The Indigenous Rebel Who Took the Fight to White Settlers

As colonists spread across North America, Louis Riel took up arms — and was demonized in Canada’s history books. After 150 years, it’s time to reevaluate his legacy.

The Indigenous Rebel Who Took the Fight to White Settlers

On March 5, 1885, a group of 11 Indigenous men gathered in secrecy in the Saskatchewan Valley, a forested stretch of central Canada. Their leader, Louis Riel — a white-passing 40-year-old Indigenous man with a prominent mustache — had the militant men sign an oath pledging to “save our country by taking up arms if necessary.”

The country he referenced was the wide swathe of Canada that Indigenous people like him had called home for centuries, and that, like most of North America at the time, was now under threat from white settlers. In the 1880s, pamphlets were being distributed across eastern Canada (and also in England) encouraging people to settle in the Saskatchewan Valley, where their pioneering spirit would be rewarded with free homesteads of “wheat and grazing land.” The problem, however, was that Indigenous people like Riel were already living on the land that settlers were being told they could take for free. 

The oath that Riel and his men took would help trigger the North-West Rebellion, an act of Indigenous resistance that attempted to establish sovereignty for the Métis people in the prairies of Canada. The Métis people, who share mixed Indigenous and European ancestry, have a culture and traditions that are distinct from those of other Indigenous groups in Canada, as well as those of European settlers. Their ancestral homeland stretches across Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as into parts of other provinces and the northern United States. According to a 2016 count, there are approximately 587,500 Métis in Canada, accounting for 1.7 percent of the country’s total population.

The rebellion would lead to Riel’s downfall, but it would also have a lasting impact on Canadian politics and Indigenous rights. Riel remains one of the most controversial figures in Canada’s history. In most accounts of the country’s history, he has been presented as a villain — a violent Indigenous rebel who challenged the Canadian government. But now, as Manitoba, the province he helped found, reaches its 150th anniversary this month, and as activists put a spotlight on Canada’s suppression of Indigenous rights — like their recent attempt to shut down and arrest Indigenous people protesting a pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land — the time has come for a reexamining of Louis Riel’s legacy.

Louis Riel was born on October 22, 1844, in the Red River Colony, in what is now known as Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, to a Métis father and a white mother. Louis Riel Sr. was a miller and farmer, and as Thomas Flanagan wrote in his book Louis Riel, “an outspoken advocate of Métis rights,” just like his son would be. Riel’s mother, Julie Lagimodière, was the daughter of the first white woman to live permanently in the North-Western Territory, which stretched from what is now Manitoba to British Columbia.

Louis Riel at age 14, in 1858.

Lagimodière was extremely passionate about religion, an interest she passed down to her intelligent young son. At age 14, Riel was sent to Petit Séminaire of the Collège de Montréal to study to become a priest. At age 20, his father died prematurely, and Riel he stopped his training in order to support his family by being a law clerk.

Much about Riel’s young adulthood is unknown, but he may have moved to Minnesota, where his uncle lived. During this time, a drought ravaged the prairies, where Riel’s mother still lived with his eight siblings. In 1868, at the age of 23, Riel returned to his native Red River Colony to help his family. His return to Red River coincided with the development of what Flanagan describes as Riel’s “vaulting ambition and radical politics” and desire “to atone for” leaving his family during periods of hardships. His actions a year later would cement his place in Canadian history.

At the time of Riel’s rebellion, the Canadian government was extremely new, and its power was fragile. Like the United States, Canada had separated from England, becoming its own country on July 1, 1867. However, Canada remained part of the Commonwealth of England, and it relied on the support of the Crown even after independence. But the dominant power in Rupert’s Land — a region that included what is now Manitoba — was neither the Canadian government nor the Crown, but rather a private business.

The leading player in the fur-trading industry, the Scottish-owned Hudson’s Bay Company — which today owns and operates stores across Canada — was so all-powerful in the region that when Canada sought to expand westward, the government needed to negotiate with Hudson’s Bay. According to journalist Alexander Begg’s 1871 book The Creation of Manitoba: Or, A History of the Red River Troubles, the lieutenant-governor of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory traveled to England to speak to Queen Victoria to get her assistance in convincing Hudson’s Bay Company to “relinquish their claim to the country.” 

Riel at 22, a few years before returning to his native Red River Colony to help his family, 1865.

Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell the land to Canada under the Rupert’s Land Act, in exchange for 300,000 pounds sterling, which is approximately 36 million pound sterling — or $45 million — in 2020. Many Métis people worked in the fur-trading industry and had a largely amicable relationship with Hudson’s Bay Company. But according to Begg, in the discussions between Hudson’s Bay and Canada over the future of Rupert’s Land, “not a word was spoken regarding the inhabitants of the country.”

With the land transfer date of December 1, 1869, looming, the Métis began to organize a resistance to the Canadian government, as they were afraid that they would lose title to their home. Riel started to hold meetings with other Métis leaders in Fort Garry, a trading post in what is now downtown Winnipeg. Begg wrote that “some three or four hundred men assembled together at the barrier [of the fort] with the avowed object of keeping Mr. McDougall [the lieutenant-governor] out at all hazards.” According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, there were a series of meetings between the Métis and those locals who remained loyal to the Crown, during which “one of the Queen’s soldiers” criticized the resistance movement and reported (perhaps exaggeratedly at this point) that “the country was in a state of armed rebellion.” 

Seven days after the land transfer, the Métis defied the Rupert’s Land Act by forming their own provisional government at the Red River Colony. John Bruce was named its first president, and Riel its secretary. Bruce soon fell ill and stepped down as president on December 27, replaced by the 25-year-old Riel, who the Inquirer described as “the most active spirit” of the Métis. 

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By the start of 1870, it was no longer a question of if the Métis would fight against the Canadian government, but when. Newspapers across Canada, the United States and England were abuzz with speculation about what would happen to Rupert’s Land. There was no shortage of attempts to discredit Riel and his movement. In a letter published by The Examiner and London Review on January 22, 1870, English journalist F.W. Chesson, who was best known as an anti-slavery campaigner, attempted to discredit Riel by claiming that “the insurgent Commander-in-Chief is a pure French Canadian” and that the fight for Métis sovereignty was then “a Colonial and not an aboriginal one.” 

Riel and his council, part of the provisional government at the Red River Colony, 1869.

Despite attempts to mar Riel and the new provisional government, the Métis continued with their mission of obtaining sovereignty over their land. On February 17, a group of 48 armed Canadians were taken prisoners by the Métis. A little less than a month later, Riel ordered one of the prisoners, Thomas Scott, to be executed by firing squad, infuriating Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Scott was allegedly singled out for taunting Métis guards with racist comments while he was imprisoned.

In May, the Canadian government took two major and seemingly contradictory actions. On May 12, the Canadian Parliament passed the Manitoba Act, which created the province of Manitoba, while meeting two main demands of the resistance: The Métis people were given title to the land where they lived, and they would be allowed to have publicly funded Roman-Catholic schools, in accordance with their religious practices. Yet during this same period, Prime Minister Macdonald authorized Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley to seize control over Fort Garry, by any means necessary, in retaliation for the killing of Scott. 

In a letter published in Begg’s book, Wolseley addressed “the loyal inhabitants of Manitoba” and told them that his “mission is one of peace, and the sole object of the expedition is to secure Her Majesty’s sovereign authority.” Wolseley’s expedition with the Royal American Regiment began in August.

George Lightfoot Huyshe, a soldier who wrote an account of the expedition in the 1871 book The Red River Expedition, claimed that he had heard that Riel called a meeting with 600 men to “organize an armed resistance to the entry of the troops,” but that the Métis and other residents of Fort Garry rebuked Riel’s idea. They simply did not have the resources to wage a serious fight against Wolseley’s troops.

Without much bloodshed, the Red River Rebellion was finished. Mere months after the Manitoba Act had theoretically granted them title to their own land, the Métis had been pushed out by force. Riel fled to Montana. 

The next 14 years of Riel’s life would be extremely tumultuous, marked by frequent moves and worsening mental health problems. According to Jill Mahoney’s article in The Globe and Mail, Riel returned to Manitoba in May of 1871, but the following year left for the United States again, at the request of Prime Minister Macdonald, who sought to reduce tensions between Riel’s supporters and the government. 

Between October 1873 and September 1874, Riel was elected three times to the Canadian Parliament in by-elections, but he never took his seat, in part because there was a bounty placed on his head by the premier of Ontario, which prevented him from returning to Canada. 

Riel, circa 1875.

In 1875, Riel started to refer to himself as a prophet of the Métis people, which would coincide with concerning conduct, such as incidents in which he reportedly tore off his clothes and started roaring like a bull. For a period of time, he was confined (under a false name) to the St. Jean-de-Dieu asylum in Montréal, where he was diagnosed with “delusions of grandeur.” 

Critics of Riel have long pointed to his mental health problems as an issue that should sink his credibility. Canadian journalist Maggie Siggins, author of the biography Riel: A Life in Revolution, counters that his mental collapse was understandable, stating in a 1994 CBC radio interview that “he had been hounded for five years with a $5,000 price tag on his head, being almost assassinated several times, and he was watching the politics of Manitoba and Canada unfold, and he was no longer part of it. It was a horrible disappointment.”

Life seemed to improve for Riel after his hospitalization. He moved to New York and in 1881 married Marguerite Monet, who was also from Manitoba. Riel and his wife eventually moved to Montana, and he became a United States citizen in 1883. 

In a diary entry from June 3, 1884, Riel reminisced about what his “spiritual director” had told him at the beginning of his training for the priesthood, back when he was a teenager: “Riel, you will succeed when everyone thinks you are lost.” It is unclear who he was referring to as his spiritual director, especially given that his own religious outlook changed so much throughout his life, from aspiring Catholic priest to seeing himself as a prophet. 

Around this time, Riel left the United States. He could no longer watch the Métis struggle against the Canadian government from afar, and at last returned to his native Manitoba, where he would encourage other Métis men to join him in rising up against the Canadian government once more.

After the Canadian government seized full control of Manitoba and walked back the protections promised to the Métis under the Manitoba Act, many Métis started moving westward to Saskatchewan. A rejuvenated Riel joined his people there during the summer of 1884. 

Despite his original fervor upon returning to be with the Métis, Riel was dismayed to have been driven so far from Manitoba, his home. He wrote in his diary that “all obstacles oppose my success.” But Riel gathered hope when God appeared to him one morning at daybreak and let him “see and understand what [was] about to happen.” Riel did not write any further information about what God showed and told him, but something seemed to be brewing.

On March 17, Riel began his second insurrection, in Batoche, Saskatchewan. In The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885, published that same year, Charles Pelham Mulvaney wrote that Riel “seized arms and ammunition” at a store and imprisoned “a magistrate, and several other loyal Canadians.” 

Two days later, the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan was founded, with Riel as its leader. 

About a week after the insurrection began, Major Leif Newry Fitzroy Crozier, the superintendent of the North-West Mounted Police, approached the occupied settlement of Batoche with his men. Major Crozier claimed that he was only looking for provisions, not an altercation, but when he approached the village, he encountered Gabriel Dumount, a Métis who was a staunch confidant of Riel’s, and a fight ensued. According to Mulvaney, it is likely that someone from the loyalist side took the first shot, on Crozier’s orders. After 40 minutes, Crozier realized that his small band of men were outmatched and ordered them to withdraw. But with this exchange of gunfire, the North-West Rebellion had officially begun. 

Just as with the Red River Rebellion, the Métis did not have much support from non-Indigenous people throughout Canada, or from the press. In an editorial published in the Manitoba Free Press, the newspaper claimed that the rebellion hurt Canada’s image, writing that “immigrants can not be expected to come to a country which they will be taught to believe in the throes of a rebellion backed by the tomahawk and scalping-knife of a savage.” Even given the many accomplishments of his life, Riel could not escape such anti-Indigenous comments and slurs.

By early May, despite his earlier conversations with God, Riel recognized that the Métis were losing their latest fight for sovereignty. In his diary, Riel pleaded with God to protect him “from death, wounds and injuries of any kind.” He begged for God to shield the Métis from more harm, and he promised to take care of the wounded and honor the people who had died. 

On May 9, nearly a thousand Canadian soldiers launched a final attack on Batoche, later called the Battle of Batoche, outnumbering the Métis by nearly four to one. Three days after the attack started, the Canadians successfully stormed Batoche. The Ottawa Daily Citizen reported that a priest who later buried the deceased Métis declared “the total number of rebels killed as 157.”

The North-West Rebellion was over. Louis Riel, the ferocious leader of the Métis, surrendered to the Canadian Militia on May 15.  

Justice Hugh Richardson charged Riel with six counts of treason on July 7. The Brooklyn Union reported that Riel, who “looked healthy and self-possessed,” would be “remanded till the 20th inst. for the trial” in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. 

At his trial, Riel was defended by Charles Fitzpatrick, a lawyer from Québec who would later become the chief justice of Canada, while Christopher Robinson, a lawyer form Ontario, spoke on behalf of the Crown. 

Riel addressing the jury during his trial for treason, 1885.

Part of Riel’s defense strategy was to argue that he was not of sound mind when he instigated the North-West Rebellion. Dr. Daniel Clark, an asylum superintendent, testified that it was abnormal for a man to believe that he “could gather around him such a force as would enable him to become monarch of this country.” 

On July 30, Riel was the last person to speak before the jury — which consisted solely of English and Scottish Protestants, and no Métis — deliberated his fate. Riel testified that when he first arrived in Saskatchewan, he found the Métis “eating the rotten pork of the Hudson’s Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day.” In a passionate speech, during which Justice Richardson interrupted to ask “are you done?” Riel said that his actions in the North-West Rebellion were to better “the condition of the people of the Saskatchewan,” even at the risk of his own life. 

Illustration of Riel’s hanging on November 16, 1885. (Illustration courtesy Gutenberg EBook of Louis Riel, Martyr du Nord-Ouest, by Anonymous)

The following day, the jury deliberated for only an hour before telling the clerk of the court their verdict: guilty. One of the jurors stood up and made a surprising request, saying, “I have been asked by my brother jurors to recommend the prisoner to the mercy of the Crown.” 

Justice Richardson dismissed the jury’s request, telling Riel directly that he was “guilty of a crime the most pernicious and greatest that man can commit.” Riel was sentenced to be hanged on September 18. 

Riel seemed frightened at the prospect of dying, but also accepting of his fate. In his diary, on August 15, Riel wrote that “these thirty-four days seem as fleeting to me as thirty-four hours.” Riel also told God that he would surrender his soul to him “as calmly and peacefully as possible, in the midst of the perfect graces of redemption.”

September 18 came and went, and Riel was still alive. In a diary entry from mid-October, he wrote that by the grace of God, he has “more time left on this earth.” While Riel credited God, in fact it was a combination of legal appeals and public pressure that had led to the delay. Riel’s legal counsel had applied for two appeals, at the Court of Queen’s Bench for Manitoba and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain, but both were ultimately denied. 

Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885, at 8:28 a.m., at the age of 41. The Minneapolis Daily Tribune reported that his last words were the Lord’s Prayer, and that he was hanged after reciting the line “lead me not into temptation.” 

Nearly one hundred and thirty-five years after his death, Riel’s legacy remains as complicated and varied as his life itself. For Métis, native activists, French nationalists and members of Canada’s liberal New Left movement, Riel is a hero. Many anglophone settlers of his time viewed him as a villain for his defiance of Macdonald and the execution of Scott, and that view has persisted in the consciousness of many Canadians for more than a century.

An illustration commemorating Louis Riel as a political martyr for the Métis people.

In the 1990s, Riel’s legacy began to shift. In 1992, after years of advocacy from Métis groups, the Canadian Parliament recognized Riel as a founder of Manitoba. In a radio interview with CBC, Yvon Dumont, who would later become the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, described this action as a step in the right direction, saying that Métis groups sought to persuade the Canadian government “to promote the role of Louis Riel and the role of the Métis in the development of Canada.” 

In the 28 years since then, several members of the Canadian Parliament have introduced bills attempting to exonerate Riel, but they have all failed. Manitoba now celebrates Louis Riel Day, on the third Monday of February, but he is not celebrated on a federal level.

May 12, 2020, marks the 150th anniversary of the Manitoba Act, when the Canadian government made a false promise to the Métis people. While Canada has transformed in many ways since then, the national government’s views toward the self-determination of Indigenous peoples continue to differ in action from what they claim at face value. Over the past year, members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation faced police brutality at the hands of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as they defend their land from a pipeline that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau originally authorized without significant consultations with Indigenous communities.

As Riel awaited trial, his fate already all but certain, he expressed hope that one day the Métis would be able to reclaim what belonged to them. He wrote of the power of art in the Indigenous community, likely referring to the oral tradition of storytelling that has survived throughout so many centuries of trauma. “My people will sleep for one hundred years,” Riel wrote, “but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”