when the Métis were governed by no one. In that space they proclaimed themselves ‘the Provisional Government of Assiniboia’, as such, asked to negotiate with Canada as an equal.

This was what came to be known as the Red River Rebellion.  During this time, Louis Riel was acting primarily as a lawyer and politician.  He helped set up a government for the Red River territory, and opened negotiations for it to be incorporated into Canada as a Province (rather than as a Federally administered territory as was originally the plan).  Provincial status would grant the inhabitants of the region greater control over local issues.  While his actions were met with surprise by the government of Sir John A MacDonald, the fact that the Métis were predominantly Catholic played well in Québec meaning that they couldn’t just declare a rebellion and crush them[2].

Still, there’s no plan in the world so perfect that some random asshole can’t come along and fuck it up.

In this case, the asshole in question was an Anglo-Protestant settler in the region named Thomas Scott[3].  When the Métis took control, the minority English speaking Protestants objected, and tried to oppose Riel’s fledgling government.  Some of them (including Scott) went so far as to take up arms and attempt a counter-rebellion.  This got shut down quickly and without any real bloodshed, except that Scott, by all accounts a belligerent racist (even for 1870s Canada), was unwilling to give up.  Even after he and a few determined hold outs were imprisoned, he remained violent and abusive, attacking his guards whenever he had the chance and going so far as to throw the contents of his chamber pot at them on several occasions.

As improbable as it seems, Thomas Scott managed to single handedly undermine the rebellion.  The Métis Warriors, unsettled by the counter-rebellions and incensed by Scott’s behaviour, finally demanded the man be tried for his crimes.  Against his better judgement, Riel and the Provisional Government had to agree and Scott was tried, sentenced to death and executed.

This single act badly damaged negotiations with Ottawa.  The death of an Englishman (as opposed to a French Catholic) sent English Canada into an uproar (particularly where the Orange Order dominated) and quieted those French voices who had been restraining the government response.  Even as a treaty was signed, recognizing the territory as a Province, a military expedition under then-Col Garnett Wolsey was launched.  Officially a peace mission, it became known that at least one of this force’s tasks was to arrest Riel and other Métis leaders, and bring them to ‘justice[4].’

Ultimately there was little to no formal warfare.  The army arrived while Riel and other leader fled to the United States.    Louis Riel would remain in hiding for the next decade even though he would be elected to Parliament in 1874 as an MP for the Manitoba riding of Provencher[5].

This isn’t to say that there was no violence.  Although the army fought no formal battles, the soldiers were unleashed upon the region, killing dozens of people believed to have supported Riel and burning their property.  Although violent reprisals were often standard for the British Empire in their colonial campaigns, the violence around Red River was seen as particularly shocking for its uncontrolled and personal nature.

So Manitoba was a Province and the Canadian expansion west ward continued.  Louis Riel lived in exile in the United States for years and…well things got messed up.  At some point during this time he apparently had a mental breakdown.  Among other things he embraced a kind of messianic Catholicism, declared that the Bishop of Montreal was the new Pope and was locked up in an asylum for a period of time.

While this was happening, Canada had been pushed further out onto the Prairies, building the railway as they went.  Meanwhile the First Nations in that region (predominantly the Cree, Assiniboin, and Siksika Nations) were finding themselves having to deal with the western encroachment.  The Métis of this region (what is now Saskatchewan and Eastern Alberta) were much more of a minority with a much less central role in the region’s economy than was the case in Red River.  Nevertheless, there were attempts being made to create a united front amongst all the groups (including Anglo-Protestant farmers).  In 1884, Louis Riel was invited into the territory by the Métis leader Gabriel Dumont.

This is where things got complicated.  Riel at this point was still conducting himself as a political leader much in the way he had fifteen years earlier (including trying to unite the dissenting groups into declaring a provisional government) but he was also displaying episodes of religious mania that was unnerving potential supporters[6].  Ultimately, the Manitoba option of declaring independence then negotiating Provincial status fell apart, and when in the spring of 1885 the Métis and a few remaining allies sent a petition to Ottawa, the response was a military intervention.  This was the beginning of what became known as the North West Rebellion.

While this was happening, a similar conflict broke out between the region’s First Nations and the Canadian government[7].  For several years leading up to 1885 the various Nations and Bands of the prairies had been negotiating with the Canadian government with varying degrees of success.  Some had already signed treaties and moved onto Reserves, while others were holding out or trying to re-negotiate.  Several of the larger Cree Bands (along with other Nations in the region) formed a confederation under their Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker (Cree) and Crowfoot (Siksika).  Big Bear wanted to avoid violence, but was faced with trying to calm militant factions among his own people, while Ottawa was actively cutting off food payments to his people in order to force his surrender.

When an encounter between Métis and North-West Mounted Police (now the RCMP) turned violent at Duck Lake, the Cree confederation took action as well.  Several Bands left their reserves, a group of Assiniboine Warriors (acting independently) killed a couple of settlers, and Big Bear established a huge camp at Frog Lake near the settlement of Battleford, which his people looted for supplies[8].

As shocking as these actions were for Canada, it’s clear in retrospect that Big Bear was working hard to restrain the more violent factions within his confederacy. The settlers at Battleford sheltered in their nearby fort and went unmolested for the duration of the fighting, while Big Bear and Poundmaker struggled to re-open negotiations.  Violence broke out at Frog Lake on 2 April when a war Chief named Wandering Spirit who shot and killed an government Indian Agent.  This man would be one of nine men killed that day despite Big Bear’s efforts to restrain them.  Although he would succeed in protecting the women and children present (all the victims killed were men), the incident would come to be called the Frog Lake massacre and Big Bear would be blamed for it (as well as those two settlers killed by Assiniboine Warriors)[9].

Dumont, Big Bear, & Poundmaker
Left to right: Gabriel Dumont, Chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) and Chief Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin).

So at this point the North-West Rebellion (or the two conflicts that would be called this) were underway.  The Métis were encamped at Batoche after shooting it out with police, the Cree near Battleford after the violence at Frog Lake.  The incoming Canadian government force (about three thousand men at the time, eventually to number over five thousand) split into three parts to confront these two threats from multiple directions.  Two columns under Gen Strange and Col Otter converged on the Cree, while the main column under Gen Middleton went after the Métis at Batoche.

The tragedy of the Cree confederation is that they genuinely did not want a war, and this was proven by the outcome of the fighting with the two columns that came after them.  At Cutknife Creek (and the correspondingly named Cutknife Hill), Col Otter’s force attacked what proved to be a much larger force of Cree Warriors and was virtually surrounded.  Only the timely intervention of Chief Poundmaker saw the Warriors break off and allow Otter’s forces to retreat.  Strange ended up fighting a prolonged but inconclusive firefight at Frenchman’s Butte, where a force of Cree kept his troops at a distance long enough to retreat under cover of darkness.

Despite having at least one opportunity to seriously maul government troops, the Cree restrained themselves, allowed the Canadians to withdraw.  The camp at Frog Lake would scatter, with most of the Chiefs eventually choosing to surrender on their own terms rather than getting captured.

Middleton’s column, on the other hand, faced open resistance from the Métis.  A battle at Fish Creek between his forces and a much smaller group of Métis under Dumont stopped Middleton cold for over a week as he waited for reinforcements.  The fighting for Batoche itself would last for four days as the government forces launched multiple ill-coordinated attacks.  The end came when two of Middleton’s commanders launched an unauthorized charge that overwhelmed the exhausted Métis defenders, who at this point were low on ammunition.  Louis Riel would be captured three days later, while Gabriel Dumont managed to escape south to the Montana territories.

The aftermath of the Rebellion saw Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker tried and imprisoned for three years each, while Wandering Spirit and ten other Warriors would be convicted of murder for the violence at Frog Lake (among other incidents).  Eight would be hanged.  Dumont would remain in exile until a general amnesty was declared years later.

Louis Riel actively resisted attempts by his lawyers to portray him as insane, and gave a passionate defence of himself and his cause at trial.  The case he made centred around having launched a peaceful defence of his and his peoples’ rights, and then defending themselves against government violence.  Although his arguments moved several who witnessed it – and even some members of the jury – he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.  There were several appeals made (including one to the Federal Government directly) but they were all rejected and Riel was hanged on 16 Nov 1885.

Although the North-West Rebellion involved a comparatively small number of people out of the region (not counting the Cree confederacy), Louis Riel would become a polarizing figure throughout the nation.  The Anglo-Protestant population (supporters of the Conservative Party of Sir John A MacDonald) celebrated Riel’s execution, whom they still held accountable for the death of Thomas Scott.  The French-Catholics, on the other hand, saw this as an attack on their heritage and faith, and an emerging politician named Sir Wilfred Laurier would embrace the issue.  He would eventually become leader of the nascent Liberal Party, and eventually be elected Prime Minister himself.

While there’s a lot of room to debate who Louis Riel was and to what extent he impacted Canadian history, there is no denying that he was significant.  He was a central figure in the expansion West, and became one of the modern polarizing issues that separated English and French Canada, as well as the emerging Liberal and Conservative Parties.  He’s a major figure in First Nations history, although what he meant (and whether he was more important than Big Bear or Gabriel Dumont) is going to depend on who you ask.  In the 1990s he was retroactively declared a Father of Confederation despite the fact that he never set foot in the House of Commons.

That seems entirely appropriate to me.


***Featured image is of Louis Riel (centre) and the other members of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia.  This image is the most popular one of the man (despite the fact that he often had a beard throughout his life) and versions of it where he is alone are regularly used as a portrait.***


[1] His official title was secretary of the Métis National Committee, however he would become the public face of the Committee when dealing with Canada and thus effectively the leader.

[2] The Catholic angle cannot be understated here.  The French and English Canada of that era were defined less by their language differences than by religion, with the Orange-order dominated Anglos viewing ‘the Papists’ French with fear and suspicion, and vice versa.  This division is one the reason why so many Québecois today have Irish names (they attracted the bulk of Irish immigration) and why the Quebec National Assembly (a proudly secular institution)  has a giant Roman Catholic Cross on its wall.

[3] This is why Thomas Scott is a deeply problematic name for an RCMP constable guilty of shooting native protestors, Mr. Bland.

[4] This is a controversial point, since Ottawa was negotiating with the Assiniboia government as though they were a sovereign state, and the resulting Treaty and Legislation reflected this.  As a sovereign state, Assiniboia should then have the right to enforce their laws, up to and including executing a foreign national (Scott) who had broken them.  Legal consistency was not a big thing in the British Empire of this era (see also: The Opium Wars).

[5] In a brilliant bit of audacity, Louis Riel actually returned to Canada and travelled to Ottawa in secret on the day that Parliament was first convened.  He entered centre block (where the House of Commons sits) and managed to sign the register confirming himself as present for the session before fleeing again.  The man had style.

[6] This is another place where the Protestant/Catholic divide became a significant factor. A large number of the initial dissenters were Anglo-Protestant farmers worried about their land rights and about price controls for wheat.  Had they stayed with the Métis’ protest it might have made it harder for Ottawa to justify military action.

[7] Although they tend to get grouped together, there’s a very good argument to be made that the North West Rebellion and the war between the Cree and Canada should be treated as two separate conflicts that happened to take place at the same time.  Each was driven by different personalities and grievances, and waged for different ends.

[8] A fact conveniently left out of the accounts from the time is that the looting of New Battleford was almost exclusively limited to seizing the food and supplies at the government storehouse there in order to feed the people of the confederacy.  Damages were limited to a single door kicked off its hinges at the trading post.

[9] Wandering Spirit (who had openly broken with Big Bear and Poundmaker at this point) would also loot and burn Fort Pitt in a separate action two weeks later which fortunately included no civilian casualties.

5 thoughts on “Louis Riel – Textbook Edition

  1. There is a good argument for looking at the NW Rebellion as two separate conflicts that occurred at the same time in roughly the same location. The Metis – Canada conflict as one, and the other First Nations – Canada as the other. Riel and Poundmaker/Big Bear had different objectives and waged very different campaigns.

    Under Dumont, the Metis did some initial hit an run attacks , but ultimately moved towards defending fixed locations. As a result, the Canadian troops, otherwise uninspired were able to use conventional military tactics in a set piece manner.

    Meanwhile, the other grouping was much more mobile, forcing the Canadian militia to fight a war like their sons would fight against the Boers 15 years later. And like that war, the end result was decided by who was able to keep their forces supplied with food and ammunition, rather than force of arms (subtle hint – not the First Nations).

    Riel is a figure in Canadian history that is definitely polarizing – a Father of Confederation that was later hung for treason. I see no inherent contradiction in recognizing him as both. His efforts to bring Manitoba into Confederation were well deserving of honour and positive recognition. The execution of Scott was a political mistake, but not something that should be held against Riel.

    And his legacy in the 1885 mess, well, I’d argue that he was the victim of his own past here. He’d done it before, so he could do it again. Except this time, the NWT weren’t in a legal limbo wrt who was the sovereign authority, and declaring the area a separate country to negotiate with Ottawa wasn’t going to fly. And raising a military force was the very definition of treason (raising arms and rebellion against Her Majesty). I think if Riel, or another leader had kept the issues to recognizing the Metis’ land claims (mostly recognizing that they owned the farms they were running with the boundaries they had set, vice how the land surveyors from Ottawa were planning to divide the land up), it might have made for quite a different political outcome.

    Every few years there’s a call to pardon Riel for treason. I disagree with that – he objectively did commit an act of treason by raising military forces and leading them against Canada while being a Canadian citizen (or in the parlance of the time, a British subject resident in Canada). Had Riel (or more correctly Dumont the military commander) successfully held off the Canadian militia, compelling Ottawa to negotiate he’d likely be held in the same esteem as figures like Robert the Bruce, or George Washington (people who rebelled against the Crown but were successful, meaning that they were not traitors) and the Metis were unable to inflict the kind of military defeat on Canadian Forces that would cause the eventual defeat of the Metis as the defeat of a “near peer” force that would cause people to romanticize them in a way that they did the Zulu or Maori, or have a distinctive pattern of dress that would later get incorporated into the military uniform of the CAF (the Metis didn’t dress any differently than the non-Metis farmers of the region, and although the Metis sash is now authorized for Metis CAF members, it wasn’t approved for almost 120 years).


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