5 facts about Manitoba’s founder Louis Riel

Louis Riel with Councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation.

Images of Louis Riel and the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation, from Wikimedia Commons  Public Domain

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What do you know about the founder of Manitoba? Read these five major facts about him to know more about his life and accomplishments.

  1. He was of Métis descent

    Born in the Red River Settlement (in what is now Manitoba) in 1844, Louis Riel is said to have one-eighth Indian blood, with his paternal grandmother being a Franco-Chipewyan Métisse. His father was an influential person in the Métis community while his mother was French Canadian.

    The Métis are proud descendants of French Canadian coureurs de bois (unlicensed fur traders in the 17th and 18th centuries) and voyageurs (a worker or minor partner in a company or independent contractor involved in the fur trade) and native mothers. They were great buffalo hunters of the plains who saw their way of life threatened by the arrival of English-speaking Canadians from the East (Historica Canada, Louis Riel).

  2. He was a leader, teacher, and politician

    Early in his life, Louis Riel was a promising student. He was sent to Montreal to train for priesthood and then later to train as a lawyer. Despite his academic excellence, he never graduated. In 1868, he returned to the Red River area and quickly established himself as a leader of the Métis. Well-educated and eloquent, he led the Metis National Committee in protecting the social, cultural and political status of the Metis in the Northwest. This led to the Red River Rebellion, part of which was the formation of a provisional government which issued the Manitoba Act. This paved the way for Manitoba to be part of the Confederation.

    His role in the rebellion met strong opposition in Ontario. He was denounced as a murderer (see Thomas Scott) so Riel fled to the US. When he returned, he went back to politics and won a seat in the House of Commons, three times. However, he was unable to take a seat in the house due to continued opposition. In 1875, Riel was given amnesty by the federal government on the condition that he be exiled. Shortly after, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent time in a hospital in Montreal and a mental asylum in Quebec. In 1879-1883, Riel reintegrated with the Metis in Montana Territory (in the US) and married a Metis woman, Marguerite Monet, dit Bellehumeur. Prior to the 1885 rebellion, he was a schoolteacher at St. Peter’s Mission in Montana.

  3. He is regarded as the founder of Manitoba because:

    In 1869-1870, he headed the Metis National Committee which was consolidated into a provisional government. This provisional government would negotiate the Manitoba Act with the Canadian Government and lead to the establishment of Manitoba as a province in 1870. The Act also provided some protection for French language rights and ensured the province would be bilingual.

  4. He was controversial

    To the Metis, Louis Riel was a hero and eloquent spokesman for the people, but for majority of the settlers of the Canadian West, he was a villain. And although history marked his efforts as a leader and visionary, there were also accounts that painted him as a madman, traitor and a delusional zealot. In fact, many historians depicted Riel as “just a treasonous troublemaker” until the middle of the 20th century.

    Riel’s path to the gallows began when Métis from Saskatchewan sought Riel’s help to present their grievances to the government (1885). As the federal government ignored the Métis’ concerns despite Riel’s plea, the group declared a provisional government. This led to the short-lived 1885 Rebellion which lasted only two months. Throughout the rebellion, Riel never carried arms but he was staunch in his belief that he was chosen to lead the Métis people of the Canadian Northwest.

    Finally, the Canadians overwhelmed the Métis soldiers and Riel surrendered. He was taken to Regina to stand trial for treason. Despite being offered a way out through a plea of insanity, Riel rejected this and instead delivered two long speeches during his trial, proving his sanity.

    He was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885. His execution caused an outcry in Quebec and a notable change in local and national politics.

  5. He is buried at the St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg

    Louis Riel’s remains are buried in the Sainte-Boniface Cathedral Cemetery, just across the Red River. His grave, marked with a tombstone set in red stone, is a well-visited historic site. Louis Riel continues to be honored in Manitoba through other landmarks in Winnipeg like Riel Avenue and the city’s iconic pedestrian bridge, Esplanade Riel. Likewise, statues of the leader have been erected at historic sites such as the front grounds of St. Boniface Museum, Université de Saint Boniface, and the South grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building. Louis Riel Day is celebrated by Manitobans every third Monday of February. It is an official holiday in the province.

Sources: Historica Canada; The Canadian Encyclopedia; Louis Riel, University of Saskatechewan Library; Riel, Louis (1844-85) by Lewis H. Thomas, Dictionary of Canadian Biography; Louis Riel’s Gravestone, Atlas Obscura.

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Community Resources

Visit the Riel House in Winnipeg, which was occupied by the Riel family until 1969. It is a National Historic Site. You can have free admission with a Free Parks Canada pass.

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