by Sean Sullivan
Table of Contents
The immediate post-Confederation era was an uncertain time for Canada. Virtually every incident that occurred aggravated pre-existing linguistic, cultural and geographic divisions, or heightened fears of annexation by the United States. The Red River Rebellion encompassed all of these issues. It illustrated the impact of the printed word on public perception and remains one of the most pivotal events in Canadian history.
Like all major Canadian newspapers of the time, the Canadian Illustrated News (the News) observed the uprising in the Red River Settlement and its controversial Métis leader, Louis Riel, with great interest. Of significance is how the magazine's perceptions of the revolt change over time and how this differs from the accounts of other contemporary newspapers. Unlike other papers that praise or condemn Riel and his followers, the Canadian Illustrated News sought to maintain its objectivity and consistently encouraged restraint over retribution.
Brief Overview of the Red River Rebellion
In 1869, an agreement was reached with the Hudson's Bay Company for the transfer of Rupert's Land, which included the Red River Settlement, to the Dominion of Canada. However, the people of the Red River Settlement were unprepared for this sudden change. Some important questions lingered. What form would the new civil administration take? When would it assume control? Why was the population of Rupert's Land not consulted to discuss the agreement? Finally, most disconcerting to the populace was the new wave of Canadian and American settlers moving into the area, which led to growing concern that the rights of the Red River community would not be preserved nor their claims to the land honoured. For their part, the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian Government did little to assuage these fears.
The Métis settlers made up the largest percentage of the population of Red River and were of French and Aboriginal ancestry. For them, the preservation of rights was an especially important question. Their mixed heritage made them the target of racial bigotry and discrimination.
By October 1869 dissent was so great among the population of Red River that a group of Métis under the leadership of Louis Riel refused to allow a Canadian delegation to enter the territory. William McDougall had been sent by the Canadian Government to assume the title of Lieutenant Governor following the formal transfer of the territories to Canadian control. Riel also blocked government surveyors from entering Rupert's Land. The Red River Rebellion had begun.
On December 8, 1869, the Métis formed a provisional government and Louis Riel issued the "Declaration of the People of Rupert's Land in the Northwest." Riel, who had previously only been the Secretary of the Métis movement, formally assumed the mantel of leadership on December 27 when President John Bruce resigned.
However, Riel's reign was to be short-lived. In March, 1870, he made a fatal error. In response to resistance against him, Riel put a prisoner, Thomas Scott, to death for insubordination. Scott, a recent settler from Ontario, was a supporter of Manitoba's entry into Confederation and a vocal critic of Riel. The death of Scott enraged English-speaking Canadians who called for Riel's execution. Even those who had been sympathetic to Riel in the past found it difficult to understand why he had ordered the death of a man who, ultimately, was only guilty of insolence and profanity. The death of Thomas Scott was the turning point of the Rebellion. Following this event, Riel and his followers would face resentment and even outright hostility when negotiating a settlement with the Canadian Government.
Only days after the execution of Thomas Scott, the provisional government released most of their remaining prisoners in exchange for a promise that the rights of the Red River settlers would be protected. In addition, on April 8, Fort Garry was returned to the control of the Hudson's Bay Company until a formal transfer to Canadian authorities could be arranged. In July 1870, the provisional government accepted entry into Confederation and the province of Manitoba was created.
Throughout these proceedings, Riel thought that he would be granted amnesty for the killing of Scott. However, as a military expedition, sent from the East, neared the settlement, it became clear that the militiamen, with the overwhelming support of Anglophones in Ontario, sought to avenge the execution of Thomas Scott. This was illustrated by the commander of the expedition Col. Garnett Wolsely who later said:
I was glad Riel did not come out and surrender, as he at one time said he would, for I could not then have hanged him as I might have done had I taken him prisoner when in arms against his sovereign.1
Realizing that his freedom and perhaps his life was in danger, Riel fled in August to avoid arrest just as the expedition was arriving at Red River.
Another 15 years would pass before Riel would once again capture the nation's attention by leading yet another rebellion in the North West. This time, he would not escape, and the Canadian Government would hang him for his actions.
Conflicting Views of Red River in Print
For newspapers in the East, it was difficult to get accurate information on what was happening in Red River. There were no telegraphs or other forms of communication linking east and west. Most papers had to rely on word of mouth. Consequently, the majority of the reports coming out of Red River were biased for or against the revolt. For the most part, Ontario papers received their information from former Ontarians living in Red River. They portrayed the settlers as eager to become part of Canada. Quebec papers depicted these same Ontarians as interlopers who were attempting to exert undue influence over the settlement's population.2 American papers, hoping to encourage Manitoba's split with the rest of Canada, reported that Riel had the support of almost the entire community of Red River.3
The media's diverse perceptions of conditions within Red River defined how segments of the Canadian population responded to Riel. Believing that the settlers of Red River were eager to join Confederation, Ontarians could only assume that Riel was ruling with an iron fist. The Sarnia Observer called him a tyrant.4 Even before Thomas Scott was killed, Anglophone papers strongly condemned the actions of the Métis. One of the more inflammatory statements appeared in the Niagara Mail on Jan 12:
Let the Dominion Government offer three or four hundred acres of land to every Canadian volunteer who will go up next spring to Red River, and enough good fellows will be found to put Riel and his followers under the sod 5.
Inundated with angry statements such as these, Ontarians became adamant that Riel be arrested, especially after the execution of Thomas Scott.
At odds with this view were Quebecers who perceived Ontario's primary aim in the West to be the destruction of French Catholicism.6 One of the more outrageous claims was made against William McDougall. In January 1870, the following appeared in Le Journal de Québec; "Ils (McDougall) sont allés jusqu'à dire qu'il avait fait mettre à mort deux prêtres et insulté un évêque."7 With reports such as these, it is not surprising that Francophones were more sympathetic to Riel's efforts. As a consequence of the media's failure to find consensus, they played a significant role in deepening the crisis in the Red River by exacerbating tensions between Anglophones and Francophones. The notable exception to this was the Canadian Illustrated News.
The Canadian Illustrated News and Written Perceptions of Riel
The creator and first editor of the Canadian Illustrated News (the News) was Georges Desbarats. Due to Desbarats' French background, he did not want to alienate either his mainly English-speaking readership or his heritage by printing strong opinions on the issue of Riel. While other Anglophone papers were vilifying Riel, the News chose to take a more moderate view. From its reports, the News apparently regarded the Métis leader with grudging admiration. In January 1870, the magazine spoke of the advantages of pacifying Rupert's Land and establishing a stable government which would encourage British Columbia to join Confederation and not the United States. At the same time, they commended Riel for succeeding in keeping the "insurrection" free from bloodshed. Louis Riel, one report stated, " is a man of considerable ability."8
As information about the revolt in the west was slow in reaching Ontario, reports from the Canadian Illustrated News did not seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation. However, by the end of January this began to change. On January 29, the News commented on the revolt: "Facts are being developed tending to show that it is more serious than has been heretofore anticipated."9 However, whereas other magazines blamed either the Hudson's Bay Company or the Canadian Government for the mishandling of the affair, the News did not choose a scapegoat. Instead, negotiation was encouraged to bring the Rebellion to a swift end.
Most historians would agree that the execution of Thomas Scott was Riel's greatest blunder. Andrew Begg, one of the first scholars to write on the Rebellion, argued that if Riel had simply refrained from bloodshed he would not have been exiled.10 Even moderate papers such as the News became hardened against the Métis leader. On April 9, the paper wrote: "The execution of Scott is a cowardly murder, and was performed in a most barbarous manner."11 The News argued that even if Scott had been guilty of the accused crimes, he did not deserve to be put to death. Following this incident, the News became an enthusiastic supporter of the expedition to liberate the Red River.
Although the News began to take a harder line against Riel, it still advocated restraint toward the Métis people; "acrimonious and insulting attacks upon the people of Red River should not be indulged by the press."12 The News recognized that if the Métis were aware of intense hostility towards them, it might prompt them to take up arms against the military expedition approaching the settlement. The News felt that any potentially controversial issues should be set aside until after the Canadian Government took control in Red River.
Perhaps the most contentious issue to surface in the aftermath of the Red River Rebellion was the question of amnesty for the Métis leaders. Once again, the Canadian Illustrated News took a dispassionate view. The paper argued that if the Government wanted to grant amnesty, they had no legal basis for doing so until after a conviction had been obtained. Since the Red River settlement was not a part of Canada at the time of the revolt, the Canadian Government did not even have the jurisdiction to charge the rebel leaders in the first place.13 In the end, the News remained a strong proponent of the rule of law over vigilante justice.
In an era where the majority of Canadian newspapers had visible political affiliations, the Canadian Illustrated News (the News) succeeded in divorcing itself from emotional reactions in an effort to maintain its objectivity. Unlike many other papers of the time, it had a keen understanding of its ability to influence public sentiment and did not abuse this power. During a crisis which had the potential to flame out of control, the News was a calming influence, quelling the fires of discontent.
Depictions of the Red River Rebellion in Pictures
One of the earliest pictures of Louis Riel appearing in the Canadian Illustrated News (the News) was featured in the January 15, 1870 issue. This hand-drawn portrait depicts Riel sporting a fur coat and buckskins and carrying a rifle with a racoon or beaver hat draped over the muzzle. He has a holstered gun and knife tied around his waist. However, symbolic of his Métis heritage, Riel mixes European fashion with Native wear, as a bow tie is visible underneath his coat. Riel's face is stern and determined. While he does not have a full beard, he is also not clean shaven. His posture portrays a man who is rugged and unyielding.
Taken together, the picture seems to envision Riel as the quintessential 19th-century frontiersman similar to his American counterpart, Davey Crockett. The artist appeared to be illustrating Riel as a heroic and noble figure.14
On the cover of the April 23, 1870 issue, the News printed a picture of the execution of Thomas Scott. While Riel is not featured in the picture, the image that is projected of his regime stands in stark contrast to the previous picture published only a few months earlier. The picture is designed to shock the reader with its brutality. The bound figure of Scott lies on the ground blindfolded and helpless. Blood flows from his head. The shooter's mannerism, expression and clothing evoke the image of an outlaw. Significant as well, is the reaction of Riel's men to the execution. Judging by their faces and posture, most are horrified by this killing. This may be a subtle attempt on the part of the artist to isolate Riel from his people in the minds of Ontarians by portraying him as a mad man who rules by terror.15
A year after the Red River Expedition arrived in Manitoba, the News printed sketches made during the trip. Rather than portray the gruelling and arduous aspects of the journey, the News made a conscious decision to focus on the lighter moments. The illustrations depict men cooking around a fire or portaging. In most of the pictures, the men appear to be in good spirits and are enjoying themselves as they carry out their tasks. Some of the sketches are even comical.16 This casts a more pleasant light on what was at the time a difficult and even dangerous journey.
1. J. M. Bumsted, The Red River Rebellion (Toronto: Watson and Dwyer. 1996) p. 217.
2. A. I. Silver, "Nineteenth Century News Gathering and the Mythification of Riel," Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture, Ramon Hathorn, Patrick Holland, eds. (Lewiston: Edwin Meller Press, 1992) p. 67.
3. Ibid., p. 74.
4. The Sarnia Observer, February 25, 1870 as quoted in Fate, Hope and Editorials, Helen Elliot, ed. (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1967) p. 107.
5. Niagara Mail, January 12, 1870 as quoted in Fate, Hope and Editorials, Helen Elliot, ed. (Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1967) p. 89.
6. Ibid., p. 81.
7. Translation: "They (McDougall) went as far as to say that he had had two priests put to death and had insulted a bishop." Le Journal de Quebec, January 3, 1870, No. 202, p. 2.
8. Canadian Illustrated News, January 15, 1870, Vol. I, p. 162.
9. Canadian Illustrated News, January 29, 1870, Vol. I, p. 194.
10. Andrew Begg, The Creation of Manitoba or a History of the Red River Troubles, (Toronto: Hunter Rose Co., 1871) p. 304.
11. Canadian Illustrated News, April 9, 1870, Vol. I, p. 358.
12. Canadian Illustrated News, June 25, 1870, Vol. I, p. 534.
13. Ibid., p. 534.
14. Canadian Illustrated News, January 15, 1870, Vol. I, p. 161, ill.
15. Canadian Illustrated News, April 23, 1870, Vol. I, p. 385, ill.
16. Canadian Illustrated News, August 26, 1871, Vol. IV, p. 136, ill.
- Canadian Illustrated News. Vols. I, IV.
- Le Journal de Québec. No. 202 (January 3, 1870).
- Begg, Andrew. The Creation of Manitoba or a History of the Red River Troubles. Toronto: Hunter Rose, 1871.
- Bumsted, J. M. The Red River Rebellion. Toronto: Watson and Dwyer, 1996.
- Desbarats, Peter, ed. Canadian Illustrated News: A Commemorative Portfolio. Vol 1: Historical Introduction. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970.
- Elliot, Helen, ed. Fate, Hope and Editorials. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1967.
- Silver, A. I. "Nineteenth Century News Gathering and the Mythification of Riel." Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture, Ramon Hathorn, Patrick Holland, eds. Lewiston: Edwin Meller Press, 1992.