Today, February 21, is Louis Riel Day, a statutory holiday in Manitoba. Riel was not quite 25 years old in 1869 when he stopped surveyors mapping out settlement plots. The land belonged to the people of Red River, he said, and not to the Dominion of Canada. The people had to give their permission before land could be taken up by settlers and speculators.
The Dominion of Canada was brand new of course, and the Red River territory had been turned over to it by the Hudson’s Bay Company when the beaver trade collapsed. The Red River settlers were a diverse group. There were retired ex-employees of the Honourable Company, there were Métis, both English and French speaking, there were Indians — Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibway, and Sioux refugees from the United States, there were Catholic Green Irish and Protestant Orange Irish, there were Catholic and Protestant clergy, both claiming to speak for their congregations, there were Americans hoping to annex the territory into the United States, and there were the Canadians who wanted it to be part of their new nation. When the Hudson’s Bay Company gave up its sway over the territory, all these groups began assessing their own future.
Riel spoke for the French Métis. He had allies amongst the English Métis, the Catholic clergy, and the Green Irish. He also had enemies among these groups as well as opposition within the French Métis camp. But he had a single purpose, a just settlement for the people of the Red River, which made him a much-heeded man.
A hundred years later, young community organizers were signing up voters in Mississippi, union members in Rochester, and creating citizen groups in Toronto and Vancouver. These, like Riel, were largely untested human beings. They had the energy of youth but lacked the perspective of age. Still, they did pretty well. So did Louis Riel up until he committed the error that would haunt him for the remainder of his life: the execution of Thomas Scott.
Scott was a troublesome Orangeman and member of the Canadian party. He had been involved in an attempt at armed uprising by the group at Portage la Prarie and was arrested and jailed by Riel’s Provisional Council. Scott was a mouthy fool who had little sense of the danger he faced. He hurled insults and epithets at Riel and his Council every chance he got. One day, it all became too much for Riel who ordered a trial that found Scott guilty of insurrection and sentenced him to death.
Riel was a young man, sensitive about his Indian ancestry, who made a rash decision. When people tried to dissuade him from the execution, Riel replied that it was necessary to win respect. Youthful vanity and insecurity got in the way of what had been, to that point, a fairly successful venture.
John A. MacDonald could not ignore the Orangemen, a huge voting bloc in Ontario, when they demanded vengeance for Scott. He sent troops to the Red River, but he also agreed to the Manitoba Act, which set aside territory for the Métis and guaranteed their rights. Riel had argued for provincial status early on and, when he rode into exile, said, “No matter what happens now, the rights of the Métis are assured… My mission is finished.” Whether he was correct or not is a moot point that deserves a little thought, especially today, Louis Riel Day.