CBC Digital Archives

Lesson Plan: For Teachers: The Retrial of Louis Riel

History, Political Science
2 lessons
To determine whether Louis Riel would be found guilty of treason if he were retried today
Students will stage a retrial of Louis Riel on the charge of treason, and render a verdict as a class.

Lesson Plan

Before Exploring

Write the term fair trial on the board. Why is this an important concept in Canada's legal system?

Ask students to brainstorm examples of recent trials that have attracted a lot of media attention. Then ask for example of trials with controversial verdicts. Why was the verdict controversial?

Review as a class any information that students know about Louis Riel's trial for treason in 1885, and why its verdict aroused so much controversy.

Outline the Opportunity

Direct students to the topic Rethinking Riel on the CBC Digital Archives website.  They should review the whole topic, and especially the clips "The North-West Rebellion," "No cause for celebration" and "Riel: a comic-book hero." Assign members of the class different roles to play in preparing for Riel's retrial. These should include Louis Riel, the judge, a six-person jury, the defence and prosecuting attorneys, and various witnesses who were involved in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. Students who are not assigned a specific role can serve as a panel whose responsibility will be to determine whether Louis Riel's retrial was fair.

Have students research the information they will need to prepare to play their role as part of a retrial of Louis Riel. Students on the panel can team up with a role-player to help him or her with research. Defence and prosecuting attorneys will need to prepare opening and closing remarks, witnesses will need to prepare testimony, Riel will need to present a statement to the court, justifying his actions during the Rebellion, and the judge will have to be prepared to deliver a charge to the jury.

Organize the class into a courtroom and begin the retrial. When statements and testimony have been given, the judge delivers a charge to the jury, instructing it on its deliberations. The jury then withdraws to consider its verdict, which one of its members then delivers to the court. The judge pronounces sentence on Riel if he is found guilty, or acquits him if found innocent.

Revisit and Reflect

After the trial, ask the remaining students to evaluate its fairness, especially in contrast to the 1885 trial that found Riel guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. Ask students how a trial held today would differ from that of 1885, and why this is the case. Ask students to discuss whether or not they think Riel received a fair trial then, and whether they agree with the verdict and sentence passed on him. Compare students' conclusions to those of the audience that viewed the CBC's retrial of Louis Riel, broadcast in 2002.


Students can prepare a written response to Riel's question: "Am I guilty of treason because I fought by the side of my people?"

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