Louis Riel Day

The children of Manitoba are more astute than the professional politicians who rule Ontario. Those politicians, in their wisdom, decided that Ontario’s new long overdue February holiday would be called “Family Day”. By contrast, when 100 schools in Manitoba were given a choice, among the random and funny holiday names submitted (ranging from “Bison Break” to “Winnipeg Jets Day”), fully eleven schools chose “Louis Riel Day”.[1] And so today, February 18 2008, Manitobans get a day off in honour of a man, who on November 16, 1885, was executed[2] for standing up against the first expressions of Canadian imperialism.

The Canadian state – effectively a sovereign state from 1848 – officially came into being in with Confederation in 1867. Its first project was a straightforwardly imperialist one – expand into and conquer the western lands, so Europeans could settle them, with or without the consent of the people’s inhabiting those lands. An interesting history of this period dubs these lands west of Lake Superior as “Canada’s First Colony.”[3] Forget what you have read about Canada being an “oppressed” neo-colony. Canada emerges into history as a capitalist and imperialist power.

Riel’s people were the Métis, who, as Riel wrote just before he was hanged, “have as their paternal ancestors the former employees of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies; and as their maternal ancestors Indian women belonging to different tribes.”[4] Riel’s people “made up the majority of the population in the Red River settlement” in what is today Manitoba. “[T]hey were kinsmen of the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot.”[5] Their territory was part of the “North West” – a vast territory that was a protectorate of Britain, who had “delegated all ruling authority in the region to the Hudson’s Bay Company”[6] which “imposed a ‘seigniorial despotism’ on the colony.”[7]

In the wake of Confederation in 1867, Liberal and Tory representatives of the new Canadian state were united in coveting these North West Territories. Liberal leader of the opposition, Alexander Mackenzie, said that because central Canada no longer had “vast tracts of fertile land,” he was “prepared to do all in his power to assist in the acquisition and opening up of the North Western territory.” Macdonald’s intentions were starkly revealed in his private correspondence. In a letter to J.Y. Bown, member of parliament from Ontario, he said that “the game was to establish calm with the ‘wild people’ of Red River by unspecified yet ‘considerable management’ until enough newcomers like Bown’s brother had moved west. “’In another year,’ he wrote, ‘the present residents will be altogether swamped by the influx of strangers.’”[8]

But Macdonald failed to take into account the resistance of the Métis. In October 1869, Riel was central in the formation of the “Comité national des Métis”. By August 1870, This Métis Committee had 500 armed horsemen, and was able to block access to their territory to representatives from Ottawa.[9] On December 8, the Métis leadership published the magnificent “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West.” “A people,” it said, “when it has no government, is free to adopt one form of government in preference to another …”[10]

The resistance of the Métis led to a major concession. The Manitoba Act, passed on May 12, 1870, established a new province giving equal rights to the French language. But secretly the Tories were at the same time, planning a use of military force to make sure that the new province was under theirs and not Riel’s control. Riel barely escaped with his life, was forced into exile, and the Métis moved west to what is today Saskatchewan.

Their reprieve was short-lived. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan lay in the road of the great instrument of Canadian capitalism – the railroad. Stanley Ryerson, who is without peer as a historian of early Canadian history, describes the railways as “both an instrument of colonialism – extracting raw materials and semi-processed products required by the metropolis – and … engines of industrialization, stimulating the growth of local manufactures and of a home market.”[11] It was Macdonald’s life-ambition to secure Canadian sovereignty across the entire North West, that meant finishing the railway, and that meant imperialism and the use of force.

The military intervention against the Métis in 1870 had been stymied by the absence of the railway. But by 1885, rail lines had been pushed across Ontario, across Manitoba and into Saskatchewan. The coming of the rails and industrial capitalism brought with it also the military force of Canadian imperialism. So this time, when the Métis stood against the forces of Canadian expansion, 3,000 troops came down the rails to confront them – an overwhelming force against the few hundred poorly armed Métis. The rebellion was crushed, Riel was tried and hung, and – in the same month that the execution took place – the transcontinental railway was completed.

Studying this rebellion can teach us much. Resistance – even when unsuccessful in the immediate term – can spur important change. Macdonald, worried about keeping the Métis rebellion of 1885 localized, made major concessions, including “a diversionary franchise bill that included proposals for nearly universal suffrage for white men and extension of the vote to certain single women and the Six Nations of Loyalist Indians in Ontario.”[12] This in spite of the fact that, according to his biographer Joseph Pope, “Macdonald, until the last day of his life viewed universal suffrage ‘as one of the greatest evils that could befall a state … The idea that a man should vote simply because he breathed was ever repellant to Sir John Macdonald’s conception of government.”[13]

We can also learn that in Canada in 1885, the one place there was huge sympathy for this rebellion against imperialism was in Quebec. On November 22, 1885, reports one unsympathetic historian, “an enormous mass meeting of protest” was held “in the Champ de Mars, in Montreal … a total of thirty-seven speakers competed with each other in ferocious denunciations of the ‘hangman’s government’ at Ottawa.”[14]

The Quebec people identified with the Riel rebellions in part because the Métis spoke French. As one historian says, the goal of the Tories was to transform “the Quebec of the West into a new Ontario.”[15] But the people of Quebec – just like the kinsmen of “the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot” who rebelled in 1870 and 1885 – had also known rebellion and repression. It was just 1837 that Quebec’s own attempt at achieving sovereignty was crushed. In the aftermath, in 1838, the jails were “packed with prisoners.” Eventually, 58 prisoners were deported to Australia and 12 executed – including one 18 year old, two aged 20, and one just 23.[16]

So hats off to the school children of Manitoba – thanks to them, Louis Riel has a day in his honour (and John A. Macdonald does not). Thanks to them, Riel will be remembered, at least every February. And if we remember Riel, we just might get a clearer insight into the imperialist nature of the Canadian state – and of an absolutely inspiring history of resistance.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “Manitoba’s new holiday: Louis Riel Day,” CBCnews, September 27, 2007
[2] Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada, 1973), pp. 438-9
[3] D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), pp. 19-32
[4] Cited in Stanley Ryerson, Unequal Union: Confederation and the Roots of Conflict in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1975), p. 379
[5] Ryerson, p. 380
[6] Sprague, p. 19
[7] Sprague, p. 4
[8] Sprague, p. 30
[9] Ryerson, pp. 384-5
[10] Cited in Ryerson, p. 386
[11] Ryerson, p. 258
[12] Sprague, p. 176
[13] Cited in Ryerson, p. 355
[14] Creighton, p. 442
[15] Sprague, p. ix
[16] Ryerson, pp. 79-81