by Bruce Cherney
The Red Saloon was a popular local drinking establishment frequented by militiamen who had arrived on August 24 in Winnipeg with Col. Garnet Wolseley, members of the so-called “loyal” Canadian Party, as well as long-time residents of Red River.
On September 13, 1870, several militiamen were enjoying their favourite beverage in the company of a number of Canadians when Elzèar Goulet entered the Red Saloon. His entrance into the saloon at the southwest corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street triggered a reaction that emphasized the deep divisions within the community.
It was common knowledge in Red River that the Ontario militiamen had revenge uppermost in their minds for the March 4, 1870, execution of Thomas Scott by the Provisional Government led by Louis Riel. When the British regulars and Canadian militia arrived in the settlement, Riel had fled Fort Garry and crossed the Red River to St. Boniface to avoid the bloodshed the Ontario volunteers vowed to mete out to the “murderers” of Scott.
In particular, they cried out for the arrest and summary execution of the “traitor” Riel as well as his chief lieutenants Ambroise Lépine and William O’Donnoghue. They also reserved a portion of their wrath for those who had participated in the Metis-style court marshall that condemned Scott.
Goulet was a member of the jury that condemned Scott and a Provisional Government enforcer serving under Lépine. He was one of two men who escorted Scott to his place of execution outside the walls of Fort Garry where the blindfolded man was made to kneel before being shot by a firing squad. It was also rumoured that Goulet had participated in the hasty disposal of Scott’s remains. A rumour circulated that his body was pushed under the ice covering the Red River by Goulet and others. The whereabouts of Scott’s final resting place remains an enigma to this day.
What obsessed Goulet to enter the Red Saloon on the bad-luck day in September has not been recorded. Perhaps he felt the arrival of Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald 11 days earlier and his vow to maintain the peace signalled an end to the animosity seething among the factions in the community. He may have also believed the creation of the new province and the rights contained in the Manitoba Act of 1870 guaranteed everyone a peaceful existence under the protection of the Canadian government.
Even Riel originally believed he had been granted an amnesty by the Canadian government. Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot, who along with John Black and Alfred Scott was sent to Ottawa to negotiate Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian Confederation, told Riel that he had received a verbal promise of amnesty from Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant MP Sir George-Etienne Cartier. St. Boniface Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché had also been in Ottawa and repeated the claim that a general amnesty had been promised.
Once the Wolseley expedition arrived in Red River, Macdonald, motivated by the political expediency of placating Ontario voters, denied making the promise. The presence of troops also prevented anyone in Red River from opposing his alleged change of mind.
Goulet may have felt added confidence because the only arrest warrants issued by Wolseley had been for Riel, Lépine and O’Donnoghue.
His American citizenship may have also led Goulet to believe he was immune to the dangers posed by the Ontario militiamen who habituated the Red Saloon. Although born in St. Boniface on November 18, 1836, and having sided with Riel during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, Goulet was an American citizen who resided in Pembina on the south side of the Canada-U.S. border. Goulet was the mail carrier from 1860 to 1869 on the route between Upper Fort Garry and Pembina. It was only after Riel asked for support from the Métis in Pembina that Goulet came north.
What Goulet could not have known was that his entrance into the Red Saloon instigated the most dangerous phase of the “reign of terror” — a name given by Eastern newspapers to the factional conflict. The “reign of terror”in Manitoba began on September 6, when Schultz and three supporters ransacked the offices of the New Nation and assaulted its editor Thomas Spence. After the attack, the New Nation was unable to recommence publication and Schultz's News-Letter had a newspaper monopoly in the community until mid-October when the Manitoban started publication.
As Goulet entered the Red Saloon, someone pointed out to the militiamen that he was a member of the court marshall that condemned Scott.
According to author Alfred Campbell Garrioch (The Correction Line), a cleric born in Kildonan of mixed-blood parents in 1849 who sympathized with the Ontario faction, the “volunteers ... forthwith in their impatient and possibly befuddled state of mind they seem to have confused the bar of the Red Saloon with the bar of justice, and Goulet believing that they were likely then and there to subject him to condign punishment sought safety in flight, and being hard-pressed by the pursuing volunteers he plunged into the Red River and in the attempt to swim across, was drowned.”
What Garrioch did not relate was that pursuers threw rocks at the fleeing man as he attempted to swim to safety and one of the rocks struck Goulet in the head causing him to sink below the water’s surface.
Catholic priests on both sides of the border realized there would be serious ramifications resulting from Goulet’s death.
“I was in Pembina when the news of the poor Elzèar Goulet ... came; the information of this murder has caused much disturbance (at Pembina), but here (St. Joseph in U.S.) all is still quiet,” wrote Father LaFloch. “If the amnesty comes, I believe that all will be well; but, if it is late, I fear repercussions.
Concerned about the ramifications of Goulet’s death to the peace of the community, Archibald arranged an investigation. In his report following the investigation, Justice Francis Godschall Johnson told Archibald it was possible to make a murder case against James Farquharson who had incited three men to pursue Goulet. Farquharson was the father-in-law of Dr. John Christian Schultz, the leader of the Canadian Party who had been a thorn in the side of Riel throughout 1869-70.
The others mentioned for prosecution in a murder trial were Saunders and Madigan, volunteers in the Ontario Battalion, and Campbell, a voyageur who came west with the Wolseley expedition. They were the three men witnesses said had pursued Goulet.
Ottawa and the Colonial Office in London were sent copies of the report. In England, Lord Kimberley wrote on January 27, 1871, “that there was evidence enough to send the case to trial.” He forwarded his opinion and the report to the Law Officers of the Crown in London, who agreed that a prosecution was warranted.
Although these opinions were expressed in London in the New Year, Johnson indicated to Archibald a month earlier in December that he felt there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to trial.
Garrioch wrote, “... that owing to the excitement connected with the occurrence it was deemed wiser to let the matter rest, and it is resting still. It might be said that there was such a complication of circumstances that one was liable to acquiesce conscientiously in some course of action which involved perversion of justice.”
Garrioch, cited as a supporter of the Canadian Party, tried to justify the attack on Goulet as a response to the death of Scott. He called Goulet’s death “a strange modification of justice ...”
Garrioch said most of the volunteers from Ontario were “a fine lot of men,” while admitting, “there were bound to be among them some who would patronize the Red Saloon and would be sure to meet there a number of Métis ...,” including Goulet.
Dr. John O’Donnell, who served in Manitoba’s first Legislative Council and was a friend of Schultz, wrote in his book, Manitoba As I Saw It, that the four men involved in Goulet’s death “were no credit to either party, and were a class having no standing in the community ...”
As a justice of the peace, O’Donnell in 1873 signed the arrest warrants charging Riel and Lépine for the murder of Scott. Only Lépine was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to be executed, although Canadian Governor General Lord Dufferin commuted his sentence with the provision that he lose his civil rights.
André Nault, who led the firing squad that executed Scott, was also arrested and tried, but not convicted because of a hung jury. Two years earlier, Nault had been beaten, stabbed and left for dead in Pembina, presumably by men intent on avenging Scott’s death.
Riel did receive an amnesty in 1875, but was told by Macdonald he had to remain in exile for five years. While exiled in Montana, he became an American citizen, but returned north to lead the Métis during the Northwest Rebellion. In the aftermath of the 1885 rebellion, Riel was tried in Regina and executed for treason.
A few weeks after the death of Goulet, another alleged murder rocked the province.
“The tactics of the self-styled ‘Loyalist party’ of this Province, have taken a new phase,” according to a December 10, 1870, editorial in the Manitoban. “Their course, in the present political contest (Manitoba election slated for December 27), has generally taken the shape of rowdyism at meetings — preventing free discussion, and sometimes ‘pitching out’ or ‘kicking out’ ... those who differed from them in opinion.
“A new and more fatal development in their rowdyism occurred at Poplar Point (today along Hwy. 26 — historically a section of the old Carlton Trail — some 24 kilometres east of Portage la Prairie) on Wednesday evening of last week ...”
Following the meeting, James Tanner, who was described as “a venerable Half-breed of about 60 years of age,” was thrown from a wagon about 300 metres from the meeting hall.
According to the evidence provided to coroner Dr. Curtis James Bird, who became the Speaker of the Manitoba Legislature in 1873, Tanner had been seated at the back of the wagon with David Mackenzie.
John Tate, the driver, testified he saw “something thrown from the corner of the fence” and the horse bolted throwing Tanner out of the wagon.
Dr. James Spencer Lynch was on-hand to examine Tanner. He reported at the coroner ‘s inquest that Tanner had died about a half hour after the accident. While examining the body at a nearby house, Lynch said he found a two-inch fracture at the back of Tanner’s skull. A severe scalp wound suggested Tanner had been dragged on the top of his head, according to Lynch.
A day later Tate and McKenzie revisited the accident scene and found “some pea straw in a roll about two feet long, leaves of peas were also at the corner of the fence, and tracks of two persons, one with boots and the other with moccasins. There was some snow, and crossing the snow to the houses were the same tracks, going and returning along the fence — not the road. At one place, where they had been sitting were marks of knees.”
The bundle was traced to a nearby stack in a farmyard. In addition, the men found a splintered stick on the ground near where the horse had been startled.
Joseph Pritchin, who was following behind the Tate wagon, said he also saw an object thrown at the horse. He rode toward the two men who had allegedly thrown the object and shouted out, “You rascals!”
Pritchin said he was certain that the two men, who ran away when the horse bolted, had caused the accident.
The verdict delivered by coroner inquest jury foreman David Tait was that Tanner died from a skull fracture “caused by his being thrown out of a wagon while the horse of the said wagon was running away, and that the said horse was caused to run away wilfully and maliciously by two persons unknown to this Jury, thereby causing the death of the said James Tanner.”
Although the jury believed Tanner had been the victim of a malicious act, no one was ever charged and held responsible.
Lynch, a supporter of Schultz who had been imprisoned by the Riel government, attended the meeting with supporters from Portage la Prairie. At the meeting, he and Tanner were involved in a heated verbal exchange.
Lynch’s speech at the parish school house criticized Manitoba Lieutenant-governor Archibald and the Hudson’s Bay Company. He accused the HBC of being “criminally implicated in the rebellion” (of 1869-70).
“The very men who shout ‘rebel’ and ‘rebellion’ the loudest,” countered Tanner, “are now seeking election ... The very people who never lose an opportunity to stigmatize as ‘disloyal,’ but who, nevertheless, are just as loyal as themselves. We are all ‘loyal’ in this country ... Pray, who were the rebels.”
“The French of course,” answered Lynch.
“Against whom did they rebel?” asked Tanner.
“Against the legally constituted authorities of the country,” replied Lynch.
“And who were they?” asked Tanner.
“The Hudson’s Bay Company,” replied Lynch.
“The rebellion was against the Hudson’s Bay Company, and yet you say that the Company was as much in the rebellion as Riel and his party,” said Tanner. “That would be a strange kind of rebellion indeed.”
Tanner pointed out that Canada had no legal standing in Red River during the time of the rebellion. In fact, the legal transfer of the title for Rupert’s Land from the HBC to Canada did not occur until June 1870.
Tanner said the real “rebels” were “those who took up arms to make good the usurpation of Canada ... when some of our ‘old’ settlers resolved to oppose that unceremonious absorption, others (Tanner cited “strangers” from Eastern Canada), took up arms on behalf of Canada’s pretensions. The latter are rebels.”
It is quite possible that the heated exchange was frowned upon by “loyal” Canadians who later extracted their revenge by causing Tate’s horse to bolt, resulting in Tanner’s death.
The deaths of Goulet and Tanner did contribute to a poisoned relationship in Manitoba between the Catholic French-speaking Métis and Protestant English-speaking newcomers. The Métis were so fearful that they rarely ventured across the Red River to Winnipeg, preferring the relative safety of St. Boniface.
The Manitoban accused Schultz of using his newspaper — the News-Letter — to slander the “Catholics of the country” and “cause a breach of the peace.”
Despite stating a desire for “friendly relations” and an end to “petty strife,” the language used in the News-Letter appears to be intentionally inflammatory. An editorial on October 22, 1870, talked of the “designing trio (Riel, Lépine, O’Donnoghue) of scoundrels,” who “succeeded in turning friendliness into hate, and rousing the worst feelings of our nature.”
On October 11, 1870, a letter signed by Spot (it was then common for letter writers to use a nom de plume) appeared which talked of “the infamous proceedings of the late rebel scoundrels — their robberies, the indignities inflicted on the settlers (from Ontario), and the murder of Scott ... and I don’t mean to forget or forgive. All that about peace at any price, and letting bygones be bygones is simply bosh and arrant humbug.”
The vehement opposition prompted Archibald to remark that beatings were so frequent that the Métis virtually existed in “a state of slavery.”
Criticism of Archibald and the measures he took to maintain peace among the warring factions drew criticism from “loyal” Canadians.
Manitoba historian Alexander Begg, who came to Red River in 1867 from Quebec, in his book, History of the North-West, said Archibald acted in the best interests of Manitoba, “and it was well-known to him that a mere spark at the time was only needed to send the whole French population into open revolt — a fact that was not so well understood by his critics.”
One consequence of Goulet’s death was that some dissatisfied Métis from Pembina supported the Fenian raid of 1871. While the raid was a farce, nipped in the bud by U.S. soldiers before it could be effectively launched into Manitoba, three Métis men from Pembina with family connections to Goulet were charged with treason and placed on trial in Winnipeg for siding with the Fenians.
Only Louison “Oiseau” Letendre was found guilty. His death sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison after the U.S. government intervened as he was an American citizen. In response to American government pressure, Letendre (also spelled L’Entredre in early newspaper accounts of his trial) was released in January 1873 and told not to return to Canada for 20 years.
On the other hand, Riel and a band of “200 armed able-bodied Métis,” as reported by Macdonald’s spy master Gilbert McMicken, answered Archibald’s call to repel the invaders. In fact, the vast majority of Métis in Manitoba were loyal to queen and country.
It would be another few years before relative calm returned to the Manitoba political scene. This result was primarily due to changing demographics in the province brought on by mass immigration from Ontario and Europe and the exodus of many frustrated Métis who headed west to start over again in the Saskatchewan District.