"Do you know these people of mine are just as were the children of Israel, a persecuted race deprived of their heritage. But I will wrest justice for them from the tyrant. I will be unto them a second David." Louis Riel
Born on Seine River (a tributary of the Canadian Red River) Louis "David" Riel (history-maker and eloquent leader of the Metis people) fought with words, prayers and total conviction in the cause of the "Half-Breed" people and for the rights of all Western Canadians.
The eldest of eleven children, Riel was born on October 22, 1844 in a log cabin by a gristmill his father, Louis Riel Sr., had built. Riel Sr. believed in free trade and justice, passing these attributes down to his son. In 1839, Riel Sr. helped to break the Hudson's Bay trade monopoly through an organized resistance. The Metis were then free to trade with their southern neighbours.
Riel considered going into law and for awhile clerked in a Montreal law office. There he met a lot of bright, prospective young men - among them junior lawyer Wilfred Laurier. While there he fell in love, but the affair soon died and Riel moved on. He drifted to jobs in Chicago then St. Paul's. Slowly he made his way west and in 1868, after a ten year absence, he returned to the Canadian Red River settlement.
Rumours that the Hudson's Bay Company were planning on selling what was then called "Rupert's land" to the Dominion of Canada were upsetting the Metis population. The Metis were suspicious of the transaction. They did not know how it was going to affect them and they were angry that they had not been consulted. The Metis believed themselves to be an independent nation of people.
Surveyors led by Colonel J.S. Dennis were sent out in advance of the official transaction. They did not know how to speak French and treated the Metis with a contemptuous attitude. The Metis did not want their land to be surveyed in squares as they like the traditional fashion of strips of land from the river front back.
On October 11, 1869, surveyors refused to listen to the protests of Andre Nault (Riel's cousin) and he rounded up eighteen men (including Riel). Well educated and fluent in both English and French, Riel made the surveyors understand that they had better leave. They left and Riel "Leader of the Metis People" was born.
Riel was of average height with a stocky build. He had a dark complexion and a slightly hooked nose. At twenty-five he was saddled with major responsibilities. He made prompt and firm decisions, but his immaturity revealed a lack of confidence and, like all twenty-five year olds, he was to make mistakes, however, his would be in the public eye.
Riel was asked to run three times in the Federal elections. The first time he declined as feelings were still running high against him in Ontario. In 1872 he accepted and was well into his campaign when the Honourable George Cartier (MacDonald's right-hand man) ran into some political misfortune. Riel withdrew gracefully in favour of Cartier. Cartier won the Provincial seat, but unfortunately died a few months later. A By-election was called and Riel won by acclamation. Riel, with enemies lurking in Ottawa, wisely did not take his seat in Ottawa.
Again in 1874, Riel ran again and won. He journeyed to Ottawa and registered with the clerk in the House of Commons; however, a warrant for his arrest had been issued. Riel was duly elected by the people, but could not sit in the House of Commons. Riel then moved to Montreal.
At this time, Riel was spending a lot of time between Canada and the United States. Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie granted amnesty to Riel in 1875 with one condition: that Riel stay out of the country for five years. During his involuntary exile. Riel became lonely, frustrated and very despondent. Twice he had to be hospitalized in a mental institution. The first time was at St. Jean du Dieu in Longue Point and then through an order of the Quebec Government he was placed in Beauport, but under an assumed name of La Rochelle. He remained there until January 1878.
Upon his release, Riel wandered throughout the Eastern United States. Riel then moved and settled in Montana where he took a teaching position at a church school. He married Maguerite Bellhumeur. He continued to have problems in Montana. He was accused of helping the Americans Metis contravene voting regulations and assisting them in trading whiskey to the Indians. He did seem happiest at this point in his life however.
It was in Montana where Gabriel Dumont and three members of the Batoche, Saskatchewan community found him in 1884. They implored Riel to come back to Canada and help the Metis fight for their rights once more. He was easily persuaded and again would lead the Metis in the fight - employing the same techniques he had used in 1869. However, this Riel was a different man; he was moody and more irritated by small things. Power seemed to have overwhelmed him causing him to be indecisive and it was this indecisiveness that lost him the battle at Batoche.
On July 6th, Riel was charged with high treason by six English-speaking Protestant jurors. After three days in court they found him guilty, but recommended mercy. Stipendiary Magistrate Hugh Richardson sentenced Riel to hang. After all appeals failed, Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885 in Regina. The body was claimed by friends and buried in St. Boniface, but this was only after souvenir hunters had gone through his personal effects.
In his last few days Riel was calm and almost philosophical. He believed in the Roman Catholic religion to the end. He also believed he was in the right and rejected arguments presented by his defence attorneys that he was insane. He died in dignity and controversy--just as he had lived his life.
Written by Rob Fontaine. Reprinted from "new breed" 1990