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Biography of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal
Chapter X. Riel the Rebel


As the name of Louis Riel appears many times in this narrative it may be well to give a short chapter to the description of his romantic career, and its tragic ending on the gallows. As one reads the actual facts of his life it seems like reading the "Penny dreadfuls" of former days. He was just the stuff out of which the hero of that thrilling literature were made. Who would ever dream that the half-breed lad born in the wilderness would become in time a figure of such importance as to threaten the welfare of the Dominion and be a subject of Imperial diplomacy? He was endowed with great natural gifts which early began to show themselves for, when he was but a boy, Bishop Tachè discovered him doggedly studying Latin at a small college in St. Bonifaee. This wise man, always on the lookout for promising material, saw in the studious lad the promise of a future priest and, perhaps, a bishop. He enlisted on his behalf the good-will of a devout lady, Madame Masson, and she assumed the expense of his education at Montreal. There is no doubt that, had they been able to keep him and control him as well as educate him, their highest hope might have been realized, for lie had the ability which would have made him a dignitary of the Church. But his inclinations carried him in other directions. Ile was full of the spirit of life and activity. For awhile he secured employment in the States but in 1869 we find him hack at his mothers, the Red River Settlement, a ''freighter" on the plains.

Ile came upon times suited to his stormy temperament. He became by reason of his intelligence and personality the natural and acknowledged leader of the half-breeds. They looked to him and trusted him and by his influence over them he was a power that had to be reckoned with in any dealings with the Settlement. Sir ,John A. Macdonald, who was a shrewd judge of men, recognized his abilities and scented danger. Writing to the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. William McDougall, he uttered a word of warning. "This man Riel," he said, "who appears to be the moving spirit, is a clever fellow, and you should endeavor to retain him as an officer in your future police. If you do this promptly it will be a convincing proof that you are not going to leave the half-breeds out of the law." This shows the leadership which he had secured over the French half-breeds, who by ternperament were averse to steady occupation, who loved the life of the river and the plain, and whose restless, volatile disposition made them quick to take offence and always ready to defy the authorities if they fancied their rights and privileges were attacked. These people gathered about Riel and he had no scruples about making use of them to further his ambitious designs. And he was ambitious. The pact by which the North-west was handed over to the Dominion was skilfully used by him to stir up an insurrection, and it is easy to imagine that he dreamed of a position of something akin to sovereignty in that vast domain. One has a kind of pity for the ignorance, and, at the same time, a sort of admiration for the boldness, of the man who, with a few thousand, poor, unequipped and ignorant people, challenged the supremacy of the Imperial authorities. For this is what he actually did. He prevented the new Governor from entering the territory. He took possession of Fort Garry on the pretence of protecting it. He set up a "Provisional Government" of which he was the real head. Ile arrested and kept as prisoners three score of those who were friendly to the new order. When Donald Smith appeared upon the scene as the Commissioner both of the Hudson Bay Company and the Dominion Government, he promptly made him prisoner. And during the negotiations that were carried on, the efforts to secure a peaceful termination to the dissatisfaction, he maintained a persistent opposition and put every obstacle in the way. lie stopped short at nothing, and by the killing of Scott, after the farce of a trial, stained his hands with blood. The coming of the troops put an end, for a time, to his evil career, and he was practically driven from the country as an outlaw.

For fourteen years the country was at peace. Law and order became firmly established. Representative Government was set up. The city of Winnipeg began to shape itself on the site of Fort Garry. The Province of Manitoba began to fill with English-speaking settlers. The prairie became dotted with towns and villages, and the building of railroads was begun. The half-breeds had migrated in large numbers farther west where they could hunt and fish, and, in their shiftless fashion, till little patches of ground. But they could not escape from the energy and enterprise of the white people, who kept crowding upon them and whose modern methods threatened their chances of a livelihood.

Thus it was that in 1884 there came eastward rumors of an insurrection similar to that which had threatened the country in 1869-70. At the head of this movement was Riel. He had been elected member of Provenelier for the Dominion Parliament but the House voted his election void after the Manitoba Court had found against him a true bill for murder and he had failed to appear for trial. During all these years he had lived in the States supporting himself by teaching school, and also receiving monies from the Secret Service fund of the Dominion Government which were really a bribe paid to keep him out of the country. To him the agitators in the far West turned and he responded to their call and came back to be the leader of the new insurrection. It was a fatal step. On the banks of the Saskatchewan, a noble river which empties into Lake Winnipeg after a course of more than a thousand miles, the standard of rebellion was set up. The rebels, emboldened by the belief that they would have the support of French Canada, attacked and defeated, with loss of life, the Mounted Police and Prince Albert Volunteers. A number of Indian tribes joined forces with them and under a chief named Big Bear compelled the abandonment of Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan.

Things were certainly beginning to look serious. The rebels, encouraged by their success and by their knowledge of the difficulties which beset the Government in dealing with a disturbance so far away, were becoming more and more aggressive. The situation was alarming. The forces that preserved order in that remote district seemed insufficient to maintain the peace. It looked as if the whole North-west might he embroiled in a disastrous conflict and the integrity of the Dominion imperilled. At that stage of development it would have been nothing short of a calamity if the impression had got abroad that the new country was likely to be the scene of actual racial conflict—a conflict rendered all the more fearful if there should be added to it the horrors of Indian warfare.

The Government was in an exceedingly difficult position. It had to keep in mind the possibility of the French in Quebec sympathizing with their compatriots in the West. Moreover, it was the first time any serious demand had been made on the military department. Everything was in the formative stage and that department had had to give way to other matters that seemed more important. So that there was some reason for the insurgents feeling elated and confident.

But times had greatly changed since 1870. The country had been opened up. Transportation schemes had been carried forward. In Manitoba there was a body of people who could be depended on to help, and indeed a fine company of men was gathered in the young city of Winnipeg. Telegraphic communication had been set up so that the news of the doings of the rebels was immediately conveyed to the east and aroused an extraordinary outburst of feeling not only in Ontario but also in Quebec. The Government took prompt action and issued a call for volunteers which was responded to both by French and English. Soldiers were entrained at Toronto and Montreal and, under Major-General Middleton, a regular officer in command of the Canadian militia, set out on their long journey, to the number of over four thousand men.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was then constructed as far as Qu'Appelle. To that place the soldiers were brought by train, a good deal of the way in rough cars, on a rough road bed, but there was no complaining and they left the train at Qu'Appelle in good trim and eager for the further journey of two hundred and thirty miles which lay between them and Batoche. This was a town, or rather village, in the centre of the disaffected district. In due course they reached their destination and were on the scene of trouble in less than a month from the time of their departure. It speaks well for the efficiency of those who had the matter in hand and also shows how greatly conditions had changed that, in spite of the difficult nature of their task, they were able to accomplish it in such an incredibly short time.

Before actually reaching Batoche, they suffered a slight cheek at Fish Creek, about fifteen miles away. There they encountered a novel and ingenious mode of warfare. In a deep ravine the enemy had concealed themselves in rifle pits. Safely ensconced in these, they succeeded in shooting down a number of volunteers before their whereabouts could be discovered. But the check was only a brief one. Far from disheartening the men, the loss of their comrades roused them to greater determination and in a few days, when they met the insurgents in full strength at Batoche, they inflicted on them a crushing defeat which practically ended the insurrection. The story of the rebellion of '85 is familiar to the reader and perhaps its importance has not been fully understood. There can be no doubt that if the incipient flame of rebellion had not been promptly and thoroughly stamped out by the effective measures of the Government, supported by the valor of the volunteers, it would have risen to a conflagration and produced the most unhappy consequences. That was the experimental stage of Canada's national life and, had these malcontents succeeded in their desperate venture, the progress of the country would have been staved indefinitely.

The heart and brains and directing force of the unfortunate movement was Louis Rid. At the battle of Batoche he was taken prisoner. His fate was sealed. his day of grace was over. The Government had treated him leniently. Notwithstanding his defiance of law in 1870 and his opposition to the Dominion, he had been allowed to go free. It may be that he presumed on that and expected the same treatment again. If so, he was doomed to disappointment. The stern measures he meted out to poor Scott were now meted out to him. lie was given an impartial trial; the ablest lawyers of the French people were secured for his defence, but he was condemned to death. Even after the sentence was passed, strong efforts were made to save his life. The plea of insanity was put forward and the Government was urged to cancel the sentence, but it stood firm, and, to their credit be it said, Sir John A. Macdonald had the support of the French leaders in his determination not to interfere. The law took its course and in the summer of 1885 Riel paid the penalty of his folly. So he passed from the stage of Canadian affairs and his disturbing career was over. A new era dawned in Canadian history. Larger national problems and duties began to engage the minds of the people. Time weakened the force of old prejudices and animosities. A common purpose began to draw together the different sections and so it has come about that, with the exception of a few ripples on the surface, from that dray to this, there has been no serious conflict of races. Long may that happy state of things continue.


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