Louis Riel, the puzzling Messianic figure of Canadian history, was born into a devout Catholic family in St. Boniface, Red River Settlement (present day Winnipeg) on October 22 or 23, 1844. Although of seven-eighths white ancestry, Riel always described himself as a Metis (a person of mixed European and Aboriginal ancestry, who generally hunted buffalo and traded furs). His complexion was sallow, his eyes and hair brown. His most striking feature were his deep-set brown eyes that often appeared intensely focused.
Riel left home for the first time at age fourteen when he traveled to Montreal to study for the priesthood. Riel proved himself a serious and gifted student, and Archbishop Tache of St. Boniface found a generous patron willing to fund his education in Quebec. Observers described Riel's disposition at the seminary as somber or taciturn--even by the standards of an institution rarely known for its cheerfulness. He struck his masters as deeply faithful and scholarly, but a bit odd and reclusive. He spent spare time composing poems. The only surviving example of his verse from that period is unusually morose, describing the wanderings of a misunderstood hero: "In pain he consumes his days, a brim with bitterness."
Ten years after coming to Montreal, Riel, without having finished his religious education, answered the call of his widowed mother and returned to the North-West. On his way back in 1868, Riel stayed for several months in St. Paul, where Metis traders told stories of growing unrest in the settlements north of the border along the Red River. The Hudson's Bay Company planned to transfer Rupert's Land (the name then given to the lands first granted to the company in 1670 by the king) to Canada, and no one seemed particularly interested in how the Metis felt about the transfer. When Riel finally reached his mother's small cottage in St. Vital, he began to understand--and then to champion--the cause of the uneasy Metis.
Riel rallied the French-speaking Metis and the English-speaking half breeds by stressing their common grievances with Eastern interests. He urged the creation of an army, the establishment of a provisional government, and immediate steps to ensure that Canadians not take possession of Fort Garry, the Hudson's Bay Company headquarters. On November 2, 1869, Riel's forces took the fort without bloodshed.
In the region, Riel's efforts were widely--though not universally--appreciated. Red River Canadians, under the leadership of John Shultz, welcomed Canadian acquisition of the Settlement. Riel's government arrested Shultz and others who plotted with him to retake Fort Garry. One of those arrested, Thomas Scott, was a hot-headed Orangeman who had recently migrated from Ontario. After Scott's re-arrest, he continued to taunt his captors until the decision was made--and approved by Riel--to court-martial, and then to execute him by firing squad. Scott's killing soon became "the central and defining event of the Red River Resistance." The outrage in Ontario over Scott's death was such that but Prime Minister Macdonald had little choice but to organize Canadian forces with the mission of regaining control of the region that would soon become the Province of Manitoba.
Riel's provisional governmental army was no match for the troops controlled by British colonel Garnet Wolseley. Riel, facing the prospect of a $5,000 bounty on his head offered by the Ontario government, fled to the United States in August 1870. Riel's absence from Canada did not prevent him from winning in 1873 election to the new Manitoba seat in Parliament. Riel showed up in Ottawa only to be immediately expelled by his fellow members of Parliament. In 1875, the sticky political mess created by Riel's popularity was finally resolved when Parliament granted him an amnesty conditioned on "five years' banishment from Her Majesty's Dominions."
December 8, 1875 became a turning point in Riel's life. On that day, after attending a mass in Washington, D. C., Riel had a vision that God had anointed him as "the prophet of the new world." His vision of himself changed: no longer did he see himself as an exiled and failed political leader, but rather the voice for a people favored by God, the Metis.
Riel's vision raised obvious questions about his mental health. So did many of his other actions. Friends observed Riel crying and shouting in public, giving $1000 to a blind beggar, interrupting mass to contradict a priest, and repeatedly tearing up his clothes. In 1876, concerned friends secretly took Riel to Quebec. Within a few months, Riel's uncle decided to place him in a mental institution near Montreal, under the name of Louis R. David. Riel's mental condition continued to deteriorate. He frequently removed all his clothes, citing the example of Adam and Eve. On one occasion, he smashed ornaments and candles in the asylum's chapel. Several times orderlies were forced to place Riel in a strait-jacket.
By 1877, Riel's health improved sufficiently that he was discharged from the Beauport asylum. Riel traveled to New York, St. Paul, and Pembina, North Dakota in search of employment. Unable to find a satisfying job, he moved on to the Metis community of St. Joseph.
Manitoba, meanwhile, was undergoing a rapid evolution. The province became more English and less French, more dependent on rail and steamboats than the old Red River carts, and its hunting and fur-trading economy gave way to farming. Metis intent upon preserving their traditional lifestyle looked west to Saskatchewan and began to move there in substantial numbers.
Riel left St. Joseph in late 1879 and for the next two-plus years worked as a trader, selling goods to Indians and Metis at Fort Benton in the Missouri River country of Montana. The experience made Riel worry for the future of his race. His letters expressed bitter disappointment with the "halfbreed" who "spends most of his earnings on whiskey" and, as a result, finds "poverty drives him away from his little farm." Riel launched an effort to prevent the sale of alcohol to Metis, but too many people benefited economically from the trade, and the effort failed. In March 1882, Riel married Marguerite Monet. Two children soon followed: a son, Jean, and a daughter, Marie Angelique.
In the spring of 1883, weeks after becoming an American citizen, Riel accepted a teaching position at the Catholic mission of St. Peter's on Montana's Sun River. He enjoyed teaching, but the job paid poorly and the hours too long to allow him time to pursue his true interests in religion, poetry, and politics. So it is not surprising that, when a delegation of Metis from Saskatchewan arrived at St. Peter's on June 4, 1884, imploring Riel to return to Canada to advocate for better treatment of halfbreed, Riel answered the call. The June visit was not a surprise. Riel had received a letter from the group a month earlier informing them of the planned visit and pleading for his services. "The whole race is calling on you," the letter said.
Upon his arrival in St. Laurent, Riel busied himself drafting a petition of grievances for both white and Metis residents. He sent the petition off to Ottawa in December 1884, but the minor concessions made by the government in response did little to reduce agitation. He also attempted to persuade the government to grant him compensation for past alleged injustices, but the effort proved futile. By March, Riel had become captured by radical impulses that pushed him to take up arms. He found supporters among the Metis and Indians in nearby reserves, but white settlers and English half-breeds rejected his call to battle. Violence escalated from looting and taking hostages to open rebellion. When his ragtag rebel forces achieved a victory against a unit of mounted police at Duck Lake on March 26, Riel crossed a line on the far side of which seemed to lie only death--at the very least, the battle ended any hope he might have had of achieving further concessions through negotiations. Predictably, the Canadian government responded to the violence by sending troops west. It was only a matter of time before the badly-outnumbered rebels were routed. Riel, having fled the scene of the final battle near Batoche, surrendered on May 15, 1885.
Riel's treason trial is recounted in greater detail elsewhere on this website. Given their client's central role in the rebellion, defense lawyers had little choice but to adopt an insanity strategy. Lawyers had little trouble finding evidence that showed Riel to be a psychologically troubled megalomaniac. By the time of the Rebellion, Riel was proclaiming his status as the new world's prophet and announcing that Rome had fallen. The problem for the defense was proving that his mental condition was such that he could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his illegal conduct. In the end, the six jurors assembled at Riel's trial in Regina could not be convinced that Riel met the legal definition of insanity, but they did include a recommendation that Riel's life be spared when they returned their guilty verdict. Judge Hugh Richardson, however, ignored the jury's suggestion and sentenced Riel to death. After appeals were exhausted, Riel was executed in Regina on November 16, 1885.
Riel remains one of the most complicated, elusive, and controversial figures in Canadian history. The chapter titles of Albert Braz's 2003 book, The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture, suggest the many and disparate ways in which Riel is seen: "The Red River Patriot," "The Traitor," "The Martyr," "The Go-Between," "The Mystic/Madman." Without a doubt, the ever-transforming Louis Riel will loom large in the Canadian imagination for a long time to come.
Sources for this biography include Albert Braz, The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2003); Thomas Flanagan, Rieland the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (University of Toronto Press, 2000); Chester Brown, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003); Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1994); Hartwell Bowsfield, Louis Riel: The Rebel and the Hero (Oxford University Press, 1971).