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An interview with Louis Riel — the Métis leader would not admit mistakes made in 1869-70
Dec 11, 2008

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

On March 5, 1877, Louis Riel executed a document giving his mother, who lived in Manitoba, the right “to sell and convey all my lands of every description in the Province of Manitoba Except my Métis Rights (the Manitoba Act of 1870 granted 240-acres to the children of Métis).”

He told his Winnipeg Daily Sun interviewers that as soon as his property was sold “I will go away.”

When Riel came to Manitoba in 1883, the collapse of the land boom of 1881-82 made it difficult for him to sell his remaining pieces of property, including his wife’s allotment near Portage la Prairie. In fact, he failed to sell any land, leaving the matter in the hands of his brother Joseph when Louis left the province soon after his sister’s July 10 wedding.

A topic discussed during the 1883 interview was Riel’s March 30, 1874, swearing in as the Member of Parliament for Provencher. Despite being regarded as a fugitive by the Ontario government, which offered a $5,000 reward for his capture on the charge of murdering Thomas Scott,  Riel slipped into Ottawa to sign the parliamentary registry.

Riel said he took the MP’s oath in the presence of a Mr. Patrick and a Mr. Fiset.

“I went into the House like any other man ... I was standing about the lobbies like any other member and I did not make any effort to keep out of the way ...”

He said the only person who was aware that he was coming to Ottawa was Patrick.

Once he had been sworn in as an MP, Riel slipped across the Ottawa River to Québec.

Just days after news of Riel’s appearance became public knowledge, MPs voted to expel him from the House of Commons. Then in 1875, the House voted to grant Riel an amnesty after serving “five years banishment from Her Majesty’s Dominions.”

At the time, Canadian Governor General Lord Dufferin wrote: ‘This is the most thorny business I have ever had to deal with, thanks to the imbecility of almost everyone who has hitherto meddled with it.”

Riel said he had expected to receive an outright amnesty in 1870, although he felt the only effective amnesty could come from the Imperial government in Great Britain.

As far as the events of 1869-70 were concerned, he said, “I was attacked (by the so-called members of the Canada First party in Manitoba) and I only defended myself ... When people are attacked they ought to be given the right to defend themselves. This is simply a point of elementary justice.”

Riel would not admit that he made mistakes in 1869-70. “Of course, I don’t mean to say my conduct was perfect on all occasions, because every man is liable to make trifling mistakes, but had I the same thing to go through again, I would do exactly the same. If the people of Canada only knew the grounds on which we acted and the circumstances under which we were, they would be most forward in acknowledging that I was right in the course I took. And I have always believed that as I have acted honestly, the time will come when the people of Canada will see and acknowledge it.”

Riel said the execution of Scott, the singular event that would mar his role in the events of 1869-70, was justified.

It wasn’t until Scott’s execution on March 4, 1870, that the so-called Canadian Party refugees from Red River were able to rally support in Ontario to bring the “traitor” Riel to justice. Prior to the execution of Scott, following a court-marshal by a tribunal according to the rules of the Métis hunt, the happenings in Red River had received little public attention in Eastern Canada. Most regarded the Red River Resistance as a trifling matter that they expected Ottawa to quickly resolve, but once Scott was killed, the refugees had a rallying point that they successfully exploited.

Among the most vocal opponents of Riel was Dr. John Christian Schultz, who had organized the recent settlers from Ontario in Manitoba to resist the authority of the provisional government. Schultz and his followers were captured by the Métis and imprisoned at Upper Fort Garry. Most of the prisoners were eventually released, while Schultz escaped to Ontario where he was present at rallies to arouse the Macdonald government to send an army to Red River to capture the “rebel” Riel.

Scott had also escaped and went to Portage la Prairie, but was recaptured with the Portage group who attempted in February 1870 to free the remaining prisoners.

One interviewer 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 Lestance had 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 and third-in-command was Major C.A. Boulton, who unsuccessfully led the rag-tag group from Portage la Prairie to liberate the prisoners held by Riel in Fort Garry. The Boulton group surrendered and was thrown into the same prison that had been vacated by those voluntarily released by Riel. The Métis leader was so incensed by the attempt that he threatened to execute Boulton. Canadian government emissary Donald Smith convinced Riel not to follow through with his threat.

During the 1883 interview, Riel said he could not select 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. Others argue that after freeing Boulton, being lenient to Scott would be seen as a sign of weakness and Riel would lose control over the more militant Métis.

Riel held a conversation with Scott  during which he said the prisoner conspired with others against the provisional government and threatened to kill a guard. Riel said Scott had seized a bayonet in the room “and endeavoured to slay the guard by plunging it into him through an opening in the door of the guard room.”

When saying the execution must go ahead, Riel told Smith the primary reason was that Scott was “rough and abusive to the guards ... insulting to him, Mr. Riel.” 

Scott was noted from the time of his arrival in Red River from Ontario in 1868 as being antagonistic to the Métis and contempuous of their traditions.

“He was always hot headed and violent,” Riel told the Sun 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.”

What is known is that Parisien was captured by the Portage contingent on February 15 under the belief that he was a “spy” for Riel. Parisien escaped his guard, seized a gun and while fleeing shot Hugh John Sutherland, who died soon after. Sutherland was an innocent bystander who inadvertently happened upon the fleeing man. Parisien was recaptured and handled “severely.” He later died from his head wounds. So little is known about Parisien that it is difficult to determine if he was in reality a Métis “spy,” although Riel consistently denied this claim.

Riel held Boulton responsible for these needless deaths of Sutherland and Parisien and condemned him to be shot. After hearing a plea for mercy from Sutherland’s mother, Riel rescinded the death sentence. Riel is reported to have said, “Mrs. Sutherland, that alone has saved him. I give you Boulton’s life!”

Scott was less fortunate. “I told him that I could not check public opinion,” said Riel in 1883. “I also told him I had no  means of doing anything for him and asked him to give me his word that he would keep quiet. He replied: ‘You owe me respect; I am loyal and you are rebels.’ He insulted everyone and defied me. I entreated him to keep quiet, but he said he would do just as he pleased and I felt convinced we could not change his mind.”

Reverend George Young did plead for Scott’s life by pointing out “that one great merit claimed for the insurrection was that, so far, it had been bloodless, except in one sad instance (Sutherland and Parisien — Riel was not responsible for their deaths), 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 horrible crime.”

When Riel was on trial for treason in 1885, he tried to justify the execution of Scott: “If there was a single act of severity, one must not lose sight of the long course of moderate conduct which gives us the right to say what we sought to disarm, rather than fight, the lawless strangers (Schultz and his followers) who were making war against us.”

He told his priest while being led to the scaffold: “I swear as I am about to appear before God that the shooting of Scott was not a crime. It was a political necessity ... I commanded the shooting, believing it necessary to save the lives of hundreds of others.”

Shortly after the execution of Scott, Macdonald authorized a military expedition to maintain the “peace” in Red River. Colonel Garnet Wolseley led the joint British Army and Canadian Militia force that arrived at Upper Fort Garry on August 24, 1870. With the approach of Wolseley, Riel had the British Union Jack raised at the fort and fled to St. Boniface. 

Riel had fled Fort Garry while in the midst of eating breakfast. A Hudson’s Bay Company employee rushed into his lodgings after a breakneck ride, shouting, “For the love of God, clear out. The troops are just outside the city and you are going to be lynched.”

During his 1883 interview, Riel said he observed Wolseley as he entered the fort from the opposite side of the Assiniboine River.

He had not wanted to be on hand when Wolseley arrived, because “I knew he would murder me if he caught me, and I always kept ahead of him. I wanted, however, to be in sight of him, so as to give him a chance to arrest me if he wished to do so.”

Riel was well-advised to avoid Wolseley and the militia. The British commander said if he had the option, he preferred to deal with “vermin” such as Riel in a manner that “might not be approved by the civil powers. In addition, the Ontario troops he commanded were itching to get their hands on Riel and other Métis leaders to extract their revenge for the execution of Scott.

“He did not know where you were?” one of the interviewers asked Riel.

“When a general comes on such an expedition,” replied Riel, “it is not the duty of the enemy to reveal his whereabouts, but it is the duty of that general to find out, and so General Wolseley should have known where I was. I was only a furlong ahead of him all the time.”

“How did you manage to keep ahead of him?”

“When he came in at one door of Winnipeg I went out the other. I wanted to keep just far enough away from his soldiers so that they would have no pretext for raising a fuss or any trouble. While Wolseley was in the fort, I was talking to Archbishop Taché at his place on the other side of the river (in St. Boniface). While he (Wolseley) was speaking to his soldiers in front of the fort, I passed by on horseback, along the road, very quietly. I heard them calling the half-breeds bandits.”

Riel would have remained in Red River if Wolseley offered some gesture of conciliation, but it never came and he went into hiding.

Riel’s first meeting with the new political authority in the new province came at the height of the Fenian threat. William O’Donoghue, an Irish patriot who had been in the Riel-led provisional government, organized American Irishmen to invade Manitoba in October 1871. O’Donoghue broke with Riel after the arrival of Wolseley’s troops, claiming the Métis leader had sold out to the British by joining Canada.

Riel joined the Métis party which answered Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald’s call to arms to repel the Fenians. Riel and Archibald met and shook hands outside Winnipeg as the troops gathered to confront the Fenian invasion. The goal of the Fenian Brotherhood was to capture and ransom Canada to end British rule in Ireland. Ironically, O’Donoghue’s invasion had expected the Métis to side with the Fenians, but they joined the force gathering to repel the invaders.

“He (Archibald) knew who I was, but he pretended not to know me. He appeared to be very fair, but I found out that he possessed the nice diplomacy of other politicians. Those who introduced me were too timid to tell him my real name...

“What did Archibald say?”

“He pretended not to hear me.”

“Did those who were standing near not hear you?”

“There were 250 men near when I spoke to him, and I was speaking pretty loud.”

“He accepted your services at the time?”

“Yes.”

“What did you do?”

“I exerted the little influence I had to induce the people all around to oppose the raid. Politically I think that I was the person who in conjunction with the clergy did the most to oppose the Fenian raid.”

The force assembled under Archibald proved unnecessary as a U.S. Cavalry force arrested the men who had taken possession of a HBC fort near Pembina, North Dakota. O’Donoghue was captured by a band of Métis on the Canadian side of the border and sent back to the U.S. to face the American justice system, which was extremely lenient to the Fenians. In the end, the invasion was more farce than threat to Canadian sovereignty in the West.

Riel said he was treated better than expected by Archibald, although the lieutenant-governor sent messages to Riel through intermediates advising him to leave the country. Riel told Archibald he would remain in Manitoba and challenged the lieutenant-governor to arrest him. ‘But he never appeared to be in a hurry to do so.”

He said Archibald had a difficult task in organizing the political system in Manitoba, “and from the Canadian point of view, performed it with great ability.”

Actually, Archibald organized the first provincial election and legislature in Manitoba. Yet, many settlers originally from Ontario saw him as favouring the Métis and opposed his administration whenever possible. Schultz created difficulties for Archibald by stirring up the Protestant militiamen and settlers from Ontario against the Métis and the lieutenant-governor’s appointments to key government posts. It was said at the time by Eastern newspapers that a “reign of terror” against the Métis had been instigated in Manitoba. Another comment was that in the nine days since the militia’s arrival, more blood had been shed than during the entire nine months the Riel-led provisional government was in power.

In the end, Archibald only served two years in Manitoba and his departure was seen as a victory by Schultz and his followers.

Riel discussed some general topics with his interviewers, including a brief outline of his lineage, and then “shook hands heartily with the reporters, touched his hat politely, smiled and bade his driver to go.”

Riel never again visited Winnipeg nor the province of his birth; instead, he answered the call to fight for the rights of the Métis in the North-West Territories  which led to his execution in 1885. It was a destiny that he could not have imagined nor considered as remotely possible when he granted the interview with the Sun reporters in 1883.