Louis Riel: A Revolutionary Legacy
By Aaron Mercredi
ďI am more convinced every day that without a single exception I did right. And I have always believed that, as I have acted honestly, the time will come when the people of Canada will see and acknowledge it.Ē - Louis Riel
On November 16th 2008, there was a ceremony at the Native Friendship Centre in Vancouver honouring the life of Louis Riel. It had been 124 years since he was sent to the gallows for defending his people against a tyrannical regime in Canada. It was a modest and simple affair to pay tribute to a man who gave his life to the Métis people, Indigenous people and all of humanity.
Riel is a man whose name and whose cause have been distorted by official Canadian history. The man who for so long was officially remembered as a crazy, power-hungry and Messianic Métis leader is now sometimes lauded as one of the fathers of Confederation by descendants of the same government that hanged him. Both accounts, though, dismiss Rielís role in the struggle that took place in Canadaís history.
Through the haze perpetuated by official historians is one of the finest examples of oppressed people uniting and fighting together. Riel was a leading figure in this struggle. What is the relevance of the Red River struggle and the Northwest resistance today?
Riel came to be known from his role as a leader in the Red River Valley - modern-day Winnipeg - where the Métis began their fight for liberation. The conditions that brought on this struggle were rooted in the history of colonialism.
It Began with Colonialism
The struggle over rights in the Red River was the result of the class struggle that developed through the colonization of Northern North America. The European market for furs meant a great dependency on Indigenous labour to acquire the raw materials. Relations built on the exploitation of Indigenous labour for the production of furs was the basis of early colonizersí approach towards Indigenous people. With the establishment of settlements, forts and trading posts, the two main fur trading giants, the Hudsonís Bay Company (HBC) and the Northwest Company, fought over the monopoly of the European market. When the Montreal-based Northwest Company was defeated and merged with the British-run Hudsonís Bay Company in 1821, the HBC became the most powerful organization in North America. From coast to coast of Northern North America, the HBC strengthened its control over the land, resources and people. One of these areas was the vast land mass that was adopted by the British as Rupertís Land, which the HBC had been granted by England in 1670. It also worked to centralize the fur trade in the Red River settlement, where it had established its first agricultural settlement in 1812. The settlement was made up of primarily Métis and Native people, with a minority of Europeans.
The Métis roots are traced back to the very beginning of the fur trade. They were the mixed-blood children of fur traders from the North West Company and the Hudsonís Bay Company and Cree, Ojibway or Saulteaux women. As people of mixed ancestry increased in number and married amongst themselves, they developed a distinct culture, neither European nor Indian, but a fusion of the two and a new identity as Métis. Because of their position in the fur trade, having the knowledge of European and Indigenous languages, the Métis were used as a cheap labour force, from the direct gathering of the raw materials to the intermediary positions, and the HBC was able to use its power over them to exploit their labour more than the European immigrants. Like typical British-style divide and conquer tactics, some Métis were given certain positions that put them on a level higher than other Indigenous people.
The HBC ruled Rupertís Land and the Red River settlement through two colonial governments: the Council of Rupertís Land and the Council of Assiniboia. Both were made up of the fur trading officers of the HBC, and were ultimately governed by the chief officer of the Hudsonís Bay Company. At this time, the population of the Red River settlement was a mainly Métis, the majority of whom laboured for the HBC in order to survive. Once the HBC had the monopoly and Indigenous people were all being exploited by one main company, those who felt the brunt of the exploitation became conscious of their oppressor and fought against it. Out of the extreme low pay for their furs and the fact that the wealth of their work was being sent out of the country instead of benefiting the people, they began selling elsewhere for a higher price, mainly in the US. The HBC clamped down heavily on this activity as a threat to its monopoly of profits, made it illegal to sell furs or to buy goods from anywhere but the HBC, and raised their prices. The consequences were harsh and people could have their houses raided at any time if they were under suspicion. It became clearer every day that the Council of Assiniboia, which governed the civil affairs of the Red River settlement, represented the interests of British colonialists and not interests of Métis people.
The Red River Resistance and Rielís Role
Louis Riel emerged as a leader of the Métis during the period of Canadaís confederation. As the 1800s moved on, the fur trade was in decline and the rulers of the HBC made more serious steps to begin the industrialization and establishment of a Canadian state. This was a great period of unrest in the Red River as the conditions they lived under had not improved and the citizens were never consulted on whether the Red River settlement should join Canada. Since Canada only consisted of four provinces after the 1867 confederation (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), the annexation of Rupertís land in to Canada was an imminent threat to the Red River. The agreement that the heads of the HBC were making with Anglo-Canadian bankers was to incorporate Rupertís Land as a territory under Canada, where there would be no political or democratic rights for the people. Being colonial subjects would not have changed for the people; instead of the HBC ruling over them, it would be Anglo-Canadians.
Louis Riel was 23 years old when Canada confederated. Having recently returned from Montreal, where he was sent to enter priesthood, he was immersed in the turmoil facing the people of the Red River.
Officially, what took place is commonly known as the ĎRed River Rebellion.í With the leadership of Riel, the Métis established a provisional government in the Red River settlement. In its founding document, they explained that their former HBC rulers had abandoned them to a foreign power, which they refused to be handed over to. The word Ďrebellioní is an intentionally misleading account of history and justifies the soldiers that Canada sent in to kill the sovereigntists in the Red River. In 1869, Canada was a foreign government to the people of the Red River; the colonial rulers of the HBC were still negotiating with Canada. The provisional government established in the Red River represented the interests of its inhabitants. Canada did not.
The events that followed were turbulent. Canada, whose officials were refused entrance in to the Red River settlement to claim it as part of the new nation-state, and the Orangemen, who were Anglo-Protestant loyalists to Canada, were constantly trying to undermine the democratic process that was underway in the Red River. Thomas Scott, one of the most notorious Orangemen, was put on trial for attempted murder, and sentenced to death by a seven-member council. Riel was not part of this process, but would end up taking the blame by Canadian authorities to rile people against him.
The provisional government, which represented all people of the Red River settlement, drafted up demands to be met by Canada in order for the Red River, Rupertís land, to become a part of Canada. Canada made promises of protection and rights to the Métis and on July 2, 1870, Manitoba became Canadaís 5th province. These rights were never recognized and Canadaís military was sent to bring a reign of terror to those Métis who had stood up. While land grants in the Red River were given to European immigrants and Eastern Canadians, many Métis were forced to flee persecution. Despite all of this, Riel was elected to Parliament on three separate occasions, though he was never able to attend because there was a bounty on his head. In 1875, he was exiled from Canada.
The Northwest ResistanceóRiel and Dumont, Big Bear and Poundmaker
Conditions did not improve for the majority of the people in the Red River area and in the newer settlement on the South branch of the Saskatchewan River. The Métis who had fled the Red River and settled in the Northwest Territory were fighting for political representation and rights just as they had in 1869. Under the Indian Act of 1876, Indigenous nations were divided up and forced onto reservations. Their way of life uprooted, the Natives on the reserves were dependant on an unresponsive colonial government to supply food, and as a result, people were starving on most reservations. White settlers saw that the Canadian government was operating in the territory only for the benefit of Eastern Canadian business interests, and not local ones.
In 1884, while living in Montana, Riel was visited by a delegation from the community of Métis from the South branch of the Saskatchewan river. He was convinced to return to present their grievances to the Canadian government. Despite Rielís return, Canada continued to ignore Métis interests. By March 1885, after the attempts to deal with an unresponsive government saw no results, the Métis declared a provisional government.
Gabriel Dumont, a strong Métis military and community leader, became leader of the new provisional government, and the Métis began immediately to make more alliances with the other Indigenous people who had grievances with Canada.
The Métis had strong roots in military combat. From the tradition of the buffalo hunt, they developed their military skills that they were able to use in successful battles. The Métisí first engagement in the battle of Duck Lake, on March 26, 1885 forced the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) to retreat. During the Battle of Fish Creek on April 24th, even though the Canadian militia outnumbered the Métis by a ratio of five-to-one, they were driven off by the Métis. Under Dumontís military leadership, the Métis also held off a much larger military force for three days in the battle of Batoche. This was when Canada first employed the Gatling gun. While the Métis were fighting one front against the Canadian military, the Cree, with the leadership of Big Bear and Poundmaker, had created a second and third front against the military and NWMP.
Outgunned and outnumbered, the Métis were defeated at Batoche on May 12th after three days of fighting. Riel surrendered himself to the Canadian military forces, while Dumont fled to the United States. Chief Poundmaker surrendered on May 27th, and Chief Big Bear on July 2nd. While he was being carted away to Regina, the Canadaís conquering troops abused the surviving Métis, looting their farms and homesteads.
Riel was charged with high treason and at his show trial in Regina he was sold out by his defence, who had helped the prosecution in framing him up as insane. Not only did government and medical records prove that he was sane, Riel in his own testimony exposed the insanity of the colonial government of that time:
ďAn irresponsible government is an insane government. If you take the plea of the defense that I am not responsible for my acts, acquit me completely, since I have been quarreling with an irresponsible government. If you pronounce in favour of the Crown and declare that I am responsible, then acquit me all the same. You are perfectly justified in declaring that, having my reason and sound mind, I have acted reasonably and in self-defense, while the government, my accuser, being irresponsible and consequently insane, cannot but have acted wrong, and if high treason there is, it must be on its side and not my part.Ē
Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885. Within two weeks, eight more Indigenous fighters who took part in the Northwest resistance were hanged. Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker were both handed long prison sentences, but were released for poor health and died shortly afterward.
Rielís Legacy Then and Today
Riel did play a large role in bringing Manitoba into Confederation, but calling him a Ďfather of confederationí only undermines what the Métis were trying to accomplish in the Red River. Over a century later, it is easy for heads in the government to re-interpret the events, and even credit Riel and the struggle as something exhibiting Canadian values. It is safe for them because it is no longer a direct threat to their existence. Let us not be mistaken. They were fighting for their rights to be recognized. Today, this vision has not become a reality. Métis and Indigenous people are still oppressed and did not even get the right to take part in democratic elections until 1960. The poverty and destitution that exists on many reservations and urban native communities is still very high.
The events in the Red River (1869) and the Territory of the Northwest (1885) are something foundational to the social justice movement today. When under attack, we need to seek allies and unite against a common attacker. This is Louis Rielís legacy. His tactics in building a broad peopleís government united the oppressed layers of the Red River settlement to create a provisional government there, as well as helped build a provisional government among the Métis along the Saskatchewan River.
Allied with the Cree Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear, they were able to militarily stand up to an invading Canadian military force. Although many people did not join the resistance, the success of the unity between Métis, Cree and non-Native sympathizers could have influenced other people in the territory who did not have the confidence to fight against the colonial power in Ottawa. The Métis cause was also championed by the Quebecois, who saw they were also being suppressed by the new Anglo-government. Their pressure helped prolong Rielís execution, and over 50,000 people demonstrated in the streets when he was hanged.
The unity of oppressed people is the one obstacle that we face in effectively fighting for our rights today. Whether it is the struggle of Indigenous people for self-determination and dignity, of immigrants and refugees for rights to live in Canada without being exploited and persecuted, workers for better pay and working conditions, these struggles are not isolated from each other. Like the conditions in the late 1800s, we have a common attacker. Rielís example of trying to bring together oppressed people is the biggest challenge we have today as Indigenous, workers, students, immigrants and refugees. When we learn there is a great strong history of struggle on this land for liberation, we better educate ourselves with lessons and inspiration for future battles.
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