Riel, Louis (DNB00)

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RIEL, LOUIS (1844–1885), Canadian insurgent leader, born on 23 Oct. 1844, at St. Boniface, Manitoba, was son of Louis Riel by his wife Marguerite Boucher. The father, who was partly of Irish descent, gained a position of influence among the ‘Half Breeds’ of Red River, Canada, and led a revolt against the Canadian government in 1849. Louis, the son, was educated at the Roman catholic seminary in Montreal, and returned to Red River as a settler.

In October 1869 Riel became the secretary of a ‘Comité National des Métis,’ an association formed to resist in the half-breed interest the incorporation of the North-West Territories in the Canadian Dominion. It very rapidly roused the half-breeds to active opposition. Riel attracted the notice of Sir John Macdonald [q. v.], who, on 20 Nov. 1869, suggested that some employment should be found for him in the police (Pope, Memoirs of Sir John Macdonald, vol. ii.) On 8 Dec. 1869, however, he was elected by his followers president of a provisional government, and established himself at Fort Garry, making himself master of the stores, and confining sixty persons as political prisoners. Early in 1870 (Sir) Donald Smith was sent up with special instructions to secure a peaceful settlement; but Riel, who at times showed an inclination to be guided by his advice, vacillated greatly, and on 5 Feb. took the violent measure of seizing Inspector Bolton and his men; he afterwards ‘executed’ Thomas Scott, one of his prisoners. Military action thus became inevitable. Riel successfully defeated local attempts to crush him, and it was needful to send out the Red River expedition under Colonel (afterwards Lord) Wolseley, which successfully suppressed the insurrection in August and September 1870. Riel fled to the United States, and the Ontario government offered a reward of five thousand dollars for his apprehension as the murderer of Scott.

Gradually Riel seems to have come into touch once more with the malcontents of the North-West, and in October 1873 he was, in his absence, returned to the Dominion Houses of Parliament as member for Provencher. He did not at once venture to take his seat, but in January 1874, when he was re-elected, he subscribed the oaths. On 16 April he was expelled by vote of the house; on 3 Sept. he was again returned by his constituency. On 15 Oct. a warrant of outlawry for five years was issued against him, and he retired again to the United States, where, for a time, he was confined in Beaufort lunatic asylum. There is some evidence that during this period of retirement he was in 1878 in communication with the fenians, and proposed to them the conquest of the North-West Territories. In June 1884 Riel's old friends, becoming discontented with the settlement of the land question in the North-West Provinces, sent a deputation to bring him from St. Peter's Mission in the States. With little delay he returned, explained his views in an address to the half-breeds, and formulated a ‘bill of rights’ for presentation to the Dominion government. On 24 Feb. 1885 he organised a meeting, at which a formal request was made to him that he should stay in the country. Immediately afterwards matters assumed a serious aspect, and the government began to take precautions. On 17 March, at a meeting at St. Laurent, a provisional government was formed, with Louis ‘David’ Riel as president (the second christian name he had not previously used). The next day the government's provisions and stores were seized. Some officials and others were made prisoners, and the telegraph wires were cut. Bands of Indians joined the insurgents, and marauding excursions were set on foot. Riel declared for a ‘war of extermination.’ At first success attended his efforts; Duck Lake post was captured, and Major Crozier evacuated Carlton. But the Dominion government acted with vigour. A force of three thousand militia was sent to the front, and as soon as was possible a decisive blow was struck at the rebel position at Batoche, with the result that the rebellion was practically at an end. Riel was captured by a scout on 15 May, and on 28 July he was brought up for trial at Regina on a charge of high treason. He pleaded not guilty. His counsel rested their defence mainly on the plea of insanity. He was found guilty, but recommended to mercy. In his address to the court he claimed to be the ‘prophet of the new world,’ and to have a mission to fulfil. He was sentenced to death, reprieved three times so as to allow of full examination by medical experts, and finally executed on 16 Nov. 1885. In the last days of his life he made submission to the Roman catholic church, and recanted some eccentric religious views. He was buried at St. Boniface.

Riel left behind some ‘rhapsodical compositions,’ both in prose and verse.

[Morgan's Canadian Dominion Annual Register of 1884 and 1885.]

C. A. H.