The hanging of Louis Riel on November 16, 1885, created a controversy that has lasted over 100 years. Viewed by some as a saviour, and by some as a traitor, Riel nevertheless became the voice of the Métis people during a turbulent time in Canadian history, and was largely responsible for the entrance of the province of Manitoba into Confederation.
Louis Riel was born on the Red River Settlement, Manitoba. It was said that he had one eighth Indian blood, as his maternal grandmother was a Franco-Chipewyan Métis. He completed his studies in St. Boniface, Manitoba. At that time, Riel was noticed by Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché who wanted him to become a priest, but, following the death of his father, Riel abandoned that idea and in 1865, he became a law-office clerk in order to provide for his family.
On his return to Red River in July 1866 from Montréal, Riel entered into the political arena. Charles Mair, a friend of Lieutenant-Governor William McDougall, was sent to Red River to begin surveying for the construction of a road linking Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to Lake of the Woods. In January 1869, he published a series of articles openly criticizing the Métis. The following month, Riel wrote a reply in the Le nouveau monde magazine of Montréal, in which he defended the Métis.
The Red River Settlement land-surveying episode set in motion the irrevocable rise in tensions between the Métis and the federal authorities. The need for the Métis to organize themselves became obvious and Riel assumed the leadership of the movement. In August 1869, from the top of the steps in front of St. Boniface Cathedral, he declared that surveying the Settlement's land was a threat to its very existence. With the support of Father Noël-Joseph Ritchot, the Comité national was organized.
The political organization of the Métis continued as a convention of representatives from the Métis and Anglophone population was set up. Four "Lists of Rights" were drafted. These constituted the basis of the negotiations leading to the entry of Manitoba into Canadian confederation.
Riel established a provisional government on December 8, 1869. The provisional government's goal was to manage the settlers' lives and protect their material goods. The Conservative government of John A. Macdonald sent a goodwill delegation composed of Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault and Charles-René-Léonidas d'Irumberry of Salaberry to explain the reasons behind the federal government's actions and to reassure the Métis population. But following the failure of that mission, Donald A. Smith, special representative for the Hudson's Bay Company, arrived at the Red River Settlement at the end of December 1869. Smith's arrival on the scene hastened the events. A new convention grouping 40 Métis and Anglophone representatives met and on January 26, 1870, drafted a second List of Rights. On February 7, the convention discussed the list with the support of Smith, Thibault and Salaberry. Although Riel maintained that those three men held no real authority, Smith's announcement that Ottawa was ready to welcome a delegation sent by the provisional government motivated him to review the List of Rights and draft a third version. On March 22, 1870, a fourth and final version of the List of Rights was drafted and sent to Ottawa by the trio of Ritchot, John Black and Alfred H. Scott, all chosen by the committee to represent the provisional government.
At that time, Riel played a more secondary role in the events that were taking place in Ottawa. He was devoted above all to the affairs of the Red River Settlement. He put the focus on the governance of the Hudson's Bay Company in order to allow trading to resume and took care of maintaining peace in the settlement. When Ritchot returned to the settlement to report on the negotiations with Ottawa, he met Riel who seemed very satisfied with the results and who henceforth believed he was protected by an indemnity promised to the participants in the "rebellion." The provisional government ratified the agreement leading to the Manitoba Act on June 24, 1870. The future seemed promising for Riel.
The execution of Thomas Scott by the provisional government the winter before, would prove to have serious repercussions. Ottawa, bowing to pressure from the Orangemen in Ontario, sent a military expedition to Red River. Its official mission was peaceful, but Riel feared, with reason, the influence that the young Orangemen from Ontario had over all the troops. Riel learned that the soldiers intended to lynch him. On August 24, 1870, he left Upper Fort Garry, convinced that the federal government would not in fact grant him any indemnity. He went into exile in Dakota, approximately 15 kilometres south of the Canadian border.
In 1871 Adams George Archibald, the new lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, recruited men in order to form an army of volunteers to guard against the threat of Fenian raids from the U.S. Riel registered and became the leader of a cavalry company. When Archibald returned to St. Boniface to inspect his troops, he had to shake the hands of each of the leaders, including Louis Riel. That gesture outraged many people, including Charles Mair. In the eyes of Prime Minister Macdonald, such an ideological confrontation between French and English Canada had to be avoided at all costs, especially during that election year. Fearing for his life, Riel went into exile in the United States. Still trying to obtain amnesty, he was elected without contest in a by-election in October 1873 and in the February 1874 election (following the resignation of the Macdonald government), but he never returned to Ottawa, still fearing for his life.
Following many years of incessant stress, Riel suffered mental exhaustion, which in 1876, forced him to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Montréal, then in Beauport, close to Québec. From 1877 to 1884, he stayed in the United States, between Keeseville, N.Y. (close to Montréal) and Montana, and obtained American citizenship in 1883.
On returning to Saskatchewan in 1884, he found that the Métis and the First Nations in southern Saskatchewan had a number of grievances. At that time, Riel started to mix his political ideals with a theology that distanced him from the Catholic clergy, who had supported him in the past. After many attempts to vindicate what the federal government, according to him, owed the First Nations and Métis, Riel, convinced that many hundreds of men in the North West Mounted Police were advancing towards them, formed a provisional government in Batoche, Saskatchewan.
Those actions angered English Canada, which, not willing to understand the validity of the Métis' and First Nations' claims, called on the Macdonald government to act. It sent the Canadian militia to Batoche, Calgary and Battleford, Saskatchewan. The Indian and Métis resistance could not survive against the strength of the Canadian militia. On May 12, 1885, the rebellion ended. Riel gave himself up to the North West Mounted Police. Accused of treason, he was tried in Regina where he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Louis Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885, in the North West Mounted Police quarters in Regina.