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Politician Louis Riel: A Hero or Traitor?

Introduction

Louis Riel, the undisputed Metis leader and the founder of Manitoba led his people to resist the Canadian government resulting into an irrevocable tension between the Federal government and the Metis. When he finally managed to establish a provisional government in the year 1869, and vowed to improve the life of all settlers and protect their interests, he truly did so until the end of his life in 1885 (Flanagan, p.41)1. A lot has been said about Riel’s actions on whether it was right for him to participate in the atrocities and rebellion. This paper will analyze the character of Louis Riel as perceived by different parties; proponents and opponents.

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  • Thesis Statement: Louis Riel comes across as one who defended the rights of his people up to his very last breath and stands out as a hero to many, a leader with vision and a person with a good heart for the downtrodden individuals in the society…he sought to give them a good life.
  • Anti-Thesis Statement: Critics who did not believe in his principles saw him as a mad traitor with completely misguided zeal who resorted to violence for no cause…a symbol of shame to the dynamic world.

The Historical and Present Context

Riel was born in Manitoba the ancient Red River Colony to a French mother and a Metis leader. Studied laws in Montreal and returned to his ancestral home after his education at the time when Canada was about to launch an invasion on Rupert’s Land and take it under their colony…this move got the Metis people worried because they feared that Canadians would soon move to take over their land too, “the Metis therefore organized themselves into a “solid” group to offer resistance to the Canadian invasion” (Flanagan, p.45).

That was the time when Riel showed his leadership skills and the ability to move people; he gathered massive support to bar the Canadians from invading the settlement. Riel organized the people in what was referred to as the Triple R-“the Red River Rebellion” (Flanagan, p.46). The rebellion however resulted to no serious bloodshed apart from the provisional government executing Thomas Scott, a wild prisoner…Riel fled for his life and settled in New England where he got convicted into Catholicism.

The decision to defend their land was good, for land is an important asset that the Métis could not let go with ease. It was an unjustified idea to forcefully possess Métis resources, despite the ills committed by the Canadians, Riel were not supposed to kill Scott and torture his captives.

It was that move that later drove him into exile, fleeing from his “rotten” past. Later in his life as a devoted Christian, Riel was consulted by some Metis officials who wanted him to intervene and help them protect their land from the Canadians in 1885, he responded by writing petition letters to Ottawa but that did not help, he later offered to lead a final rebellion to save their land…but the 300 Metis were no match to 8,000 armed men of the Canadian government, this marked the Northwest Rebellion where the Metis were humiliated and Riel surrendered (Lindsay, pp.23-31).2

Riel was supposed to figure it out that the army he had was no match to the Canadians and there was simply no point of leading his men into a rebellion that he was very sure winning would require a miracle…he betrayed his people by leading them to their gallows with a false assurance that they will eventually emerge victors.

Analysis of Louis Riel’s Character

From what history has to reveal about Riel, it can be said that he was a man on the run for all the good things in that he did for the benefit not of himself, but of the weak to the point of his death, the Canadian federal government claimed that the main reason why Riel was being hanged was the decision to lead rebels in the in the Northwest Rebellion, this explanation does not hold any water.

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The truth is that the federal government saw Riel as a potential threat and wanted to do away with him even long before the rebellion; Riel’s life was always on the noose with his die hard belief in equality, owing to his continued sought of asylum from outside countries. In politics it is normal look for ways to outdo an opponent but pinning him down on false ground is not a fair play. Being a stabling block to the Canadians goals prompted them to look for ways eliminate Riel…it was a case of wit verses machines, Riel was no match though his intentions were good.

His ideological condemnation of the system of governance and denial of human rights to the natives were not welcomed by the strangers (Canadians), instead, they called him traitor. He was forced to seek asylum in US and obtain the country’s citizenship.

So sympathetic was Riel with condition that he saw the oppression under which the locals were living in that he even decided to distance himself a bit from the church (Catholicism) and instead combined his political and theological principles to help fix the problem…that is what put him at loggerheads with Canadians who claimed that his actions amounted to treason. The collaborators and critics who refer to Louis Riel as a traitor should take a moment and analyze the living conditions of the people who Riel defended; they were in pathetic economic situation, heightened by grasshopper plague that cleared all their produce in the season of 1867-1868.

Riel’s course was not out of selfish interest, but a need to equity, he even prepared a”List of Rights” (Brown, p.2) 3and presented to the then administration, none of this was adopted by the invaders who instead accused Riel of heading an illegal vigilante group. The view of Riel varied across the boarders depending on his actions in such areas; in Ontario, he was considered a murderer, while in Quebec, Riel was a hero and a darling of the people.

It was only Riel who was always at the front line opposing the federal government officials making him to be seen as a rogue local and a traitor, critics argue that the resources that were being taken away were not only Riel’s but many other individuals, why was it that he behaved as if he was the only one at loss. His attitude earned him the chance of being in the federal officials most wanted list. At some point, it calls for the acceptance of change if pressure is too much, opposition may only result to further loss. That was the case with Riel, he could have realized that there was little he could do and instead surrender and save his people the losses that were witnessed.

Riel’s dire need to liberate the meek got so much in him that when he saw that he was going to fail to fulfill it, he suffered a nervous break down and got confined in a mental asylum. He got well later and resumed his normal activities and at some point he seemed to have quit politics only to revert to his old ways when the memories and pressure of the executed Thomas Scott overwhelmed him; this was coupled by his unorthodox views on religion.

Throughout his life even as a changed man, it was like he never at one point changed his views on the federal government…his mission was far from complete and he still sought to make life even for the Metis. This led to his integration of the political principles and the religious stand to believe that God was using him as the “Prophet of the New Word to liberate the weak” (Boulton and Robertson, p.51)4. The Canadian federal authorities did not let him fulfill his goals and pushed so hard to plot against any means to establish a provisional government.

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Riel was an impatient leader who wanted to see what he believed in done without delay that was his character which drove him to resort to violence and not dialogue to defend their land. His simplicity and zeal to change the living standard of the people made him be freely declared the undisputed political and spiritual leader; he did not impose himself, his leadership qualities acted to his advantage.

Were he a dictator as the Canadians claimed, he would have imposed himself and ruled with an iron hand as just as his opponents. While the Canadians were reaping every benefit from the Mentis, Riel only wanted to restore disorders and eliminate the rogue invaders from their land. When he was charged of treason during his trial on the 1st Day of November 1885, he gave out two long powerful speeches acknowledging his guilt of the said charges.

The six-man judge bench found him guilty but recommended pardon, stating that his actions were driven by a good cause. “The judges ruled that Riel’s intention in leading the rebellion was not ill intended, but healthy” (George, p.15). 5This recommendation was thwarted by Judge Hugh Richardson, who sentenced him to death at the jubilation of the Canadian authorities. Riel was hanged on the 16th of November 1885 under a great opposition from Quebec.

Riel had not even a single quality of a traitor as claimed by some skeptics, instead those who collaborated with the Canadian invaders were the traitors, and his sole objective was to preserve every culture and right of their homeland. He was a peace loving citizens, first going for diplomatic resolution before resorting to violence when his partners refused to honor their side of the bargain and turned tables up side down. He took to violence, but was a complete flop forcing him to go into exile…though a vey frustrated man, he found it so hard to accept defeat despite the fact that he was a divinely chosen leader and a prophet; this feeling angered him so much. He developed a remorseful character which would later drive him into his later actions of leading the Northwest rebellion.

Conclusion

From the facts presented in this paper, it clearly points out that Louis Riel was never a traitor but one who believed in equal rights for all humans, he only found himself in the wrong books of the federal government because he was defending the rights of the weak. The Canadians were committed to oppress and depress the Metis and they could not entertain any opposition of any kind. Accepting the right conditions that Riel wanted meant that they were going to lose a lot of resources that they have claimed by sharing it with the locals. When the Metis ignorantly gave out their lands to speculators, Riel’s worst fears wee confirmed…The Metis were eventually marginalized and deprived of al benefits.

The Métis were completely sidelined. It was seen by the majority of the whole world that Riel had a good reason to stage a protest and the decision by the Canadian authority to kill him has been condemned world over. The incident will forever taint Canadian history for a very long time to come. It has been a contentious debate for over a century and it does not seem to go away in the near future. His actions, just as he defended them were justified; affirming that keeping the rights of the Metis was his priority and will remain to be so.

Riel did not have any regrets of his actions…Riel refuted his lawyers attempt to declare him innocent of treason. The “innocent” democratic hero, Riel was was eventually killed not because of treason as the Canadian authorities claimed, but for being held accountable to the death of Thomas Scott. To date, he stands out as a fearless freedom fighter who insisted on standing by his people to the very end of his life (his touching speech). Riel is seen both as an honorable historical figure and a murderer.

Works Cited

Boulton, C. A. and Robertson, H. (1985). I Fought Riel. James Lorimer & Company. p.51.

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Brown, C. Louis Riel: A Comic-strip Biography. Drawn and Quarterly: Montreal. (2003). pp.27.

Flanagan, T. Louis Riel. Canadian Historical Association: Ottawa. (1992). pp.41-49.

George R. D. The Trial of Louis Riel: Justice and Mercy Denied. FabJob: Calgary. (2005). p.15.

Lindsay, L. Louis-Honored. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company. (1911). pp.23-45.

Footnotes

  1. Flanagan, T. Louis Riel. Canadian Historical Association: Ottawa. (1992). pp.41-49.
  2. Lindsay, L. Louis-Honored. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company. (1911). pp.23-45.
  3. Brown, C. Louis Riel: A Comic-strip Biography. Drawn and Quarterly: Montreal. (2003). pp.27.
  4. Boulton, C. A. and Robertson, H. (1985). I Fought Riel. James Lorimer & Company. p.51.
  5. George R. D. The Trial of Louis Riel: Justice and Mercy Denied. FabJob: Calgary. (2005). p.15.

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