A Passionate Adventure
by Alice F. Loomis
Manitoba Pageant, January 1963, Volume 8, Number 2
The sun shone brightly into the court room that July morning of 1885 when Louis Riel, self styled Messiah of the French half breeds, stood up to hear the verdict of the jury.
A girl in my middle teens, I had wormed my way through the crowd to a place where the defendant was in good view, and although more than seventy years have passed since that day, he still remains in my memory as though it were yesterday.
The occasion was a notable one: the first trial for high treason ever to be held in Canada, and it took place, not in Ottawa, Montreal or another big city, but in Regina, a town then not yet three years old, but the capital of the whole North West Territories. My father, a justice of the peace, had been invited to sit on the bench beside Judge Richardson and among the attorneys who had come from the East for the important trial was one of the famous Osler family. I have never forgotten his pale distinguished face, adorned by a drooping black moustache so like the well known portrait of his physician brother, Sir William Osler.
Meanwhile, in the courtroom, the jury had filed in. While we held our breath to hear what they had to say, the prisoner stood quietly. His appearance surprised me. Known as a French half breed, I had expected to see the dark skin and long black hair of the picturesque half-breeds we constantly saw riding in groups about the town. But this man had a long auburn beard and blue eyes! Later, I learned that besides French and Indian, he had at least some drops of Scandinavian and Irish blood in him. Perhaps it was the latter that accounted for his being a leader in lost causes!
It was just a year since my family had come out from London, England, to settle on the prairie, and all through the winter we had been hearing rumors of discontent among the Indians and half breeds further north. We heard too that some mysterious character, named Louis Riel, or Louis David Riel, as he preferred to be called, had been busily stirring up this discontent. The result was that the Indians rose, murdered settlers, took whole families prisoner and looted stores. The North West Mounted Police, whose headquarters were only two miles distant from the town of Regina, marched to the rescue. We had several friends among them, and it was one of the young officers who told us of the two hundred mile journey over the snow, on horseback and in sleighs, often making forty miles a day in order to be able to cross the Saskatchewan River before the spring break up of the ice. 'And when we got to Prince Albert;' he wrote "we found the settlers were simply flocking in; some of us had to go right onto patrol, and if those nice girls from the parsonage had not stayed up all night handing out hot coffee, I think I should have simply fallen out of my saddle."
Then the news came that Riel had organized an army of Indians and half breeds with the aim of driving the white "interlopers" out of Western Canada. The outbreak was too great to be dealt with by the Mounted Police, only five hundred strong, and scattered over a wide territory, and troops were sent from the East. In a battle at Batoche, Riel's forces were defeated and scattered, and he himself made a prisoner picked up almost by accident by a two man patrol of Mounted Police a few days later.
There was real danger of his being rescued by his comrades, and so the prisoner was hurried to the nearest point on the lately constructed Canadian Pacific Railway. An engine and caboose carried him and his escort to a point opposite the headquarters of the Mounted Police near Regina. Here a platoon of Police awaited him and as he emerged from the caboose a police helmet was clapped onto his head and a blue cavalry cloak thrown round his shoulders. In a few moments he was safely locked up in the guardroom of the police barracks. Extra sentries were posted and until his execution the following November no one was admitted to the police enclosure without being able to give the countersign, which was changed daily.
Perhaps Riel's brief campaign might have been more successful had he been willing to listen to the advice of his lieutenant, Gabriel Dumont, who urged that he harry the advancing troops, keep them from sleeping, and wear them out. But this Riel, visionary and impractical forbade on the ground that some of their teamsters might be half breeds! So great was his veneration for this half mystical leader that Dumont obeyed.
Hearing the verdict of the jury, "Guilty', and knowing that the penalty was "death", Riel did not flinch. He had rejected almost with violence the plea of insanity urged by his counsel, though at one time he had been in a mental institution. Asked now whether he had anything to say, he spoke passionately for an hour. He spoke in English, and during his rather rambling talk sought to justify his actions, and to plead the cause of his friends and compatriots. Fantastic as were some of his ideas, I could not but feel respect for his dignity and conviction.
But this was not all he had to say. He launched out into an extraordinary plan for the future of the Canadian North West. He proposed to divide it into seven provinces, and invite seven different nationalities to populate them a plan somewhat at variance with his hope to restore the country to the Indians and half breeds. In all of this he was to be the leading figure, and it was sometimes hard to say whether ambition and an overweening sense of his own importance, or devotion to the cause of the half-breeds was uppermost in his mind. Through it all he maintained that he was the Messiah of the North West and would live to fulfill his destiny.
The sentence of death pronounced on Riel brought a storm of protest from French Canada. The Liberals also, the party in opposition, joined in the outcry. Edward Blake, the leader of the opposition, even exclaimed, "God forbid that we Canadians should forget for a moment that the cornerstone of our liberty is the sacred right of resistance."
The appeals finally reached the Privy Council in London, which confirmed the sentence, saying that "substantial justice had been done."
During the period of waiting, Riel was visited daily by the Senior Surgeon, as well as by the Commanding Officer at the Mounted Police headquarters, and bit by bit he told the strange story of his life.
Riel was born at St. Boniface, across the river from Winnipeg, attended St. Boniface College and later entered a seminary in Montreal with the intention of becoming a priest. But the discipline of the church irked his restless disposition and he abandoned his studies. This much is common knowledge. But some of the details of his life, as given to these officers, (and through the son of one of them later given to me) may have escaped historians.
At twenty six years of age he raised the flag of rebellion in Winnipeg, but the outbreak was unsuccessful and he fled to the United States, where he remained for fourteen years, forgetting his mission, but keeping more or less in touch with his half breed and Indian friends across the border.
Then one day, according to his own confession, being at the Cathedral in Washington, D.C., attending the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, he was so overcome by the grandeur of this service that he fell into a trance. He was roused by a bright light that shone round him, in the midst of which appeared the Angel Gabriel, who reminded him of his mission and chided him for his forgetfulness.
This heavenly apparition chose its moment well. Both the half breeds and the Indians were seething with discontent the former because their promised land grants were still unsettled, and the latter because the buffalo had all gone and they had not yet learned to settle down to a different kind of life.
Like St. Paul, who also saw a great light, Riel was not "disobedient to the heavenly vision," but crossed into Canada and by his fiery rhetoric roused his compatriots to action.
All this was of course unknown to me that day when I sat in the court room and heard the judge pronounce the sentence of death. To my literal young mind Riel was truly guilty of high treason, and if capital punishment was ever justifiable, it was in his case. It was only later that I began to understand better the man whom Sir Wilfrid Laurier once described as "that vain, rash and passionate adventurer about whose figure centres more of sorrow, of tragedy and of conflict than around any other in the annals of Confederated Canada."
Page revised: 1 July 2009