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Whose Riel? (4)
by Kevin Bruyneel

 In the past three editions of Whose Riel? I have sought to sketch out the primary components and relationships characterizing Canadian political culture during the nation's founding era. At this time, English political and business interests dominate the nation's development, hold the majority of the nation's political and economic power, and have the media and institutional power to greatly define the terms and focus of the national debate. In tension with English Canada, French Canada seeks to resist and overcome English dominance by, in this case, supporting a resistance - the Red River Rebellion - with which they have no lasting or internal involvement, but in which they seem to have a valid interest in securing the place of the French language and culture in Canadian society. To the south, of course, there is the perennially and seemingly 'avaricious' American nation perceived by some as ready to pounce on the first Canadian misstep. Last, but certainly not least, there is a leader and his constituency self-defined as of hybrid - Métis - identity, rather than as solely indigenous, French or Canadian. The primary Eurocentric parties to this conflict - English and French - read into and draw from the hybridity of Riel and/or the Red River Rebellion the political identity which best served their own instrumental and symbolic needs. That they did so, however, does not mean that Riel and his supporters lacked agency in constructing their own identity and influencing how this political conflict would be resolved. To the contrary, not only did a hybrid though significantly indigenous defined rebellion stall Canadian state expansion, the claims and actions of the rebellion forced the agenda and set the framework for the establishment of a new province in the young Canadian nation.

 In the face of English-French tensions, with the ostensibly looming prospect of American annexation, and with Louis Riel maintaining his influence as the central mobilizing figure of this conflict, the predominantly English government under Macdonald proposed legislation, based upon the Provisional government's 'List of Rights,' which became the Manitoba Act of 1870. This legislation was constructed through negotiations not only between the Canadian government and the Métis, but just as importantly between the representatives of Canada's English and French constituencies. The French-English deal, clearing the political ground for a Canada-Métis compromise, allowed each of the two significant Canadian groups to achieve their more pressing objectives; the English wanted to crush the Rebellion and the French wanted a province west of Ontario constitutionally supportive of French Canadian culture. Thus, "to please Québec they negotiated with the Red River delegates; to placate Ontario they dispatched the military force." (1) The result of this compromise was two fold. The Manitoba Act was given royal assent as Canadian law on May 12, 1870, designating Manitoba's provincial status to commence on July 15, 1870. Upon the passage of the Manitoba Act, the Provisional government disbanded and ended its hostile tone towards the Canadian government, while its leaders and supporters remained in Red River hoping to participate in the new provincial government.

 Late that summer, the Canadian military reached the Red River region and seized Fort Garry peacefully, under the guise of bringing order to a region that was now constitutionally within Canadian boundaries. However, the notion that the military force had peaceful intentions quickly gave way with word of threats by the English soldiers against Riel in particular, because of the execution of Thomas Scott (Whose Riel 3). Furthermore, general uncertainty over the legal status of those who participated in the Rebellion was perpetuated by the fact that a requested amnesty had yet to be finalized, making many of the Métis leadership uncomfortable. As such, Riel and a number of his comrades eventually abandoned the fort, left the region, and went south to the U.S.

 The 1870 Act which created Manitoba drew the bulk of its provisions for the province's inclusion in Canadian Confederation from the Red River Provisional government's demands as set out in the 'List of Rights'. Given this basis for the founding of the province, it is easy to see how Louis Riel was then and is to this day often referred to as the 'Father of Manitoba' by Métis as well as many Canadians. Of those Métis-defined provisions, the two most relevant to the conflicts of the time, the multiple groups that had taken an interest in the rebellion, and the indigenous political actors that provoked the rebellion were those referring to the status of language and land in Manitoba.

 The Manitoba Act established French and English as the official languages of the new province. As a corollary to this key provision, the establishment of government-supported Catholic schools was secured in the provincial constitution as part of the terms of entry into Canadian Confederation. On these more cultural matters, then, the interests of French-speaking Métis qua French speakers and, of course, the interests of French-Canada as a whole were satisfied. In terms of the interests of the Métis qua indigenous people, however, their land claims were settled in a manner not consistent with their demands, though generally acceptable.

 To recall, the Provisional government's List of Rights included: 'that the local Legislature of the Province of Assiniboia shall have full control over all the public lands of the Province.' The Canadian government did not agree to ceding local public authority over the land, because it wanted to be able to "generate the financing and resourcing necessary for the opening of the west for settlement and commerce," (2) and generally "place the footing of the Imperial statute" on this portion of the west to affirm the present and future scope of Canadian sovereignty. (3) Thus, to settle the land claim issue the federal government substituted a large land grant to Métis families and individuals for the demand for local governmental control over public land. Section 31 of the Manitoba Act stated:

it is expedient, towards the extinguishment of the Indian title to the lands in the province, to appropriate a portion of such ungranted lands, to the extent of one million and four hundred thousand acres thereof, for the benefit of the families of the half-breed residents. (4)
 Also, Section 32 of the Act allowed that those Métis "currently holding freehold lands would have their ownership confirmed. This meant that the Métis, who made up approximately 85% of the population in Manitoba, would have their river lot ownership guaranteed." (5) While the language/religion provisions drew on the French component of the hybrid Métis identity, and also emerged out of the English-French tensions of Canadian politics, the so-called 'half-breed' land grant was legally and politically justified on the basis of the Métis' identity as indigenous people. Thus, in understanding how the Red River rebellion sought to express and manifest a form of local Métis sovereignty, however provisional, neither the French nor the indigenous identities of the Métis, on their own, fully capture the spirit of this hybrid political claim. Rather, the political articulation of the combined influences of Euro-american culture and indigenous political identity, as represented by the figure of Riel, redefined Canada's western boundaries as constitutionally affirming a form of hybrid political society unknown to the Canadian polity heretofore.

 Ironically, or maybe fittingly as a political leader and a founder - like Moses eternally exiled from the Nation of Israel - Louis Riel subsequently found himself exiled and under constant threat of arrest or violence should he return to the land of his seeming political triumph. His exile, however, should be seen as from Canada generally and not solely from Manitoba, as that was literally the case and also because his actions helped re-found Canada by recasting the nation's sovereign scope and re-marking the political relationships between the nation's prevalent groups. The story of the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 thus ends with Riel's exile as an act necessary for maintaining a political balance between the English and French.

 The English got to send the army into Red River. The French got the passage of the Manitoba Act. Riel exits this political stage leaving the two dominant groups to expand the boundaries of the nation westward. They bring a new addition to the Canadian fold, expanding the nation westward, which Ontario wanted, and this expansion strengthened the place of the French language in Canada. For the often antagonistic French and English Canadians, their respective visions for the Canadian nation were thus realized in some form here in great part through the actions of an undeniably indigenous, yet also hybrid, rebellion and leader. Since the consequences of the rebellion were ultimately defined through the lens of English and French Canadian cultural and political visions, it is not surprising that the indigenous people who started the rebellion would eventually find the integrity of their land claims scorned and their general effort to live a peaceable existence threatened. This led to their emigration further west and eventually the call for another rebellion years later. This call would bring their famous leader back to the country from which he was exiled, and would lead him to unwittingly and fatally serve once again as a critical tangent of the founding triangular relationship that took early form in 19th century Canadian politics and which prevails to this day. That is the relationship between English Canada, French Canada and First Nations.

Kevin Bruyneel wants just one Stanley Cup.  Just one.

(1) George F. Stanley.The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), p. 145.

(2) Métis National Council. "Submission to the United Nations Working Group: Statement on Review of Developments Since the Fourth Session," Fifth Session, August 3-7, 1987. Fourth World Documentation Project (Olympia, WA: The Center for World Indigenous Studies) Section III, # 1. Para: 3.

(3) Stanley (1960), p. 120.

(4) Manitoba Act of 1870, Section 31.

(5) Métis National Council. "Submission..." August 3-7, 1987. Section III, #1. Para: 7.

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