Happy Family Day Readers! As you are enjoying your day off from work, or the beginning of Reading Week for those students out there, we bring you a brief biography of Louis Riel.
In Alberta, we celebrate this statutory holiday “Family Day”; but move a bit more east and Manitoba is celebrating “Louis Riel Day.” In honour of this holiday, we bring you a brief introduction into Louis Riel’s life and involvement in Confederation.
Louis Riel is considered to be one of Canada’s greatest Metis advocates. Riel, the oldest of 11 children, was born on October 22, 1844.1 His paternal grandmother was a Franco-Chipewyan Métisse and passed her Aboriginal ancestry through to Riel’s family.2 Riel grew up in a close and religious family and attended Catholic school. Archbishop Tache took great interest in Riel early on; arranging for Riel to take classes at Petit Séminaire de Montréal to enter the priesthood.3 Throughout his college career, Riel was known for wild mood swings and bouts of deep depression.4 He eventually dropped out of college in 1865, one year after receiving news that his father had passed away.5 After dropping out, Riel returned to Red River to help support his family.6
A few years later Riel began to make his political mark when the Hudson’s Bay Company made plans to sell Rupert’s Land and the North Western Territory to the Dominion of Canada.7 Metis people in this area were concerned that an influx of Anglo-Protestants would take over their unique social, cultural and political status.8 To protect their culture and interests, the Metis in the area created the Metis National Committee to represent them, with Riel being elected as secretary and eventually president.9 As the Committee’s president Riel advocated for the protection of Metis rights to ensure their culture would be protected when Manitoba eventually entered into Confederation.
Riel was an aggressive advocate for minority rights in Manitoba, and this aggression may have led to his demise. In 1885, Riel was charged with treason for the shooting of Thomas Scott.10 Scott was a member of Canada First, a group that believed Metis and French Canadians had no place in Confederation.11 As tensions grew between the Metis and Canada First, Riel made the brash decision to execute Scott. Riel’s lawyers tried to defend the charge using the insanity defence. Riel was adamantly against the insanity plea, believing it would discredit Metis people’s legitimate complaints against the Canadian government.12 The trial concluded with Riel delivering a lengthy speech proving his sanity, which meant he was sentenced to death.13 French Canadians took issue with Riel’s execution, and to this day some believe he was sentenced to death due to his Metis heritage.14
Today, Louis Riel is officially recognized as the “Founder of Manitoba” by the Canadian government.15 Beginning in 2007, Manitoba recognizes the third Monday in February as Louis Riel Day, to honour his relentless fight to protect Metis and other minority rights.16 Louis Riel embodied many qualities that Canadians pride themselves on, accepting, cooperative, and multi-cultural. Honouring his work during Confederation is worthwhile.
1 Adam Gaudry, “Louis Riel” (22 April 2013), The Canadian Encyclopedia, online: <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/louis-riel/>.
2 Lewis H Thomas, “Riel, Louis (1844-85)” (1982), online: 11 Dictionary of Canadian Biography, <www.biographi.ca/en/bio/riel_louis_1844_85_11E.html>.
7 Gaudry, supra note 1.
11 “The Execution of Thomas Scott” (2001), CBC Learning, online: <www.cbc.ca/history/EPCONTENTSE1EP9CH2PA4LE.html>.
12 Gaudry, supra note 1.
14 Thomas, supra note 2.
15 Government of Manitoba, “Journee Louis Riel Day”, (2008).