Louis Riel was an exceptional activist in Canada’s settlement and confederation history who advocated for the rights of the Métis and other First Nations people. He stands out not only as a revolutionary, but as a powerful and successful non-European advocate for the rights and liberties of the Métis in a racially ignorant era. He successfully fought for and enshrined Métis rights in the Canadian confederation legislature.
Riel was bicultural, a child of French and Métis parents. His experience inhabiting two cultures drove and informed his life as an activist and political leader. He was fervently proud of his Métis heritage and used his knowledge, experience, and respect within European institutions to integrate his culture's rights during the formation of the nation’s governing legislation.
Louis Riel (1844 - 1885)
Early Life and Guiding Principles
Riel adopted the causes of his father Louis Riel Sr., who organized against the Hudson Bay Company's monopoly on trade in the Red River region. Riel Sr. put his son under the education of the Roman Catholic Church, which aligned with the family’s devout religiosity. While originally on route to priesthood, his father’s death drove Riel Jr. from the church and into politics. Though often portrayed as the father of multiculturalism, Riel was highly critical of the assimilation that was intrinsically linked to a multiculturalist agenda.
Rather, he was a proponent of “Métis nationalism and political independence,” which guaranteed the rights of the Métis and other First Nations people within the Canadian government instead of integrating them into the culture. This also fueled the development of provisional governments for the negotiation of civil rights and sovereignty.
Rebellions Against the Canadian Government
Riel is famous for culminating his revolutionary ideology and political platform into massive resistance, the most famous of which were the RedRiver and the North-West Rebellions. While he and his group did engage in dialogue with the Canadian government to negotiate the rights and protections of Métis and First Nations, physical confrontations like these rebellions often proved more effective. Often it was the most direct way to halt the relentless encroachment of the Canadian government on their land and cultural practices.
Prior to each rebellion, Riel was responsible for establishing provisional governments in each territory where they would take place. These governments formed the base of power through which the present day provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan could negotiate the terms of their objections and cohesively exercise resistance.The Red River Rebellion was a successful uprising against the colony. However, the North-West Rebellion resulted in the implementation of Canadian Law in the west, the subjugation of Métis territory, and Riel’s conviction and hanging for high treason. This exacerbated the Anglophone-Francophone division and the disempowerment of the French settlers in the West.
A Divisive Legacy
As in life, Riel's identity in Canada's national memory is a divided one. He is at once thought of as a hero and a traitor. But what existed for certain was his forceful determination to preserve Métis culture and territory and establish their rights, which has had a lasting impact on modern Canadian society.