Louis Riel is commemorated in several places in the City of Winnipeg:
- Manitoba Legislative Building
- St. Boniface Cathedral (Riel’s tombstone)
- University of St. Boniface (USB)
- St. Boniface Museum
- Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge
Biography: Louis Riel
Louis Riel, born in the Red River settlement on Oct 22 of 1844 in a prominent St. Boniface Métis family, is a significant political figure in Canadian history, known for his role in the Red River Rebellion or Red River Resistance of 1869–1870. The Red River Movement is a provisional government established by the Métis leader Louis Riel and his followers at the Red River Colony, in what is now the Canadian province of Manitoba.
The rebellion was the first crisis the new government faced following Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Canadian government had bought Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869 and appointed an English-speaking governor, William McDougall, who was opposed by the French-speaking, mostly Métis inhabitants of the settlement. Before the land was officially transferred to Canada, McDougall sent out surveyors to plot the land according to the square township system used in Ontario. The Red River Métis was distressed by Canada’s plans to annex Hudson’s Bay Company lands. In fear of losing traditional lands and livelihoods, the Métis, led by Riel, prevented McDougall from entering and taking over the Red River Settlement on behalf of the Canadian government by setting up a barricade to the south of St. Norbert. The Métis created a provisional government, took possession of Upper Fort Garry and began the Red River Resistance.
During the winter of 1870, Riel, just 25 years old, sent Father Noël-Joseph Ritchot to Ottawa to meet the Canadian government representatives regarding the transfer of land in the Red River Settlement from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada. This negotiation enshrining the demands in a Bill of Rights formed the basis for the Manitoba Act of May 12, 1870, which formally admitted Manitoba into the Canadian Confederation on July 15, 1870. The Act incorporated some of Riel’s demands, such as political rights, existing land ownership, use of the French language, provision of separate French schools for Métis children and protection of the practice of Catholicism.
Meanwhile, during the same winter of 1870, just prior to the above negotiation, Thomas Scott, a Pro-Canadian member who resisted the provisional government, was executed for insubordination and threatening to murder Louis Riel. Vilified in eastern Canada for the execution, Riel feared lynching by the approaching Wolseley Expedition&mdahs;a military force authorized by Sir John A. Macdonald, under the leadership of Colonel Garnet Wolseley, as a means of exercising Canadian authority in the settlement. Riel fled to the US in August 1870. The arrival of the expedition on August 20, 1870 marked the effective end of the Red River Rebellion.
Following the Red River Rebellion, Métis travelled west and settled in the Saskatchewan Valley of North-West Territories, in what is now the province of Saskatchewan. By the 1880s, this westward migration encountered severe starvation due to rapid collapse of the buffalo herd. This was exacerbated by a reduction in government assistance in 1883, and by a general failure of Ottawa to live up to its treaty obligations. 1n 1884, Riel was raising a family and living in Montana as an American. Asked to negotiate for Saskatchewan Métis as he had done at Red River, Riel saw opportunity to create a Métis homeland. He returned to represent Métis grievances to the Canadian government, but Canada sent soldiers instead of negotiators. This Métis resistance escalated into a military confrontation known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885 and was defeated at at Batoche in May 1885. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) played a key role in the government’s response to the Rebellion, as it was able to transport federal troops to the area quickly. While it had taken three months to get troops to the Red River Rebellion, the government was able to move forces in nine days by train in response to events in the North-West Territories.
After the North-West Rebellion, Riel was arrested and tried before a jury of six English and Scottish Protestants, all from the area surrounding the city of Regina. Found guilty of high treason and hanged in Regina, Riel’s life ended November 16, 1885. Following the execution, Riel’s body was returned to his mother’s home in St. Vital. On 12 December 1886, his remains were laid in the churchyard of the St. Boniface Cathedral. Fifty years later, one of the jurors, Edwin Brooks, said that Riel was tried for treason but hanged for the execution of Thomas Scott.
The execution of Louis Riel had a lasting influence on relations between the province of Quebec and English-speaking Canada. Whether seen as a Father of Manitoba or a traitor, he remains one of the most complex, controversial, and ultimately tragic figures in the history of Canada.
Louis Riel Day
Louis Riel was the driving force behind Manitoba becoming Canada’s fifth province. In commemoration of his pivotal role in Red River Settlement, the third Monday of February is declared a public holiday in 2008 to celebrate Louis Riel’s vision. The first Louis Riel Day was celebrated on 18 February 2008. This new statutory holiday coincides with the celebration on 15–24 February of the Festival du Voyageur.