Who Was Louis Riel?
Louis Riel was born in modern-day Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Following his early training for priesthood, Riel headed a 1869-70 rebellion against the transfer of Métis land from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada, leading to the formation of the province of Manitoba. Exiled by the Canadian government and institutionalized in the 1870s, Riel returned to Métis territory in 1884 to lead another uprising. After surrendering, Riel was found guilty of treason and hanged on November 16, 1885, in Regina, Canada.
Louis David Riel was born in the Red River settlement of modern-day Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on October 22, 1844. He was the oldest of 11 children born to Julie Lagimonière and Louis Riel, a local Métis leader who supported a resistance to the trade monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC).
Taking after his father, the younger Riel identified as a member of the Métis, a mixed group of aboriginal-European descent who traditionally hunted buffalo and traded furs. The French-speaking Red River Métis were also involved in the Roman Catholic Church, and at age 13, Riel earned a scholarship to study at a junior seminary in Montreal, Canada.
Riel eventually dropped out of the seminary, and following a stint as a clerk at a Montreal law firm, he made his way back to Red River in 1868.
Métis Leader and Formation of Manitoba
Riel's return came at a turning point for the Métis, as the HBC was preparing to transfer the large swath of territory known as Rupert's Land, which included Red River, to the newly established Dominion of Canada.
The energetic and well-educated Riel soon found himself in a position of leadership for his people, who worried they would be pushed out by an influx of English-speaking Protestants from Canada. He led a November 1869 uprising that took control of Upper Fort Garry, the HBC's headquarters, and oversaw discussions with Canadian commissioners early the following year.
Riel became president of the Métis National Committee's provisional government, which sent a delegation to the Canadian capital of Ottawa to negotiate formal terms for annexation. The delegation's mission was largely a success, with Canada agreeing to demands for a bilingual provincial government and to reserve 1.4 million acres for Métis offspring under what became the Manitoba Act of 1870.
Politician and Fugitive
Meanwhile, Riel was dealing with the fallout of an attempted rebellion against Métis leadership, which had resulted in the execution of an English-speaking Canadian named Thomas Scott. Riel fled upon learning that a military force of Scott's allies was coming for his head, before returning to Red River in 1871 to help fend off another uprising.
The Métis leader was elected to the House of Commons from the Manitoba district of Provencher in the by-election of 1873, though he never took his seat. He was elected twice more, with House opponents leading the charge to have him expelled on both occasions.
In February 1875, the Canadian government granted amnesty to Riel for his part in the insurrection that killed Scott, conditioned on his acceptance of a five-year banishment from the provinces.
Institutionalization and Montana Years
By that point, Riel was undergoing a personal transformation in which he increasingly viewed himself as the steward for God's chosen people and a new Christianity based in Métis homeland. Frightened by his emotional outbursts and claims of holy visions, Riel's friends had him committed to a pair of asylums.
Riel eventually settled by the Upper Missouri River in Montana territory, where he joined the Republican party and worked to curb the whiskey trade that was devastating his people. In 1881, he married a Métis woman named Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur, with whom he had three children, and he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1883.
North-West Rebellion and Surrender
In mid-1884, Riel accepted a request to help the Métis of the Saskatchewan Valley settle their grievances with the Canadian government. He conferred with both French-and English-speaking settlers and leaders of the Plains Cree tribe and compiled the demands into a petition by the end of the year.
Initially intending to return to Montana, Riel instead was seized by a return of his religious furor, and he rallied his rabid followers into what became the North-West Rebellion of 1885. However, a series of skirmishes drew a strong response from the Canadian government, which sent a large militia to crush the rebellion at the Saskatchewan capital of Batoche, and Riel surrendered on May 15.
Trial and Execution
Tried for high treason in Regina, Saskatchewan, Riel undermined his lawyers' attempts to depict him as insane by rationally and eloquently explaining his actions and the injustices facing the Métis people. The English-speaking jury found him guilty and recommended clemency, only to see the judge hand down a death sentence per a 500-year-old English statute.
In the face of political pressure, the convicted was granted the opportunity for another mental evaluation. However, the analysis of one doctor who found Riel unable to distinguish between right and wrong was dismissed, and he was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885.
Riel's execution sparked outrage in French-speaking areas of Canada, directly fueling the rise of the liberal Parti National. He remains a complicated figure in Canadian history, remembered for his religious zeal, his passionate defense of the Métis and his contributions to the founding of Manitoba.
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