The words of Louis Riel and his colleagues (Whose
Riel 2) offered the specific and considered political
proposals and vision of the Red River Provisional government
and the people it represented. Words rarely stand alone.
Even those in the finest fiction find their greatest resonance
in how they touch something real, active and deep within
readers, listeners and interpreters. So, where does that
leave us with Riel and the Red River Rebellion in the wake
of the Provisional government's list of rights? Good question.
It leaves us with deeds, the more aimless sibling of words.
In this case, the deed is one that defines the very heart
of a sovereign government - its claim to be the only institution
with the legitimate right to violence within its jurisdictional
boundaries. In the Red River region, the Provisional government's
first act of 'state-sanctioned' violence was its most famous;
the execution of an English-Protestant prisoner, Thomas
Scott, who was among those captured as they sought to invade
Fort Garry and overthrow the government under its newly
elected President, Louis Riel. It is not an understatement
to say that no event so radically altered the future of
the Red River Provisional government as the execution of
Thomas Scott, because it compelled the two groups still
on the wings of this conflict - the English and the French
- to take a strong stand on the words, deeds and future
relationship of the Red River Métis and Canada. Furthermore,
the government-sanctioned killing of Scott, the English
Protestant, placed in the ground the first firm stone of
a path that would lead, many years later, to the government-sanctioned
killing of Louis Riel, a Métis. Depending upon your perspective,
the relationship between the executions of Scott and Riel
rings of either tragedy or justice. By following the interpretive
paths laid out immediately after Scott's death, we may be
able to see how such divergent views could emerge and prevail,
in some form, to this day.
Up until March of 1870, English Canada, as represented
by the Federal Government under John A. Macdonald and the
English press, generally bridled its hostility and suspicions
regarding the Red River Rebellion. The bridle was unfastened
when Thomas Scott was tried, convicted and shot for taking
up arms against the Provisional government. Louis Riel neither
initiated nor took active part in the trial or execution,
but he oversaw the process as President and refused to intervene
on the prisoner's behalf after the sentence was declared.
He felt the trial was fair and that the Provisional government
had the legitimate right to the institutions and procedures
of justice necessary to secure order for the young polity.(1)
This event sent English Canada into a rage against Riel
and the Métis, and raised suspicions about the French-Canadian
influence in the region.
Soon after the execution, an English-Canadian Member of
Parliament rose in the House of Commons to condemn the "truculent
rebels who have not merely demanded what they call a Bill
of Rights . . . but who have dared to steep their hands
in the blood of an unoffending man." He urged the Government
not to negotiate with these rebels, "their hands red with
blood," who: "fancy up there that they have rights in the
soil, that they are entitled to have all that property,
that they have a right to do with it as they please, and
that we are not to go there and that we have no right whatever,
and they are sending down people to treat with us, as if
they had a right to treat with us." (2) The Globe in Toronto
focused on the role Louis Riel and on the Métis' designs
for the land, succinctly setting out the choices their presence
implied: due to the "handful of armed traitors" who threaten
"to sell to the foreigner lands which, by natural right
and money purchase, belong to [Canada,] the question has
arrived at the point of issue; and either Riel or Canada
must go down."(3) The words of these English-Canadian public
voices reveal not simply their scorn for the Scott execution
itself, but also suggest an inherent link between the Métis'
ostensibly audacious claim to sovereignty over this territory
and the temerity with which they 'steeped their hands in
It galled English-Canada that the 'truculent' Métis presumed
they 'had a right to treat' with the federal government,
submitted a 'Bill of Rights,' felt 'entitled' to local property,
and suggested selling to 'foreigners' — ie Americans — property
which both 'nature' and legal tender authorized as Canada's.
As such, in this view, the truculence with which the Métis
thusly and decisively rejected the presumption of Canadian
sovereignty over the region inevitably led them to think
they could 'dare' to kill an English-Canadian citizen. In
short, the connection between land-claims and violence was
not coincidental. Scott's execution made the resistance
and sovereignty assertions of this 'mob of disaffected,
miserable and impulsive half-breeds' very real to English-Canada.
Métis' violence against Canadian sovereignty meant violence
against Canadians who dared to challenge the authority of
the Provisional government and their leader. The political
identity, actions and intentions of Louis Riel are seen
here as incommensurable to, because inherently and violently
hostile to, those of the Canadian nation, as defined by
the English. Thus, the theatrical stand-off — 'Riel or Canada
must go down' — revolves around the notion that authority
over land and its inhabitants cannot be shared. This severe
and urgent view of the fundamental and unambiguous place
of land for grounding a nation's sovereignty, however, was
tethered in the English-Canadian argument to an escalating
concern with how the more ambiguous role of culture, in
the form of language and religion, influenced the clash
of Métis and Canadian sovereignty.
If, to English Canada, the Provisional government's claim
to sovereignty over land represented an 'indigenous' challenge
to the limits of Canadian boundaries, then the very fact
that the majority of Métis, including of course their President,
were French-speaking Catholics came to be seen as a threat
to the shape of the nation within those boundaries. In the
immediate aftermath of the initial seizure of Fort Garry,
English-French tensions were present but muted. William
McDougall, the man first appointed by Macdonald as Lieutenant-Governor
of Rupert's Land, sent word back to Ottawa after the takeover
that "the worst feature of the case is the apparent complicity
of the priests. . . I regret to hear that all the priests
in this country, with one or two exceptions, are from France,
and have no sympathy with Canada or Canadians."(4) Though he
was not greatly concerned, Macdonald concurred that "the
majority of the priests up there are from Old France, and
their sympathies are not with us."(5) Upon his return to Ontario
early in 1870, however, Macdougall set about "spreading
the view of the uprising as a French-Catholic rebellion."
In a "speaking and writing campaign," he accused the priests
and the French-speaking Métis of "launching the 'armed insurrection'
in order to establish the North-West as a 'French-Catholic
Province.'"(6) This reading of the Métis rebellion found some
receptivity in Ontario, but not decidedly so, and Macdonald
refused to give it credence, calling Macdougall's "foolish
stories" a bunch of "nonsense" about "a plot among the French
Canadians . . . to keep the British immigrant out of the
Red River settlement, and make it a purely French Canadian
colony."(7) Still, even this reticent reception in English
Canada and from Macdonald does reveal that the French and
Catholic influence was seen as an 'unsympathetic' though
not necessarily threatening factor. In comparison, French-Canadian
observations on the resistance in its early months offered
a more ambiguous reading of the political pursuits of the
To the French, Riel and the Provisional government served
as a geographically and culturally distant 'provisional'
ally and instrument in their own effort at cultural and
political survival. In November 1869, prior to Scott's execution
and the List of Rights making its way to Ottawa, the French
newspaper Le Nouveau Monde reflected the hybridity of the
Métis cause, seeing at as linked both to indigenous savagery
and the historical struggles of the French in Canada:
War with the Métis would mean war with the savage tribes
of the West. . . . At the bottom of the whole affair is
the question of nationality and religion, and the Métis
seem about to repeat the dark pages, which mark certain periods
in the history of the Acadians and the Canadians, their
Linked spatially to the indigenous tribes and
temporally to historically dominated French groups, the
Métis represent within this French-Canadian imaginary a
political cause to be feared and with which to identify.
This paradoxical vision accurately represents the ambiguity
with which the French of Canada viewed the Red River Rebellion.
There was neither overt support for the Métis, nor serious
criticism of the federal government emerging from Québec
during the early months of the Provisional government. This
all started to change with the execution of Thomas Scott,
which sent the English and French in opposite directions
regarding their political approaches toward Riel and his
After the execution, Macdougall's seeming 'nonsense' regarding
the leaders and intentions of the rebellion gained greater
currency, demonstrated in the words of an editorial by the
Toronto Globe entitled The Murder of Scott:
In all this it is impossible to avoid seeing a determination on the part of the French Catholic clergy in the North West Territory to resist the entrance of the British Canadians. . . . According to our last advices from Red River, the clergy were still fully engaged in supporting Riel.(9)
This view of the French Catholics
as an anti-English force in the resistance - the view which
Macdonald so sternly dismissed - began to take greater hold
in English-Canadian popular press and political life. English-Canada's
well publicized suspicions, and even accusations, would
strike a familiar nerve in French-Canada regarding the domineering
attitudes and actions of the English in Canadian political
life. Typically, however, French-Canadian concerns about
English domination in relation to colonized indigenous people
like the Métis only emerged in full force when French-Canadian
cultural and political interests were read into the indigenous
cause by both the French and the English. Although this
dynamic generated its greatest national articulation in
the nineteenth-century after the second resistance in 1885,
when it was a mobilizing force for Québécois nationalism,
the Red River Rebellion compelled a French-English constitutional
compromise to the political demands of the Provisional government.
Statements like the one above from the Globe became more
prevalent in the heart of English Canada, leading Le Journal
des Trois-Rivières to conclude that "the inhabitants of
Ontario want to see a policy adopted that will undermine
French influence in the North-West. . . . on that point
the Province of Québec will have only one answer: to protect
and assist our brothers out there." (10) The ambiguous feelings
of French-Canada toward the Métis expressed just months
earlier rapidly transformed into a fraternal identification
with the people and the cause of the Provisional government.
According to one historian of the French Canadian perspective
on Canadian confederation:
By the late spring of 1870, the Métis of the North-West,
who had been unknown to French Quebecers a year before .
. . were being found, thanks to Ontario extremists, to be
civilized French-Catholic compatriots, whose struggle for
local self-determination was becoming a question of 'our
position' in the North-West and even the place of 'the French
race in Canada.'(11)
As the summer of 1870 drew near, the Red
River conflict became of interest to groups whose respective
positions were shaped by their interpretations of what the
Métis fight for sovereignty outside Canada's boundaries
meant for political relations inside those boundaries. This
conflict, which in actions and demands straddled Canada's
political boundaries, would find its resolution by expanding
the boundaries of the Canadian nation and state.
As we will see in the next instalment of Whose Riel?,
the expansion of Canada's boundaries occurred both by the
actions, and at the expense of, Riel as an active citizen
in Canadian political life. Riel's words and deeds helped
set in motion the course of events that would lead to the
Manitoba Act of 1870, which, paradoxically, also marked
the year he would begin his own exile in the United States
from the political, cultural and physical landscape of Canada
that he had helped reshape. His eventual return to Canada,
however, would continue to be defined by the act over which
he as President presided, the execution of Thomas Scott.
The spectre of Scott would haunt Riel's political fortunes
for the next decade and more, and it would eventually nudge
him up the steps of his own gallowed destiny; that story
we will broach soon enough. For now, it is sufficient
to keep in mind the emergent emotions and views of the French
and English regarding the Métis and Riel after Scott's execution,
as these sentiments ominously though inversely foreshadow
the sentiments that would swirl around Riel's ultimate fate.
The fates of Scott and Riel also foreshadow present-day
debates around the social and political purposes of the
death penalty. Nevertheless, this seems enough food for
thought for this sitting.
Kevin Bruyneel does not tolerate duplicity in his senators, university presidents, or younger brothers.
(1) See Maggie Siggins. Riel: A Life of Revolution. (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 161-165). Siggins is one of the few historians who gives some credence to the notion that the execution, whether one agreed with it or not, was the legitimate act of a sovereign government. Many historians, whether generally sympathetic or not to Riel and the Rebellion, view the execution as, in the least, a rash mistake or, at worse, cold blooded murder. It is generally agreed by all historians, however, that Scott's death haunted Riel for the rest of his life by consistently hampering his ability to carry on any sort of existence in Canada, be it political, private or otherwise, without some party - governmental or not - seeking to arrest, harass, or even kill him.
(2) John Hillyard Cameron, M.P. for Peel, Speech in the House of Commons, April 6, 1870. See Hartwell Bowsfield. ed. Louis Riel, Rebel of the Western Frontier or Victim of Politics and Prejudice? Toronto: Copp Clark, l969), p. 95.
The Toronto Globe, 1870. Bowsfield (1969), p. 3.
(4) From the Hon. William McDougall to Sir John Macdonald. Pembina, October 31, 1869.Correspondence of Sir John Macdonald: Selections from the Correspondence of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G.C.B. (Toronto: Oxford University Press,), p. 113.
From Sir John Macdonald to the Hon. John Rose. Ottawa, November 23, 1869. Macdonald Corr., p. 106.
A. I. Silver. The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation, 1864-1900. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), p. 79.
From Sir John Macdonald to the Hon. John Rose, Ottawa, January 21, 1870. Macdonald Corr., p. 120.
Le Nouveau Monde, Montreal, November 26, 1869. "A Question of Nationality and Religion," Bowsfield (1969), p. 44.
The Globe, Toronto. "A Bloody and Brutal Execution," April 6, 1870, in Bowsfield (1969), p. 89.
Translation excerpted from Silver (1982), p. 81.; Original cite Le Journal des Trois Rivières, April 18, 1870.
Silver (1982), p. 82.