Louis Riel Let Justice Be Done

Louis Riel Day, November 16, 1978

Metis Call, CBC, The National, November 17, 1978

CBC News


Was Louis Riel’s trial just? Emmett Hall doesn’t think so. A former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Hall is speaking out to support Métis groups who have asked the Canadian government to grant Riel a pardon. Not only was the 1885 trial politically motivated, Hall says, the presiding judge also had a conflict of interest. Ninety-three years after Riel’s death by a government hangman, CBC News reports on the 1978 effort to clear his name.

Emmett Hall was a Saskatchewan lawyer who was appointed to that province’s Court of Queen’s Bench in 1957. In 1962 he became a justice in the Supreme Court of Canada. He retired from the court in 1973 and went on to be chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan from 1980 to 1986.

While on the Supreme Court, Hall was a staunch defender of aboriginal rights. In 1968 he also played a key role in the federal implementation of universal health care.

On July 25, 1978, the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan passed a resolution at Batoche. The group believed that “Riel was dealt with unjustly by an incompetent government which made him a scapegoat for its own failings.”

The resolution read, in part: “Be it resolved that the government of Canada. act to right these wrongs against Riel and the whole Métis nation, by granting at this late date a posthumous pardon to Riel.”

Among the group’s arguments for a pardon were:- Riel believed he was right under international law;- he did not act for personal gain;- he personally committed no illegal act in Red River or Batoche;- he armed his people only as a self-defence measure- violence that did occur happened more by accident than design;- he did not receive a fair trial due to prejudice;- the judge ignored the jury’s call for clemency.

Under Canadian law, the federal cabinet can grant a pardon to any person convicted of committing a criminal offence. Once a pardon is granted, that person is deemed to have never committed the crime.

Pardons are granted on two bases: one, that a person is innocent, and this is established and admitted by the Crown; two, that special considerations entitle the person to a pardon. In this case, guilt or innocence is not at issue.

By 1989 Métis groups had switched tactics. They no longer asked for Riel’s pardon, but instead had passed a resolution asking the federal government to recognize Riel as a Father of Confederation. Métis leader Tony Belcourt said they were not asking for a pardon because that presumed guilt on Riel’s part.

This argument hinged on the fact that Riel was loyal to the Queen, and therefore could not have been guilty of treason – the crime for which he was convicted.

In 1996 Bloc Québécois MP Suzanne Tremblay put forward a private member’s bill in the House of Commons. It called for the revocation of Riel’s conviction for treason.

Tremblay’s bill was defeated on Dec. 10, 1996, by 112 votes to 103.

In 2004 the Calgary Herald said more than 25 bills seeking to re-evaluate Riel’s status had been introduced over the years.

Prime Minister Paul Martin vowed to re-examine the Riel case in early 2004. However, the Métis National Council did not support the effort. “Mr. Riel, to us, is a hero and a martyr,” said MNC president Clement Chartier. “It’s not going to really change any of that if he is pardoned or exonerated.”

Chartier said the government should instead seek to work with Métis people on some of their present concerns. Among these were establishing a land base and gaining the right to self-determination.

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