Louis Riel: Canada's Weird History

An interesting bit of Canadian history (they do exist) for the next time you find yourself arguing with a Quebec separatist is the story of Louis Riel, one of the first rebel leaders in Canada. A moderately powerful guy in what is now Manitoba, in 1869 he realized that the Canadian government (which didn’t yet include anything west of Ontario at that point) was sending too many Anglophone protestant settlers his way. The people there already were First Nations and Metis, and Riel, a Metis/French Catholic himself, probably realized this was like asking catty schoolgirls and honey badgers to coexist. The government had also sent a survey out to divvy up the land for the people. I don't need to tell you why they didn't trust a bunch of white people, especially in the 1800's.

A group of Metis, Riel included, went and broke up the surveying party in October of 1869, kicking off the Red River Rebellion. Riel himself told the government that Canada’s attempts to govern without listening to their terms would be met with force. So, the government thought the best way to handle it was to send some English guy named William McDougall to go sit and govern there without listening to their terms. Riel, true to his word, gathered a force to kick him out, and captured Fort Garry the same day. Dusting off his hands, he started talking with the Metis and English people to discuss what they wanted from the government if they were going to have Manitoba.

Unfortunately, the Canada Party formed in response (that response being “screw those Metis”), so Riel got to do his own rebel-busting and set up a provisional government in Manitoba during February 1870. They eventually busted up fifty members of the Canada Party including a guy named Thomas Scott, who Riel had firing squaded for just absolutely disrespecting his captors. This caused the actual government to come and take Metis claims seriously.

Manitoba joined the confederation (a great victory) with the rights of its people intact, but Canada wasn’t just going to forgive Riel’s provisional government. So they sent out a militia to restore order, mainly by acting like riot cops and doling out beatings left and right. Riel fled to Dakota until the heat died down, then returned to Manitoba. While there, he won a seat in the House of Commons three times despite never showing up, because of his $5000 bounty (think about that next time you complain about your MP). The French loved the guy, mostly as a case of how to make the French relevant in politics.

Eventually, he entered exile in earnest and did some boring family stuff. More interestingly, historians go back and forth as to whether or not he lost his mind; he did start thinking of himself as a prophet and spiritual leader, called by God himself, of the Metis. Meanwhile, the land the Metis had fought for turned out to suck (it was Manitoba, after all), so they moved west to Saskatchewan, which had nothing but a bunch of dead buffalo. Migrating Metis, European settlers, and the Plains Cree and Blackfoot tribes got together to force Canada to help.

In March 1884, they looked to Riel to get things done and Riel, now a megalomaniac, was happy to lead. However, the government was much less willing to listen. What they would do was send some mounted police, the most trusted of individuals, to break up the situation. This started the North-West Rebellion, as the Metis there in Saskatchewan took up arms against the invaders. Things didn’t go well this time for Riel’s people; the railway had been sufficiently built and the cops rolled right up on the rebels. Riel’s military guy had some success with guerilla warfare, but Riel tried to hold out in in the village of Batoche, or the “city of God” as he put it. Finally calling it quits on May 15 of 1885, he was arrested for treason and hung, which makes one question why he didn’t just go out in a blaze of glory like all good religious lunatics.

His effect on today’s society is actually rather large. Should Quebec have another go at separation, shake your fist at his ghost because the French hated the fact that he was killed, and that unrest allowed French nationalist groups to hit the ground running (case in point, an FLQ cell was named after him). However, he does stand as one of the few people to fight for First Nations and Metis rights in the 1800’s, and right before he died he did come to grips with the fact that he might have lost his mind, so there’s that.

Agreeing To Disagree

I don’t know about you, but most of the arguments I’ve had end with some variation of “Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Now, I used to hate that line. I felt like it was a way of copping out of an argument without admitting someone came away the “victor.”  This was back when I hadn’t actually argued more than “No, dude, you’re totally screwing with me.”

"That was an enlightening discussion. Also, we should probably clean the blood off our faces."

"That was an enlightening discussion. Also, we should probably clean the blood off our faces."

But conversations like that, where we hold values very highly, can get very emotionally draining (remember when I told you not to get personal?) and so the conversation has to end sometime. Agreeing to disagree is really just the best way to do that. 

Generally, in the realm of good old conspiracy theories, there’s a lot being said. How high the melting point of steel is. How much carbon dioxide affects the atmosphere. The logistics of the moon landing. Pretty soon you’ll be getting into information overload. At some point you’ve got to go away and sit and chew on all the info you’re given. Is it actually evidence? What does it mean? There’s just no way to process all that information in an hour-long discussion– unless you and whoever you’re debating can both sit down and look up all the data yourselves. Personally, I’ve never watched someone look up things online and not wanted to slap them for looking like a Neanderthal.

Discussions between friends, relatives or acquaintances on these worldly topics are really just ways of getting people to investigate for themselves. We’re living in the information age; there’s enough information out there for anyone interested (probably too much). The point is that you or they weren’t interested, and now are. 

Agreeing to disagree also saves us face. I was a pretty stubborn child, even if I ended up being wrong. Well, that still happens to me now that I’m grown and wizened. We’re a competitive species, and it often keeps us from being able to admit defeat. But if someone goes away and really thinks, they’ll admit to themselves that they might have been wrong. But if you got into a shouting match with the person, they really don’t want to see your “I told you so” face.

So let the argument end. Don’t be in such a hurry to get the last word in. You’re both done talking… for the moment. For now we’re just debating with ourselves.

Martin Dash was born a rather urbane country boy. A chronic underachiever in his youth, he is now channeling his untapped brilliance in writing.

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Don't Take it Personally

In the many conversations I’ve had with my friends on conspiracy theories, we usually end up talking very loudly at each other. It may even sound to someone watching us that we’re yelling at each other; I know it feels that way to us. Often we’ll call attention to this fact and talk in quiet tones, only to start back up again a bit later. I call this “,” and it seems we can’t do much about it.

This is too bad, because the last thing you want to do in an argument is make something personal. It’s the quickest way to offend the person you’re arguing with, and that person might be a friend or family. Our ideas make up part of our worldview, and when you attempt to tell a person why you think they’re wrong, you’re basically saying to them, “You know, I think you’re an idiot for believing this,” so these discussions already start out heated.

One thing you can do is address the arguments, and not the person. The argument is bad, not them. Remember that the person is not crazy for believing something, they’ve just been misinformed– if they have indeed been misinformed. Tell the person that you don’t think they’re stupid or crazy outright if you have to. Try to sympathize with how they came to believe what they did, even if you think they’re wrong. In debates about conspiracy theories, I’ve had to do this a lot.

Try not to include them in any talk about hypotheticals, and don’t use the word "you" when you can avoid it (by this logic instead of by your logic, if someone did x instead of if you did x). This avoids putting them on the spot, which usually triggers an emotional response, only adding to the tension.

Also, if they are relating personal testimony (prime opportunity for offence) to you and you don’t believe it, be sure to state that it’s simply that you don’t believe personal testimony without evidence, or emphasize the commonality of being mistaken (again to ward off accusations that you think they’re crazy).

Nothing good comes from offending anyone. If it’s someone you know, it can strain your relationship, and if it’s someone you don’t, you’ve at least failed to convince someone, and you’ve made yourself look like an asshole in both cases.

Martin Dash was born a rather urbane country boy. A chronic underachiever in his youth, he is now channeling his untapped brilliance in writing.

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I Win Because You Didn't

I used to watch Ancient Aliens and at the time bought a lot of what it said. I remember it claiming the Ark of the Covenant was a nuclear-powered machine that fed the ancient Israelites manna (don’t ask me). It went on to posit “where else could they have gotten that other than aliens?” Now, even taking that rather ludicrous claim at face value, there’s still a problem. It’s bad logic to claim that whatever you’re saying must be true just because there’s no other thing to disprove it. 

Extraterrestrial life building spaceships just to troll us with a really rad flashlight is a bit of a stretch.

Extraterrestrial life building spaceships just to troll us with a really rad flashlight is a bit of a stretch.

Embarrassingly, I ate that claim up. I have a friend in a similar boat. He has told me about having seen lights in the sky that he attributes to aliens. Most of his evidence seems to be that it couldn’t have been anything else. It didn’t make helicopter noises, turns too much to be a plane, and is too bright to be a drone. The problem with this reasoning is that all that means is we don’t know what it is. Until you prove that everything else it could ever be is wrong, it isn’t aliens by default (never mind that we have no idea of all the things it could be).

Watch out when someone tries to prove something and then simply starts trying to disprove any other explanation. All that means is that we don’t know what the explanation is. I’ve found conspiracy theorists to be very bad about this: tThe World Trade Center attacks were an inside job because the official reports aren’t true; JFK was assassinated by [insert nefarious thing here] because Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have been the shooter and [insert nefarious thing here] would want him dead. Unless their claim is simply that the official reports are wrong, this is a fallacy

The core of the problem is that they’re basically saying that if you can’t disprove an answer (with other explanations they’ve discredited), you can’t say that it isn’t true. But you don’t need to say that you know their positions are wrong, only that they aren’t true yet. They haven’t provided evidence for their claim, and you should respond with a hearty [citation needed].

Remember, even if there is no other explanation, your idea stands or falls on its own merits. It starts out debunked, and you need to re-bunk it.


Martin Dash was born a rather urbane country boy. A chronic underachiever in his youth, he is now channeling his untapped brilliance in writing.

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I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I’ve never liked identifying as liberal or conservative. It’s not that I’m apolitical (I probably hold a number of liberal positions, being young and all that), but because these terms carry way too much baggage; I’m in favour of the death penalty and a bigger military budget, for example.

Labels make us assume things about one another that aren't true. I’ll give you a personal example.

The pitfalls of implying "Hey, I think you're nuts."

The pitfalls of implying "Hey, I think you're nuts."

I’m not religious, but I once went to church with my mom, who is. Afterwards, I marvelled to her about how different I thought it would be. This got us talking about different Christian denominations and who does what when I uttered (in an admittedly spiteful tone), “There are some weird groups of Christians, like Pentecostals, who speak in tongues.”

“But Marty, people in my church speak in tongues,” she said to me.

I went red-faced, stammered out an apology and tried to walk back on what I had said. I had tried so hard not to offend. No wonder we barely talk about it. It’s so easy to make an ass of yourself if you assume what things do and don’t mean.

But therein lies a problem. Let’s go back to the political sphere, as it’s a good place to find these package-deal terms. Libertarians are a great example. They either support Ron Paul, or they don’t. They support the gold standard and/or Bitcoin, or they don’t. They love Ayn Rand, or they don’t. They’re all over the map in terms of what they believe.

So if you identify as a Libertarian or a Christian, it's a good idea to break down what you actually believe to whoever you’re talking to. People have very different ideas about what those are, and so you’ll end up spelling it all out anyway when they inevitably mischaracterize you.

Another more insidious application of labels is using them to dismiss someone’s position. I've been called a Social Justice Warrior for supporting various feminist and multicultural ideals. I don’t have much to say here; people who do this are barely worth talking to but, when I must, I tell them that they haven’t actually argued against my position, just over terminology.

Sometimes labels are a rhetorical shortcut. But other times, they’re like heading halfway down the road and just stopping.

Martin Dash was born a rather urbane country boy. A chronic underachiever in his youth, he is now channeling his untapped brilliance in writing.

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