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Louis Riel: Guilty!

For the week of Monday July 15, 2013

 On July 20, 1885 Louis Riel pleaded not guilty to treason charges.

Louis Riel
© Library and Archives Canada / C-018082

Leader of the Métis and member of the French Catholic minority in what are now the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, he was accused of high treason by the federal government of Sir John A. Macdonald. Riel’s role in the North-West Rebellion / Resistance and the battles of Fish Creek, Cut Knife and Batoche were cited as reasons for the charge of treason – a capital offence indicating a lack of allegiance to both the British Crown and the Dominion of Canada.

The trial began on July 28, 1885 in Regina, Saskatchewan, before a jury of six composed entirely of English-speaking Protestants. If Riel would have been tried in Winnipeg, in his home province, the jury would probably have been composed of 12, including six Francophones. The defence team was led by Charles Fitzpatrick, who sought to save Riel’s life by arguing that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, despite the fact that Riel disapproved of the insanity strategy.

Courthouse during Riel’s trial
© O.B. Buell / Library and Archives Canada / PA-120244

On July 31, in the packed courthouse, Fitzpatrick delivered an eloquent defence summary in which he asserted the grievances of the Métis, Riel’s insanity and his certainty that the jury would not send Riel to the gallows. Louis Riel delivered two speeches, confirming that he did not want to be judged insane and that he was defending Métis and Aboriginal rights in Western Canada.

In spite of these impassioned speeches, the jury found Riel guilty but recommended mercy. Nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced Riel to death. Louis Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885.

Riel addressing the jury during the trial
© O.B. Buell / Library and Archives Canada / C-001879

In 1956 Louis Riel was designated a national historic person for his role in upholding Métis rights and bringing Manitoba into Confederation. In Canadian historiography and memory, this controversial man is seen by many as a hero of the North-West Rebellion / Resistance, while by others as a rebel or traitor who abused his authority. Today, he is largely recognized as a symbol of the Métis, and understood as a patriot who was a victim of religious and ethnic differences. For Manitobans, Louis Riel Day, the third Monday in February, commemorates the life of Louis Riel.

Sir Charles Fitzpatrick, the eminent jurist and statesman, was also designated a national historic person.

To learn more about Louis Riel and the Métis resistance, read Batoche: Sacred grounds of the Métis, The Battle of Duck Lake, Chief and General: Gabriel Dumont and The Battle of Frenchman Butte in the This Week in History Archives and visit the Batoche National Historic Site.

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