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Was Louis Riel mentally ill?

The Story

Throughout his life Louis Riel was a devout Catholic. But in 1875 he had a religious experience and came to believe he was a prophet whom God had chosen and given the name "David." His ideas and his conduct -- tearing off his clothes, roaring like a bull -- alarmed the people around him, and Riel spent two years in asylums in Quebec. Biographer Maggie Siggins tells CBC about Riel's "mental collapse." Later on, Riel would set out a philosophy for a new religion. But Siggins doesn't take this as proof of insanity. "When I read it very carefully I thought well, yes, of course it's very unusual or eccentric, but I'm not going to label it as crazy or insane," she tells Gzowski. "Let's take it at face value." 

Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: Oct. 21, 1994
Guest: Maggie Siggins
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 2:58
Photo: National Archives of Canada / PA-139073

Did You know?

• Louis Riel's faith took a turn in 1875 after he received a letter from a man he regarded as a mentor, Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal. In it, Bourget counselled Riel that God had plans for him: "He has given you a mission which you must accomplish step by step [and] with the Grace of God you must persevere on the path that has been laid out for you."
• Riel's interpretation of Bourget's advice was coloured by several experiences in which he felt he had been visited by the "Divine Spirit." Soon he began to believe he was a new world prophet charged with founding a new, North American-based Catholicism. Under this system, Bishop Bourget would become the new pope.
• Riel felt a kinship with the Hebrew King David and began using "David" as his middle name in some correspondence.
• Between early 1876 and early 1878 Riel was committed to insane asylums in Montreal and outside Quebec City. He was registered under assumed names, Louis R. David and Louis Larochelle.
• Riel was released from the asylum once doctors were satisfied he was cured. In fact, says author Thomas Flanagan in Louis 'David' Riel: Prophet of the New World, Riel had "learned how to conduct himself externally, not that he had undergone a deep internal transformation."
• Riel's prophetic beliefs played a large role in his actions during the North-West Rebellion. He coined the term Exovedate (a Latin construction meaning "from the flock") to signify the provisional government and asked its members to acknowledge him as a prophet.
• As noted in this clip, Riel also made up Latin names for the days of the week. Monday became Christ Aurore, Tuesday was Vierge Aurore, and so on. Riel believed the original names were reminders of paganism.
• Throughout the North-West Rebellion Riel carried a cross or a flag bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. He never carried a gun, and routinely engaged his men in prayer during the fighting.
• Gabriel Dumont, the Métis military commander, yielded to Riel's judgement despite his own misgivings. "I had confidence in his faith and his prayers, and that God would listen to him," Dumont would say later.
• Recent interpretations of Riel's state of mind are forgiving. In 2004 Chester Brown, who wrote a comic-strip biography of Riel, told an interviewer: "I consider myself a religious person and so I think that his visions were in some sense true. I don't know that he interpreted them correctly but I think he had real experiences and I don't therefore think that he was crazy or insane in the way that most people would understand those terms."


Rethinking Riel more