Whose Riel ? (7)
by Kevin Bruyneel

 In this final historical chapter on Louis Riel, I look at him as a Figure of Sacrifice, and I ask for What and Whom Did He Hang? At that time that it occurred, French Canada was actually not that sympathetic with the North West Rebellion led by Riel, and was generally though not avidly supportive of the government's effort to crush it, as was discussed previously (Riel 6). (1) However, Louis Riel's trial for treason by the Canadian Government under John A. Macdonald changed the French Canadian view, as "the announcement of the sentence . . . turned moderation and ambivalence into anger and outrage." (2) French Canadian political empathy with the fate of Riel began to resonate with that felt fifteen years earlier. Given his political and symbolic importance in the Red River Rebellion as, among other things, a defender of the French language, leaders in French Canada eventually came to see Riel's impending fate as representing the fate of the French generally within Canada.

 That the French component of Riel's hybrid identity was critical in the decision to hang him seemed a legitimate notion to French Canada given that an English-Canadian leader of the Rebellion, William Jackson, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to a mental institution rather than death. The Québec press was not subtle in assessing this discrepancy: "Why this difference between Riel and Jackson? Because Jackson is English while Riel is French-Canadian. . . . . It is only as a French-Canadian that they want to hang him." (3) Papers such as L'Etendard, L'Electeur, La Patrie and La Presse became ever more explicit and vocal about the meaning of Riel's sentence, as Silver notes:

It was not just Riel, therefore, who was being victimized by the English Canadians. What was being done to him 'is just what they intend to do to all French Métis' The execution of Riel would thus be 'the triumph of Orangism over Catholicism', a victory of those who wanted to eliminate the French-Catholic element from the North-West. (4)

 As a consequence of this greater sense of affinity between the Métis and French Canadian causes as signified by Riel's fate, the press and political leaders in Québec appealed to the Canadian government for a reduction of the sentence.

 Prime Minister Macdonald's view of the Rebellion and Riel was actually not that strident vis a vis the action and actor in of themselves, but was rather much more calculating with regards to how a commutation of Riel's sentence might provoke the ire not of Canadians generally, but of English Canadians specifically. In a letter to the Governor-General of Canada, Macdonald admitted that the rebellion "never endangered the safety of the State . . . [and though] it involved the danger of an Indian war . . . in that it would be similar to the arson of a small house." His lack of concern about the overall political implications of the event itself, however, only further condemns his unwillingness to consider reducing Riel's sentence for "fear" of a "popular outburst of indignation in Ontario and the Northwest, that may as well be avoided." (5) By contrast, Macdonald viewed the potential of French indignation dismissively:

There is . . . some sympathy in the province of Québec, with Riel. This is principally worked up by the Rouge party for political purposes. Among the inhabitants of Québec, the recollection of their own rising in 1837 and of their "martyrs" still lingers, and Riel's rebellion in 1869 was believed by them then to be under the same circumstances as caused by their own Holy War. (6)

As the political and press voices from Québec became more and more vocal, across party lines, Macdonald's concern with the French view shifted from one of dismissiveness to outright hostility. In response to the French efforts to reduce the sentence, Prime Minister Macdonald Adeclared: "He shall hang though every dog in Québec bark in his favor." (7) Riel was hung on November 16, 1885.

 Less than a week after Riel's execution, "a great meeting of mourning and protest was held in Montreal" where speakers "extolled Riel as a pitiable victim of English oppression and Protestant bigotry." (8) At this rally, attended on some counts by up to 50,000 people, Honorè Mercier, the leader of the Liberal Party in Québec echoed the French historical analogy noted by Macdonald, "Riel died on the scaffold, as the [French] patriots of 1837 died. "Referring to Macdonald, Mercier asserted that Ain killing Riel, Sir John has not only struck at the heart of our race but especially at the cause of justice and humanity." With this massive number of his fellow French Canadians before him, Mercier thought it the proper moment to propose that "in order to defend French Canada against English injury and oppression, both Liberals and Conservatives in the province of Québec should unite to form a single 'parti national'. (9) `In this way, the state execution of the leader of two rebellions defined in great part by the claims and concerns of indigenous people became an act serving the political worldviews of English and French leaders in Canada.

 A week before Riel's death, the Anglo Prime Minister sees the forthcoming execution not in terms of its relationship to indigenous people but as defining the relationship to Québec, and thus defining the contours of the Canadian nation's dominant political culture. A week after the execution, on the other hand, French leaders see Riel's death not as a consequence of racism and the colonization of indigenous lands and culture but as a result of, to name one, Protestant bigotry against Catholics despite the fact that Riel passionately disavowed Catholicism and the Pope in his final years. Furthermore, his death stands not as a call to stand up for indigenous rights but rather as a call to solidify and institutionalize Québec nationalism. This example illustrates the manner in which the boundaries of Canadian political culture were physically expanded, institutionally strengthened and culturally defined not simply at the exclusion of indigenous people and indigenous political culture, but rather by exploiting, appropriating and re-defining indigenous people's political and social existence. In this regard, Riel represented neither the outside or the other side of the boundary, but rather he stood for the boundary itself, as a limit.

 For English Canada, Riel defined the limit - as opposed to say a French person of Québec - of how far French Canada would be able to influence English Canada. Similarly, for French Canada, Riel defined the limit of English Canada's oppression. This national issue manifests itself in a fight between the English and French over the boundaries and limits of Canadian political life, but in the end it is a Métis man, fighting for primarily indigenous-defined political claims, who is executed. This example of how the French and English work out the boundaries of Canadian politics through indigenous people's political identity represents a sort of triangular component of indigenous politics in Canada in the nineteenth century.

 The constitutive European groups of Canada viewed and encountered indigenous groups in a manner which best facilitated the formation of the Canadian state. Specifically, the English and French did so in the course of working out the inequities in their own relationship. The convergence of British, French and indigenous political cultures in the early years of the nation's history served to forewarn the physical, cultural and political processes and relations of domination in Canada. The effort to construct this Euro-american state and national identity required that the indigenous people occupying the desired territories be not simply excluded, but encountered and positioned in the political landscape in a way which clearly established and demarcated non-indigenous sovereignty in heretofore indigenous territory. The relationship between the French, English and indigenous groups tied together these peoples and constituted the legal and cultural boundaries of Canadian identity, which to this day serve as the legal and cultural location of indigenous people's political activities and claim-making in the Canadian context. In the final chapter of this look at Louis Riel, I will look at the general symbolic place of Riel in Canadian political culture and the meaning of his legacy for political activists and visions in the contemporary era.

Kevin Bruyneel is getting used to Boston, and his new place there.

(1) On the whole, French Canadians viewed the rebellion as an 'illegal' action against the Canadian state, and as such they were supportive of the military expedition to quell this action. However, to deal with the balance between supporting Canadian sovereignty and acknowledging the regional political identity of the Québécois, it was suggested by some local French elite that when deploying French troops mustered into the expedition, such as the 65th Battalion out of Montreal, "it might be wiser, considering public opinion, to send other battalions to the front instead." (Silver 1982, p. 154) Thus, in terms of the North West Rebellion itself, the image of French Canadian troops fighting for Canadian sovereignty, yet not as part of the expedition's avant garde, nicely depicts the political ambivalence felt by the French toward Métis political identity.

(2) A. I. Silver. The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation, 1864-1900. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), p. 158.

(3) L'Electeur, August 7, 1885. Translation by Silver (1982), p. 160.

(4) Silver (1982), p. 161.

(5) From Sir John Macdonald to Governor-General the Marquess of Lansdowne. Rivière de Loup. September 3, 1885. Macdonald Corr., pp. 357, 358.

(6) From Sir John Macdonald to Governor-General the Marquess of Lansdowne. Rivière de Loup. August 28, 1885. Macdonald Corr., pp. 355.

(7) Alan D. McMillan, Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada. (Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1988), p. 285.

(8) Donald Creighton. Canada's First Century (Toronto: Macmillian of Canada, 1970) , p. 57.

(9) Creighton, p.57.

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