THE CANADIAN FRENCH-SPEAKING WORLD and some of the people who have contributed to its greatness



Louis Riel

Date of birth:
October 21, 1844

Place of birth:




Photo : The Metis Nation of Ontario


























Louis Riel was the son of Louis Riel Sr and Julie Lagimodière, both intensely devout Roman Catholics. In 1858, Msgr Taché sent the young Louis to Montreal to continue his education, with the hope that he would become a priest. But Louis opted instead to study law with Rudolphe Laflamme, and then found work in Chicago and in St Paul, Minnesota, before returning to Saint-Boniface in 1868.

At the time, some 10,000 Métis were living along the Red River, most of them French-speaking and Roman Catholic. The descendants of unions between coureurs de bois and Amerindian women, they lived by hunting and by farming the fertile land. In 1869, the Canadian government decided that the Métis farms would be a good place to install English-speaking settlers from Ontario, and without regard for the rights of the Métis, Ottawa sent out surveyors, who treated the local people with great arrogance. Faced with this threat, the Métis decided to resist. They set up a provisional government for the territory they called (at the suggestion of Louis Riel) Manitoba, based on the principle of tolerance and equality among cultures. The provisional government elected Riel as its President. He decided to take over Fort Garry (Winnipeg), and published a list of Métis rights, to emphasize to the federal government the importance of negotiating with them Manitoba's entry into the Canadian Confederation. The government of Sir John A. Macdonald was willing to negotiate, but the discussions ran into a brick wall in the spring of 1870 when the federal authorities learned of the execution of Thomas Scott, an Ontarian, by Riel's Métis. Canada's English-speaking majority was never to forgive Riel for the execution. On July 15, 1870, the Manitoba Act made Manitoba the fifth Canadian province. Ottawa refused to recognize Riel's government, but agreed to most of its linguistic, religious and territorial demands. Riel was strongly advised to go into exile, and he left for the United States.

During the 1870s, large numbers of Métis sold their farms to move farther west, to the banks of the Saskatchewan River. But in 1882 federal surveyors once again descended on them, and treated them just as contemptuously as they had done in 1869. Outraged, the Métis appealed to Riel, who was still living in the United States. He returned to form a government and organize resistance. This time the Métis had the support of the Plains Amerindians, who also saw themselves threatened by the encroachment of settlers from the East. The federal government refused to negotiate. It decided to send troops against the rebels. The combined forces of the Métis and the Amerindians could not hold out against the better armed soldiers, who were brought in by train. In the spring of 1885, the uprising was brutally suppressed. Riel was imprisoned and charged with high treason.

The trial of Louis Riel split the country's francophones and anglophones. French Canadians, who had generally supported the Métis cause, called the whole trial a mockery and demanded that he be acquitted. He was tried in Regina before an exclusively English-speaking jury, and hanged on November 16, 1885. The people of Ontario, who wanted revenge for Scott's death in 1870 and who regarded the Métis as rebels, greeted the news of Riel's hanging with satisfaction.

Even today, this is a powerfully emotional issue. In early 1999, in response to a favourable survey of federal Members of Parliament, MP Denis Coderre introduced a bill in the House of Commons to pardon Louis Riel. The pardon would rehabilitate him in the eyes of history and give him the honour he deserves as a champion of the rights of the Métis and the Amerindians.