Louis Riel was a Métis, which today is defined as "of mixed origin," and refers specifically to any person of combined indigenous and non-indigenous ancestry. In various historical settings, Métis people have been referred to as 'half-breeds' or in other contexts terms such as 'mixed-blood,' Mestizo or Metissage prove rough equivalents. All these terms, whether derogatory or not, indicate the overt assertion of the 'hybrid' identity of the person or group discussed. In Louis Riel's day, Métis primarily referred to persons of both French and indigenous origin. He was French and Cree, educated in Montreal, raised a Catholic, and spoke French and English. However, the hybridity and fluidity of Riel's identity throughout his life (part indigenous, part European, speaking French and English, a self-identified Métis, a devout Catholic who would proclaim himself a prophet, a Canadian citizen and elected member of Parliament who would naturalize as an American) served at the time and ever since to upset any simple understanding of the man and the rebellions that made him famous.
What is clear is that Louis Riel did lead two rebellions. The first, the Red-River Rebellion in 1869, asserted a Métis-led provisional government that sought to prevent the westward expansion of English Protestant led Canadian settlement into the region. The Red-River Rebellion led to the Manitoba Act of 1870, establishing the province so named. Riel's efforts did not end there, however, and in 1875 he would plead to U.S. President Grant to "help me get justice for my people, the new nation, the métis."
In 1885, Riel led the North-West Rebellion to alleviate rampant poverty and the threat to land claims of the people who resided in the region, most of whom were indigenous, by asserting a new provisional government for the area now called Saskatchewan.
After this rebellion was crushed, Riel was arrested by the Canadian authorities and charged as a traitor, convicted and sentenced to hang. The sentence was carried out in November 1886 in Regina, now the capital of Saskatchewan. Both the 1869 and 1885 rebellions were against a growing and what each rebellion deemed to be an unresponsive Canadian national state, and both proposed a regionally-based sovereignty that challenged and redefined Canada's western boundary. Riel claimed to represent a 'new nation, the métis,' did so in an appeal to the President of the United States, and was ultimately executed by the Canadian state for his rebellious actions.
In sum, all this indicates that the form of sovereignty he sought, the people he represented, and the meaning of the rebellions for indigenous and Canadian people were fluid notions, which carried political weight because the Canadian nation was seeking to establish and affirm the scope of its boundaries, the meaning of its identity, and the legitimacy of its sovereignty. As such, Métis sovereignty, however provisional, represented a foundational threat to the standing of key components of a young Canada.
The British North America Act of 1867, which legally constituted and founded the Canadian nation and state, was prompted by more than just Canadian concern for a renewed American nation's post-Civil War intentions for the north-western part of North America. There were also distinct business and state interests - such as the Canadian Pacific Railway - in securing a centralized governing arrangement which could organize, fund and lead the development of the Canadian nation from coast-to-coast. Such state formation was primarily pursued and carried out by Anglophone political and business elites of Eastern Canada. These post-1867 decades were a formative period in developing and consolidating the Canadian state and shaping early notions of Canadian national identity, political culture and citizenship. Immediately after Confederation, the Canadian government, a government with a territorial jurisdiction and sovereignty that ended at the western boundary of Ontario, sought to expand west. As a means to fostering this expansion the government authorized surveyors to begin marking out land west of Ontario. In this effort, it pressured the then powerful Hudson's Bay Company to transfer title authority to a good deal of this western land, then called Rupert's Land and the North-West, for £300,000. This was done without the approval of the people residing in the region. In their view it opened up a vacuum of governance.
The Hudson's Bay Company's title to Rupert's Land and the North-West pre-existed the Canadian founding in 1867, having been granted such title by the reigning British government. As such, for the people of this region the transfer of their territory's title from a corporation to a newly formed North American-based government was a shift of the authority under which they existed from London to Ottawa. The people of Rupert's Land and the North-West, in the words of their representatives including Riel, felt that the "Government we had always respected, abandoned us by transferring to a strange power the sacred authority confided to it." This liminal moment on the western boundaries of an embryonic and contingent Canadian political context presented Riel and his colleagues with a crisis and opportunity to articulate and enact the claims of their constituency. In this case, the constituency was the diverse group of people residing in, most particularly, Red River territory of Rupert's Land.
Red River territory was populated primarily by Métis, most of whom were Catholic. The region was also composed of smaller groups of Scottish and English farmers, primarily Protestant, who had settled many years earlier, English-speaking so-called 'half breeds' (or English Métis), and 'full-blooded' indigenous people commonly referred to as 'Indians.' It was, however, the Métis "who stood in the way of Sir John A. Macdonald's dream of a Canada that stretched from sea to sea." Macdonald, the first Prime Minister and most noted 'founding father' of Canada, was a persistent player in Riel's life right through to his very public death. It was at Red River that the Métis made their stand when they "found their ancient surveys, land marks, boundaries and muniments of title, set at naught and disregarded, and a government established over their heads." In response to Canadian economic, demographic and political expansion to and over the region, under Riel's leadership the "Métis seized Fort Garry, the Hudson's Bay Company's fortified post at Red River, and declared a provisional government" on November 24, 1869.
Upon the assumption of contol of the Red River region, the newly formed Provisional Government made the following declaration:
Of the People of Rupert's Land and the North West
Fort Garry, December 8, 1869
WHEREAS, it is admitted by all men, as a fundamental principle that the public authority commands the obedience and respect of its subjects. It is also admitted that a people when it has no Government is free to adopt one form of Government in preference to another to give or to refuse aliegance to that which is proposed. In accordance with the first principle the people of this Country had obeyed and respected that authority to which the circumstances surrounding its infancy compelled it to be subject.
A company of adventurers known as the "Hudson's Bay Company" and invested with certain powers granted by His Majesty (Charles II.) establishes itself in Rupert's Land, AND IN THE NORTH-WEST TERRITORY for trading purposes only. This Company, consisting of many persons, required a certain constitution. But as there was a question of commerce only, their constitution was framed in reference thereto. Yet, since there was at that time no government to see to the interests of a people already existing in the country, it became necessary for judicial affairs to have recourse to the offers of the Hudson's Bay Company. Thus inaugurated that species of government, which, slightly modified by subsequent circumstances, rules this country up to a recent date.
WHEREAS, this government thus accepted was far from answering the wants of the people, and became more and more so as the population increased in numbers, and as the country was developed, and commerce extended, until the present day, when it commands a place amongst the Colonies; and this people ever actuated by the above mentioned principles, had generously supported the aforesaid government, and gave to it a faithful allegiance; when, contrary to the law of nations, in March, 1869, that said Government surrendered and transferred to Canada all the rights which it had or pretended to have in this territory, by transactions with which the people were considered unworthy to be made acquainted.
AND WHEREAS, it is also generally admitted that a people is at liberty to establish any form of government it may consider suitable to its wants, as soon as the power to which it was subject abandons it, or attempts to subjugate it without its consent, to a foreign power; and maintain that no right can be transferred to such foreign power. Now, therefore,
1st. We, the Representatives of the people in Council assembled at Upper Fort Garry, on the 24th day of November, 1869, after having invoked the God of nations, relying on these fundamental moral principles, solemnly declare in the name of our constituents and in our own names, before God and man, that from the day which the Government we had always respected, abandoned us by transferring to a strange power the sacred authority confided to it, the people of Rupert's Land and the North-West became free and exempt from all allgiance to the said Government.
2d. That we refuse to recognise the authority of Canada, which pretends to have a right to coerce us and impose upon us a despotic form of government still more contrary to our rights and interests as British subjects than was that Government to which we had subjected ourselves through necessity up to a recent date.
3rd. That by sending an expedition on the 1st of November charged to drive back Mr. William McDougall and his companions coming in the name of Canada to rule us with the rod of despotism without a previous notification to that effect, we have but acted conformably to that sacred right which commands every citizen to offer energetic opposition to prevent his country being enslaved.
4th. That we continue and shall continue to oppose with all our strength the establishing of the Canadian authority in our country under the announced form. And in case of persistence on the part of the Canadian Government to enforce its obnoxious policy upon us, by force of arms, we protest before hand against such an unjust and unlawful course, and we declare the said Canadian Government responsible before God and men for the innumerable evils which may be caused by so unwarrantable a course.
Be it known, therefore, to the world in general and to the Canadian Government in particular, that as we have always heretofore successfully defended our country in frequent wars with the neighbouring tribes of Indians, who are now on friendly relations with us, we are firmly resolved in future not less than in the past, to repel all invasions from whatsoever quarter they may come.
And furthermore, we do declare and proclaim in the name of the people of Rupert's Land and the North-West that we have on the same 24th day of November, 1869, above mentioned, established a Provisional Government, and hold it to be the only and lawful authority now in existence in Rupert's Land and the North-West, which claim the obedience and respect of the people.
That meanwhile we hold ourselves in readiness to enter into such negotiations with the Canadian Government, which may be favorable for the good government and prosperity of this people.
In support of this declaration, relying on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge ourselves on oath, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to each other.
Issued at Fort Garry this 8th day of December it the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundrea and sixty nine.
(Signed,) John Bruce, President
Louis Riel, Secretary
Given the importance of the the Red River Rebellion and Riel's role in it for Canadian history, full citation of this Declaration is appropriate. Read the Declaration again, and again, and again. How do you respond to it? Consider if and how it compares to the declarations of other peoples and nations, throughout history. Consider also the tricky issue of who exactly this Provisional Government seems to represent, and who it does not represent. These are matters that have been flattened and simplified in our present-day reading of this moment in North American history, and this man named Riel. When we return to the question of "Whose Riel?" his very political words will offer a worthwhile place from which to continue to build an answer, however provisional (pun intended), to this question.
Kevin Bruyneel lives and works in New York, but he is going to Boston soon.