Riel On the Stand: A 19th Century Multiculturalist
On the day Louis Riel was formally charged with treason (Riel 5), Prime Minister John A. Macdonald continued to challenge the meaning of the "influence of the half-breeds" in the North West, accusing them of "play[ing] Indians" in order to contrive a claim and grievance against the Canadian government. (1) ‘Playing Indians,' however, can be read in many different ways as a means for understanding the form and substance of the claims made by the different groups within the Canadian political context. For the Métis ‘playing Indian' meant drawing on a critical, defining component of their identities to articulate a political vision distinct from that of the Euro-american groups of Canada. For the English, ‘playing Indian' meant framing indigenous people - and those who support or identify with them - as unprogressive influences that must be ‘reserved' from hindering Canadian political development. For the French, ‘playing Indian' meant both drawing a parallel between indigenous and French subordination to English political power, and ultimately seeing the Métis rebellions and more so the figure of Riel as representing the potentially productive inter-‘play' of French and indigenous identities.
The various interpretations of Riel reflect the prevailing and explicit tensions in Canadian politics, and implicitly reveal how indigenous political identity was, and in many ways continues to be, constitutively absent from Canadian political life. To English Canadians, Riel was a murderer and a traitor to Canada. To French Canadians, he was a potential martyr to the French cause. What's left after the Euro-american groups have there say is a man very much defined in his words and deeds as indigenous, standing in the defendant's box - in possibly the most famous trial in Canadian history - as the central signifier in a fight between the English and French over Canada's political, institutional and cultural boundaries. For English and French Canada, the least of their concerns was the significance of the indigenous component of Riel's identity, despite the fact that he explicitly and carefully sought to express how his hybrid identity influenced his politics.
On the last day of the trial, July 31, 1885, Riel was granted his only opportunity to speak directly to the jury before their deliberations on his guilt or innocence. In his speech, Riel clearly set out his personal and political relationship to the North West Rebellion and to the constituency he represented:
When I came to the North-West, the first of July 1884, I found the Indians suffering. I found half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day. Although a half-breed, and having no pretension to help the whites, I also paid attention to them. I saw they were deprived of responsible government. I saw that they were deprived of their public liberties. I remembered that half-breed meant white and Indian, and while I paid attention to the suffering Indians and the half-breeds I
remembered the greatest part of my heart and blood was white and I have directed my attention to help the Indians, to help the half-breeds and to help the whites to the best of my ability. We have made petitions . . . asking to relieve the condition of this country. . . . we have tried to unite all classes . . . all parties. (2)
Here, Riel is seeking to send the jury away with two impressions. First of all, his defense attorneys sought a strategy of not guilty by reason of insanity, which was a defense Riel did not want and with this speech he sought to demonstrate his competence. Second and more importantly, Riel was trying to garner the sympathies of the jury to his political cause in order to gain a standard not guilty verdict. The jury was composed of six English settlers and merchants from the North-West. Thus, Riel frames the relationship between his hybrid identity and his politics - ie. his political identity - in a way that is certainly calculated to draw an alliance with the jurors, but which also accurately reflects the aforementioned political demands made to the Canadian government. Though basing his politics and political identity very firmly in the plight and prospects of indigenous groups such as the ‘Indians' and the Métis, Riel also articulated, in political speech, demands and actions, a vision of the North-West as a hybrid political society; a multicultural society for 19th Century Canada. This hybridity would take very real form in addressing the political needs and generating the institutional forms supportive of the regions' indigenous and non-indigenous groups, be they specifically identified as Indian/half-breed or white settlers of French, English or other ancestry. That Riel's politics and pleas so obviously aspired to address the issues relevant to the diversity of the North-West population only further underscores and condemns the unwillingness of Canada's dominant groups to widen their view of the meaning of the Rebellions, of Riel, and of his ultimate fate.
On August 1, after receiving their instructions from the judge, the jury took less than two hours to render a verdict of guilty on the count of high treason. Despite their alacrity, the jury did "recommend the prisoner to the mercy of the crown." Mercy, in this case, meant that the jury, though not convinced enough of the insanity or political defenses to acquit Riel, felt that either or both arguments held enough water to justify a sentence less than death. (3) Despite the jury's recommendation, the judge sentenced Riel to hang. In the immediate days after the verdict, Riel continued to plead his case to many different audiences, including the U.S. consul in Ottawa. Riel's status as a naturalized U.S. citizen, which he achieved during his years of exile from Canada, gave him a legitimate basis for contacting and appealing to American officials. However, his effort to provoke the U.S. government's active interest in the circumstances of the Rebellions and thus his case placed the weight of the argument on how indigenous political claims carried the inherent potential to transcend the boundaries between Canada and the United States. Specifically, Riel called the U.S. consul's attention to the Canadian government's "contradictory policy" regarding its treatment of ‘half-breed' and Indian concerns over land and rights issues. He asserted that the Canadian policy needed to be "modified seriously:"
Otherwise, the Indian and Half-breed question, as it stands on this side of the line, may react fearfully amongst the American Indians and Half-breeds. For that reason, I have thought that inasmuch as that reaction may disturb one day the peace of the American territories, the Indian question was not exclusively a matter of interior administration for North British America: and that perhaps it was reasonable to consider it as a question of international interest between the United States and this part of British Possessions. . . . I ask humbly that a commission be jointly appointed by the two governments. (4)
Riel's entreaties did not move the U.S. government to any meaningful action, but that is not what is most interesting about this letter.
The interesting matter here is how Riel saw indigenous political identity as, at its core and by itself, inassimilable though not necessarily inimical to the political societies of Euro-american settler states. As his testimony before the jury showed, Riel advocated a nineteenth-century version of a ‘multicultural' polity within the larger Canadian polity. In contrast to multcultural programs of the present era which are defined by groups in the most dominant political, cultural and economic position in the nation and the state, in Riel's vision the political location of indigenous people in the North-West was based first and foremost on their guaranteed title to a significant portion of land. Upon such a land base, indigenous people of the region, in Riel's vision, would not become more self-contained but rather would have the material and political security and self-certainty to actively participate and lead this hybrid polity. It is in this way that indigenous tribes and the Métis could find a meaningful political location in relation to Canada without assimilating. Without this basis for securing such a location, as Riel's letter warns, indigenous political identity would have no necessary place within or in relation to nation-states such as Canada and the United States. As such, though Riel's letter obviously has a very immediate and instrumental design - to help save his life - it also reflects the logic of the political arguments he had articulated since the time of the Red River Rebellion. The logic being that dominant Euro-american settler states such as Canada must be faced with the prospect that indigenous people can and will threaten the security and seamlessness of this young and growing nation's political boundaries.
What we have discovered, then, in the words and deeds of the Red River and North West Rebellions as represented and personified by Louis Riel is something I call a politics on the boundaries. This is a politics that seeks neither simple inclusion and assimilation into a dominant nation state nor does it seek out-right secession. Rather, a middle location - on the boundaries - is sought, and in the previous two Riel quotations we can see him seeking to define and argue for such a location. To get a fuller sense of the particularities of this politics on the boundaries for the Canadian context generally, one must map the sort of ‘boundary' politics explicitly expressed during and after the North West Rebellion onto the tensions that defined the politics of the Red River Rebellion. These complex but still ever present political dynamics were clearly evident with regards to Riel's fate after the trial that found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. Louis Riel's last days, and the controversy around them, will be discussed in the next installment of Whose Riel?
Kevin Bruyneel teaches American government to American kids. Or will very soon.
(1) Sir John A. Macdonald. House of Commons Debates, July 6, 1885. In Hartwell Bowsfield. ed. Louis Riel, Rebel of the Western Frontier or Victim of Politics and Prejudice? Toronto: Copp Clark, l969, p. 128.
(2) Louis Riel. "Address to the Jury," Regina. July 31, 1885. The Collected Writings of Louis Riel. Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel: Volume 2, #003. Edited by Gilles Martel and George F.G. Stanley. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, l985. A3-012, pp. 524-5.
(3) Edward Blake (Liberal Leader). House of Commons, March 19, 1886. "The Jury Elaborates," in Bowsfield ed. (1969), p. 139-40.
(4) Louis Riel. "Letter to J.W. Taylor," Regina, August 2-3, 1885. CW 3-083, pp. 162-3.