Louis Riel Let Justice Be Done

Louis Riel in Canada’s History

Reconciliation and Louis Riel’s “proper place in Canadian history”

riel photo manitoba-legislature 2016

Louis Riel Photograph, Manitoba Legislature, March 1, 2016

No attempt at reconciliation with Aboriginal people can be complete without reference to the sad events culminating in the death of Métis leader Louis Riel. These events cannot be undone; however, we can and will continue to look for ways of affirming the contributions of Métis people in Canada and of reflecting Louis Riel’s proper place in Canada’s history.

the Honourable Jane Stewart
Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1998

Following the 1991 conclusion of the massive Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples the Liberal Government of Jean Chrétien (1993 – 2003) announced Gathering Strength, An Aboriginal Action Plan to renew the relationship between the government of Canada and the Aboriginal nations and peoples. The Action Plan included a statement of reconciliation by the then Minister of Indian Affairs, Jane Stewart: Our purpose is not to rewrite history but, rather, to learn from our past and to find ways to deal with the negative impacts that certain historical decisions continue to have in our society today.

Now, nearly twenty years later, as Canada prepares for its Sesquicentennial, 150th birthday, and Manitoba moves to mark the 150th anniversary of joining the Canadian Confederation in 1869-70, Louis Riel is finally coming out of the historical shadows—there is motion taking place in official corridors. March 1, 2016, the government of Manitoba and the Manitoba Métis Federation participated in a symbolic ceremony hanging Louis Riel’s photograph alongside those of Manitoba’s Premiers in the halls of the Manitoba Legislative Building. Louis Riel, President of the Legislative of Assiniboia, 1870, is finally recognized as Manitoba’s first “first minister.” Why has this taken so long?

For two hundred years “Rupert’s Land” was a vast private reserve of the Governor and Council of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which held title to the land (1.4million acres) through a Royal Charter (1670). A commercial monopoly focusing on the fur trade the HBC was governed by its corporate board in London whose members controlled all shares in the company. The HBC North American headquarters was situated at Fort Garry, at the junction of the Red and Assinaboine Rvers (today’s Winnipeg). Chief Factor (trader) Mactavish acted as the local governor with an appointed “Council of Assiniboia,” including Métis representatives, running municipal affairs. This council dealt with local affairs while the Company itself oversaw all relations between the Company and the outside world.

With the fur trade in decline and concerns over American expansion into Rupert’s Land there was impetus for change in both Britain and the Canadian colonies. Cognisant of these changes, in 1863 there was a major corporate takeover as the HBC Council agreed to sell their shares to the London-based International Finance Society (IFS).  With plans for telegraph, rail, colonization and retail development in British North America the IFS sought financial and other assistance from the Canadian colonies while supporting their consolidation into a larger political and economic unit. In 1867 the British colonies of Ontario and Quebec united with the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in a new self-governing “Dominion of Canada.” With confederation, the IFS adroitly flipped “Rupert’s Land,” selling the land to the new country of Canada—while keeping the company’s physical assets. The sale also successfully divested the IFS of the responsibilities of governance. Negotiations for this sale had been held in secret and it was some time before the Aboriginal nations, as well as the settlers already in the North-West, including the governor and other long-time residents, British, French, Irish, Métis, and others—found that they were not only not consulted in this transaction, they were to receive no recompense for their lands, labours or other resources.

By the Deed of Surrender in 1869 the HBC agreed to transfer Rupert’s Land back to the Crown upon ratification by Britain; initially on September 1, 1869, then logistically rolled back to December 1, 1869. The new Canadian parliament then passed the North-West Territories Act imposing a Canadian colonial government on Rupert’s Land and the rest of the North-West Territories. Prior to this transfer Canadian Prime Minister Macdonald dispatched William McDougall and a ready-made government to set up a Canadian Crown Colony.  Macdonald also sent in two crews of surveyors, led by Canadian military men, and a Canadian road building crew. When the surveyors were found imposing rectilinear survey lines over established Métis riverfront farms a group of Métis men confronted them. English-speaking Louis Riel acted as spokesman. Putting his foot on their survey chain he told them to stop and desist: “You go no further.”

When the Red River Métis heard from their cousins in Minnesota of the intended goal of “governor” MacDougall’s party, then travelling across the state, the concerned populous met as the Métis National Committee. An hereditary organization, traditionally called to respond to community danger, the Committee reviewed their options. Recognizing the moribund state of the Hudson’s Bay Company government, and with no government to defend themselves, the MNC established a Provisional Government with Andrew Bruce as President, Ambroise Lépine as Adjutant General and Louis Riel as Secretary. Lépine’s Métis cavalry was sent to blockade the United States border preventing MacDougall from entering the community. Peaceably entering and occupying the seat of government, Fort Garry, Louis Riel and the provisional government set about to successfully defend the community from Canadian attempts to seize political control through force of arms. Paying allegiance to the Queen, and not Canada, the provisional government held discussions with their long-term neighbours and succeeded in establishing a Convention of 24 regional delegates, and then a Convention of 40. With the participation of the varied local representatives, Louis Riel and the provisional government established a Bill of Rights and offered to negotiate entry into the Canadian confederation on a nation to nation basis. With MacDougall disgraced in the North-West, and Canadian agents unable to seize control of the colony, John A. Macdonald agreed. Based upon the provisions of the Bill of Rights, including amnesty for all those involved in the provisional government, negotiations were successful. Canada and the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, Louis Riel, President, agreed to the new province of “Manitoba” joining the Canadian confederation.

Manitoba’s entry into confederation with full hereditary rights was a hugely progressive step in Canadian democracy. It signalled Canada’s willingness to recognize Aboriginal rights—as initially established with the Royal Proclamation of 1764. Acceptance of language and religious rights also signalled a nation built on principles of inclusion and equality.

With the Legislative Assembly the recognized government of Assiniboia, President Riel prepared conditions for the new Canadian governor to arrive and establish a Canadian government. The Assembly ruled a peaceable country, little knowing of the treachery of John A. Macdonald.  Disgracefully, Macdonald had surreptitiously removed the amnesty clause from the agreement. The transition to the new Canadian regime would prove to be far from peaceful. In direct contradiction to the spirit and intent of the Manitoba Act the new Canadian governor did not arrive until after Canadian and British troops under British commander Garnet Wolseley stormed the community. Declaring martial law Canadian troops, filled with racist anger over the execution of the Canadian Thomas Scott by the provisional government, terrorized the community attempting to capture and lynch Louis Riel and Ambroise Lépine.  Many members of the provisional government were attacked. Murders, rapes and other atrocities took place. Louis Riel was forced to flee to the United States. Henceforth, Louis Riel was villainized and exiled—never knowing if it were safe to water his horse or sleep in the same bed twice.

Although subsequently elected to the Canadian Parliament three times, Louis Riel was not allowed to take his place in the Canadian body politic. He lived the hell of exile until returning to his Métis nation in Montana and being called to the Saskatchewan to assist the settlers, Métis, Half-breeds (English-speaking Métis) and Indians in 1884. Riel’s return, his constitutional campaign for the rights guaranteed in the Manitoba Act and his insistence on better terms for the Indians, led to John A. Macdonald ordering another Canadian invasion and war against the Métis and First Nations of Saskatchewan. After being attacked at the Battle of Batoche Louis Riel gave himself up and sought Canadian justice. What he received was a “fitted-up” trial in a colonial Canadian courtroom condemning him to death for the heinous crime of high treason. On November 16, 1885, Louis Riel, the President of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, the elected Member of Parliament for Provencher and the President of the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan was brutally executed. It is for these historical reasons Canada has denied Louis Riel his “proper place in Canada’s history”. Although reconciliation is the order of the day, Canada has yet to admit her culpability in the politically motivated trial and execution of Louis Riel. Mr. Prime Minister, exonerate Louis Riel, Canada’s Indigenous (Métis) Father of Confederation, for Canada’s Sesquicentennial – July 1, 2017

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