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Prairie History: A Misleading Portrait: The Provisional Government of Assiniboia and the Creation of Manitoba

by Derrick M. Nault
University of Tokyo

Number 03, Fall 2020

Among the most iconic images from Manitoba history is a photograph of Louis Riel and thirteen men thought to be “councillors” in his Provisional Government. [1]

“Louis Riel and his Councillors”

This famous photograph of “Louis Riel and his councillors” includes in the back row, left to right: François Guillemette, Pierre Delorme, Thomas Bunn, Xavier Pagé, Andre Beauchemin, Baptiste Tourond, and Thomas Spence (standing in profile). Middle row, left to right: Pierre Poitras, John Bruce, Louis Riel, William O’Donoghue, and François Dauphinais. Front row, left to right: Hugh F. (or Bob) O’Lone and Paul Proulx.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, A13-5.

Taken on 3 June 1870, [2] it features the Métis leader seated at the centre of the group, hands clenched on his lap, looking intently at the camera with a solemn yet dignified facial expression. A palpable sense of history being made was in the air on the day of the photo shoot. The Provisional Government of Assiniboia, [3] following Canadian Parliamentary approval and Royal Assent in May, was preparing to ratify the Manitoba Act. It would achieve this goal three weeks later, paving the way for Manitoba to officially join Confederation on 15 July 1870.

To mark the founding of Manitoba 150 years ago, Canada Post issued a commemorative Red River Resistance stamp in November 2019 based on the photo. According to the postal organization, the stamp features “Louis Riel and his Provisional Government councillors” who negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Canadian Confederation. [4] Métis groups, consulted throughout the design process, welcomed Canada Post’s initiative and played an active role in the unveiling of the stamp at Upper Fort Garry Gate. [5]

Yet the photo featured on Canada Post’s special stamp, long a source of confusion concerning Manitoba’s history, warrants scrutiny. To begin, the date, photographer, and even the men in the portrait themselves have been frequently misidentified, making it one of the most mislabelled photos in the Canadian “album.” [6] Moreover, the roles and political stances of several men in the photo have been consistently misrepresented: Not all were councillors, supported Riel wholeheartedly, or wished the region (formerly part of Rupert’s Land) to become a Canadian province. Finally, as is the case with Canada Post’s commemorative stamp, the photograph has often been presented in a celebratory way that falsely suggests Riel’s administration in June 1870 had secured the future of the province’s new citizens. [7] Yet developments immediately after the creation of Manitoba raised grave concerns about how the region’s original inhabitants would fare under Canadian governance.

A Mislabelled Image

The group portrait is often attributed to Ryder Larsen, a Norwegian-born carpenter and photographer, who is said to have captured Riel and his associates for posterity in late 1869 or early 1870. [8] However, an 1870 article in New Nation (the Provisional Government’s official organ) mentions a different photographer and date. It states that Joseph Langevin, a Quebec-born photographer based at Red River Settlement between late 1864 and the early 1870s, took the photo on 3 June 1870 at the Red Saloon, [9] where he encountered Riel and the other men by chance and requested they pose for the photo. [10]

The date of the photograph is important for identification purposes as there were, in fact, two provisional governments at Red River, not just one. The first, whose origins lay in the French-speaking Métis National Committee (Le Comité National des Métis) established in October 1869, [11] recognized itself as a Provisional Government on 24 November, but officially declared its status on 8 December 1869. [12] It formed after elected representatives from English-speaking and French-speaking parishes met for talks as the so-called Convention of Twenty-four between 16 November and 1 December at Upper Fort Garry. [13] John Bruce was President at this time but resigned shortly after. Louis Riel, originally Secretary, then became President on 27 December. [14]

The photograph is not of the “first provisional government, 1869,” [15] but was taken at the time of the second Provisional Government. Consisting at first of twenty English-speaking and twenty French-representatives, the second body met between 26 January 1870 and 10 February 1870 to agree on a list of demands to present to Ottawa. The two groups, known together as the Convention of Forty, [16] established the Provisional Government of Assiniboia on 9 February. Riel, by a narrow margin, was once more elected President. [17]

While some members of this administration do indeed appear in Langevin’s photograph, the entire government is not present. When Riel and those with him posed for Langevin at Red Saloon, the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, the government’s law-making body, on its own consisted of twenty-eight elected councillors. Moreover, there were eleven executive officers in Riel’s administration, [18] at least twenty-four leaders of various ranks under Adjutant General Ambroise-Dydime Lépine within the government’s military wing, [19] other individuals serving administrative and judicial appointments, [20] and three delegates chosen to send to Ottawa for negotiations on joining Confederation—Father Noël-Joseph Ritchot, Alfred H. Scott, and Judge John Black. [21]

Riel’s “Councillors”: A Case of Mistaken Identities

Although most sources suggest that the men in the iconic photo were all “councillors” in the Provisional Government, this is a false assumption. Three were not councillors. Also mistaken is the common belief that the men present shared similar convictions with Riel and worked amicably with him. [22] Three of the men opposed Riel at different points during and after the Red River Resistance and two favoured the region’s annexation by the United States.

Paul Proulx (front row, on right), François Guillemette (rear row, first on left), and Thomas Spence (rear row, first on right) were not “chief advisors” [23] or “key members of the Métis Provisional Government.” [24] Proulx, married to Riel’s cousin Angélique Nault, was considered a member of the Provisional Government but held the position of “guard.” [25] Historian Adrien G. Morice mentions him as being among a group of armed men at a Métis National Committee meeting in October 1869 discussing how to prevent lieutenant-governor designate William McDougall from entering Red River. [26] Morice also describes Proulx as providing important eyewitness testimony concerning the execution of Thomas Scott. [27]

François Guillemette delivers the fatal shot to Thomas Scott, lying on the ground outside the walls of Upper Fort Garry, in another famous illustration from the Red River Resistance.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough, 2005-0023

Guillemette, incorrectly identified as Bonnet Tromage [28] or Charles Laroque/“Le Roc” [29] in some sources, was also a guard in the second Provisional Government. [30] A member of the firing squad that killed Thomas Scott, he delivered the coup de grâce with a revolver that ended Scott’s life after initial shots from the firing squad had only wounded him. [31] For his role in Scott’s death, he would later be murdered near Pembina by opponents of Riel. [32] Little is known of Guillemette other than these scant details.

Thomas Spence, a Scotsman from Ontario (and non-Métis), had served as an English delegate for St. Peter’s Parish at the Convention of Forty in early 1870 but was not a councillor in the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. An interesting detail about Spence is that he was once president of his own “provisional government” near Portage la Prairie, a farcical and short-lived experiment known as the “Republic of Manitobah” that abruptly collapsed in 1868. [33] Shortly after this failed venture, Spence became politically involved at Red River. Initially an opponent of Riel, he was arrested three times by the Métis leader during 1869–1870. On 28 March 1870, eleven days after his final arrest, Spence was appointed editor of New Nation by his former nemesis. [34] Only after this appointment did Spence loyally work on behalf of the Provisional Government.

John Bruce (centre row, second from left) and William O’Donoghue (centre row, second from right) were the two councillors opposed to Manitoba’s joining Canadian Confederation. Both represented St. Boniface within the Legislative Assembly and held other positions within both Provisional Governments. Notably, O’Donoghue served in Riel’s cabinet as Treasurer. [35] But as Bruce and O’Donoghue favoured American annexation, it is odd to include them in texts or on objects of commemoration celebrating Manitoba’s birth as a Canadian province such as the Canada Post stamp.

M. Max Hamon notes that Bruce was “a largely conservative figure” who “was always at odds with [Riel’s] movement.” [36] In 1870, for instance, he wrote a letter to a Quebec newspaper in which he took issue with Red River becoming part of Canada and supported US annexation. Evidence suggests Bruce also joined William O’Donoghue in Pembina in October 1871 as the latter prepared to invade Manitoba to promote an uprising against Canadian expansion. In 1874, after testifying against Ambroise Lépine during his trial for the “murder” of Thomas Scott, he was denounced as “a turncoat and traitor” by Le Métis. [37]

O’Donoghue, an Irish-American Catholic (non-Métis) with an intense hatred of British rule, conspired with other Fenians and a few disaffected Métis abroad in 1870–1871 to launch a raid into Manitoba. On 5 October 1871, his plans to deal a blow to British colonialism that would end with the region being absorbed by the United States failed miserably. The small force he had assembled at Pembina was easily captured by American soldiers. O’Donoghue himself was arrested by a Métis patrol after crossing into Manitoba. Repatriated to the US, he never returned to Red River and lived out his remaining years in St. Paul, Minnesota as an embittered foe of Riel. [38]

Why Bruce and O’Donoghue joined the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia can only be speculated on. Bruce may have originally resigned himself to Red River’s incorporation into Canada but then become disillusioned by Ottawa’s poor treatment of the Métis after 1870. As he and O’Donoghue were joint councillors for St. Boniface, he may have shared conversations with and been influenced by the Irishman. O’Donoghue, on the other hand, never warmed to the idea of Confederation due to Canada’s association with the British Empire and his US citizenship. When it finally became clear Red River would join Canada, he probably saw an invasion in 1871 as his last opportunity to promote American annexation. In the end, he miscalculated the willingness of Métis in the region to join his cause.

Manitoba, 1870–1872: The Reign of Terror

At the time of Langevin’s photo, the Provisional Government had much to celebrate as negotiations in Ottawa appeared to be moving in a positive direction. [39] When the Legislative Assembly ratified the Manitoba Act later that month, the mood at Red River turned jubilant. [40] Yet the time frame associated with the Langevin photograph should not end with Manitoba’s official entry into Confederation on 15 July 1870. Events after this date must also be acknowledged to appropriately contextualize the photo, as a two-and-a-half-year period of state-sanctioned violence followed Manitoba’s creation that shattered hopes of a peaceful and just transition to the new political order.

The immediate cause of the violence, known as the “Reign of Terror,” was the arrival at Fort Garry on 24 August 1870 of the Red River Expeditionary Force (RREF), a 1,200-man battalion [41] commanded by Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley. Although Prime Minister John A. Macdonald claimed he had sent the RREF to maintain law and order, the force’s volunteer recruits from Ontario consisted of large numbers of Orange Lodge members who had specifically enlisted to exact revenge for the killing of Thomas Scott. [42] Macdonald himself was a member of the organization [43] and had as early as October 1869 (about six months before the death of Scott) planned to employ military force at Red River. [44] These two factors ensured he would give the Orangistes a free hand at Red River.

Even before the RREF had reached its destination rumours swirled at Red River of an impending “massacre.” Ambroise Lépine, William O’Donoghue and Riel, fearing the worst, therefore fled as the RREF entered the settlement on 24 August 1870. [45] Upon arriving at Red River, Wolseley arrested three Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia councillors—Xavier Pagé [46] (back row, fourth from left), Pierre Poitras [47] (middle row, first on left), and François Dauphinais [48] (middle row, fifth from left). Accused of spying for Riel, they were imprisoned at Upper Fort Garry, where they were beaten and interrogated by the RREF. Poitras, an elderly man, was seriously wounded in the process. [49]

One of the more well-known incidents during the Terror was the murder of Elzéar Goulet on 13 September 1870. A lieutenant-general in the Provisional Government, Goulet was recognized at Red Saloon by a faction of the RREF as being on the tribunal that voted for Thomas Scott’s execution. He fled the scene, but was pursued by an angry Orangiste mob, pelted with rocks, and killed as he attempted to swim across the Red River. His assailants were known by authorities but never charged for their crime. [50]

Two weeks later, unknown arsonists burned down the home of James Ross, Riel’s Chief Justice and a delegate for St. John’s on the Convention of Forty. [51] On 30 November, RREF soldiers attacked Ross directly with clubs, snowballs, and stones as he left a political meeting at Poplar Point. His friend James Tanner, a politically moderate Métis, was killed leaving from the same meeting. [52]

Louis Riel himself avoided becoming the victim of at least two attempts on his life at Red River. On 8 December 1871, a band of RREF vigilantes broke into his mother’s home at St. Vital, threatening the women present and informing them they would kill Riel on sight if they found him. [53] In early 1872, “a newcomer from Ontario … hired four Winnipeg men, at five hundred dollars each, to bring him Louis Riel’s head in a sack,” but Riel learned of the plot in advance and took refuge with his mother at the home of Father N.-J. Ritchot. [54]

So determined were Orangistes to exact revenge that even being in US territory offered no protection from their attacks. Thus, Hugh F. O’Lone (front row, left), a councillor for Winnipeg in the Legislative Assembly, was killed in January 1871 by RREF soldiers in a barroom-brawl in Pembina for daring to belong to the Provisional Government. [55] In February 1871, André Nault, a captain in the Provisional Government and Riel’s cousin, was bayoneted and left for dead by Canadian soldiers near the same town but survived. [56] Riel and Ambroise Lépine, who besides being Riel’s Adjutant General was a councillor for St. Vital on the 1870 Legislative Assembly, narrowly avoided a similar attack near St. Paul, Minnesota in April 1872, after learning of a plot to murder them for $5,000 in reward money offered by the Ontario government. [57]

The RREF’s brutalities were not reserved just for members of the Provisional Government. For the entire military occupation period, Orangiste gangs roamed the city “drunk with rage and alcohol,” committing assaults, arsons, rapes, and murders against the people of Red River. [58] Feeling threatened, Métis during the terror would flee “by the thousands” to regions as far afield as Batoche, the Cypress Hills, and Montana Territory. [59] Although the people of Red River had initially welcomed the passing of the Manitoba Act, it was with a sense of loss, mourning, and betrayal that the Métis and other victims of the RREF experienced the first years of Manitoba’s existence. [60]

The Photographer

A cousin of cleric Adelard Langevin and federal politician Hector Langevin, Joseph Langevin traded furs and was a merchant based at St. Paul, Minnesota. During the American Civil War, he served as an intelligence officer, supplying the Union with information about Indigenous activities in the region. He opened a photography studio at the Red River Settlement in late 1864. His whereabouts after 1870 are unknown until, in 1882, he was found dead at Willmar, Minnesota.



M. Max Hamon has observed how Joseph Langevin’s photograph “is iconic in the same way that images of the Fathers of Confederation were arranged, and suggests an implicit comparison.” [61] While Hamon intended his comment as praise for Riel’s artful use of political imagery (incorrectly suggesting Riel may have staged the photo himself), he inadvertently points to a major flaw with the photograph: The people posing with Riel and the context of the image are not as they may at first seem.

In addition to often being misidentified, the men with Riel were not all prominent figures in his government, nor were they all staunch supporters of the Métis leader. Paul Proulx and François Guillemette, as guards, were not advisors to Riel or elected members of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. Thomas Spence had been an adversary of Riel’s for most of the Resistance and had never been a councillor in the 1870 Provisional Government. Had events transpired as John Bruce or William O’Donoghue had hoped, Red River would have become a US territory, completely undermining Riel’s vision for the region. These details from five individual lives tell us that we should not interpret Langevin’s photograph in ways that suggest those featured in it were all founding “fathers” of Manitoba.

Celebrating the photograph, as Canada Post has done, as marking the beginning of a new era of peace and justice for the people of Red River, is also problematic. [62] For more than two years after Manitoba’s creation, representatives of the former Provisional Government and inhabitants of the new province were treated like a conquered people by the occupying army sent by Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Glossing over this period does a disservice to the victims of the RREF and ignores the complicity of the Canadian government in the RREF’s violations of the rights of Métis and other Manitoban citizens.

In marking the 150th anniversary of Manitoba’s birth, it is therefore essential to carefully fact-check information and accurately contextualize visual images used for commemorative purposes such as the Langevin photograph. To do otherwise risks leaving behind a misleading portrait of Manitoba history.


1. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, “Louis Riel and His Councillors,”; University of Manitoba Digital Collections (UMDC), “Louis Riel and His Council, 1869-1870,” Kenneth Hayes Collection (North-West Resistance),

2. Société Historique de Saint-Boniface (SHSB), “Louis Riel et des Membres du Gouvernement Provisoire,” SHSB 68366, Centre du Patrimoine,

3. The official name of the 1870 Provisional Government.

4. “Red River Resistance: PermanentTM domestic rate stamps—Booklet of 10,” Canada Post homepage,

5. Ben Waldman, “Canada Post Unveils Riel Stamp at Upper Fort Garry: ‘A great day’ Métis Leader Declares,” Winnipeg Free Press, 6 November 2019.

6. Anonymous reviewer, Prairie History, personal communication. 1 July 2020.

7. Waldman, “Canada Post Unveils Riel Stamp.” For other examples see “Birthplace of Manitoba,” Friends of Upper Fort Garry homepage,; Ashley Prest, “Historic Manitoba Photos Repatriated,” Winnipeg Free Press, 9 March 2013.

8. Glenbow Archives, “Louis Riel and His Associates, Manitoba, ca. 1869,” NA-1039-1,; Prest, “Historic Manitoba Photos.”

9. Located at the time near present-day Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg.

10. SHSB, “Louis Riel et des Membres du Gouvernement Provisoire.”

11. Hartwell Bowsfield (ed.), 1968. The James Wickes Taylor Correspondence 1859–1870, Volume III. D. W. Friesen & Sons, Altona, MB, p. 121.

12. Frank Howard Schofield, 1913. The Story of Manitoba. Volume 1. S. J. Clarke, Winnipeg, p. 249.

13. A. G. Morice, 1935. A Critical History of the Red River Insurrection after Official Records and Non-Catholic Sources. Canadian Publishers, Winnipeg, pp. 149, 150.

14. Alexander Begg, 1894. History of the North-West. Volume 1. Hunter & Rose, Toronto, p. 440.

15. J. M. Bumsted, “Red River Rebellion,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 22 November 2019. (See caption below first image.),

16. Morice, A Critical History, pp. 221–222, 227, 233–250.

17. Riel received only 12 of the 20 votes. SHSB, “Louis Riel et des Membres du Gouvernement Provisoire.”

18. Norma Hall, with Clifford P. Hall and Erin Verrier, 2010. A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. Paper jointly commissioned by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Manitoba Métis Federation, and the Province of Manitoba, p. 8.

19. Ibid., p. 14. Hall lists André Nault only as a guard. However, multiple sources confirm he was a captain as well as guard in the Provisional Government.

20. Ibid., pp. 11–13.

21. Ibid., p. 9.

22. See, for example, comments by Shelley Sweeney, head of the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, in Prest, “Historic Manitoba Photos.”

23. Maggie Siggins, 1995. Riel: A Life of Revolution. HarperCollins, Toronto. See caption below photo on page 3 of book insert.

24. Philippe Mailhot, “The Priest Who Shaped a Province,” Canada’s History (October/November 2019): p. 23.

25. Hall, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, p. 14.

26. Morice, A Critical History, p. 122.

27. Ibid., p. 312.

28. John Weinstein, 2007. Quiet Revolution West: The Rebirth of Métis Nationalism. Fifth House Publishers, Markham, p. 10.

29. UMDC, “Louis Riel and His Council”; M. Max Hamon, 2019. The Audacity of His Enterprise: Louis Riel and the Métis Nation That Canada Never Was, 1840–1875. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, p. 74; Siggins, Riel: A Life of Revolution, page 3 of book insert.

30. Hall, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, p. 14.

31. Adrien Gabriel Morice, 1912. Dictionnaire historique des Canadiens et des Métis français de l’Ouest. J. P. Garneau, Québec, p. 9.

32. Joseph Kinsey Howard, 1952. Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest. Morrow, New York, p. 209.

33. Bruce Peel, “Spence, Thomas,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 12, 1990,

34. Ibid.

35. Hall, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, pp. 8, 9, 11.

36. Hamon, The Audacity of His Enterprise, p. 147.

37. N. E. Allen Ronaghan, 1990. “Bruce (Brousse), John,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 12. University of Toronto/Université Laval, Toronto & Laval,

38. Chester Martin, 1914. “Political History of Manitoba, 1870-1912,” in Canada and its Provinces: The Prairie Provinces, Volume XIX, Adam Shortt and Sir Arthur George Doughty (eds). Brook & Company, Toronto: Glasgow, p. 102.

39. George F. G. Stanley, 1936. The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. Longmans, Green, Toronto, London & New York, p. 125.

40. Ibid.

41. Comprised of about 400 British regulars and 800 volunteers from Ontario and Quebec. See Peter H. Russell, 2017. Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, p. 178.

42. Jean Teillet, 2019. The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation. Patrick Crean Editions, Toronto, pp. 281-286.

43. “History of Orange Order in Canada Is a Riot,” Canadian Speeches, December 1997,

44. Teillet, The North-West Is Our Mother, pp. 243, 286-288, 307-313.

45. Peter Charlebois, 1975. The Life of Louis Riel. New Canada Publications, Toronto, p. 86.

46. Hall, A History of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, pp. 34–35.

47. Ibid., p. 39.

48. Ibid., p. 13.

49. Lawrence J. Barkwell, “Poitras, Pierre Sr.,” Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture, Gabriel Dumont Institute,

50. A.-H. Trémaudan, 1935. Histoire de la Nation Métisse dans l’Ouest Canadien. A. Lévesque, Montréal, p. 258.

51. “The International,” New Nation (13 August 1870), p. 2.

52. Lawrence J. Barkwell, “The Reign of Terror against the Métis of Red River,” Louis Riel Institute, p. 5,

53. Ibid, p. 9.

54. Howard, Strange Empire, p. 235.

55. Hélène-Andrée Bizier and Jacques Lacoursière, 1979. Nos racines: Chapitre 91 à 105—L’histoire vivante des Quebecois. Editions Transmo, St. Laurent, Que., p. 85.

56. Ibid.

57. Howard, Strange Empire, p. 236.

58. Trémaudan, Histoire de la Nation Métisse, p. 258. See also Teillet, “Chapter 19: The Reign of Terror,” in The North-West Is Our Mother.

59. Darryl Leroux, 2019. Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. University of Manitoba Press,Winnipeg, pp. 115–116.

60. See Ritchot to Temple, 1 April 1873, in, Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, 1874. Report of the Select Committee on the Causes and Difficulties of the North-west Territory in 1869–70. L. B. Taylor, Ottawa, p. 87.

61. Hamon, The Audacity of His Enterprise, p. 173.

62. Waldman, “Canada Post Unveils Riel Stamp.” See also Prest, “Historic Manitoba Photos Repatriated.”

See also:

Events in Manitoba History: Louis Riel and his Councillors (June 1870)

Page revised: 92 September 2023

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