by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
One of the greatest blunders in Canadian history occurred in the month of March 141 years ago. On March 4, 1870, Thomas Scott was executed after a guilty verdict was delivered by a six-man court. This one ill-advised act forever marred the contribution of Louis Riel to Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian Confederation. In the aftermath of Scott’s execution, Riel’s bitterest opponents relatively easily rewrote the annals of the period to refute the claim that the Métis leader was the “Founder of Manitoba.”
Even today, despite the official designation of the third Monday of each February as Louis Riel Day (the 21st this year), a segment of Manitoba’s population still believes the Métis leader is a villain.
The tarnishing of Riel’s image began shortly after the British Army regulars and Canadian militia arrived at Red River in August 1870 and continued for the years leading up to the trial of Ambroise Lepine in 1874 and beyond. In a reputed “True Statements of Events which occurred in the now Province of Manitoba, in the years 1869-70, by the Fellow-Prisoners of the Murdered Thomas Scott,” published in the March 7, 1874, Manitoba Free Press, Riel is referred to as a “loafer in saloons” prior to becoming a “useful tool for others,” and a “notorious coward.” To further damage Riel’s reputation, they claimed Riel sold his widowed mother’s last cow in order to purchase “a suit of clothes in which to harangue his audiences ...”
Being a “loafer in saloons” was a slur with little bearing on Riel’s character. Most of Winnipeg’s men “loafed” in saloons which became the social and political gathering places in the community. For the record, Riel was always described by eyewitnesses of the era, who were not out to malign his reputation by spreading false information, as a tea-totaller.
The authors of the “true statements” were W. “William” A. Farmer, George D. McVicar, James Stewart, D.U. Campbell, George H. Young, and Archibald Wright. All of these men were imprisoned by Riel with the exception of Rev. George Young, a Methodist clergyman who ministered to the prisoners during their confinement.
The “true statements” then goes on to tell how Riel had little support in the community and the Canadians were the heroes of the troubled times. It is a rewriting of history with a common theme — the Canadians suffered indignations at the hands of Riel and his followers for no valid reason, and it was the recently-arrived Canadians from Ontario who really championed the “liberties” of Manitobans.
S.J. Sommerville in an article entitled, Sixtieth Anniversary of “The Trouble” Finds Louis Riel’s Memory Green (Manitoba Free Press, October 12, 1929), wrote that there was widespread resentment accorded the Canadian surveyors present in Red River, which ultimately precipitated “The Troubles.” In protest against their surveying of Andre Nault’s farm, Riel stepped on the surveyor’s chain and declared they “go no farther” on his uncle’s property.
Sommerville wrote that both French and English settlers “resented the sending of surveyors and a governor (William McDougall, who was prevented from entering the settlement by guards at a checkpoint) by the Canadian government before the territory of Red River had been transferred (from the Hudson’s Bay Company) to Canada by the British Crown. As a matter of fact, the disapproval was first voiced by English settlers.”
“The feeling throughout the Dominion for justice to the perpetrators,” according to the Fellow-Prisoners, “the aiders, promoters and abettors of the Red River Rebellion will assert itself, and the time will soon come when substantial justice can be, and will be, meted out even in Manitoba.”
The execution was the cause célèbre that started the propaganda mills churning and allowed a small party of Ontarians to rewrite the historical record to their advantage. In effect, they usurped Riel’s role in bringing Manitoba into Confederation and helped to overturn all the rights he wrangled from Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald for the French-speaking and Catholic inhabitants of the Red River Settlement.
Furthermore, the execution of Scott contributed to Riel’s own execution in 1885, although the official charge was treason. Without the former event, the latter would not have occurred, and Riel would not have been forced into exile in 1870 and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 wouldn’t have materialized.
Renowned Manitoba historian, W.L. Morton (1909-80), wrote that after the death of Scott “There was to be no peace in the Northwest he (Riel) loved. No peace anywhere but the forlorn peace of exile and the final peace of the gibbet in Regina.”
Alexander Begg (1839-97), a Winnipeg merchant and author, who supported the Métis' struggle to obtain their rights from Canada, in his book, The Creation of Manitoba, or, The History of the Red River Troubles, wrote that Scott’s execution brought about a “feeling of horror ... amongst a large portion of the French as it was with the English (in the settlement) ...
“Riel, who professed to be working for the good of the country, had in one day brought a curse upon it — a dreadful blot on the name of his countrymen and a lasting disgrace upon himself. Had he but refrained from bloodshed — had he followed out the course to the last which he commenced, that of peace, and had not allowed himself to be led by the dictates of passion, he would instead of being in exile to-day, have been a man of high standing amongst the people and respected by all classes.
“Although there had been many acts committed during the course of the troubles that are to be condemned, still they were not so heinous that he could not be forgiven; but the crime of taking a man’s life, especially in the way it was done, is one that can command no other sentiment than that of horror.”
Riel returned to Winnipeg in 1883 and was interviewed by an undisclosed number of Winnipeg Daily Sun reporters. His comments on “the Misunderstandings of 1870” was carried in a June 29, 1883, article.
The article started out with the view that the passage of time had healed the wounds of 1869-1870. Many still abhorred his methods in 1883, but there was a growing concession that Riel was responsible for creating the new direction of Manitoba and the Northwest, according to the article.
Prior to Riel’s visit, he had been living in Montana and by 1883 had become an American citizen. Elected and expelled from the House of Commons, he was granted an amnesty in 1875 for his role in the events of 1869-70 provided he remained in exile for five years. With his exile over, Riel could have legally returned to Canada, but he had a job as a teacher and had established a family life in
the U.S. Riel told the newspaper he was permanently located at St. Peters’ Mission, Louis Clark County, Montana.
His permanent return to Canada was also hampered by the fear that not everyone had forgotten the provisional government’s execution of Scott and that there were still some who wanted to exact revenge.
Riel did tell the reporters he had no fear of visiting Winnipeg, “although it had been intimated to him that bullets were as plentiful as ever.”
According to the article, “Had Riel visited Winnipeg a few years ago, there would have been great excitement and a miniature rebellion. Now there is not a ripple of excitement, and but little interest taken in his presence here. And yet Riel was a most important man in the history of this new country. To him and to his, as we regard it, ill-advised and unfortunate action, the Northwest owes the extraordinary development to which it has attained. When he flung to the breeze the flag of the Republic of the Northwest, with a half-breed as its president and guiding spirit, he gave it a world-wide notoriety that it could hardly have attained in any way.”
The Sun said a decade had passed since the events of 1870 and “thousands of people in Manitoba — had forgotten Riel, ... but he will be a prominent figure in history.”
Riel would not admit that he made major 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.”
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.
George Dennison, a member of the Canadian Party in the Red River Settlement, which was led by Dr. John Christian Schultz, recalled in 1909 that until the news of the death of a “loyal Orangeman, it had been difficult to excite any interest in Ontario in the fact that a number of Canadians had been thrown into prison (by Riel).
“By denouncing the murder of Scott, (it was) possible to arouse the indignation of the people, and foment public opinion that would force the government to send up an armed expedition to restore order.”
Actually, the major disruptions in the Red River Settlement resulted from the machinations of the Canadian, made up of recent arrivals from Ontario. They marched throughout the settlement and beyond, attempting to rally the people to their cause. Their efforts were initially mostly futile and ineffective, since most of the older residents of the settlement either sided with Riel and the provisional government or were content to sit on the sidelines awaiting the eventual outcome of the “troubles.”
The 56-members of the Schultz-led Canadian Party were quickly captured and disarmed and imprisoned at Upper Fort Garry. Most of the prisoners were eventually released, while Schultz escaped to Ontario where he was present at public rallies to arouse the Macdonald government to take action and send an army to Red River to capture the “rebel” Riel.
Scott also escaped and fled to Portage la Prairie, where he joined Major C.A. Boulton who was raising a force to free the remaining prisoners. On February 15, Schultz went to Kildonan to enlist of support of more combatants.
The rising of English settler troops was abetted by McDougall’s proclamation to “enter,” “raze” and “break” up the Métis force holding the Red River Settlement. In a manifesto sent to the Montréal Gazette and reprinted in the Free Press on February 28, 1874, Riel cited McDougall’s orders as being a declaration of war.
Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, a Canadian surveyor, replied to McDougall that the feeling in the community was unanimously against the survey. As a result of the Canadian government initiating “The Troubles,” he added that it was up to Ottawa to clear up the matter.
Boulton’s force was rumoured to have swelled to a few hundred through the addition of men from Headingley, Kildonan and St. Andrews by the time the news of the mustering reached Fort Garry. Reports of over 600 men rallying to Boulton’s command caused panic among the Métis. An alarmed Riel, who referred to Boulton and his men as “insurgents,” called for every Métis fighter to come to Fort Garry to defend the settlement. In addition, women and children were removed to safer locations.
“Men were gathering in hot haste,” reported the New Nation. “Cannons mounted, grape (shot) and canister laid in order. Five hundred men and more, we are informed to man the bastions, ramparts, etc. Shot and shell were piled around promiscuously. Everything that could be done, was done to make a bold stand to strike terror into the hearts of les anglais.”
The fears in the community were mostly unfounded as many in Boulton’s “army” were only half-heartedly enthusiastic about becoming cannon fodder. The mostly farmers’ army was poorly armed in relation to the more numerous and better armed and trained Métis fighters.
“In the first place, the movement did not originate with the settlers themselves; but, being urged, by a few firebrands, to rush, without forethought, into an undertaking which was likely to destroy, at one sweep, their labors of years in the Settlement ... we feel the worst disposition of an otherwise calm and peaceful people were aroused by designing men ...,” wrote Begg.
The looming conflict ended before it began with the unfortunate deaths of two young men. Norbert Parisien was captured in Kildonan and accused of being a spy for Riel. He seized a gun from one of his captors and escaped, taking to the ice on the frozen Red River. His captors then took off in pursuit. Two shots fired by Parisien while trying to elude his pursuers struck Hugh Sutherland, who was apparently an innocent bystander simply crossing the Red on horseback while on the way to Kildonan schoolhouse. As he lay dying in the house of Rev. John Black, his sister later recalled that Sutherland begged them to make sure Parisien was “not punished for what he had done.”
But it was too late. Schultz’s men recaptured Parisien, beat him with a hatchet and dragged him back to imprisonment using a sash tied around his neck.
“I saw Parisien run into the woods,” testified Alexander Macpherson during the trial of Ambroise Lépine on October 14, 1874, who was charged with the murder of Scott, “a good many pursuing him; he was caught and taken back to the (Kildonan) School-House again; I saw Parisien in the School-House; there appeared to be blood on his face ...”
Boulton tried to intervene and save Parisien from his attackers, but his efforts were too late and his wounds too grievous. Parisien died a few weeks later from his head wounds, although the “Fellow-Prisoners” in their 1874 account insisted “he was sufficiently recovered to walk home, a distance of 29 miles. He has since been seen alive and well.” This was not a “true statement” of the events as they transpired.
The bloodshed was too much for many in the settlement. Alexander Murray, who was on-hand during the confinement of Parisien and another prisoner named John McKinny — released after Parisien was fatally wounded — said, “We were discontented with our leaders at Kildonan.” Most of the men gladly dispersed when Riel sent word that the Kildonan and St. Andrews settlers were “given permission to return peacefully to our homes ...”
About 48 men from the Canadian Party, who didn’t take advantage of the amnesty given by Riel, were intercepted by a Métis force on February 17, arrested and imprisoned, including Scott and Boulton. They occupied the same rooms earlier vacated by 24 prisoners who had been freed by Riel as a gesture of goodwill to the English settlers.
“Thus ended this mad-like expedition from Portage; the immediate results of which were the loss of two lives and the capture by the French of forty-eight prisoners,” wrote Begg.
(Next week: part 2)