Louis Riel: Hero to the Métis of Manitoba

Louis Riel, the Métis leader hanged for high treason on Nov. 16, 1885 at Regina, was the driving force behind Manitoba becoming Canada's fifth province and is thought of by many as the "Father of Manitoba."

In 2008, the NDP provincial government invited Manitoba schoolchildren to name the province's newest statutory holiday, commencing on the third Monday in February in 2009, and 114 schools responded with suggestions: of that number a dozen suggested Louis Riel Day or some close variation.

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Other suggestions included Neil Young Day, Family Get Together Day, February Fun Day, (The) Polar Pause, Duff Roblin Day (Duff's Day), Our Parents Need a Break Day and Magical Manitoba Monday.

Riel was born at Red River Settlement on Oct. 22, 1844 and educated at St Boniface. A Roman Catholic, he studied for the priesthood at the Collège de Montréal. In 1865 he studied law with Rodolphe Laflamme, and he is believed to have worked briefly in Chicago and Saint Paul before returning to St Boniface in 1868.

While space hardly permits for re-telling the entire history of the Red River Rebellion, or Red River Resistance, as it is also known, here or the North-West Rebellion in Saskatchewan 15 years later, the abridged version is that in 1869, the federal government, anticipating the transfer of Red River and the North-West from the Hudson's Bay Company to their jurisdiction, appointed William McDougall as lieutenant-governor of the new territory and sent survey crews to Red River.

The Métis, worried about the implications of the transfer and wary of Anglo-Protestant immigrants from Ontario, organized a "National Committee" of which Riel was secretary. The committee halted the surveys and prevented McDougall from entering Red River. On Nov 2, 1869, Fort Garry was seized by the committee, which invited the people of Red River, however, both English and French- speaking, to appoint delegates.

While armed resistance, led John Christian Schultz and John Stoughton Dennis, followed, the federal government postponed the transfer planned for Dec. 1, 1869. Riel issued a "Declaration of the People of Rupert's Land and the Northwest" and on Dec. 23, 1869 became head of the "provisional government" of Red River.

Meanwhile, a force of some of those who had escaped from Riel's men earlier, mustered by Schultz and surveyor Thomas Scott, a Protestant Presbyterian Ontario Orangeman, gathered at Portage la Prairie, but were quickly rounded up by the Métis, who imprisoned them again at Fort Garry. Riel appointed a military tribunal, presided over by his associate, Ambroise Dydine Lépine, of St. Vital, to try Scott for treason. Scott was convicted, sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad in the courtyard of Fort Garry on March 4, 1870.

In Ontario, it was Riel, however, who was widely denounced as Scott's "murderer" and a reward of $5,000 was offered for his arrest. In Québec he was regarded as a hero, a defender of the Roman Catholic faith and French culture in Manitoba.

Anxious to avoid a volatile political confrontation between Ontario Protestants and Quebec Catholics, never mind Manitoba's Métis, Conservative Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald tried to persuade Riel, who had gone into voluntary exile in the United States, to remain there, even providing him with funds.

But, encouraged by supporters, Riel entered federal politics and won a seat in a byelection in October, 1873 and was re-elected in the general election of February 1874 and re-elected for a third time in the Provencherconstituency in a September 1874 byelection. He was expelled from the House of Commons before taking his seat. Riel and Lépine were convicted of murdering Scott in October 1874 and sentenced to death, but Governor General Lord Dufferin commuted the sentences in January 1875 to two years imprisonment. A month later, Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie's Liberal government granted amnesty for Riel and Lepine, on the condition that both remain in exile for five years.

Early in 1885, then living in present day Saskatchewan, Riel seized the parish church at Batoche, armed his men, and formed a provisional government and demanded the surrender of Fort Carlton. The North-West Rebellion lasted from March 26 to May 12 before Riel surrendered at the Battle of Batoche and on July 6, 1885, he was charged with high treason.

Riel was convicted, and the federal cabinet, with Macdonald again as prime minister, declined to commute the death sentence imposed by Lt.-Col. Hugh Richardson, a stipendiary magistrate of the Saskatchewan District of the North-West Territories. Riel's body was sent to St Boniface and interred in the cemetery in front of the cathedral.

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