The Fate of Louis Riel
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The North West Rebellion
The Fate of Louis Riel
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The Fate of Louis Riel
Madman or hero? The trial of the Metis leader
The trial of Louis Riel was one of the biggest spectacles in Canadian history.
The trial of Louis Riel lasted four days in July 1885. The leader of the North West Rebellion (standing centre) addressed the court in Regina, listing the Mtis grievances and outlining his vision for a diverse Canada. (Courtesy of the National Archives o
The trial of Louis Riel lasted four days in July 1885. The leader of the North West Rebellion (standing centre) addressed the court in Regina, listing the Mtis grievances and outlining his vision for a diverse Canada. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Charged with high treason for leading the North West Rebellion, Riel wanted to use the trial as a platform to vindicate himself.

"I was not taken prisoner. I surrendered on purpose. I want to be judged on the merits of my actions. ... From the time of my arrival in Saskatchewan, I worked peacefully ... We didnt make any aggressive military moves. ... In Batoche we defended ourselves."

In turn, the government did all it could to muzzle the Métis leader. It wished to dispose of the man who had led two uprisings in the countrys brief history.

The trial was moved from Winnipeg to Regina when the government discovered that a Manitoba jury could be half Métis. Of the six men on the Regina jury - only one spoke French.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald decided to charge Riel with high treason, based on an obscure British law dating to the year 1342. This law carried the death the penalty whereas Canadas treason law did not.

Trial began on July 20, 1885. It was a sweltering day made more oppressive by the hordes of people wanting to view the spectacle in Regina.

The city was packed with officials, lawyers as well as reporters from around the world. People lined up for hours outside the courtroom willing to pay ten dollars to watch the biggest trial in Canadian history.

The trial lasted four days. Riel addressed the court, listing the undemocratic treatment of Métis on the prairies and outlining his vision for a diverse society.
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald decided to charge Louis Riel with high treason, based on an obscure British law dating to the year 1342.  The law carried the death penalty. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald decided to charge Louis Riel with high treason, based on an obscure British law dating to the year 1342. The law carried the death penalty. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Riels own lawyers argued that their client was insane. And they seemed to have some justification. Riel considered himself a prophet from God sent to help his people. He also advocated moving the seat of the Catholic Church from the Vatican to Canada.

Riel insisted he was not insane:

"I suppose that after having been condemned, I will cease to be called a fool and for me it is a great advantage. ...I have a mission, I cannot fulfill my mission as long as I am looked upon as an insane being ... If I am guilty of high treason I say that I am a prophet of the new world. "

Despite his pronouncements, Riel impressed the jury as being respectful, entertaining and perfectly sane.

It took the jury less than four hours to reach a guilty verdict. They did ask the judge to show mercy and forego the death penalty.

On August 3, 1885, the judge ignored their pleas and sentenced Riel to death. Despite several appeals and continuing questions about his sanity, Riel was hanged on November 16, 1885 in Regina.


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Rebellion on the Plains

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The Fate of Louis Riel

Anger in the West
Fury with Ottawa creates shaky alliances on the prairies
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Return From Exile
Louis Riel comes home to lead his people
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Rebellion on the Plains
Violence erupts on the prairies and Canadian soldiers go west
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