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.