An interview with Louis Riel — Métis leader’s last poems purchased at auction

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

The fame of Louis Riel was recently confirmed when the Manitoba Métis Federation successfully purchased four poems penned by the “Father of Manitoba.”

While Riel remains one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history and an enigma to many, his significant role in shaping the destiny of our province, and by extension our nation, is undisputed. 

The MMF’s successful bid for the poems was $31,050, which was five times the expected auction price.

The four poems were written in English, a language Riel rarely used in his literary works, preferring to use French. While waiting to be hanged for high treason, Riel gave the poems to his prison guard, North West Mounted Police Constable Robert Hobbs, who had provided the Métis leader with a writing pad.

“I must speak of God in Whom I trust; In him I have room for hope,” Riel wrote in one poem. “The rope threatens my life; But thank God I fear not.”

Riel has been variously described as a mystic,  a scoundrel, a traitor, a martyr, a freedom-fighter or a hero, depending upon the point of view of the commentator. That he was deeply religious was reinforced near the end of his time on this earth when he became convinced the Holy Spirit was directly speaking to him and he regarded himself as the “Prophet of the New World.” According to Riel’s later writings, the Métis would become the second Chosen People, who would purify Catholicism by reviving many of the practices of the Hebrew, the first Chosen People (Riel and the Rebellion 1885 Reconsidered, by Thomas Flanagan).

Many would interpret his messianic visions as the rambling of an insane man, but when Riel stood trial for treason in Regina he was lucid and gave a good account of himself. Yet, Riel was occasionally plagued by lapses into madness and spent time between 1876 and 1878 in a mental asylum in Quebec.

For all his mental distress, Riel was an extremely intelligent man who did have an all-inclusive vision of upholding the rights of everyone to co-exist in harmony within the democratic framework of Canada. It was this desire which led to negotiations with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian Confederation in 1870 through the Manitoba Act, which was framed in Ottawa to maintain French language, religious and education rights, and guarantee Métis land claims.

What finally pushed Riel toward armed rebellion against Canada in 1885 has been a matter of speculation for decades. When he first arrived in St. Laurent (Saskatchewan) in 1884 at the request of individuals such as Gabriel Dumont, he at first pursued the same methods that had been successful in Manitoba. He sent a petition to Ottawa listing the grievances of Métis and white settlers. Worried about events in the North-West Territories, the federal government was prepared to implement land grants and recognition of the river lot system of tenure, just as it did in Manitoba.

While it was becoming increasingly obvious the Macdonald government wanted to avoid a repeat of the Manitoba situation of 1869-70, Riel was drifting further away from a peaceful settlement. He was caught up in the escalation of events and proclaimed the Métis as the true owners of the Northwest — not Canada, which had in 1870 purchased the region from the Hudson’s Bay Company with the help of the British government.

But unlike in Manitoba, he lacked widespread support among the non-Métis residents of the region. Eventually, the only people supporting the Métis were a smattering of disaffected aboriginals from nearby reserves. 

The final act showing the militancy of the Métis was a pitched battle with the NWMP at Duck Lake. Riel insisted this act was self-defence as the Mounted Police had sent an armed column to confront the Métis and free hostages they had captured. This attack left Macdonald with little option but to send Canadian militia west to put down the rebellion. At Batoche, the Métis were defeated and the rebellion came to an end. Riel eventually surrendered and was convicted of high treason on August 1 and sentenced to be hanged, a sentence carried out on November 16, 1885, at Regina.

From that point onward, Riel achieved a new status, which has made it extremely difficult to separate the man from the myth.

But even before the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, Riel had attempted to explain his actions to the world and dispel claims that he was nothing more than the murderer of “poor” Thomas Scott in 1870, which had solicited an angry outcry from Eastern Canadian Protestants who labeled Riel as a rebel and traitor.

Riel came to Winnipeg in 1883 and was interviewed by an undisclosed number of Winnipeg Daily Sun reporters. His comments on “the Misunderstandings of 1870” was carried in a June 29, 1883, article.

The article started out with the view that the passage of time had healed the wounds of 1869-1870. Many still abhorred his methods in 1883, but there was a growing concession that Riel was responsible for creating the new direction of Manitoba and the Northwest. This supports the wide belief that if Riel had avoided the call to arms in 1885, his place as one of the patriots of Canadian history would no doubt have been assured.

Prior to Riel’s visit, he had been living in Montana and by 1883 had become an American citizen. Elected and expelled from the House of Commons, he was granted an amnesty in 1875 for his role in the events of 1869-70 provided he remained in exile for five years. With his exile over, Riel could have legally returned to Canada, but he had a job as a teacher and had established a family life in the U.S. Riel told the newspaper he was permanently located at St. Peters’ Mission, Louis Clark County, Montana. 

His permanent return to Canada was hampered by the fear that not everyone had forgotten the provisional government’s execution of Scott in March 1870 and that there were still some who wanted to exact revenge.

Riel did tell the reporters he had no fear of visiting Winnipeg, “although it had been intimated to him that bullets were as plentiful as ever.”

According to the article, “Had Riel visited Winnipeg a few years ago, there would have been great excitement and a miniature rebellion. Now there is not a ripple of excitement, and but little interest taken in his presence here. And yet Riel was a most important man in the history of this new country. To him and to his, as we regard it, ill-advised and unfortunate action, the Northwest owes the extraordinary development to which it has attained. When he flung to the breeze the flag of the Republic of the Northwest, with a half-breed as its president and guiding spirit, he gave it a world-wide notoriety that it could hardly have attained in any way.”

The Sun said a decade had passed since the events of 1870 and “thousands of People in Manitoba — had forgotten Riel,... but he will be a prominent figure in history.”

The Sun interviewed Riel at his home in St. Vital on June 28. At first, Riel was not at the designated meeting place, having been away visiting friends in St. Boniface. But eventually a rig driven by “a very old man” appeared bearing Riel. The interview was conducted under the shade of a clump of poplar trees, amid the company of what was reported to be a million mosquitoes.

Riel was described as wearing a slouched hat, sporting a beard and curly black hair with a prominent well-shaped nose, “and  a most expressive mouth.” Beneath the hat “was a full face, with broad forehead and keen brown eyes of marked intellectuality.”

The Sun said Riel spoke English well and was careful in his choice of words. “He has extraordinary self-possession, but when relating some stirring fact or exciting reminiscence his eyes danced and glistened in a manner that riveted attention.”

Riel said the purpose of his visit was to go to Pembina in order to clear up an election issue that had arisen in Montana. According to Riel, coming to Winnipeg was merely a side trip, allowing him to look into the status of his property holdings in the area, visit friends and attend the wedding of his sister Henriette.

Riel had not stopped his political career when he fled to the U.S. In fact, he became heavily involved in territorial elections and the cause of the Métis living in Montana (Montana became a state on November 8, 1889), a great number of whom had originally come from Canada. He also vigorously opposed the whiskey trade with aboriginals and Métis, which gained the animosity of territorial merchants. Fort Benton merchants took their wrath out on Riel and the Métis because the NWMP, under the direction of the Macdonald government, had stopped the illegal whiskey trade in Western Canada. 

Riel supported Republican candidate Marshall Botkin in the 1882 U.S. elections, which made him an avowed enemy of the powerful  Democratic faction. Riel organized the large Métis voting block for the Republicans because Botkin supported Métis rights in Montana.

Among many white Americans, the Métis were regarded as non-citizens. The Benton Weekly Record claimed Riel was “leader of a lot of British half breeds.”

Riel was arrested on May 19, 1883, by Fort Benton Sheriff J.J. Healey, a Democrat and former whiskey trader, on a District Court bench warrant for “conspiracy in election fraud.”

Riel told the Sun reporters, “I have come to Pembina (North Dakota, where many of Montana Métis had lived) to get the naturalization papers of these men, who originally lived in this country, so that I will have these papers I will be able to appear in September and defend myself (in court).”

During the interview, Riel claimed not to have visited Winnipeg in 13 years. When asked about his impressions of Winnipeg, Riel replied: “I always expected this part of British North America would be the most important point in the country, but I scarcely expected Winnipeg to prosper like it has. Its prosperity has been more than admirable.”

In 1883, Winnipeg was still reeling from the collapse of a wild speculative land boom brought on by the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881-82. Although the speculative bubble had burst, ruining many financially, the city was still able to continue its growth, although at a decidedly less frantic pace.

In light of future events in Saskatchewan, a surprising revelation from Riel was his admission that he had never been further west than Winnipeg during all his time in Canada. And judging by the tone of the interview, he had no inclination to visit the land to the west of the city, saying the “best lands” in the region were “not so good as the worst lands of the Western States.”

It seems that Riel had decided his destiny lay with the Métis in Montana, where he lived with his wife Marguerite, née Monet, and their children. The only interests Riel had in Canada was to obtain funds alleged to have been promised by Macdonald — he received $1,000 to leave the country in 1872, but felt he was entitled to more. The money he did receive was negotiated between Archbishop Alexandré-Antonin Taché and Macdonald. It was the archbishop who handed the money over to Riel in the “little priest’s building near St. Vital Church.” 

Surprisingly, Riel told his interviewers that he had not been told by Taché that a condition of the payment was to leave Canada and that the money had come from Ottawa.

“He (Taché) said it was from some friends,” said Riel during the 1883 interview. “Had I known it was from the Dominion Government I would not have taken it. I told him that if I took any money from the Dominion government it would be on account of what they owed me. Because I believe the Canadian government had crushed my existence, and I acted as Governor here, I considered that they were indebted to me. I served the country faithfully and instead of thanking me I was put down as the leader of bandits. When I got the money I told Archbishop Taché that to assure myself it was not dirty money I wanted it to pass through his hands ...

“I said I would take the money, but if Sir George E. Cartier (Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant, who died in 1873) was here I would throw it in his face because I despised his policy.”

Negotiations for Manitoba’s entry into Confederation as a province — a condition championed by Riel — were undertaken in Ottawa by the Manitoba delegation of John Black, Alfred Scott and Father Joseph-Noel Ritchot with Macdonald and Cartier representing the federal government.

Riel believed he had “served the country faithfully” by promoting the negotiations which eventually led to Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.

He had been told that Macdonald had wanted him out of Canada, “but I determined to remain and fight it out.”

Another reason for Riel’s visit in 1883 was to organize the sale of several pieces of property he held in Manitoba. The property he owned was in St. Boniface, St. Vital, Lorette and Ste. Agathe. His wife Marguerite, originally from St. François-Xavier, Manitoba,  had received a 240-acre Métis child allotment. While in the United States, the sale of this land was his primary source of income. In 1883-84, the Riel family was so poor that they had to share living accommodations with James Swan at the St. Peter’s Mission in Montana.

(Next week: part 2)