As long as Canada exists, its citizens will want to read about Louis Riel because his life summarizes in a unique way the tensions of being Canadian: English versus French, native versus white, east versus west, Canadian versus American.
--Thomas Flanagan, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (Preface)
By modern standards, the North-West Rebellion seems no big deal. Canadian forces easily quelled the uprising of a couple of hundred Metis settlers along the South Saskatchewan River. A majority of Metis in the region sat out the fighting, and only about one hundred persons died in the conflict. (Although that figure of one hundred deaths was significant in this sparsely populated region.)
The importance of the North-West Rebellion, apart from establishing the ability of the Canadian government to successfully carry out a military action far from its center of power, is symbolic. As has been often noted by historians, the debate over the North-West Rebellion and the subsequent trial of Louis Riel reveals the tensions that continue to distinguish Canada: east versus west, native versus non-native, French-speaking versus English-speaking, American versus Canadian. Over time, Louis Riel has been seen as "a demagogic madman," as an innocent victim of Prime Minister John Macdonald's fanaticism, or as a martyred national-liberation leader. None of these characterizations is entirely accurate; each contains some measure of truth. The North-West Rebellion and the trial of Louis Riel is best understood as the product of a particular place and time: the Canadian frontier, in a time when civilization and its institutions confronted the traditions of a more primitive people....