Monday, January 21, 2008

Interesting People: Louis Riel

"Is he crazy?" is such a common rhetorical crutch widely bandied about, but not in any serious way. It's just a way of questioning somebody's judgment. Once in a while, though, somebody comes along who does things in such a strange, such a spectacularly confusing fashion, that it's necessary to append "Seriously. I mean there any chance that he's actually, you know, nuts?" Louis Riel was such a man.

Part would-be Messiah, part criminal, part demagogue, Louis Riel was the greatest "troublemaker" of Canada's colonization of its West. Whereas the "Wild West" is enshrined in the United States as an often violent, anything-goes messy expansion, Canada's settlement is typified by the smiling Mountie keeping everything in order.

Louis Riel the exception. He was the leader of the Métis, the Canadian equivalent of Mexican Mestizo, individuals with a blended Native American and White background. In the case of Canada, the French had long held better, though stained, relations with Native Americans. Thus the Métis were Anglo-Canadians' worst nightmare: Native Americans who spoke French.

Riel (looking decidedly uncrazy at right) would wind up the spokesman and face of the many Native American grievances with Canada as it expanded. Though slightly more friendly than Americans at the time, the Canadians (particularly the English-speakers in Ontario) thought little of removing Native Americans from "their" land. Riel started in friendship, helping negotiate the Manitoba Act whereby the area acceded to the Canadian federation as a province (their equivalent of statehood).

However, Riel soon protested against the swift Anglicization of the area, as well as the near-automatic shafting of the land's first settlers. Native and White Manitobans alike loved the firebrand, voting him into Parliament three times, though hostility in the capital prevented him from ever taking his seat in Ottawa. Frontier-urban tensions boiled over as a small force led by Thomas Scott incursed into Manitoba to extend that benevolent Canadian supervision. Unhappy Métis surrounded and captured the force, eventually executing Scott. A warrant was duly issued for murder, and Mounties sent out to arrest Riel. Riel smartly skipped the border into what is now Montana.

He didn't stay in the US long, though, responding to requests from leaders of modern-day Saskatchewan to represent their concerns about the encroaching Canadian government. His entreaties utterly ignored, Riel chose direct action and employed his considerable charisma to gather a fighting force (One quote: "We are men, free and spirited men and we will not allow even the Dominion of Canada to trample on our rights"). This 1885 revolt, called the Northwest or Red River Rebellion failed, which ultimately failed as Native American rebellions tended to do. Riel surrendered to the Canadian forces and put on trial. Six white, Anglophone Protestants found him guilty but recommended mercy. The judge sentenced him to death, and Riel was hanged in November 16, 1885.

Riel's hanging was the match-strike of Quebec nationalism, which has mutated and evolved over time, but never truly gone away. The ever-sensitive Prime Minister of Canada John MacDonald announced "He shall hang, even though every dog in Quebec barks in his favour." Honoré Mercier, one the first Quebec leader to espouse nationalism, road this tide into office as Premier of Quebec shortly thereupon. Over a century later in 1995, sovereigntist member of Canadian Parliament Suzanne Tremblay (left) from Quebec sponsored a motion to repeal his conviction. The bill failed.

Oh, the crazy part? Well, Riel perceived himself increasingly in Messianic terms. Receiving an education from Jesuits, he began to identify himself with the travails of Jesus. He interrupted a sermon to begin issuing "divine pronouncements" and was eventually barred from the Catholic Church. This messages were key in gathering the troops for his failed rebellion. A jester would venture that Riel was truly the first Mormon, as he said at one point saying "Do you know these people of mine are just as were the children of Israel, a persecuted race deprived of their heritage. But I will wrest justice for them from the tyrant. I will be unto them a second David." Followers abandoned the Catholic Church widely and followed Riel into this fight in a parallel to the "Ghost Dance" movement among Lakota and other Native Americans.

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