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Louis Riel – Martyr, Hero or Traitor?

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Where does one begin writing about Louis Riel and how does one encapsulate his life, accomplishments and his mistakes. Mysteries of Canada is not intended as a singular source of reference for any one subject. Our intent is to pique your imagination and your interest in a subject so that you will want to read more.

So it is with the story of Louis Riel. There is so much which needs to be left out to make this story fit the site. We can only urge you to investigate and come to your own conclusion. Louis Riel was born October 22, 1844 on a farmstead at the juncture of the Red and Seine rivers, present day Winnipeg. He was hanged as a traitor on November 16, 1885. During those 41 years he would help found two Canadian Provinces.  He also helped find identity for the Métis people and shake up the status quo of Canada.

Louis Riel Head Shot

Louis Riel Traitor or Hero

Louis Riel was branded a traitor to Canada – but he was no traitor. He was a patriot who stood up for his people and his beliefs. He was also a victim of prevailing prejudices of his time.

In November of 1869 Riel, as a leader of the Métis people and the territory of Red River, spearheaded the writing of a List of Rights preceding the entry of Manitoba into confederation. These rights were not the musings of a revolutionary – but rather that of a democrat. Understand that when the French-speakers (as they were called) and the French-speaking Métis were very much in the majority in the Territory.

In part, the List of Rights included:

  • That the people have the right to elect their own legislature.
  • That all sheriffs, magistrates, constable, school commissioners, etc. be elected by the people.
  • That English and French were to be commonly used by the government.
  • That all documents and Acts of the legislature be published in English and French.
  • That (the Territory) have a fair and full representation in the Canadian Parliament.
  • That all privileges, customs and usage existing at the time of the transfer be respected.

There was, at this time, in the territory, however, a group of transplanted Loyalists who saw this list as evidence of sedition. And they had the ear of the Government of Canada. The Government procrastinated on accepting the List of Rights.

In frustration at the lack of action from Canada and in response to a transfer of the territory from Hudson’s Bay Company, he established a provisional government to fill a perceived governance void.

Part of the reason for the Provisional Government was a response to pressures from the United States for the territory to become part of the Union. Riel fought against the Americans and helped bring, what was to be later called, Manitoba into confederation with Canada.

However good and well-intentioned the Provisional Government was, it was seen as a revolution by the Government of Canada.

It was also seen as thus to a group of Orangemen originally from Upper Canada. A group of these men took their revenge on Riel and his Provisional Government by trying to overthrow it.

Thomas Scott Posing for Picture

Thomas Scott

Thomas Scott, a violent and racist man and one of the persons attempting the overthrow, was caught and charged with treason. After a lengthy trial (which seems to have been more democratic than Riel’s own trial!) Scott was found guilty and executed by a firing squad.

For his part in the creation of the Provisional Government (and partly for the death of Scott), Riel was branded a traitor himself. He was promised an amnesty by the Prime Minister of Canada but it never came. In 1875 he was banished to the US for five years.

Banishment was not easy on Riel. Cut off from his country and his people he lapsed into deep states of depression mixed with states of utter euphoria. He began to talk about encounters with the “Divine Spirit” and believing himself to be a prophet of the New World. He was smuggled by friends across the border and on March 6, 1876, he was committed to an asylum in Quebec.

Some say that Louis Riel was suffering delusions. Some say that he was acting crazy for his own purposes. Whatever the truth, he was treated as insane for almost two years and finally released January 29, 1878.

In June 1883, Riel decided to return to Manitoba. Finding only menial work and an uncomfortable environment, he uprooted his family and moved to Battoche, Saskatchewan. In Battoche he was greeted as a hero by the Métis who had relocated to the area from Winnipeg when immigration from the east had made them a minority.

The Prime Minister of the day was John A. MacDonald. He was not considered a good friend of the people of the prairies. There was even secession talk. The idea of the West forming a new country with Manitoba, the North West Territories and British Columbia was a big topic of the day. Combine this with the widespread starvation and scurvy epidemic which affected the west in 1883 – 84 and you just knew that something was going to happen. And John A. didn’t help matters any when, in response to the pleas for food, he sent in more police.

On March 5, 1885, Riel met with 10 other Métis and swore an oath to: “Save our country from a wicked government by taking up arms, if necessary.”  It all went downhill from here.

It all seemed to boil to a head at a place called Duck Lake. Here some of Riel’s compatriots, but not Riel, had a confrontation with the local constabulary. A number of police were killed and captured.

Louis Riel Gravestone Monument

Louis-Riel-Gravestone

On March 29, the Stoney Indians shot and killed a government teacher who refused to give them food for their starving tribe. On March 30, the Cree, similarly hungry and frustrated, sacked the fort at Battleford. On April 2, nine whites were killed by Indians during an attack on Fort Pitt.

In all this he was seen by the Métis and the Indians as the “spiritual leader”. The government of Canada, on the contrary, saw him as a trouble maker, a zealot and a traitor.

By May 15, it was all over. The armies and police of Canada had put down the revolt and a shoeless Louis Riel surrendered his freedom to the police. He was transferred to Regina and charged with high treason.

In a trial which lasted two weeks he was found guilty. His lawyers appealed of course but to no avail. His fate was sealed.

November 16, 1885 at around 8:30 AM. Louis was led to the gallows, the trap door snapped open, and Riel was into the history books.

Was Louis Riel a hero and a martyr or just a criminal? Even after 120 years the jury is still out, although it leans towards him as a bona-fide Father of Confederation or, at least, a patriot.

We urge you to read more about Louis Riel. Understand him. Understand the time in which he lived. Come to your own conclusion!

Summary
Article Name
Louis Riel – Martyr, Hero or Traitor?
Description
Louis Riel was branded a traitor to Canada – but he was no traitor. He was a patriot who stood up for his people and his beliefs.
Author
Publisher Name
Mysteries of Canada
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28 Responses to “Louis Riel – Martyr, Hero or Traitor?”

By john hrechka - 18 June 2016 Reply

if he was a traitor to canada what would they call justin trudeau

By Plee - 30 April 2016 Reply

On March 5, 1885, Riel met with 10 other Métis and swore an oath to: “Save our country from a wicked government by taking up arms, if necessary.”

Where did you get this quote?

By benjiman - 27 April 2016 Reply

I am learning about this in social class and I have to write a paragraph about Louis Riel. If he was a traitor, a hero, both or neither? If anyone has any good information could you reply or post

By Hammerson Peters - 7 May 2016 Reply

I think it would be safe to say that he was both. He was a traitor to Canada (rebels are generally considered to be traitors) and a hero to the Metis Nation. Sorry for the late reply; I hope the paragraph turned out.

By Doug - 27 February 2016 Reply

If you would like a little more insight to Louis Riel then it might help to get hold of the Grey Nun journals in certain towns. After having one of those journals (written in French) translated to me I was interested to learn why Ile a la Crosse Sk. got it’s name. Apparently the people there were hiding from Louis Riel because he was on this way to wipe out the town as he blamed them for his sister’s death. She was a Grey Nun and her headstone is easy to find in the Ile a la Crosse cemetery. The people hid out on an island marked with a cross. Fortunately Louis Riel was captured before he could get there. This might not be accurate but that is what the Grey Nuns of the time believed. It is interesting that the ancestors of those people still celebrate Louis Riel day.

By Gary D - 21 December 2015 Reply

While I appreciate that there is very little space to the full story, and applaud you for encouraging individuals too do their own research, I agree this treatment is both vague and inaccurate with an underlying bias. Your simple description of Thomas Scott as a violent bigot is overly simplified and somewhat defamatory as well. Not that he wasn’t a difficult man, but if his short comings and opposition to Riel’s provisional government was just cause for execution, the Riels’ own execution was equally simply karma. You also say far too little about Batoche and Riel’s part in that. Historical evidence and the words of the Metis people there who experienced it are not nearly as kind to his memory.

By Anonymous - 9 January 2016 Reply

This article is so biased and untrue. One thing I want to point out is that the article says “Thomas Scott, a violent and racist man and one of the persons attempting the overthrow, was caught and charged with treason. After a lengthy trial (which seems to have been more democratic than Riel’s own trial!) Scott was found guilty and executed by a firing squad.”
This is FALSE! Louis Riel elected the jury and judge to be his closest friends. So, the whole trial was set up guaranteed for Thomas Scott to die. This was not an execution, it was a murder.
This article is so biased and unfair it makes me want to perform my own lobotomy.

By Molly - 18 May 2016 Reply

I’m doing a project on Louis Riel in school, and I was wondering if you know how the Métis felt about him at that time? Can you also give me a source to find some quotes from Métis people during that time, if you happen to know one? Thanks

By JAN - 9 October 2015 Reply

In my Grade 8 year, about 3 years ago, I participated in a ‘Mock Trial’ of Louis Riel. I was the defence team leader, and everything I said to protect the man I believed in. While the real verdict was guilty, I managed to convince the Jury to give him a Not Guilty Verdict.

By greg firestone - 5 September 2015 Reply

i live in Ohio in the states and can trace my father to Canada i love history story’s like this we don’t them hear like this

By Kalel - 1 April 2015 Reply

I feel like this was very biased.

By Face - 29 April 2015 Reply

“We can only urge you to investigate and come to your own conclusion.”

By Anonymous - 25 April 2016

“Louis Riel was branded a traitor to Canada – but he was no traitor.”

By LOUIS NON TARITOR - 26 March 2015 Reply

Very good Helped with social project

By LUIS REAL - 12 March 2015 Reply

LOUIS REIL IS A TRATIOR

By C - 10 April 2015 Reply

Lmao just because he tried to save his land and the rights of his people?

By LUIS REAL - 1 January 2016

Although I have to agree that it was right for Riel to defend the rights of his people, he did it in a horribly wrong way. He abused his authority in order to achieve his own desires and goals. He had the complete authority to stop the execution of Thomas Scott, but instead thought he was a “threat to his goals” and executed him. Because he was a Canadian citizen at the time, this was treason.

I know everyone has their opinions. This website was very, very, biased.

By Anonymous - 10 March 2015 Reply

Wow very helpful indeed love the site xD john A mcdonald

By owen - 10 February 2015 Reply

just great.

By John A' Mcdoanld - 3 February 2015 Reply

I have went back in time and have sent this comment. LOUIS RIEL IS NOT A TRAITOR.

By nicole shskawan - 4 February 2015 Reply

lol i agree but thats so dumb

By nicole shskawan - 4 February 2015

no harm intended though

By Klaus - 14 November 2015

Your pinwheel quilt is gogreous! I also love the winter photos. The shadows on the snow, the sunsets, the perspective of (your DH?) walking through that vast snowscape – it really captures Winnipeg in the winter. Love it!Kate

By slayer - 4 June 2015 Reply

back in time?

By kirk - 26 January 2015 Reply

some of the things in this are true but most of it is just opinion no source very inaccurate

By Riley Boudreau - 9 December 2014 Reply

WOW BEST WEBSITE EVER!! IM IN LOVE 🙂 🙂 🙂

By bob - 26 November 2014 Reply

it was very helpful