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Louis Riel

Louis Riel (October 22, 1844 - November 16, 1885), sometimes called the "Father of Manitoba", Canada was a leader of the Métis people in their resistance against the Canadian government in the Canadian Northwest. He is controversial to this day.

Born Louis David Riel in the Red River Settlement (now the area around Winnipeg, Manitoba), he trained for the priesthood but left that to work in Montreal, Quebec as a clerk in a law office.

By 1868, Riel had returned from Montreal to the Red River area. He became a leader of the Métis in the Red River area. Over the next two years, he organized and headed a provisional government, which eventually negotiated the Manitoba Act[?] with the Canadian government. The Act established Manitoba—previously part of the Northwest Territories—as a province, and provided some protection for French language rights, an important issue for the largely French-speaking Métis.

Before this, however, the Canadian government appointed a notoriously anti-French governor, William McDougall. Riel's provisional government expelled McDougall from the province (October 1869), and took control of Fort Garry (Winnipeg). While in control of the fort, he put a Canadian prisoner, Thomas Scott, on trial for defying his provisional government, fighting with his guards, and insulting him. Scott, an Orangeman, was found guilty and hanged. Riel refused to commute the sentence. This came to be known as the Red River Rebellion.

When the Canadian government retook the fort (August 1870), Riel fled to the United States. In 1875, Riel was formally exiled from Canada for five years. He was elected to the Canadian parliament three times while in exile, but never took his seat.

Riel became an American citizen in 1883. The following year, he was teaching at a Jesuit mission in Montana. A delegation from the community of Métis from the south branch of the Saskatchewan River asked him to represent them and present their grievances to the Canadian government. He did so, but received no response. By March of 1885, Métis patience was exhausted and a provisional government was declared.

Riel was the political and spiritual leader of the North-West Rebellion. He was increasingly influenced by his belief that he was divinely chosen as leader of the Métis. On May 15th, Riel surrendered to Canadian forces, and was tried for treason, with a jury consisting entirely of English-speaking Protestants.

During his trial, Riel made two long, eloquent speeches. He rejected his lawyer's attempt to argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy; nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death. Fifty years later one of the jurors, Edwin Brooks, said that Riel was tried for treason but hanged for the murder of Thomas Scott.

On November 16, 1885, Louis Riel was hanged for treason. The prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, thwarted all attempts to obtain commutation of Riel's sentence to life imprisonment, perhaps because he had calculated that he had more votes to lose in Orange Ontario by commuting the sentence than he had to gain in Catholic Quebec. He is famously quoted as saying "Riel must die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour." Riel's execution caused lasting upset in Quebec.

The non-Métis perception of Louis Riel as an insane traitor modified somewhat in the 20th century. While many non-Métis still see him as a convicted murderer, others now view Riel as a hero who stood up for his people in the face of a racist government. In the 1960s, the Quebec terrorist group, the Front de Libération du Québec, adopted the Louis Riel name for one of its terrorist cells. A statue of Riel now stands on Parliament Hill.

On October 22, 2002, CBC Newsworld and its French-language equivalent staged a condensed one-hour historical re-creation of a retrial of Riel, with Canadian viewers invited to vote guilty or not guilty over the Internet. The poll received 10,000 votes with 87% voting Not Guilty. Raoul McKay[?] and other Métis scholars have noted that Riel is a more important figure to non-Métis than to Métis (perhaps because he is the only Métis figure most non-Métis are aware of).



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