Who Is Louis Riel?

Louis Riel, Historical figure who fought for Metis land rights and led the famous Riel Rebellion until his capture in 1885.

Louis Riel is one of the most controversial figures in Canadian History. Almost made it into the priesthood, almost a lawyer, almost a politician. Yet this man was responsible for bringing the Province of Manitoba into the Union of Canada.

Louis Riel was born in 1844 at the Red River Settlement of Canada, now known as Winnipeg, Manitoba. As a young man, he seemed very intelligent and articulate, so he was sent to Montreal, Quebec to study for the priesthood. However, he never finished his studies. The same thing happened when he tried to become a lawyer.

In 1868, at the age of 24, Riel would become a leader of the Metis of his birthplace and in the next two years would go on to head a provisional government. This government would help arrange the Manitoba Act, which would lead to Manitoba becoming a province. Many regard Riel to be the father of Manitoba. Due to its size and shape Manitoba was called the postage stamp province.

In 1821, the two competing fur companies, the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company, who were major employers of the Metis, merged into one. This led to large unemployment among the Metis who relied heavily on the fur trade. The Hudson Bay Company tried to encourage the Metis to take up farming in the southwestern part of Manitoba, but many of them found this hard to accept, missing the excitement of the hunt.

Eventually, Canada bought out Ruperts Land, the land owned by Hudson Bay Company. This frightened the Metis. They were afraid settlers and colonization would erode their way of life and culture. A road from Lake Superior to the Red River Settlement was already under way. They turned to Riel to be their leader.

Also, in 1864, the Quebec Conference, which would lead Canada into Confederation, was being held. This conference wanted the Northwest Territories (which included Manitoba at the time) to be part of the Dominion. Their claim was that the Red River Settlement, which was called Assiniboia at the time, had no representation, even though there was; The Council Of Assiniboia had been created with equal French/English members. Nor was it the first, at one time the area was known as "The Republic Of Manitoba", although this lasted a short time.

The breaking point for the Metis people was when William McDougall was appointed temporary governor of Ruperts Land. McDougall was notoriously anti-French. The provisional government led him out of the colony. Three weeks later, with armed Metis, Riel took control of Fort Garry. In 1870, The Canadian Government Army finally defeated Riel. Riel himself escaped by scaling the north wall of Fort Garry and fled to the United States. While in the states he was elected three times as Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba, but was never able to take his seat.

The Riel Rebellion, 1885

In 1884, a group of Metis asked Riel to present their grievances concerning land claims to the Canadian government for them. The government constantly ignored their concerns until finally another provisional government was set up. Several skirmishes were the result. One at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan where police were soundly defeated. Later, Riel's military head, Gabriel Dumont ambushed government troops at Fish Creek, Saskatchewan. In May of 1885, government troops beat the Metis forces in a four day battle at Batoche. Riel surrendered two weeks later and was formally charged with high treason five weeks after that.

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