Louis Riel: Defender of the East
The Confederation of Canada was not achieved without protest and bloodshed. In the Red River rising of 1869 and the Saskatchewan rebellion of 1885, writes George Woodcock, Louis Riel led the French-Indian hunters of the North-West against the advance of Canadian federal authority.
On May 12th, 1885, after four days of hard fighting, a Canadian army of seven thousand men stormed the village of Batoche in the Saskatchewan prairies, and brought to an end the last of the rebellions which for fifty years had marked the stages of Canada’s growth from a group of separate colonies and territories into a united Dominion.
The tiny rebel force of three hundred French-Indian half-breeds, who had defended Batoche so obstinately, did not surrender; as their ammunition ran out, they scattered into the surrounding prairies, and many of them fled to safety over the American border. But their leader, who—cross in hand—had encouraged them during the siege with his prophetic exhortations, was not among those who escaped.
A few days after the collapse of the rebellion, Louis Riel was captured by an American buffalo hunter who had taken service with the Canadian forces, and six months later, despite widespread French Canadian opposition in Quebec, he was hanged for treason at Regina.
Riel’s execution was not only the end of a life dramatically dominated by rebellion and exile. It also marked the death of the free, semi-primitive prairie life of the days when the Indians and the half-breed hunters shared the great plains, undisturbed by the advance of civilization. And it remained as a lasting source of bitterness that has affected Canadian political life—and, particularly, relations between French and English Canadians—for the past seventy years.
In the imagination of modern Canadians, Riel appears as one of the few flamboyant and perpetually controversial figures in their history. To those who speak English, he is often a personification of scheming treachery; to those who speak French he is usually a racial hero and a martyr; and to radicals he seems a gallant but misguided fighter against the railway financiers and land sharks who invaded the Canadian West in the later nineteenth century.