Louis Riel and the United States

Article excerpt

Among the ironies of Canadian history is the fact that the most prominent individual ever executed for treason against the Canadian state--Louis Riel--was at the time of his execution an American citizen. Riel's relationship with the United States had been a long and complicated one. The complex tale tells us a good deal about the man, his aspirations, and the Metis world of nationality in the nineteenth century.(1)

The United States and its government touched Louis Riel's life in many different ways over the years. In 1869-70, during the Red River uprising, American annexation provided an alternative political course--or the threat of one--to mere acquiescence to the impending Canadian takeover. American examples, particularly at the territorial level, also influenced some of Riel's demands upon Canada. From the takeover of Manitoba by the Wolseley expedition in August 1870 to Riel's institutionalization for mental distress in 1876--and to a lesser extent beyond--the United States served two explicit purposes for Riel. One was to provide a safe haven from Canadian legal prosecution. The other was as the place where Riel thought he and his people might find support for an invasion of Manitoba that would save the Metis from their Canadian occupiers. That support might come from the American government, from private parties such as the Fenians, or from the Native chiefs who lived mainly in the western states. Riel's early years of American residency also had a more subtle impact upon him than he himself might have recognized; several of the important intellectual influences upon his prophetic system, such as numerology and theosophy, had American origins. After Riel's release from hospital in 1878, the United States (and American citizenship) came to serve as a symbol for Riel's efforts to remake his life as an ordinary citizen and family man. As part of these efforts at beginning again, the United States was also the home of a part of the larger Metis community, which Riel could attempt to lead and reform. At the end, the United States government represented Riel's last hope for the mercy recommended by his jury, mercy that the Canadian government refused to grant. The United States rejected Riel, just as he had rejected its promise of a new life by returning to Saskatchewan in 1884.

Louis Riel was born 22 October 1844 in the Red River settlement, officially known as the territory of Assiniboia. The territory was administered by the Hudson's Bay Company under charter from the British Crown. Although Red River was not legally a British colony, it was indisputably British in terms of sovereignty. Unquestionably, Riel was born a British subject, a birthright he never attempted to deny and often spoke about quite proudly. At the same time, like many Metis, he felt relatively comfortable on either side of the border and always had an implicit transnational identity.(2)

In 1869 Riel assumed leadership of a local movement of insurgency against the transfer of the Hudson's Bay Company's western territory to the government of Canada.(3) Whether or not the movement was actually a rebellion is a moot point. The chief issue was the failure of any of the senior governments to take any account of the interests of the residents of Red River in negotiating the transfer. The Metis firmly told the governor-in-waiting, William McDougall, and other Canadian officials that they were not welcome in the settlement. Canada refused to accept sovereignty over the territory until the insurgency had been quelled, and the insurgent provisional government insisted that it was the legitimate heir of the Hudson's Bay Company.

In any case, the confused political situation in Red River provided very troubled waters in which Americans could hardly avoid fishing. Some interests in the United States had cast a covetous eye on the fertile northern Red River Valley for many years, and some openly annexationist sentiment was expressed in American newspapers during the troubles of 1869-70. …