Riel and The Metis
During the summer of 1869, the Canadian government sent John Stoughton Dennis to
Red River to survey the land. He was so badly received by the Métis that he started
surveying at Oak Point rather than Fort Garry. To add to the Métis' anxiety, the survey was
being carried out in accordance with the Ontario style of survey, in squares, instead of the
system of long, narrow lots with river frontage used by the Métis. The new system cut
across properties already in existence. Moreover, surveying had begun before the land
had been officially transferred to Canada. When Dennis arrived in Fort Garry, opposition
broke out. On October 11, 1869, proclaiming that the Canadian government had no right
to act without permission, sixteen Métis led by Louis Riel stopped a crew of surveyors on
the property of Louis, cousin André Nault. This was a very important incident, first of all,
because it was the first act of resistance to the transfer of the Settlement to Canada and
secondly, because it established Louis Riel as the champion of the Métis.
In October, William McDougall, who had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of Rupert's
Land, set out for Red River to take possession of the North-West Territory for Canada,
accompanied by a ready-made government and armed with 300 rifles. When news of this
reached the Métis, they decided to organize their resistance. On October 16, Riel was
elected secretary of the Métis "National Committee" and John Bruce was elected
president. Five days later, the Committee sent a warning to McDougall advising him not to
enter the country without special permission from the Committee. To strengthen their
position, the Métis erected a barricade where the trail from Pembina crossed the La Salle
River, a place McDougall had to pass.
Riel's initiative raised opposition from the conservative wing in the Settlement and those
in administrative positions. As a result of pressure exerted by them Riel was summoned
to appear before the Council of Assiniboia, chaired by Judge Black. The latter was
replacing the ailing out-going Governor Mactavish.
Riel let it be known that he was opposed to McDougall's arrival and invited the English
group to join him. He stressed that he remained faithful to the British Crown but that he
objected to the unlawful entry into the West of the Canadian government. He believed that
the West should have the right to negotiate the terms of its entry into Confederation. On
October 30, McDougall, Cameron and Joseph-Alfred Norbert Provencher, the nephew of
Bishop Provencher, arrived in Pembina where they read the Committee's note. However,
they refused to heed this warning and the next day, Cameron and Provencher proceeded
to St. Norbert where they were stopped and conducted back to the American border
escorted by 30 Métis. On November 2, McDougall met with the same fate. Riel and the
Métis thus succeeded in cutting McDougall off from the group in Winnipeg which
favoured Canadian annexation. That same day, the Métis took possession of Fort Garry,
thereby establishing their control over the surrounding area. However, their power was
quite precarious as they could only rely on the support of the French Catholic population.
Riel was aware that he would need the backing of all elements in the Settlement to
negotiate with the Canadian government. A series of meetings was held to endeavour to
foster this support, but without the hoped-for success. Several people objected to the
way McDougall had been treated. However, agreement was reached on the preparation of
a list of rights.
For further information on Louis Riel, please go to the following website from this link:
National Celebration to Mark Louis Riel Day
Tuesday, November 16, 1999.
It is a great honour for me, as Governor General, to be part of this commemoration of Louis Riel.
You all know, I am sure, the story of Riel's life: a Métis, born in the Red River settlement, the son of a Métis
leader and a French Canadian mother. He was the leader in 1869 during the Red River Resistance, going so far
as to establish a provisional government, and ending up exiled to the United States. He returned to Canada to
take part in the Northwest Rebellion, and was hanged for treason in 1885.
So I guess it's logical to wonder why we are here in this spot today to commemorate this man, on Louis Riel Day,
during the first "Métis Week" in Ottawa. But this man, Louis Riel, was a founder of the province of Manitoba,
and played a key typical role in opening up Canada's west. The greatest story that W.L. Morton wrote was that
the "Métis were... the one distinctively Western people." In writing about the furious sense of Western
alienation, Morton described Louis Riel as a leader of the first of a line of Western reform movements. And
Louis Riel, in the process of working for western rights and the rights of his people, helped to lay the framework
for minority rights – and as a result for cultural cooperation – in this country.
In some ways, it is hard for us, at the end of this century, to imagine what life was like while Louis Riel was
alive. It is hard to imagine the difficulties of the frontier, the pressures of building new settlements. And yet,
looking at his role in our history, there are many parallels between the conflicts he faced, and the challenges
we still deal with today.
When Riel was leading the Métis, there were about 12,000 people living in the area: 6,000 spoke French, 4,000
spoke English, and 2,000 spoke other languages. And along with the language differences came cultural and
religious divides as well. It is no great surprise that tensions were sometimes high, and that conflicts erupted.
When Riel was only 25, he and his supporters seized Fort Garry and established a provisional government. They
drew up a list of rights, which they sent to Sir John A. Macdonald. It is important to emphasize that these rights
protected not only the Métis members of the community, but all the settlers in the Northwest Territory.
Their demands included an elected legislature, representation in the federal Parliament, official status for both
English and French and an economic plan for the Métis. These became the basis for the Manitoba Act of 1870,
which brought that province into Confederation, and provided language, religious and schooling rights.
Historian G.F.G. Stanley called this "a national achievement of the new nation and the personal victory of Louis
As so often happens, Louis Riel's role in building this country was not recognized during his lifetime. And so it
is only recently that we have begun to recognize his contributions, and to come together, as we are doing
today, to pay tribute to Riel, and to the Métis people, who learned to live together in a bilingual, multicultural
society – and to take inspiration from this diversity.
It was also seen as thus to a group of Orangemen originally from Upper Canada. A group of these men took their
revenge on Riel and his Provisional Government by trying to overthrow it.
Thomas Scott, a violent and racist man and one of the persons attempting the overthrow, was caught and
charged with treason. After a lengthy trial (which seems to have been more democratic than Riel's own trial!)
Scott was found guilty and executed by a firing squad.
For his part in the creation of the Provisional Government (and partially for the death of Scott), Riel was
branded a traitor himself. He was promised an amnesty by the Prime Minister of Canada but it never came. In
1875 Riel was banished to the US for five years.
Banishment was not easy on Riel. Cut off from his country and his people he lapsed into deep states of
In 1880, Sir Wilfrid Laurier gave a courageous defence of Louis Riel, saying, "What is hateful is not rebellion
but the despotism which induces that rebellion... If the Government had been loyal to the Métis, no such
trouble would have occurred. But the Government has not been loyal to the laws. If only the Government had
taken as much pain to do right, as they have taken to punish wrong. Our prisons are full of men who,
despairing ever to get justice by peace, sought to obtain it by war, who despairing of ever being treated like
freemen, took their lives in their hands, rather than be treated as slaves."
We have taken a lot of steps since Louis Riel's time, to ensure that everyone in this country – Métis, Native,
English, French, Chinese, German, Polish – I could go on – is treated fairly and equally. But – and this is the
importance of marking Louis Riel Day and Louis Riel himself – we are not entirely there yet. So we all have a
responsibility to remember the legacy of Louis Riel, and to continue to strive towards a nation that is built on
tolerance, fairness, cooperation, sharing and generosity to all peoples.