Dakota Datebook

Louis Riel Executed

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

On this date in 1885, Louis Riel was executed at Regina, Saskatchewan, for treason. Riel was a Metis, a unique mixed-blood population made up primarily of French and Chippewa ancestry. As a leader of his people, Riel came to be a controversial figure in Canadian history.

Riel was born in the Red River Settlement in 1844. He proved to be a promising student, and at age 14 he was sent to Montreal to train for the priesthood. Some years later, he left his religious training for a young woman, but it didn’t work out. Riel changed his focus to the law.

In 1868, 25 year-old Riel went back to the Red River, where he found the Metis facing strong opposition from the anti-French and the anti-Catholics. Riel – well educated, ambitious, and bilingual – soon became their leader and drew up a “List of Rights.”

Author Brian Brown writes, “…soon, Riel was faced with a momentous decision. One White settler named Thomas Scott, a stubborn and racist troublemaker, had been put in jail for taking up arms against the Metis twice. While in jail, Scott had attacked the Metis guards and repeatedly insulted them. When he was put on trial, the Metis court sentenced him to be shot. Riel could have prevented the execution, but he needed to maintain order in the settlement and he wanted to change the attitude of the Canadian government. Riel said, ‘We must make Canada respect us.’ Thomas Scott was shot by a Metis firing squad. This became the biggest mistake (of Riel’s) life.”

The Canadian government’s response to the Metis was at first surprising. They accepted Riel’s “List of Rights” and turned the Red River settlement into a new province named Manitoba. But Riel’s amazing success was soon to end; 1,200 Canadian soldiers arrived in the newly created province, including many who were intent on avenging the death of Thomas Scott – a white man – at the hands of mere “half-breeds.”

Riel feared for his life and went into exile in the United States for fifteen difficult years. Three times he was elected to the Canadian House of Commons, but the Ontario government had officially banished him for five years and had a standing reward of $5,000 for his capture. During his exile, Riel spent two years in a hospital for the mentally ill. Later, he moved to Montana, where he married a Metis woman and taught at a Jesuit school.

By 1884, the Metis had lost almost all their rights, including their homes and farms. They moved farther west to avoid white settlers, but as the railroad advanced, so did trouble. Finally, Riel agreed to come back to lead them. He refused to carry a gun and warned against violence, but in May 1885, threats against the Metis’ new settlement, Batoche, led to bloodshed in what is called the Northwest Rebellion. When Batoche fell, Riel surrendered.

Riel was tried for treason in Regina, where the lawyer for the crown stated, “Armed rebellion means the sacrifice of innocent lives, it means the loss of fathers, brothers, sisters, parents, the destruction of many homes.”

The judge asked, “Can such things be permitted?”

Riel replied, “One-seventh of the land was granted to the people, to the half-breeds of Manitoba. Bring to the half-breeds of the Northwest the guarantee that a seventh of the lands will also be given to them. I said, ‘What belongs to us ought to be ours.’”

A jury of six English-speaking Protestants found Riel guilty, and he was sentenced to die. His execution led to many long-lasting ramifications for French-Canadians.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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