Louis Riel

Louis Riel

Louis Riel, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1985

This edition of Louis Riel by George F.G. Stanley was published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson in 1985. It was originally published in 1963 by The Ryerson Press and in a paperback edition in 1972. The book details the life and political struggles of Riel and the Métis during the opening of Canada’s North West from 1870 to 1885.

The 1968 Fall Catalogue blurb from the Ryerson Press reads as follows: Louis Riel by George F.G. Stanley is the first fully documented life of Louis Riel, the Métis leader and founder of Manitoba. Professor Stanley’s biography of Riel, and the movement Riel represented, is certain to be the single indispensable source of Riel information for decades to come. Includes 17 photographs and five maps. Illustrated. $8.50

Louis Riel was born in 1844 and was educated in a seminary in Montreal where he studied Latin, Biology and Philosophy among other subjects. While Riel did reasonably well in his studies his quick temper and an inclination towards broodiness caused his teachers some concern. They thought he lacked the humility necessary to become a priest. In March 1865, only months before the end of his studies, Riel quit the College of Montreal abruptly before graduating. Riel returned to the Red River Settlement in July 1868, aged 24 – educated and unemployed but with a strong sense of pride in himself and his Métis brothers and sisters.

In 1869, two years after Confederation, the Hudson’s Bay Company which had control over Rupert’s Land, the vast continent–sized tract of land north west of Lake Superior, realized that they could no longer administer the land as they had done since 1670. They wanted to sell. The price was $40 million. Canada did not have that kind of money; however, the United States did. But the British Crown refused to sell to the Americans and since Britain wanted the land to be in the hands of Canada, a negotiated price of L300 000 or $1.5 million was agreed. The transaction did not sit well with the existing inhabitants of the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg), many of whom were fur traders. They feared the changes that would inevitably come from opening the land. They looked to Louis Riel to fight for their rights.

In 1870, Riel was elected President of the provisional government and led a group of Métis to occupy Fort Garry. He formed the Provisional Government of Assiniboia and sent a delegation along with a petition of rights for land ownership of the Red River Settlement to Ottawa with the intention of joining the newly formed federation of Canada. Among the requests was amnesty for those involved in the uprising that had occurred. While verbal assurances were made by Sir George Cartier that amnesty would be forthcoming, the federal government claimed the decision was not Canada’s to make. The request was forwarded to the British Crown. The death of Thomas Scott, a belligerent Ontario transplant, who had disregarded the Laws of the Prairie under the Provisional Government was tried for insubordination and shot. This simply added to Riel’s woes. But on May 4, the Manitoba Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and received Royal Assent on May 12, 1870. The Province of Manitoba had been established.

Meanwhile, United States President U.S. Grant had received solicitations of annexation by ambitious Americans who felt that the time was right for the United States to take control of Rupert’s Land. Grant would have none of it. But that did not prevent a brief futile raid by a group of Fenians in October 1871 which was quickly put down.

Sentiments ran high in Ontario after the death of Thomas Scott. Agitators in Ontario like George Denison and John Schultz were incensed that Sir John A. MacDonald’s government had allowed an unruly and “murderous” group to form a province. It was their contention that the North West was to be populated by people from “Canada” and not by rebels. They demanded that troops be sent to Red River to maintain order. Consequently, Colonel Wolseley and his Ontario based riflemen were soon dispatched. They were to “go forth on an errand of peace and will serve as an assurance to the inhabitants of the Red River Settlement and the numerous Indian tribes that occupy the North-West that they have a place in the regard and counsels of England.”

However, Riel, with no amnesty forthcoming and a price of $5000 on his head, went into hiding, first in the U.S. city of St. Paul, Minnesota. But he was determined to run for Parliament and obtained the nomination for Provencher which he won by acclamation. Still concerned for his own personal safety he took refuge with friends in Plattsburg, New York, close enough to Montreal to keep an eye on the politics of the day. As the date for the opening of Parliament drew near, Riel ultimately decided not to take his seat. Instead, in 1874, he was expelled from the House of Commons, branded an outlaw and sought refuge in the United States.

Louis Riel settled in Montana. Married now with a wife and family, he was resigned to a quiet life. He became a U.S. citizen and set his sights on owning and operating a small farm.

But the situation in Canada’s North West had not changed for the better as far as the Indian and Métis were concerned. The land they had turned to cultivating after the decline of the buffalo on the Prairies was now their only source of sustenance. That was now being taken away from them and sold off by the government. Treaties were being broken and both the native aboriginals and the Métis were desperate for someone to fight for their rights. They again turned to Louis Riel.

In 1884, Riel’s friend, Gabriel Dumont, led a delegation and traveled to Montana to convince Riel to once again take up the charge. Convinced that he had been given a divine right to lead the Métis, Riel returned to Canada and was immediately praised as the one person who could resolve the land and treaty situation with Ottawa.

Upon his return to the North West, Riel had formed his own religion which did not sit well with the religious leaders of the day. They branded him a heretic and refused to allow him to use the church as a meeting place. He also alienated the English and many of the French settlers.

With only a few hundred Métis Riel led a rebellion that, despite a few early skirmishes that went in their favour, they found themselves outnumbered at Batoche.

The recent completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad through to Saskatchewan meant that Ottawa could transport troops to the North West much faster than they had in the rebellion of 1870. As a result, Riel and his followers, outnumbered and out-gunned, met their final defeat at Batoche in March 1885. Riel was ultimately put on trial for treason. Despite numerous calls for amnesty, and several appeals, Louis Riel was found guilty and hanged in Regina on October 22, 1885.

Louis Riel led a tumultuous life. His struggles to resolve the land claims and treaty rights of the Métis of Manitoba in 1869-70 and Saskatchewan in 1884-85 were hard fought and were met with constant resistance by Canadian government officials. Many of those battles continue to this day.

George Stanley

George F.G. Stanley (photo by Jonathan Sark, Canadian Encyclopedia)

Professor George F.G. Stanley was born in Calgary, Alberta in 1907. He studied at the University of Alberta and at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. His design of the Canadian Flag was accepted by Parliament in 1965. In 1976 he was awarded the Order of Canada and was made Companion in 1995. George Stanley was Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick from 1982-1987. George Stanley died in 2002.




About The Ryerson Press Archive

My name is Clive Powell. I worked for McGraw-Hill Ryerson for 35 years. Recently I was asked to find a home for 3000 publications that represent the Ryerson Press Archive. I am happy to share my discoveries.
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