The first resistance was the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870. The provisional government established by Riel ultimately negotiated the terms under which the modern province of Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation. Riel was forced into exile in the United States as a result of the controversial execution of Thomas Scott during the rebellion. Despite this, he is frequently referred to as the "Father of Manitoba". While a fugitive, he was elected three times to the Canadian House of Commons, although he never assumed his seat. During these years, he was frustrated by having to remain in exile despite his growing belief that he was a divinely chosen leader and prophet, a belief which would later resurface and influence his actions. He married in 1881 while in exile in Montana, and fathered two children.
Riel returned to what is now the province of Saskatchewan to represent Métis grievances to the Canadian government. This resistance escalated into a military confrontation known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885. It ended in his arrest, trial, and execution on a charge of high treason. Riel was viewed sympathetically in francophone regions of Canada, and his execution had a lasting influence on relations between the province of Quebec and English-speaking Canada. Whether seen as a Father of Confederation or a traitor, he remains one of the most complex, controversial, and ultimately tragic figures in the history of Canada.
The Red River Settlement was a community in Rupert's Land nominally administered by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), and largely inhabited by First Nations tribes and the Métis, an ethnic group of mixed Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, French Canadian, Scottish, and English descent. Louis Riel was born there in 1844, near modern Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Louis Riel Sr. and Julie Lagimodière.
Riel was the eldest of eleven children in a locally well-respected French Canadian-Métis family. His father had gained prominence in this community by organizing a group that supported Guillaume Sayer, a Métis imprisoned for challenging the HBC's historical trade monopoly. Sayer's eventual release as a result of agitations by Louis Sr.'s group effectively ended the monopoly, and the name Riel was therefore well known in the Red River area. His mother was the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière and Marie-Anne Gaboury, one of the earliest white families to settle in the Red River Settlement in 1812. The Riels were noted for their devout Catholicism and strong family ties.
Riel was first educated by Roman Catholic priests at St. Boniface. At age 13 he came to the attention of Alexandre Taché, the suffragan Bishop of St. Boniface, who was eagerly promoting the priesthood for talented young Métis. In 1858 Taché arranged for Riel to attend the Petit Séminaire of the Collège de Montréal in Montreal, Quebec under the direction of the Sulpician order. Descriptions of him at the time indicate that he was a fine scholar of languages, science, and philosophy, but exhibited a frequent and unpredictable moodiness.
Following news of his father's premature death in 1864, Riel lost interest in the priesthood and he withdrew from the college in March 1865. For a time he continued his studies as a day student in the convent of the Grey Nuns, but was soon asked to leave following breaches of discipline. He remained in Montreal over a year, living at the home of his aunt, Lucie Riel. Impoverished by the death of his father, Riel took employment as a law clerk in the Montreal office of Rodolphe Laflamme. During this time he was involved in a failed romance with a young woman named Marie-Julie Guernon. This progressed to the point of Riel having signed a contract of marriage, but his fiancée's family opposed her involvement with a Métis, and the engagement was soon broken. Compounding this disappointment, Riel found legal work unpleasant, and by early 1866 he had resolved to leave Quebec. Some of his friends said later that he worked odd jobs in Chicago, Illinois while staying with poet Louis-Honoré Fréchette, and wrote poems himself in the manner of Lamartine; also that he was then for a time employed as a clerk in St. Paul, Minnesota prior to returning to the Red River Settlement on 26 July 1868.
On 6 November, Riel invited Anglophones to attend a convention alongside Métis representatives to discuss a course of action, and on 1 December he proposed to this convention a list of rights to be demanded as a condition of union. Much of the settlement came to accept the Métis point of view, but a passionately pro-Canadian minority began organizing in opposition. Loosely constituted as the Canadian Party, this group was led by John Christian Schultz, Charles Mair, Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, and a more reticent Major Charles Boulton. McDougall attempted to assert his authority by authorizing Dennis to raise a contingent of armed men, but the Anglophone settlers largely ignored this call to arms. Schultz, however, attracted approximately fifty recruits and fortified his house and store. Riel ordered Schultz's home surrounded, and the outnumbered Canadians soon surrendered and were imprisoned in Upper Fort Garry.
Hearing of the unrest, Ottawa sent three emissaries to the Red River, including HBC representative Donald Alexander Smith. While they were en route, the Métis National Committee declared a provisional government on 8 December, with Riel becoming its president on 27 December. Meetings between Riel and the Ottawa delegation took place on January 5 and 6, 1870, but when these proved fruitless, Smith chose to present his case in a public forum. Smith assured large audiences of the Government's goodwill in meetings on 19 January and 20 January, leading Riel to propose the formation of a new convention split evenly between French and English settlers to consider Smith's instructions. On 7 February, a new list of rights was presented to the Ottawa delegation, and Smith and Riel agreed to send representatives to Ottawa to engage in direct negotiations on that basis.
Boulton was tried by a tribunal headed by Ambroise-Dydime Lépine and sentenced to death for his interference with the provisional government. He was pardoned, but Scott interpreted this as weakness on the part of the Métis, whom he regarded with open contempt. After Scott repeatedly quarreled with his guards, they insisted that he be tried for insubordination. At his trial, he was found guilty of defying the authority of the provisional government and was sentenced to death. Riel was repeatedly entreated to commute the sentence, but Donald Smith reported that Riel responded to his pleas by saying:
I have done three good things since I have commenced: I have spared Boulton's life at your instance, I pardoned Gaddy, and now I shall shoot Scott.
Scott was executed by firing squad on 4 March. Riel's motivations for allowing the execution have been the cause of much speculation, but his own justification was that he felt it necessary to demonstrate to the Canadians that the Métis must be taken seriously.
As a means of exercising Canadian authority in the settlement and dissuading American expansionists, a Canadian military expedition under Colonel Garnet Wolseley was dispatched to the Red River. Although the government described it as an "errand of peace", Riel learned that Canadian militia elements in the expedition meant to lynch him, and he fled as the expedition approached the Red River. The arrival of the expedition on 20 August marked the effective end of the Red River Rebellion.
During his time of exile, he was primarily concerned with religious rather than political matters. Spurred on by a sympathetic Roman Catholic priest in Quebec, he was increasingly influenced by his belief that he was a divinely chosen leader of the Métis. Modern biographers have speculated that he may have suffered from the psychological condition megalomania. His mental state deteriorated, and following a violent outburst he was taken to Montreal, where he was under the care of his uncle, John Lee, for a few months. But after Riel disrupted a religious service, Lee arranged to have him committed in an asylum in Longue-Pointe on 6 March 1876 under the assumed name "Louis R. David". Fearing discovery, his doctors soon transferred him to the Beauport Asylum near Quebec City under the name "Louis Larochelle". While he suffered from sporadic irrational outbursts, he continued his religious writing, composing theological tracts with an admixture of Christian and Judaic ideas. He consequently began calling himself Louis "David" Riel, prophet of the new world, and he would pray (standing) for hours, having servants help him to hold his arms in the shape of a cross. Nevertheless, he slowly recovered, and was released from the asylum on 23 January 1878 with an admonition to lead a quiet life. He returned for a time to Keesville, where he became involved in a passionate romance with Evelina Martin dit Barnabé, sister of his friend, the oblate father Fabien Barnabé. But with insufficient means to propose marriage, Riel returned to the west, hoping that she might follow. However, she decided that she would be unsuited to prairie life, and their correspondence soon ended.
In the fall of 1878, Riel returned to St. Paul, and briefly visited his friends and family. This was a time of rapid change for the Métis of the Red River—the buffalo on which they depended were becoming increasingly scarce, the influx of settlers was ever-increasing, and lots of land were sold to unscrupulous land speculators. Like other Red River Métis who had left Manitoba, Riel headed further west in order to start a new life. Travelling to the Montana Territory, he became a trader and interpreter in the area surrounding Fort Benton. Observing rampant alcoholism and its detrimental impact on the Native American and Métis people, he engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to curtail the whisky trade. In 1881, he married Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur (1861–1886), a young Métis, "in the fashion of the country" on 28 April, an arrangement that was solemnized on 9 March 1882. They were to have three children: Jean-Louis (1882–1908); Marie-Angélique (1883–1897); and a boy who was born and died on 21 October 1885, less than one month before Riel was hanged.
Riel soon became involved in the politics of Montana, and in 1882, actively campaigned on behalf of the Republican Party. He brought a suit against a Democrat for rigging a vote, but was then himself accused of fraudulently inducing British subjects to take part in the election. In response, Riel applied for United States citizenship and was naturalized on 16 March 1883. With two young children, he had by 1884 settled down and was teaching school at the St. Peter's Jesuit mission in the Sun River district of Montana.
Riel had counted on the Canadian government being unable to effectively respond to another uprising in the distant North-West Territories, thereby forcing them to accept political negotiation. This was essentially the same strategy that had worked to such great effect during the 1870 rebellion. But in that instance, the first troops did not arrive until three months after Riel seized control. However, Riel had completely overlooked the significance of the nascent Canadian Pacific Railway. Despite major gaps in railway construction, the first Canadian regular and militia units, under the command of Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton, arrived in Duck Lake less than two weeks after Riel had made his demands. Knowing that he could not defeat the Canadians in direct confrontation, Dumont had hoped to force the Canadians to negotiate by engaging in a long-drawn out campaign of guerrilla warfare; Dumont realised a modest success along these lines at the Battle of Fish Creek on 24 April 1885. Riel, however, insisted on concentrating forces at Batoche in order to defend his "city of God". The outcome of the ensuing Battle of Batoche which took place from 9 May – 12 May was never in doubt, and on 15 May a disheveled Riel surrendered to Canadian forces. Although Big Bear's forces managed to hold out until the Battle of Loon Lake on 3 June, the rebellion was a dismal failure for Métis and Indian alike, with most surrendering or fleeing.
Riel delivered two long speeches during his trial, defending his own actions and affirming the rights of the Métis people. He rejected his lawyer's attempt to argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, asserting,
Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having.
The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy; nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death, with the date of his execution initially set for 18 September 1885. Fifty years later one of the jurors, Edwin Brooks, said that Riel was tried for treason but hanged for the execution of Thomas Scott.
He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.Prior to his execution, Riel was reconciled with the Catholic church, and assigned Father André as his spiritual advisor. He was also given writing materials so that he could employ his time in prison to write a book. Louis Riel was hanged for treason on 16 November 1885.
Boulton writes of Riel's final moments,
… Père André, after explaining to Riel that the end was at hand, asked him if he was at peace with men. Riel answered "Yes." The next question was, "Do you forgive all your enemies?" "Yes." Riel then asked him if he might speak. Father André advised him not to do so. He then received the kiss of peace from both the priests, and Father André exclaimed in French, "Alors, allez au ciel!" meaning "so, to heaven!"
… [Riel's] last words were to say good-bye to Dr. Jukes and thank him for his kindness, and just before the white cap was pulled over his face he said, "Remerciez, Madame Forget." meaning "thank, Ms. Forget".
The cap was pulled down, and while he was praying the trap was pulled. Death was not instantaneous. Louis Riel's pulse ceased four minutes after the trap-door fell and during that time the rope around his neck slowly strangled and choked him to death. The body was to have been interred inside the gallows' enclosure, and the grave was commenced, but an order came from the Lieutenant-Governor to hand the body over to Sheriff Chapleau which was accordingly done that night.
Following the execution, Riel's body was returned to his mother's home in St. Vital, where it lay in state. On 12 December 1885, his remains were laid in the churchyard of the Saint-Boniface Cathedral following the performance of a requiem mass.
Riel's execution and Macdonald's refusal to commute his sentence caused lasting upset in Quebec, and led to a fundamental alteration in the Canadian political order. In Quebec, Honoré Mercier exploited discontent over Riel's execution to reconstitute the Parti National. This party, which promoted Quebec nationalism, won a majority in the 1886 Quebec election by winning a number of seats formerly controlled by the Quebec Conservative Party. The federal election of 1887 likewise saw significant gains by the federal Liberals, again at the expense of the Conservatives. This led to the victory of the Liberal party under Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the federal election of 1896, which in turn set the stage for the domination of Canadian federal politics by the Liberal party in the 20th century. That Riel's name still has resonance in Canadian politics was evidenced on 16 November 1994, when Suzanne Tremblay, a Bloc Québécois member of parliament, introduced private members' bill C-228, "An Act to revoke the conviction of Louis David Riel". The unsuccessful bill was widely perceived in English Canada as an attempt to arouse support for Quebec nationalism prior to the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
Bill C-213 or Louis Riel Day Act and Bill C-417 Louis Riel Act are the more notable acts which have gone through parliament. Bill C-297 to revoke the conviction of Louis Riel was introduced to the House of Commons October 21 and November 22, 1996, however the motion lacked unanimous consent from the House and was dropped. Bill C-213 or the Louis Riel Day Act of 1997 attempted to revoke the conviction of Louis Riel for high treason and establish a National Day in his honour on November 16. Bill C-417 or the Louis Riel Act which also had a first reading in parliament to revoke the conviction of Louis Riel, and establish July 15 as Louis Riel Day was tabled.
On February 18th, 2008, The province of Manitoba officially recognized the first Louis Riel Day as a general provincial holiday. It will now fall on the third Monday of February each year in the Province of Manitoba.
A resolution was passed by parliament citing that Louis Riel was the Founder of Manitoba on 10 March 1992. Two statues of Riel are located in Winnipeg. One of the Winnipeg statues, the work of architect Étienne Gaboury and sculptor Marcien Lemay, depicts Riel as a naked and tortured figure. It was unveiled in 1970 and stood in the grounds of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba for 23 years. After much outcry (especially from the Métis community) that the statue was an undignified misrepresentation, the statue was removed and placed at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface. It was replaced in 1994 with a statue designed by Miguel Joyal depicting Riel as a dignified statesman. A statue of Riel on the grounds of the Saskatchewan legislative building in Regina was installed and later removed for similar reasons. The unveiling ceremony was on 16 May 1996, in Winnipeg.
In numerous communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and even in Ontario, Riel is commemorated in the names of streets, schools, and other buildings (such as the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg). The student centre and campus pub at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon are named after Riel. Highway 11, stretching from Regina to just south of Prince Albert, has been named Louis Riel Trail by the province; the roadway passes near locations of the 1885 rebellion. One of the student residences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia is named Louis Riel House.
On 26 September 2007, Manitoba legislature passed a bill establishing a statutory holiday on the third Monday in February as Louis Riel Day, the same day some other provinces celebrate Family Day, beginning in 2008. The first Louis Riel Day was celebrated on 18 February 2008. This new statutory holiday coincides with the celebration, on 15-24 February of the Festival du Voyageur.
Portrayals of Riel's role in the Red River Rebellion include the 1979 CBC television film Riel and Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown's acclaimed 2003 graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.
An opera about Riel entitled Louis Riel was commissioned for Canada's centennial celebrations in 1967. It was an opera in three acts, written by Harry Somers, with an English and French libretto by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand. The Canadian Opera Company produced and performed the first run of the opera in September and October, 1967.
From the late 1960s until the early 1990s, the city of Saskatoon hosted "Louis Riel Day", a summer celebration that included a relay race that combined running, backpack carrying, canoeing, hill climbing, and horseback riding along the South Saskatchewan River in the city's downtown core. Traditionally, the event also included a cabbage roll eating contest and tug-of-war competition, as well as live musical performances. Although not affiliated with the Saskatoon Exhibition, for years Louis Riel Day was scheduled for the day prior to the start of the fair, and as such came to be considered the Exhibition's unofficial kick-off (the scheduling of the two events was separated in later years). The event was discontinued when major sponsors pulled out.
An episode of the TV-series How the West Was Won from 1979 was named L'Affaire Riel, featuring Louis Riel while in exile in the United States.
In 1992 Scottish singer/songwriter, Tom McIver, wrote "Spirit of Riel" for a play called "A Scottish Reservation". The song was released on the album "Gossamer Mansion" by Scottish band, Arran Bede in 1994.
In 1994, a Canadian rock band adopted the name Exovedate, the name given by Riel to his council in 1885. Billy Childish wrote a song entitled "Louis Riel", which has been performed by Thee Headcoats, Thee Headcoatees and Blackhands.
In 2001, Canadian sketch comedy troupe Royal Canadian Air Farce featured Riel in its send-up of the CBC documentary series Canada: A People's History. Significant parallels were drawn between Riel's actions and those of modern-day Québécois separatists, and the comedian who portrayed Riel was actually made up to look like then-Premier Lucien Bouchard.
On 22 October 2003, the Canadian news channel CBC Newsworld and its French-language equivalent, Réseau de l'information, staged a simulated retrial of Riel. Viewers were invited to enter a verdict on the trial over the internet, and more than 10,000 votes were received—87% of which were "not guilty". The results of this straw poll led to renewed calls for Riel's posthumous pardon. Also on the basis of a public poll, the CBC's Greatest Canadian project ranked Riel as the 11th "Greatest Canadian".
Texas musician Doug Sahm wrote a song entitled "Louis Riel," which appeared on the album S.D.Q. '98. In the song, Sahm likens the lore surrounding Riel to Davey Crockett's legend in his home state, spinning an abridged tale of Riel's life as a revolutionary, with a measured dose of objectivity sometimes lacking in the folk hero song form: "...but you gotta respect him for what he thought was right... And all around Regina they talk about him still – why did they have to kill Louis Riel?