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Execution of Thomas Scott — Riel refuses pleas from Smith and Rev. Young to parden prisoner
Feb 18, 2011
by Bruce Cherney (part2)
Hugh Sutherland’s parents were asked to go to Upper Fort Garry and plead with Louis Riel, the president of the provisional government, not to allow further bloodshed in Red River in the aftermath of their son’s death. Sutherland died as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was mistakenly shot by Norbert Parisien, who was too intent upon making good his escape from his former captors to notice that Sutherland was not a threat. 
Parisien had broken loose from his guards, grabbed a double-barreled gun and on horseback fled across the ice of the Red River. While he was fleeing, Sutherland was also crossing the ice while on horseback, but from the opposite direction. Thinking Sutherland was one of his pursuers, Parisien fired two shots that fatally wounded the young man. 
Parisien was soon recaptured and beaten, and died several days later from the injuries inflicted upon him.
Sutherland’s parents arrived at the fort when Riel was demanding the execution of Major Charles A. Boulton for allegedly causing the beating death of Norbert Parisien. The personal appeals of Sutherland’s mother and Canadian government representative Donald Smith, as well as others, swayed the Métis leader and Boulton was granted a stay of execution. 
This act of clemency lifted a “heavy cloud” from the public’s mind, according to Alexander Begg (The Creation of Manitoba, or, The History of the Red River Troubles), “... so great was the sudden change from gloom to brightness in the morning that people were almost ready to bless him (Riel).”
Although Boulton was pardoned, Thomas Scott proved to be a handful for his captors.
Scott was a relative newcomer to Red River, arriving in 1868 as a labourer with the survey crew plotting the route for the Dawson Road from Winnipeg to Lake of the Woods. While employed on the roadway, Scott led a three-day strike that precipitated an assault on survey superintendent John Allan Snow. With the help of three other strikers, Scott threatened — or actually, according to other accounts — dunked Snow into the water near Oak Point, demanding wages which Snow provided under duress. Snow later obtained a warrant at Upper Fort Garry, the post where justice in the region was meted out by a Hudson’s Bay Company-appointed court, for the arrest of the four men for attempted murder. 
When they appeared in the courthouse at the fort, Scott and the three others were convicted and fined for the assault. Subsequently unemployed, Scott made his way to the Red River Settlement and fell under the influence of the Canadian Party, which was led by Dr. John Christian Schultz and was virulently opposed to Riel and the provisional government.
It is likely Scott’s tenure in Red River was meant to be short and that he intended to go further west, but he was caught up in the flow of events in the settlement. In fact, S.H. Harvard, who had spent several months in Red River in 1869, wrote a letter in 1870 to a friend in Winnipeg that a train he was travelling on stopped at a roadside inn before reaching Abercrombie, North Dakota. There he met “a fine, tall, muscular youth of some twenty-four years of age,” who “behaved properly,” and said he was going to the Cariboo gold fields. “This man was Thomas Scott, who has lately been murdered in cold blood.”
On March 1, 1870, the frustrated guards slapped Scott in irons, beginning the events that led to his execution three days later.
Riel told Smith, the Canadian government’s special commissioner at Red River, that Scott was “rough and abusive to the guards .... insulting him, Mr. Riel.” In fact, Scott had threatened to kill Riel if he was released from prison.
Smith confirmed Riel’s view of Scott, saying the prisoner was “a rash, thoughtless man whom none cared to have anything to do with,” but argued that Scott’s far-from-perfect personality was no grounds for capital punishment. 
Contrary to the recollections of Riel and Smith, the “Fellow-Prisoners” wrote in their “true statement of events,” published in the Manitoba Free Press on March 7, 1874, that “up to the time of his murder he (Scott) was one of the quietest of the prisoners, and had the least to say.” 
But, their objective was to paint him in such a fashion in order to make Scott a martyr to the Canadian cause, and pave the way for the conviction of Ambroise Lépine who was awaiting trial for the murder of Scott. 
Still, the many confusing biases about Scott’s character — Métis and Canadian — make it extremely difficult to arrive at a true understanding of the man himself and his terrible fate. That he was used and abused by both sides to fulfill their own objectives is highly evident. 
In reality, Scott was a minor figure in the Canadian Party — confirmed later by Boulton — with no more rank than that corresponding to a private, according to evidence presented at Lépine’s trial. He only rose to prominence as a result of his actions during his two-week confinement and his subsequent execution on March 4, 1870.
The Métis guards told Riel that they had enough of the abuse heaped upon them by Scott, and implied that they would take matters into their own hands and kill their prisoner if Scott wasn’t tried. Apparently, the Métis guards, accustomed to the rules governing the annual buffalo hunt, which outlined personal behaviour in order to maintain peace and order, wanted those regulations applied to Scott. 
Riel gave in and allowed his men to  “court martial” Scott before a “tribunal of war,” as the Métis leader related in 1874 in his manifesto to the Montréal Gazette.
Rev. George Young, when testifying at the Lépine trial in 1874, said he was told by Scott that “he had been called before a Council of War that afternoon (on March 3) and condemned to die.”
The proceedings of the court would have been completely foreign to Scott, who was raised in the traditions of British jurisprudence prevailing in Ontario. Scott was also not present for much of his trial, and told Young he objected to the trial being conducted in French, a language he couldn’t understand, “but was told it made no difference; he was a bad man and had to die ...”
Riel felt no obligation to dispute the court’s authority to condemn the prisoner to death. This was confirmed when  Young pled for Scott’s life to be spared, but Riel said he “could not interfere with the case.”  
In his manifesto to the Gazette (Riel was actually a prolific letter writer to newspapers, also sending a commentary to Le Nouveau Monde on March 12, 1874, of Montréal) Riel wrote, “Scott was executed because it was necessary for the triumph of order and the performance of our duty in making it respected.”
Riel also told Smith that Scott’s unruliness set a bad example to the other prisoners.
Scott “was very violent and abusive in his language and actions, annoying and insulting the guards, and even threatening the president (Louis Riel),” according to the New Nation, March 4, 1870.
A Winnipeg Daily Sun interviewer in 1883 asked Riel, “Supposing the archbishop (Taché) had been home in 1870 (he was in Eastern Canada) would Scott have been executed?”
Riel replied, “Perhaps ten Scotts would have been shot had he been home.”
“Why?”
“Because I was really the leader, and whenever I believe myself to be right no man has ever changed my opinion. The archbishop could not have prevented it because no matter what influence he might have used he could not have changed my opinion in the least. The council acted honestly in condemning  Scott, and had Archbishop Taché been here and used his influence he would have been powerless.”
Riel said Father Lestanc tried to prevent the execution, but could do nothing.
When asked why Scott was executed, Riel said he was fourth in importance in the Canadian Party, following their leader Schultz. Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, who fled Red River when he could not organize a resistance in aid of ousted Lieutenant-Governor William McDougall against the Métis, was termed the second-in-command. Third-in-command and importance was Major C.A. Boulton, who unsuccessfully led the rag-tag force from Portage la Prairie to liberate the prisoners held by Riel in Fort Garry. 
During the 1883 Sun interview, Riel said he could select neither Schultz or Dennis for execution as they were “out of our grasp. I do not say that we would have executed them, but they were more in danger than Scott. They were more guilty, too, although Scott was guilty enough.”
In 1870, Riel told Smith that the Scott execution would proceed as it was necessary to make Canada respect the provisional government. 
Some historians later argued that after freeing Boulton, being lenient to Scott would be seen as a sign of weakness and Riel would have lost control over the more militant Métis faction in the settlement.
But when Riel talked to the Sun reporters in 1883, he gave an indication of another possible contributing factor to Scott’s execution.“He was always hot headed and violent,” Riel told the reporters. “I will tell you of one of his crazy acts. A man named (Norbert) Parisien, a follower of his, was taken prisoner by us but afterwards escaped. He went back to Scott’s camp near Kildonan and Scott thinking him a spy took a strong scarf, tied one end around Parisien’s neck and the other to the tail of his (Scott’s) horse. Scott then jumped on the animal and galloped about a quarter of a mile, dragging the poor victim in this way till it was thought he was almost choked to death. He recovered sufficiently to make his escape, but Scott’s followers pursued him; catching him they beat and cut him in such a manner that he was left for dead.”
“In the end, his expendability seems to have been one of the chief factors behind Scott’s execution,” according to J.M. Bumsted (Thomas Scott’s Body: and Other Essays on Early Manitoba, University of Manitoba Press, 2000).
Taking into account Bumsted’s statement, Scott’s very minor role within the Canadian Party made it easier to plot his execution, unlike carrying through with the execution of the more prominent Boulton, who had friends in high places in Eastern Canada. Boulton was also pardoned because he promised to convince the English parishes to send representatives to the new provisional government.
In his memoirs, Boulton said that Scott did have several altercations with his guards over the absence of his pocketbook.
“Scott was accused of having rebelled against the provisional government and having struck the captain of the guard,” according to Joseph Nolin’s testimony during the 1874 trial of Lépine.
The premise for the charge of mounting a “rebellion” is that prior to releasing the first group of prisoners, Riel had them swear an oath not to take up arms against the provisional government. Scott didn’t take the oath as he escaped before the prisoners were released. 
Riel ignored the absence of a verbal commitment from Scott when he added the charge of rebellion to the indictment, accusing Scott of taking up arms against the provisional government when he had taken an oath “not to fight against it,” according to Nolin.
At the 1874 trial, Nolin admitted that Scott had not taken the oath.
Still, he did take up arms with the “boys from Portage” against the elected provisional government, which included representatives from every parish in Red River. Riel himself later referred to Scott’s behaviour as “treason” against the authority of the provisional government.
On the other hand, the charge of “insubordination”is hardly a capital offence.
For his transgressions,  the New Nation, the organ of the provisional government, reported on March 4, 1870, that Scott “was court-martialed by the tribunal of Adjutant-General (Ambroise) Lépine, and condemned to death.” 
The newspaper’s account of the events of March 3 and 4 were written by editor Mayor Henry Robinson, but the final article was heavily censored by Riel. In fact, the report was only for local consumption as Riel unsuccessfully attempted  to suppress news of the execution from spreading beyond the borders of the Red River Settlement.
The only in-depth information about the events of March 3 and 4, although somewhat unsatisfactory due to being contradictory, came four years later during the trial of Lépine, who was accused of murdering Scott. 
Joseph Nolin, the clerk of the provisional government, acted as court reporter during the proceedings against Scott on March 3, 1870. Nolin said at Lépine’s trial in October 1874 that Scott was not present when witnesses were examined by “the Captains who comprised the Council.” Scott could respond to the charges, but was not given the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses when he did appear in court.
Witnesses were brought forward and “examined by the (six) Captains (who would vote on his fate),” Nolin testified in 1874, although he could not clarify exactly what was said by the witnesses.
According to Nolin, Riel was the only one present to make a speech against the accused, but he was not the sole prosecution witness. Among those Nolin also recalled was Ed Turner and Joseph Delorme.
Nolin said following the presentation of the evidence against the defendant, “Riel asked me to read to Scott what had passed before the Council; I did not read everything, as I had taken only notes; then Riel explained to Scott himself the evidence ... in English, he was then condemned to die; Riel told Scott before he left the room that he must die ...”
Scott’s claim that his trial’s proceeding were primarily in French is true, but he was present during the trial when the proceedings were in English. 
“A better objection would have been that much of the trial had been conducted in his absence,” according to Bumsted. “Scott certainly had no legal advice at any point and was ... quite stunned by the entire proceedings.”
Actually, Scott’s death sentence was not unanimous. Four of the six captains voted for death, but Jean-Baptiste Lépine voted against it and Elzéar Lajemonière thought it would be better to simply exile Scott from the Red River Settlement, a sentence that was part of the buffalo hunt tradition.
“The majority want his death, and he shall be put to death,” Lépine is reputed to have said, although other accounts claim that the adjutant-general agreed with his brother, Jean-Baptiste, that the sentence was too harsh.
Riel told Scott he was to be shot at 10 a.m. the next day. 
According to Boulton’s memoirs, he saw Scott for the first time since his imprisonment following the court-martial. “I found that similar questions had been put to him as had passed upon me. I told Scott to be very careful what he said, as I felt sure that Riel meant mischief and would take his life if he could. By then such advice was too late.”
Indeed, it was too late, as Riel refused to consider a stay of execution.
Rev. George Young was summoned to attend to the condemned man. When he arrived at Upper Fort Garry, Young sought an interview with Riel to pled for Scott’s life that was at initially refused. 
Finally, he was granted an interview. “I pointed out,” according to Young’s 1874 court testimony, “that one great merit claimed for the insurrection was that, so far, it had been bloodless, except in one sad instance (Sutherland’s death — apparently, Norbert Parisien had not yet died from the injuries inflicted upon him), which all were willing to look upon as an accident, and implored him not to stain it, to burden it with what would be considered a terrible crime.”
In his memoirs, Young added to his conversation with Riel: “He is now powerless as your prisoner. His life spared can endanger no one; and what has he done to render it proper for you  to take away his life.”
Riel’s reply repeated earlier claims that Scott was “a bad man,” who had “insulted his guards,” and it was necessary to impress upon others to respect the government in Red River.
If Riel felt the execution of Scott would solicit respect from Ottawa and Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, he was gravely mistaken. Instead, it brought about a call to arms and the sending of 1,200 British regulars and Canadian militia under the command of Col. Garnet Wolseley to Red River.
Riel told Young that he had spared the life of Boulton at his insistence, as well as the life of William Gaddy, another man condemned to death who was allowed to escape by those assigned as his executioners, but that was the end of his clemency and Scott was to be shot.
Rev. Young then asked for a delay in the execution in order for cooler heads to prevail, but this was also refused. 
Next to plead for Scott’s life was Smith, as well as clergy from St. Boniface. Again, Riel was unmoved, saying that he would not go against the ruling of the council.
Smith in his report to Ottawa relayed that Riel said “that Scott throughout, had been a most troublesome character, and had been ringleader in a rising against Snow ... that he had risen against the Provisional Government in December last, that his life was then spared; that he had escaped and had been again taken in arms, and once more pardoned (referring no doubt to the promise he had made to me that the lives of the prisoners were secured), but that he was incorrigable, and quite incapable of appreciating clemency with which he had been treated ... (he had) become insubordinate to such an extent that it was difficult to withhold the guards from retaliating.”
Riel also told Smith that Scott had admitted “the Portage boys” intended to capture Riel and hold him hostage to secure the release of the prisoners.
In fact, Boulton and Snow, on the way to Kildonan from Portage la Prairie, had forced their way into the house of the Coutu family, where Riel was rumoured to be visiting, as he frequently did, with the intention of capturing the president of the provisional government — others claim the two men meant to kill Riel — but Riel wasn’t a guest at the time. This break-in and threat were added to the charges against Scott.
(Next week: part 3)