Historical Context, Modern Narratives, and Louis Riel

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

One of our popular Blog Series is ‘The Month That Was,’ which looks at a month of newspapers from the past, highlighting interesting stories, images, advertisements, and anything else eye catching. Often, the stories are quaint, humourful, or sometimes, they can give an insight into the happenings and/or politics at the time.  Newspapers leading up to elections are always interesting, especially those from the mid 1800s as the newspapers had very evident political biases. 

Sometimes, a simple annotation to the historical article can enhance a modern reader’s understanding of the event. For example, the August 9, 1872 edition of the Ontario Reformer reported:

Grace Marks received her pardon on condition that she would leave this country never to return.  She left Kingston on Tuesday, for the United States.

With this, an annotation was added, explaining that Grace was the subject of the popular Margaret Atwood book, later turned miniseries, Alias Grace.

When the trivia is short and simple, it makes annotating easy without taking away from the purpose of the article, highlighting stories from decades past.

However, while reading the newspapers in October 1873, news stories gave pause and left questions as to whether to present the articles as written, to annotate, or to exclude the stories because the additional context needed was greater than the blog post allowed. We opted for the latter, allowing another post, this one, to give the needed context.

Many articles in the October 24,1873 edition of the Ontario Reformer were discussing the results of a by-election in Manitoba which saw Louis Riel elected as a Member of Parliament.

The editors of the Reformer published their own editorials, slanted with their Liberal bias:

The Riel Difficulty
Riel, the murderer of Scott, is in Ottawa to-day claiming his seat as one of the People’s representatives, sheltering himself from just punishment behind a pardon granted by Sir John Macdonald… The question will then arise, however, how far that amnesty can be made to stretch.  While granting immunity to subjects in rebellion to Her Majesty’s laws, can it be also held to shelter the wilful, deliberate, unprovoked brutal murder of one of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects – not while in arms against the so-called Provisional Government, but while a helpless prisoner, utterly incapable of either resistance or disturbance. We believe very many of the member’s from Ontario maintain that the amnesty cannot be held to cover this foul crime, and we trust that bad as the character which the second Parliament has earned it, it will not be further sullied by association with a convicted murderer.

There was also the following inclusion:

An Opinion of Riel
We have been requested to publish the following resolution, passed last evening, and we commend it to the attention of the Hon. Mr. Gibbs:

Oshawa, Oct 23rd, 1873

An Emergency Meeting of the LO [Loyal Orange] Lodge, No 686, held at Oshawa, it was unanimously resolved that we regret to learn, that Louis Riel has been elected as a Representative to the House of Commons, of the Dominion of Canada, and , that we, as a Body, feel that his presence as a Representative in your Honorable House, would be a scandal and disgrace to our country, and utterly distasteful to the Members of our Loyal Orange Association, as well as to a large portion of the inhabitants of our Country, and we humbly trust that measures will be taken as will prevent him from taking a seat in the Parliament of the Dominion, and to bring him speedily to account for the murder of Thomas Scott in Manitoba, and that a copy of this resolution be sent to the Secretary of State and the Governor General of the Dominion of Canada.

The words being used by the various authors are strong: “murderer,” “utterly distasteful,” “foul crime,” and “disgrace to our country.” According to the Reformer, the local Orange Society was one of many around the country holding such meetings, wanting to see justice against Riel “if he attempts to enter the Province.”

Without providing additional historical and contemporary context to Riel, presenting these articles, as written, are not giving the full picture of the happenings of the Red River Rebellion or of Riel himself, whom we know today to be a complex historical figure, far more complex than the villain he is painted to be by many of his colonial contemporaries.

According to his Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry, Louis Riel is “one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history,” with the Métis  people regarding him a hero, the French Canadians sympathizing with this “victim of Ontario religious and racial bigotry,” and while those in the mid-1800s in the Canadian east painted him the villain, many today regard him as one of the Father of Confederation, a founder of the province of Manitoba.

Carte-de-Visite Portrait of Louis Riel
Notman Studio. Library and Archives Canada, e003895129
Carte-de-visite portrait of Louis Riel taken in Ottawa after his election as MP for Provencher, Manitoba, 1873.
Image from the Canadian Encyclopedia

Riel was born on October 22, 1844 in Saint-Boniface, Red River Settlement (modern Manitoba).  He was regarded as very well spoken, and he gained notoriety in the late 1860s, standing up for Métis culture, way of life, and rights.

A purchase of land by the government from the Hudson’s Bay Company and subsequent land surveys resulted in the organization the Métis National Committee. They denied the surveyor entrance to the lands, Upper Fort Garry was seized from the HBC, and the Red River Colony, under the leadership of Riel, was formed.  In December 1869, the “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North-West,” was issued, rejecting “Canada’s authority to govern the Northwest and propos[ing] a negotiated settlement between Canada and the new provisional government” (Canadian Encyclopedia). Canadian delegates were sent, and negotiations resulted in the Manitoba Act, creating the fifth province to enter Confederation.  It was agreed that 1.4 million acres were to be reserved for Métis descendants, and it was also promised that Manitoba would officially be bilingual.

Meanwhile, a small group of Canadians appeared unpleased with the provisional Métis government.  They proceeded to Portage la Prairie, armed, and surprising the Métis who in turn imprisoned them.  A young Orangeman, Thomas Scott, was sentenced to death by a court martial convened by the Métis, a sentence that was not commuted by Riel; Scott was executed on March 4, 1870.  Protestants and Orange Lodge members in Ontario placed the blame for Scott’s death (or murder, as described later in Oshawa papers) upon Riel, who fled into exile after the Rebellion.

Clearly, the situation surrounding the death of Thomas Scott is layered and cannot be simplified into the black and white. It fits well into the modern narratives of land rights, reconciliation, colonization, and repatriation. The Métis peoples appeared to be defending the lands where they had lived for decades and upon which their Indigenous ancestors had lived for millennia. Riel, representing the Red River Colony, was defending his people and their culture.  To simply present the 1873 ‘English/Orange’ narrative of Riel as murderer without the additional context, is an unfair representation, furthering the mistakes of history and repeating the 19th century detrimental biases.  The editors of the Ontario Reformer, in their wording of ‘so-called Provisional Government,’ made it clear how they felt about Riel’s and the Métis’ actions in late 1869/early 1870.

After his election in 1873, Riel took the oath but never took his seat in the House of Commons, fearing assassination or arrest. In the 1880s, Riel led a second, unsuccessful, rebellion for which he was sentenced to death, which was carried out on November 16, 1885 in Regina.

It is difficult to fully present the Red River Rebellion and founding of Manitoba in a blog post.  In writing this post, content from the Metis Nation of Ontario, the Canadian Encyclopedia, and Dictionary of Canadian Biography was used, and it is highly encouraged that they are examined for further reading.

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/riel_louis_1844_85_11E.html

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/louis-riel

http://www.metisnation.org/culture-heritage/louis-riel/