Riel was born in 1844, within the Métis community, an ethnic group of mixed Native American and European descent, in the Red River Settlement, near what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba. The eldest of 11 children in a respected, religious family, he was educated by Roman Catholic priests at St. Boniface and then at the Séminaire of the Collège de Montréal. However, he left college on hearing of the death of his father, and took work as a law clerk. He became engaged to a young woman, but her family objected to her marrying a Métis. He moved for a while to Chicago, mixing with literary types, before returning, in 1868, to Red River Settlement, then nominally administered by the Hudson Bay Company.
Anxiety among the Métis, about an ongoing influx of Anglophone Protestant settlers, escalated in 1869 during negotiations designed to transfer territorial rights in parts of Western Canada from the Hudson Bay Company to the newly-formed Dominion of Canada - the Métis not having English-style title to their land. Riel assumed leadership to counter these moves. He and his supporters intervened to stop a government survey of the area, and to bar William McDougall, the governor-designate, from entering Red River. They also seized Fort Garry, the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company. A few weeks later the Métis National Committee declared a provisional government with Riel its president.
While the provisional government established a legislative assembly and published its own newspaper, discussions continued with the Canadian government, leading to a draft agreement, the Manitoba Act. Implementation, however, was stalled by the provisional government executing Thomas Scott, an English-speaking surveyor. He had been imprisoned in Fort Garry, had tried to escape, and was considered an agitator. The act led to outrage across English-speaking Canada. Part of the agreement had been an amnesty for the insurgents, and this was now withdrawn. Forces were sent to the region, and recaptured Fort Garry; Riel fled across the border to St. Joseph’s mission in the Dakota Territory.
Civil government was eventually established in the settlement later that same year (1870), with many of Riel’s former supporters having been elected into power. Riel returned to Manitoba quietly, and was even tacitly accepted by the lieutenant-governor Adams George Archibald in thanks for the supportive role Riel had played in helping repel raids from across the border by Irish revolutionaries (Fenians). Nevertheless, such a de facto amnesty for Riel was not accepted in Ottawa, and he was obliged to go into exile again. He continued to play a part in the politics of the region, even being elected member of parliament several times. He was, though, still fugitive, unable to take his seat because of a large government reward posted for his capture. Instead, he spent time with priests of the Oblate order in Plattsburgh, New York. Eventually the Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie secured a deal from Parliament allowing Riel an amnesty but only after five years of exile.
Riel became rather unstable, started to believe he had been divinely chosen to lead the
When the government appeared to prevaricate over its response to the manifesto, and ordered more armed troops to the region, Riel and a band of remaining supporters seized arms, took hostages, cut the telegraph lines and declared, on 19 March 1885, a Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. Confrontation came to a head in May at the Battle of Batoche, the outcome of which was never in doubt. Riel surrendered on the 15th. He was found guilty of treason, and hanged on 16 November, an outcome which led to fierce outbreaks of racialism in Quebec and Ontario, and marked the beginning of the nationalist movement. Indeed, Wikipedia notes that ‘historians have debated the Riel case so often and so passionately that he is the most written-about person in all of Canadian history’. Further information is also available at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Missouri-Kansas’s Famous Trials website, the Manitoba government website, or Library and Archives Canada.
Four diaries kept by Riel in the year before his death have survived. One of these - covering just a week prior to the Battle of Baroche - was lost for a century and only came to light in 1970. Soon after, it became the object of a famous literary sale, and was bought by private investors for $26,500. All four diaries were translated into English and edited by Thomas Flanagan for publication by Hurtig (Edmonton) in 1976 as The Diaries of Louis Riel. The full text is available at Our Roots - Canada’s Local History Online; and the short text of the Batoche diary is also available at the University of Saskatchewan’s Northwest Resistance website.
4 May 1885
‘The Spirit of God made me see two fighting men; they were walking down from Prince Albert. There was something big in front of them. I don’t know what it is. But I can tell you that it’s nothing good. The two men are not together. One is coming behind the other. They are not going very fast. The purpose of their mission is evil. They are trying to cause a great deal of trouble and confusion. But they are not achieving the goal they have in mind.
Evening of May 4
I see the troops coming, they are on foot. I see them in the aspens on the slope this side of Baptiste Vandale’s farm.
I see a pure white horse bearing a rider. The white colour of the horse flashes in the sun. The rider is leaving the road, he wants to get into the open.
I saw a big grass snake striking at the stake.’
5 May 1885
‘My wife encompasses my life. My nation encompasses my way of life. My army, the army which God has given me, encompasses the life I lead. My family has no other life than mine. The Church follows my example and is good to the same extent that I am good.
Be careful, watch out. The white man and the Orangeman want to trick you. The trap is wide open. It is set, do not rush into it.
For from another side, I see something stupendous coming: a great blow. Stay back, keep together. Let us be ready.’
6 May 1885
‘I see the white man with his battle helmet. The white man is tall. He sees far enough, but his steps do not take him very far, they lead him behind. The white man stumbles; his two feet slowly slide to the wrong side. He cannot stand up; he is effaced little by little; he gradually disappears; he vanishes - because his heart only has room for evil. To be more precise, he has no heart. When I speak of white men. I do not mean brown men.
Here I am, squarely arrived at the time God has marked in the order of things to come. With my own eyes, I saw all the signs of the times which were shown us before now. I did not want to believe that they were really signs of the times. But finally I had to recognize what they were. Yes, before me lies the time identified in many ways, the time announced with all the signs that are supposed to accompany it, as we are told in the Scriptures.
Boue-Chaire-Vile, previously such a fine place, is abandoned! The once fair city of Boue-Chaire-Vile now has no one to protect it. I am calling for help. I would like to wake those who sleep in the profound slumber of sin. They do not hear me, they do not listen to me, they do not obey me. The enemy is coming up the river, he is arriving, he is going to bombard the city. How is it going to resist? No one takes its interests to heart. It is going to fall into the hands of the conqueror. For, having first abandoned God, it is now abandoned by God. It is done. Oh, how many times will you come true, O prophecy? Oh, how many times each century! Oh, how many times each generation?
The Spirit of God has made me see that my prayers and obeisances are good, that they are pleasing to Him. But the government is harming me; the government’s army is waging war upon me. And yet, however harmful that obstacle may have been to me, I am surprised at how easily I have removed it from my path. Anyone who wanted to stop me from praying has been put in his place. When you have confidence in God and Jesus Christ, nothing is difficult any more.
The Spirit of God made me realize the extent of the rights which the Indian possesses to the land of the North-West. Yes, the extent of the Indian rights, the importance of the Indian cause are far above all other interests. People say the native stands on the edge of a chasm. It is not he who stands on the edge of a chasm; his claims are not false. They are just. The land question will soon be resolved, as it must, to his complete satisfaction. Every step the Indian takes is based upon a profound sense of fairness.’
20 May 1885
‘Why do we have comfortable houses? Our home is not here. O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us.’
21 May 1885
‘At my table, I will only have what is strictly necessary - water or milk to drink, no dessert, no syrup.
I do not even want to sit comfortably. I want to punish myself, mortify myself in everything.’
23 May 1885
‘Down with beautiful hair and vain hair styles! Pretty heads are full of impure thoughts, they speak them aloud, they commit impure acts in great number.
No more useless words! I want to speak meekly. My thoughts must be charitable.’
[From the beginning of August, Riel wrote at length in his diary, but his entries were mostly prayers and meditations on death.]
22 August 1885
‘Death destroys the trees around me. She takes her victims from among my livestock. Even if I sacrifice one of the animals from my flocks, I become an instrument of death.
The language of death is eloquent. It is a language expressed in facts, not figures of speech. The birds of the air are subject to the laws of mortality. The fish hiding in the fathomless depths of the oceans are not concealed from death.
Man, whom God has placed at the head of creation, will obey death because he has disobeyed his Creator. Death! It is sin which has invited you into the world. You did not keep us waiting; it was not long after the invitation that you made your appearance. You are our guest. You deserve a kind and warm reception, for you only come to us after being summoned. Man has made a deliberate choice between immortality and mortality; and in exercising his freedom, he has consented to be your servant. Death, you have power over him because he has chosen you to be his mistress; it is fair that you should be obeyed. I am getting ready to receive you whenever it pleases God to send you to me. For imperious as you are, Death, you are subject to a power which must be acknowledged and obeyed - the absolute power of the One who, being life itself, has nothing which belongs to you; the sovereign power of the all-loving God without whose permission you cannot approach me.’