Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
The myth of Louis Riel -- the hung French-speaking Metis leader of the Riel Rebellion -- as a hero of the West, the Metis, Aboriginal peoples and French Canadians; and that of Tom Scott -- the English-speaking patriot executed by Riel's firing squad -- as a rude troublemaker who deserved what he got -- is not the whole story. Our myths are etched in black and white while historical realities have many colors and shades. Understanding the difference is crucial to understanding and dealing with today's concerns. Lecture delivered at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, February 19, 1998.
These days, large statues proclaim Riel's significance in our Western Canadian heritage. No Manitoban can doubt that Riel was at least a joint father, with George-Etienne Cartier, in that province's Confederation. For French-Canadian nationalists, Riel remains "our brother," and proof of the futility of George-Etienne Cartier's bicultural vision. To Native and Metis leaders, he has been their Che Guevara, though young, more militant Metis would prefer the doughty Gabriel Dumont. For all of us, Riel is a handy artifact, symbolizing problems of reconciliation that are with us yet. Doug Owram, speaking of the Myth of Riel, wrote:
"Those who could forget the necessity of compromise within Canada, as the Canadian government did in 1869 or Riel did in 1885, invite disaster. Riel's "insane" pretensions of founding a new nation along the North Saskatchewan and Macdonald's failure to show mercy after Riel was defeated, led to disasters for both of them."
I grew up with the ghosts of the 1885 Rebellion -- my great-grandfather led the column north to Battleford and a sepia photograph of Poundmaker hung on his wall to remind him of who had really won at Cut Knife Hill. However, I take no sides. History is a limitless source of convenient artifacts for current arguments and no one climbs into that vast attic without a purpose, conscious or unconscious, of finding something useful. I have been there often myself. And given that Canadian history is reputedly dull, characters as exotic as Riel are as a necessary as salt and pepper.
If Papineau or William Lyon Mackenzie had perished in the debacle of their rebellions, they might be competitors. Fate spared them for a crotchety and reactionary old age. Serving symbolic purposes of which Riel was deeply conscious, he was fortunate in his unswerving nemesis, Sir John A. Macdonald. Heroes are well advised to die in their prime.
Note, of course, that Canadian heroes tend to have little good to say for their country. Mackenzie and Papineau would surely have added Upper and Lower Canada to the northern tier of American states. Norman Bethune, a modern hero, found Canada almost as insufferable as Montreal found him. Riel's dream of a theocratic regime on the banks of the South Saskatchewan would have terminated Canada's hope of running a mari usque ad mare. Perhaps I am not neutral after all. Dare I confess a small bias against those who would have robbed me of Canada? Remember the tremendous odds against the Confederation dream -- a tiny population, frail finances, a host of narrower, meaner perspectives, and a highly acquisitive neighbor. Did nobody stand up for Canada?
In 1869, a young Ontarian joined a government survey party. It was sent west before the actual acquisition of Hudson's Bay company land a year later because there was starvation at the Red River and the government thought it might get started early and provide jobs for local people. The young man was a patriot: if Canadians did not go West, it would fall to the Americans, already plotting its acquisition at St. Paul. Others joined for the pay but our surveyor was a man of principle. His boss, Colonel J. Stoughton Dennis, was a strong Tory. He was also a proven coward, who had run away from the Fenians in 1866, leaving his men to be killed or captured. The immediate boss, John Snow, was a crook, who invested the payroll to buy himself land in the new territory. Our young hero discovered the crookery and suspended Snow over the churning, turbid Red River until the terrified foreman agreed to pay up. Restored to dignity and safety, Snow charged the young man, who was fined by the local sessions court as a turbulent fellow. Others might call him the West's first labor hero.
Another young man, Louis Riel, had come back from Montreal, a failure in the priesthood and in law, but with an education and no way to use it. With Riel's educated guidance drafting laws, and plenty of encouragement from the Americans from around St. Paul, Metis elders proclaimed a provisional government and defied the frail authority of the Hudson's Bay Company. While the faint hearted Dennis issued proclamations, reversed himself, and finally fled, our young man did all he could to uphold Canada's authority. Released from the foul, frosty cells of Fort Garry, he tried again, only to be seized a second time. Despite hunger and frostbite in the unheated cell, he kept up his defiance. Finally, his guards took him out and beat him badly. Riel decided to make him an example. Bound, tried by an improvised court in a language he did not understand, the young man was sentenced to death. He was promptly shot by a firing squad so drunk it could not aim straight. As he lay screaming in agony, two of them tried to kick in his head. Finally, someone found a pistol and finished the job.
This you may recognize as the story of Tom Scott. There are no monuments to him in Winnipeg, Toronto, or Ottawa. His execution is described in most current texts and biographies as, at worst, a misjudgment. Some, like Maggie Siggins, insist that Scott earned his fate by his rudeness. Watch your manners in Western Canada! Siggins is typical. From Sir John A's time to the present, Scott and other Canadians at the Red River have had a bad reputation. We like the outcome, but we blame our agents.
Indeed, presenting Tom Scott as a Canadian patriot without any offence to the known facts is eccentric, perhaps even dangerously politically incorrect. Twenty-five years ago, when I was putting out three books and a clutch of articles on Riel and the events of 1870 and 1885, saying anything in favor of Scott was dangerous to sales. After all, I was capitalizing on Riel's secular canonization as monuments, postage stamps, plays, historic sites and rival books poured out of the heritage hopper. Who would swim against a tide that carried Metis, Quebecois, Westerners, Natives, and maybe even Ontarians into such raptures?
Historians are not barred from imagination, but unlike more creative colleagues, they cannot ignore demonstrable facts or available evidence. Availability is important, particularly when one side has records and the other does not. Riel is significant because almost no Native or Metis contemporary or predecessor is so richly documented. His affairs were recorded; so were his thoughts, in the rich profusion discovered by the Riel Project.
In 1884, Riel was a bitter man, scarred by his terrible experiences in Quebec lunatic asylums in the 1870s, resentful that as the creator of Canada's fifth province, he should live in poverty in Montana. Summoned to Saskatchewan by disgruntled settlers and Metis to repeat the grievance-mongering role he had played at the Red River, he proceeded to carry out the mission transmitted by his visions of creating a Metis-centred theocracy on the banks of the Saskatchewan.
In 1870, Riel had played his good cards well, at least until the killing of Scott. In 1884-5, it was different. He started with a coalition of Metis and white settlers, summoned to prepare their grievances and to resolve his own claims. But his research for Indian allies, largely unproductive, appalled the settlers. His religious beliefs shocked the hitherto sympathetic missionaries and many of his own people. In the end, only a resolute minority stood with him; the majority did not.
Once he had succeeded in precipitating the rebellion, Riel became an utter nuisance and a major factor in its failure. George Woodcock has helped develop the image of Gabriel Dumont as the brilliant prairie strategist. Later, Dumont told his Montreal biographer that Riel stopped him from attacking the Canadians -- though this does not seem to be recorded in the records of Riel's council, the Exovedate.
Though Riel soon became a symbolic hero for French-speaking Quebec Liberals, and for radicals of most stripes, he insisted to the end that his sympathies lay with the blues like Cartier. His religious heresies were so embarrassing to his first myth-makers that some attributed them to insanity. A.H. Tremaudan, his chief French-speaking biographer, ignored them altogether. As for Riel as hero of the modern West, could that region exist if he had succeeded?
These paradoxes affect Riel much less than the people who, in his life and death, struggled to make use of him. Riel is much more interesting when we take him and his ideas seriously. Though George Stanley's laudatory 1963 biography is more accessible, the best book on Riel is Tom Flanagan's 1979 book on Louis "David" Riel. Trained in Catholic theology and philosophy, with an American objectivity, Flanagan took Riel's principle concerns as seriously as Riel himself. In the second half of Riel's life, religion mattered more than politics: to a secular age (his own as much as ours) this was an absurd priority. Even the devout Oblates at Batoche knew that 19th century men did not receive divine visitations. Flanagan's sin, mortal in the eyes of mythmakers, has been to treat Riel as a human being. In Riel and the Rebellion Reconsidered, Flanagan wrote a book on the folly of entrusting Metis fortunes to a religious seer. It is banned in Saskatchewan schools.
From his jail cell -- actually the office of the NWMP commissioner, where he spent his days -- Riel pleaded for a state trial in Ottawa, in return for which, he assured Macdonald, he would make mincemeat of Edward Blake and the lying Grits. He would then return as premier of Manitoba. Was this insanity or special pleading? We do know that Riel conceived his destiny in theatrical terms. Denied the Supreme Court, he had to settle for a converted land titles office in Regina and a jury of six white farmers, as the forum to justify his life and his service to his people.
Riel's fate had little or nothing to do with Tom Scott, whom Macdonald had ignored, or with Orangemen, whom he despised, or with how many dogs would bark in Quebec. The real decision was made in June, 1885, when Macdonald reviewed the government brief. At first, the prime minister believed that Riel was part of a wider conspiracy, with white as well as Metis involvement. Investigation revealed what no revisionist has challenged: no Riel, no Rebellion. There would be no bloody assizes: Riel would be held responsible. His council, or Exovedate, would serve short sentences or none.
Defence motions to the contrary, the trial fulfilled the law as it stood in 1885 and for half a decade after. Evidence in support of the charge was hardly controvertible. The toughest issue was whether Judge Richardson would ignore the defence and let Riel speak. Imagine posterity's outrage if Riel had been silenced. The jury learned of Riel's eloquence, humanity, and nobility. Riel's testimony destroyed the case his lawyers had painfully put together -- that their client was insane. Riel himself rejected that claim for at least two reasons: it made a mockery of his beliefs and service, and it would take him back to a snake-pit like the awful Beauport Asylum, where he had languished for almost two years in the 1870s. The jury foreman, Francis Cosgrove, wept during Riel's speech and pleaded for mercy but the verdict was inevitable.
Would Riel hang? Was Macdonald swayed by Orange bigotry, contemptuous of Quebec, indifferent to the West? The truth was that the Old Chieftain despised Orangemen and mistrusted public opinion. Riel's fate must be a warning to troublemakers. Like other old men, Macdonald believed that time settles most problems. The West needed time to be opened and developed and time to reconcile Native people to a future of farming independence. The Metis needed time to find their future too. The great Oblate missionary, Father Lacombe, wanted the Metis treated like children: Macdonald refused. But neither could he discourage cost-cutting by his deputy superintendent-general of Indian affairs, Lawrence Vankoughnet. After all, a national depression, shrinking revenues and soaring deficit was as important in Ottawa in 1884 as it would be in 1984 and 1994.
What determined Riel's mythic stature was his death. If judged insane, would he have escaped the Selkirk Asylum like his Ontario-born secretary, William Jackson? Would he have joined Dumont in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show? Or, after a short interval in prison, would he have returned to political obscurity, like William Lyon Mackenzie, or the latter-day Pierre Vallieres?
The verdict and sentence were generally welcomed in English-speaking Canada, though Liberal papers editorialized that Macdonald should share the scaffold for undefined "mismanagement." Quebec reaction veered from the spring, when Riel was a heretic and a murderer, to the autumn, when he was a lonely French-Canadian lunatic, victimized by English fanatics. That Riel should not die took on a national consensus. Macdonald was unmoved: he mistrusted public opinion as "mere newspapers," he knew the furor was orchestrated by Liberals who, opportunely, took opposite positions in Ontario and Quebec.
In 1870, Riel had justified the execution of Scott with realpolitik: "We must make Ottawa respect us." There was a corresponding rationality in Macdonald's decision. Riel's death would warn agitators not to meddle in Canada's West. The Crown's counsel were competent enough to ensure that no higher court could overthrow the trial. Cavils about venue, language and six-member jury ignored Canadian law in 1885.
Macdonald was right. Riel's death ended throughts of rebellion. For Metis and Native peoples, the aftermath may have been tragic; for Canada, it was tranquil. Canada's sovereignty was unchallenged from Kenora to Esquimalt. The events of 1869-70 moved from memory to folklore. Riel was virtually forgotten until the 1930s when the scholarship of George Stanley, Arthur S. Morton, Jonas Jonasson and others made a small explosion in our tiny scholarly community. Only in the 1960s, with a rising heritage movement, Manitoba's centennial, and a revival of Metis and Native influence, was Rielolatry born.
Riel meets contemporary heritage needs. Heritage is, of course, history put to the use of the present. As David Lowenthal reminds us, it is a game with rules set essentially by the market. It has nothing inherently to do with the truth. If facts fit awkwardly, they can be excised. Heritage is for children of all ages. History is adult entertainment, complex and sometimes troubling and, accordingly, sometimes restricted and sometimes altogether banned. And adults should know the difference.…