The Sunday Magazine

The epic history of the Métis Nation

Lawyer Jean Teillet tells the story not just of Louis Riel, but of his people before and after he was hung for treason in 1885.
The North-West Is Our Mother is a nonfiction book by Jean Teillet. (Ed Henderson, HarperCollins Canada)

Jean Teillet used to bring handwritten notes from a long-dead relative to show-and-tell.

That relative? Louis Riel. 

The man who led the Métis in the Red River Resistance 150 years ago this winter. 

Teillet has used those notes — and many other sources — to write an extensive history called The North-West is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel's People,The Métis Nation.

Jean Teillet's comments have been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

Working with never-before-seen Louis Riel papers:

When I was a little kid we had a handful of papers, and I took them to show and tell in school. Other kids take their doll. I took Louis Riel's papers. 

When I was writing the book I went home and asked my mom, "Do you still have those papers?" She said, "They're up over there on the shelf." I asked my mom, "Do you think any of our cousins have any?" My cousin Louise turned out to be a gold mine. She said, "Oh yeah. I have nine boxes." 

My historian friends just shook their heads going, "Oh my God. This is a historian's nightmare. There are nine boxes of Louis Riel papers sitting in a basement in a flood zone."

They're not all written by Louis Riel. Some of them were documents of the Old Wolves — those old guys who went back to Batoche and took affidavits from the survivors of the North-West Resistance in 1885. There were photographs. There was some Louis Riel poetry. There are some little old pamphlets, the likes of which I have never seen in any archives before. Since I wrote this book, my mother has turned our papers over. I think they will soon be available to the general public, which in our family — my generation anyway — that's what we think should happen.

Louis Riel. (National Archives of Canada)

The genesis of the Métis Nation:

The forefathers of the Métis Nation are the voyageurs, the men that they call "the men of the north" — the ones who went from Fort William, now Thunder Bay, on the edge of Lake Superior and went north and west. There the men married mostly the Cree and Ojibwe nations. Those men go free. Going free meant getting out of their contracts with the Hudson's Bay Company or with the North West Company. They walk away, because they have these families now in the northwest. But there's a second step of going free, which is that the women have to go free from the tribes and move away with the men. Then they create their own groups. But that's not the birth of the Métis Nation. That's just the early antecedents to it. What you need then is critical mass.

Five guys in Edmonton and three guys in Île-à-la-Crosse and 20 guys in Winnipeg — that doesn't do it. It takes a couple of generations for the intermarriage to create the critical mass. To me that happens in the generation born in the 1790s. They're the ones who start calling themselves a separate group. They named themselves La Nouvelle Nation. They give themselves a name — Bois-Brûlés. They decide they have interests as a group and they start acting to protect them. 

What the Canada Party did in the 1850s:

These guys came from Ontario and they were essentially land speculators, opportunists looking to make money off the northwest. But they were ruthless. They also came with a lot of prejudice and a lot of ideas about how First Nations and the Métis were subhuman, lacking in any kind of culture or rights. And we should be clear, they also thought this about the French. Lord John Durham said that the French were a people with no literature and history.

Most of them stemmed from the [Protestant] Orange Lodges in Ontario. The Orange Lodge at the time was, I would say, a white supremacist organization that was secret and had a penchant for violence. Other historians have called them the Tory stormtroopers. They were deeply embedded in English Canada. For 100 years every mayor of Toronto was a member of the Orange Lodge. Sir John A. Macdonald was a member of the Orange Lodge. 

Canada's first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, 1883. (Library and Archives Canada C-005328.)

They were very anti-Catholic, anti-French. They talked about stopping the papacy from taking over the West, and they hated the Métis. They sort of pitied First Nations, which was so condescending of them, but they literally hated the Métis. They talked about "extermination" of what they considered to be vermin.

When they arrive in the northwest, they have a long road ahead of them. They have to get rid of the Hudson Bay Company, which according to British law owns the territory. That land has to be transferred to Canada. Canada then has to open it up for homesteading. Only then does it come into the market where these guys can start to make money off it. A lot of the fortunes of some of the big rich families on the prairies all come from that process.

How Louis Riel tried to fight back against the Canada Party and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in the 1869-1870 Red River Resistance:

There's a wonderful quote that succinctly says what the goal of Riel was which is — Look, you don't own us. We're not owned by the Hudson's Bay Company. You can't sell us like chattel from Great Britain to Canada. Besides which, you negotiated with Prince Edward Island and all of these other provinces. You never purported to coerce them in to Canada's confederation without negotiation. What makes you think you can do that with us? Really, the only reason was because it's primarily Métis and First Nations.

Riel's goal was always, we want to negotiate the terms on which we will come into confederation. One of the things that we miss about Riel is how young he was. He was 25, and he jammed the plans of Great Britain, Canada and to a certain extent the United States.

The ripple effects of  Louis Riel's hanging after the 1885 North-West Resistance and the Battle of Batoche:

Quebec was kind of sleeping on the job. There was a huge francophone community in western Canada and they were really complacent about it. But when they got to the point where they were going to hang Riel, Quebec woke up with a start. I think 50,000 people marched in the streets of Montreal. Macdonald's got that famous line: "He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour." 

After they did hang Riel, the government in Quebec went down in defeat because it was seen as too closely tied to Macdonald, and a new party came in. That party is the first party devoted to Quebec nationalism — the Quebec story.

From that, we now have the Bloc Québécois, the Party Québécois. We've had these referendums. The roots of it are there before they hang Riel. But Riel more or less puts the nail in the coffin. 

A lawyer speaks outside a courtrom.
'The Métis Nation has always been proud of being Canadian, but they are a nation within a nation,' says lawyer Jean Teillet. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Teillet's hopes that the Métis Nation will eventually 'be free to be the nation of their dreams, the one they first sang into being in 1816':

I think it's what Cuthbert Grant, Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, Malcolm Norris, Jim Brady and all of the great leaders have fought for — a place in this country as a nation. Not just as a bunch of individuals with mixed race. As a people, as a culture with the land that we were deprived of. The Métis Nation has always been proud of being Canadian. But they are a nation within a nation. They want recognition. They want into Canada as a nation.

In the last four years, there's been a lot of debate and discussion about self-government agreements for the Métis Nation and their negotiating land in Manitoba. We have some land in Alberta. I think if we could continue on the trajectory we have been on in the last four years, then maybe that will actually happen. And Louis Riel's dream will become a reality.