David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

New Book on Louis Riel Leaves Much to Ponder

Brandon Sun, February 13, 2011 - David McConkey

It’s great to have next weekend as a long one in the middle of the winter, eh?

But what about taking a moment to consider Louis Riel, the namesake of the new Manitoba holiday?

Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont is a new book by Joseph Boyden. It is one of the Penguin series of Extraordinary Canadians.

The story begins in 1844. Louis Riel is born in the settlement at Red River (now Winnipeg). He is Métis, descended from French Canadian and First Nations people.

Even when quite young, Riel is a capable, natural leader. When Riel is 14, Archbishop Taché sends him to Montreal to study to become a priest.
Riel leaves university a few years later when his father suddenly dies. Riel travels and works in the U.S. before returning home.

He becomes a leader of the Métis during the 1869-70 transfer of administration of Red River from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the new country of Canada.

Under Riel, the Métis stop Canadian government surveyors, whose work ignores traditional Métis river lots. The Métis draft a list of rights and set up a provisional government. They then successfully negotiate for Métis rights in the entry of Manitoba into Canada.   

But the provisional government executes an opponent, Thomas Scott. This act haunts Riel for the rest of his life.

Regarded as the instigator of a rebellion and the murderer of Scott, Riel becomes an exile in the U.S. (More than a century later, however, Parliament will recognize Riel as the founder of Manitoba and a contributor to Confederation.)

In 1884, 14 years after the events at Red River, Riel is quietly living and teaching school in Montana. He has a wife and two children and has become a U.S. citizen.

But Riel’s life takes a dramatic turn. Gabriel Dumont, a Métis who lives in what is now Saskatchewan, visits Riel.

Dumont asks Riel to lead the Métis as he did in Manitoba a decade and a half earlier.

The issue in Saskatchewan is the same as it was at Red River. The Métis want protection for their land and way of life before they are swallowed up by a new government and its accompanying surveyors, speculators, and settlers.

Riel accepts Dumont’s offer of leadership in what becomes the Northwest Rebellion.

The rebellion fails. Although Dumont is an able guerrilla commander and some First Nations join the fight, the Canadian government crushes the uprising. Dozens are killed and Dumont flees to the U.S.

Riel surrenders. He is taken to Regina, tried for treason, found guilty, and hanged on November 16, 1885. A month later his body is buried at the St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg.

Author Boyden does a fine job of recounting this fascinating history in a short, readable book.

Boyden is the author of the novels Through Black Spruce and Three Day Road. Himself a Métis, Boyden brings a thoughtful approach as he obviously has reflected much on the issues and lives of his subjects.

Boyden makes an interesting observation about the very different men who were Dumont and Riel. While Dumont was more the aboriginal in the Métis mix, Riel was more the European.

Dumont, “a master hunter and speaker of indigenous languages, lived on and for the land,” Boyden writes.

But Riel, “university-educated and deeply Catholic, never seemed fully comfortable in the wilderness.” 

With his success in Manitoba but his failure in Saskatchewan, the life and legacy of Louis Riel is most complicated.

A question at the heart of the story: was Riel a charismatic statesman / traitor or was he insane?

Riel’s unusual religious pronouncements and behaviours had led to his confinement in mental asylums.

Boyden vividly describes Riel’s religious visions. These include hearing a divine message on a mountain near Washington, D.C. God anointed Riel as the prophet of the New World; his anointed name was “David.”
Riel’s religious quest certainly interfered with his running of the Saskatchewan rebellion. When Dumont wanted to strike, Riel wanted to pray. In the midst of the fighting, Riel was busy establishing his new church; he was even renaming the days of the week. 

Boyden’s book serves as a good beginning to reflect on issues and questions that arise from the life of Riel. They continue to resonate, here and around the world.

A central one: if faced with an unjust government, when is a citizens’ rebellion justified?  (This question is currently being answered in North Africa.)

Other questions involve Métis and aboriginal identity in a multicultural country, the English-French interplay in Canada, the nature of insanity and religious revelation, and our current engagement in suppressing another guerrilla insurgency – this time in Afghanistan.

Louis Riel: much to consider for a day.
* * * *
See also:  

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little

Other Reviews



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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