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Ambroise-Dydime Lépine

Ambroise-Dydime Lépine (18 March, 18408 June, 1923) was a military leader of the Métis under the command of Louis Riel during the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870. He was tried and sentenced to death for his role in the rebellion and for the execution of Thomas Scott, but his sentence was commuted by Governor General Lord Dufferin. He is buried in the churchyard of the Saint Boniface Cathedral next to Riel.

Early life

Ambroise Lépine’s father, an engagé of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), was born in Red River to parents Jean Baptiste Lepine and Julie Henry, His mother, the daughter of an English fur trader and an Indian woman, was a native of Ste Agathe (Manitoba). Lépine was educated at the Collège de Saint-Boniface. After his marriage to Cécile Marion, who was of French Canadian and Métis descent, the couple began farming in Saint Boniface on river lot 119. Lépine supplemented his income with freighting and hunting. Lepine along with brothers Maxime and Jean Baptiste were all integral components to the North West Rebellion.

There is no evidence that Lépine was politically active prior to 1869, when the forthcoming transfer of Rupert's Land from the HBC to Canada was announced. On his return to the Red River settlement (Manitoba) on 30 October from a freighting expedition to Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan, he learned that the Métis, led by Louis Riel, had taken steps to delay the transfer and force the Canadian government to negotiate the terms of union with the colony’s inhabitants. Apparently asked by Riel if he was “for or against the Métis,” Lépine replied that he was in favour of Métis rights. Riel immediately ordered him, with 14 others, to ride to Pembina, North Dakota to turn back the lieutenant governor designate, William McDougall, at the border. On 7 December, on Riel’s orders, he led 100 Métis in the capture of Canadians who were garrisoned in the house of one of their leaders, John Christian Schultz. On 8 January 1870 Riel’s provisional government appointed Lépine adjutant general to administer justice in the settlement. A few weeks later Lépine was also elected to represent Saint Boniface in a convention of 40 representatives of the settlement and he was subsequently appointed head of the military council, a subcommittee of the convention.

A contemporary speculated that Riel chose Lépine as his military chief because of the respect he commanded among the Métis tripmen and buffalo hunters. The Reverend Roderick George MacBeth described Lépine as a man of prodigious strength, “standing fully six feet three and built in splendid proportion.” Reputedly a skilled plainsman, he was assumed to have been the natural leader of the soldiers of the resistance. This assessment does not bear careful scrutiny, however. There is no evidence that Lépine was a buffalo hunter and in March 1870 diarist Alexander Begg noted that there was open revolt amongst the Métis over Lépine’s conduct. Riel patched up the affair, but ordered him not to be so overbearing. A more convincing explanation for Lépine’s advancement in the Riel party involves his loyalty to Riel and their close personal and family ties. Furthermore, Lépine was allied with the Catholic Church and many of Riel’s most trusted advisers during 1869–70 were Catholic priests.

In mid February 1870 Lépine and a group of Métis arrested Charles Arkoll Boulton and a number of men after their plan to capture Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) aborted. Among the prisoners was Thomas Scott, whose behaviour soon angered his Métis guards. Riel ordered Scott court martialled on 3 March. As the military leader, Lépine headed the tribunal that tried Scott and found him guilty of rebelling against the government and it was he who declared that Scott should be executed. It was Riel, however, who turned down all pleas to spare Scott’s life.

Scott’s execution was to have profound repercussions for both Riel and Lépine. When they later became fearful about reaction to the execution, especially in Protestant Ontario, they were assured by Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché that an amnesty would be granted covering all the events of the resistance. The arrival of the troops led by Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley on 24 August 1870, along with warnings that their lives were in danger, persuaded Riel and Lépine to flee. They eventually ended up at the Catholic mission of Saint Joseph, North Dakota), but over the next year they would move back and forth across the boundary, causing a good deal of excitement in the Red River settlement.

Red River Rebellion

Background

The majority population of the Red River had historically been Métis and First Nations people. But upon his return, Riel found that religious, nationalistic, and racial tensions were being exacerbated by an influx of anglophone Protestant settlers from Ontario. The political situation was also uncertain, as ongoing negotiations for the transfer of Rupert's Land from the HBC to Canada had not addressed the political terms of transfer. Finally, despite warnings to the Macdonald government from Bishop Taché and the HBC governor William Mactavish that any such activity would precipitate unrest, the Canadian minister of public works, William McDougall, ordered a survey of the area. The arrival on August 20, 1869 of a survey party headed by Colonel John Stoughton Dennis increased anxiety among the Métis, many of whom did not possess title to their land, which was in any case laid out according to the seigneurial system rather than in English-style square lots.

Riel emerges as a leader

In late August, Riel denounced the survey in a speech, and on October 11 1869, the survey's work was disrupted by a group of Métis that included Riel. This group organised itself as the "Métis National Committee" on October 16, with Riel as secretary and John Bruce as president. When summoned by the HBC-controlled Council of Assiniboia to explain his actions, Riel declared that any attempt by Canada to assume authority would be contested unless Ottawa had first negotiated terms with the Métis. Nevertheless, the non-bilingual McDougall was appointed the lieutenant governor-designate, and attempted to enter the settlement on November 2. McDougall's party was turned back near the American border, and on the same day, Métis led by Riel seized Fort Garry.

On November 6, Riel invited anglophones to attend a convention alongside Métis representatives to discuss a course of action, and on December 1 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 organising in opposition. Loosely constituted as the Canadian Party, this group was led by John Christian Schultz, Charles Mair, Colonel 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 some 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.

Provisional government

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 December 8, with Riel becoming its president on December 27. Meetings between Riel and the Ottawa delegation took place on January 5 and January 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 January 19 and January 20, leading Riel to propose the formation of a new convention split evenly between French and English settlers to consider Smith's instructions. On February 7, 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.

Canadian resistance and the execution of Scott

Despite the apparent progress on the political front, the Canadian party continued to plot against the provisional government. However, they suffered a setback on February 17, when 48 men, including Boulton and Thomas Scott, were apprehended near Fort Garry.

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 repeatedly quarrelling with his guards, they insisted that Scott 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 entreatied 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 March 4. 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.

Creation of Manitoba and the Wolseley expedition

The delegates representing the provisional government departed for Ottawa in March. Although they initially met with legal difficulties arising from the execution of Scott, they were soon able to enter into direct talks with Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier. An agreement enshrining many of the demands in the list of rights was quickly reached, and this formed the basis for the Manitoba Act of May 12, 1870, which formally admitted Manitoba into the Canadian confederation. However, the negotiators were unable to secure a general amnesty for the provisional government.

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 August 24 marked the effective end of the Red River Rebellion.

Trial and Conviction

In October 1871 Lépine was chosen captain of the troops from Saint Boniface who volunteered to defend the settlement against the Fenian invasion led by William Bernard O’Donoghue. He hoped that these loyal actions would result in amnesty, but it was not forthcoming. Although the government had little interest in bringing him and Riel to trial, fearing the uproar that such a move would cause throughout the country, certain individuals wanted vengeance. Given the increasing danger of their arrest, he and Riel were persuaded by Taché to go into voluntary exile in the United States. Lépine was unhappy there. Alternately bored and afraid for his life, he also worried about the welfare of his family and by May 1873 had resolved to go home.

Back in Manitoba, Lépine returned to his farm. His arrest on 17 September on the charge of murdering Scott was the initiative of two Canadians who had been imprisoned by the Métis during the troubles and it caused a great stir in Manitoba. The trial was delayed several times since the judges were unwilling or unable to decide if the Court of Queen’s Bench had jurisdiction to try the case. The matter was settled in June 1874 by the newly appointed provincial chief justice, Edmund Burke Wood, who released Lépine on $8,000 bail. Andrew G. B. Bannatyne contributed one-quarter of this amount, most of the rest being raised by the Métis community.

The trial, which began on 13 October, lasted until 4 November, when the jury, consisting of six French- and six English-speaking members, returned a verdict of guilty with the recommendation of mercy. Wood, comparing the execution of Scott to a “savage atrocity,” sentenced Lépine to death by hanging. The conviction and sentencing elicited great excitement and indignation in Red River and the rest of Canada. Le Nouveau Monde (Montreal) [see Alphonse Desjardins] demanded that the federal French Canadian ministers secure a pardon or resign their seats, and the Legislative Assembly of Quebec passed a unanimous resolution asking for amnesty. The federal Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie turned the matter over to the governor general, Lord Dufferin [Blackwood], hoping that the intervention of the imperial authorities would be useful in reconciling the Orange faction in Ontario to a policy of clemency. Dufferin eventually decided that Lépine’s sentence should be commuted to two years in prison along with the forfeiture of his civil rights. A few months later, in April 1875, both Riel and Lépine were offered an amnesty on the condition that they accept a five-year banishment from Canada. Unlike Riel, Lépine refused the offer, choosing to serve out the balance of his sentence.

After his release from prison on 26 October 1876 Lépine maintained close contact with Riel and Taché and remained active in Manitoba’s French-speaking community. In 1871 he had participated in the formation of the Union Saint-Alexandre to protect Métis interests in the new province and in 1878 he was elected vice-president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The following year, when Riel tried to enlist him in the project of uniting the Métis and Indians of the northwest into a confederacy, he travelled to Montana Territory to meet with Riel. Although he spent the winter with the Métis of the region, he took the advice of Taché, who was worried about possible trouble in the northwest, and left before seeing Riel. This decision, and his siding with Taché over the Métis leader, seems to have been a turning-point. From then on he stayed out of Métis politics.

Lépine Family

The Lépine family remained in Saint Boniface until 1882 when they moved to Grande Pointe, nine miles southeast of Winnipeg. After a fire destroyed their farm there in 1891, they settled amongst relatives and friends at Oak Lake. Lépine’s prospects did not improve. Poor harvests left his family nearly penniless and English-speaking settlers soon overwhelmed the Métis community. By 1902 he was homesteading near Forget (Saskatchewan), close to his sons. In 1908 his wife, Cécile, died and he moved in with his children.

In 1909 the Winnipeg Evening Telegram reported that Lépine, impecunious, was in Winnipeg and was willing to disclose the location of Thomas Scott’s body for money. Lépine at this time also maintained that Roman Catholic priests Jean-Marie-Joseph Lestanc and Noël-Joseph Ritchot had advised Riel to execute Scott. The church was quick to reject these allegations and silence Lépine, who then denied that he had ever offered to reveal the location of Scott’s body. Sometime after 1909 he sold his land near Forget and bought a summer resort in Quibell, Ontario, near Lake of the Woods. He lived there with a granddaughter. Shortly before his death Lépine had his civil rights restored and he moved back to St Boniface. He died at the Hôpital de Saint-Boniface in 1923. His funeral was attended by the former premier of the province, Sir Rodmond Palen Roblin, and other dignitaries and he was buried in the St Boniface cemetery next to Riel.

Ambroise-Dydime Lépine played a major role in the events of 1869–70, but his contribution was of a different order than that of Riel. Not a natural politician or a strategist, Lépine was a loyal follower of Riel and the church. When the interests of Riel and the church began to diverge in 1879, he sided with Taché and the church. He had, he said, risked his life once for the Métis cause and was not willing to do so again. He did continue to work for the Métis in other ways, helping to establish the historical committee of the Union Nationale Métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba in 1909, which would spearhead the drive to publish Auguste-Henri de Trémaudan’s Histoire de la nation métisse dans l’Ouest Canadien in 1935.

A commemorative plaque was erected by the Historic Site Advisory Board of Manitoba at the old Fort Garry wall in what is now downtown Winnipeg commemorating the life of Ambroise-Dydime Lépine.

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