The Hanging of Louis Riel

Any serious study of history engages in what’s called historiography, a form of dialogue between historians that investigates our approach to the past. Importantly, it takes into account the social conditions and assumptions that inform interpretations of history as they change over time. Think of it as the history of history.

Perhaps no other figure in Canadian history has been seen from as many angles as Louis Riel. Now widely, and rightly, recognized as the founder of Manitoba, Riel is also remembered for his role in the Red River Resistance (1869–70) and the North-West Resistance (1885). Both were movements of national self-determination by Métis who feared that Canada’s westward expansion was at odds with a way of life they had established in what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan. On 16 November 1885, Riel was hanged for treason as leader of both Resistances. Though commonly known as the Red River Rebellion, historians now refer to these events as resistances because Riel sought entrance to the Dominion of Canada and did not attempt to overthrow its government. The Métis wanted their rights respected and their way of life protected.

Riel has been viewed from opposing and (shifting) perspectives ever since. Once seen as a traitor to Confederation, a rebel, a French-Canadian martyr and mad mystic, contemporary studies portray Riel as a Métis leader and hero, a misunderstood intellect, even as a Father of Confederation. A quote from French philosopher Voltaire is often offered when discussing Riel, that “history is the tricks we play on the dead.”

Riel’s image persists in the minds of Canadians. He personified many of the struggles of a growing nation, including expansion and unity, francophone rights, Western alienation, Aboriginal rights, and multiculturalism. These struggles remain valid. This is not to say that we lack progress or understanding, but that we continue to engage our differences — choosing not to ignore them as we did once. It’s one of the reasons why, every year, Canadians commemorate the death of Louis Riel on 16 November.