Louis Riel – How I Became an Outlaw (Part 2)



There were four of us who had been selected to go east for our education: Joseph Nolin, Daniel McDougall, Louis Schmidt and myself. I remember the parents of Joseph Nolin not letting their son go because the scholarship didn’t allow for travel funds to return on holidays. And I remember Daniel McDougall being too immature to handle the distance from his parents, suffering from bouts of homesickness. But Louis Schmidt and I became very close friends, indeed Louis was a lifelong friend. As with many Métis, Louis Schmidt was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but unlike the majority of Métis he was frail physically and small-boned. Strangely, his last name was French (LaFerté) but had been changed to Schmidt by Father Taché because he thought Louis must be German.

Louis Schmidt, classmate of Louis Riel in Quebec

On June 1, 1858 I left for the east. Being so young I could not see how profound an event this was. My grandfather and my uncles were living in Montreal so having family there made it less scary for me than perhaps the others like McDougall. We traveled south to Pembina on a brigade of carts, each of us being a “captain” of our own cart. The dusty June Prairie was such a poignant memory for me, the beginning of a journey that would take me to the higher reaches of higher education. Pembina had always been a magical place in my mind after my father and my grandmother Lagimodière talking about the town as a place where smuggling happened and rebellious people lived, but I recall being crestfallen when we reached Pembina. Having been hit hard by the flooding in 1852, Norman Kittson had moved his trading post to higher ground some 20 miles away in St. Joseph. We found a ghost town.

Pembina flooding, 1852

Being that we were traveling in June we were fully aware that the Sioux were in the area in the midst of their buffalo hunt. Scared that we might be attacked by these brave warriors, we took a more protected woods trail east when we reached Minnesota. During the journey we camped one night at Old Crossings near Red Lake Falls, and believe it or not I ran into my father.

He had been away for over a year buying parts and equipment for his milling business and was on his way back with the goods and had bumped into me by chance. Of course for me it was providence. Being both emotional men in the French tradition, it was a glorious meeting of father and son. I was thrilled to see my father for that night and would cherish the memory for the rest of my life because it was the last time I would ever see my father.

It still warms my heart to remember our meeting.

For another 28 days we traveled through Minnesota eastwards to the newly created capital of St. Paul, the state of Minnesota having just officially been made into a state of the United States a month before. St. Paul was a serious frontier town, rowdy and full of woodsmen and pioneers who knew what it was to settle the land and work hard. Boasting a growing population of over 14,000, it was pretty overwhelming for the three of us young lads from Red River. The churches were huge and some of the houses and buildings were like nothing I had ever seen before. And being on the mighty Mississippi River the steamboats were an endless source of amazement for me. When we boarded one of them, I was thrilled. We traveled down the Mississippi to Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin where we boarded a train to Chicago. The adventure on the train was just as thrilling to me as a boy of 13. We passed through Detroit into Upper Canada to Toronto where we stayed in a convent for the night. Perhaps giddy from the adventure we became more and more unruly the closer we came to Montreal, finally arriving there some five weeks after our departure. Sister Valade, God bless her soul, left us there to begin our schooling, I’m sure relieved to have made the journey unscathed.

Montreal, with its churches and flamboyant French architecture moved me like an artist would seeing world-class paintings for the first time. I was in awe. Being so young and having such a limited spectrum of experience with regards to cities, it was a formative impression. Montreal had been in a 14-year long economic boom. The streets were both grand and sinister – dark alleys and streets full of sin near the harbour on the St. Lawrence River as well as the emerging mansions in the well-to-do areas in the downtown area and Westmount. But it was the churches that really created awe in my young mind: Notre Dame, St. Paul’s, St. Andrew’s and St. Jacques were the ones that really left an impression, as well as McGill University. There was over 90,000 people living there – a metropolis to me.

The three of us were separated into different schools, which was a very scary moment for me. But the Sulpician Order, which was where I was assigned, was a very old religious order founded in Paris in 1641. I was flattered but also at the same time felt an immense feeling of pressure and weighty expectations, and felt I needed my friend Louis Schmidt with me. Despite the grandiose buildings all around us at the seminary, things were very Spartan. The playground was a patch of dirt, and the breakfast was simple porridge. A strong strain of asceticism dominated everything in the school, something that would stay with me throughout my entire life.

The Sulpician Order, Montreal

It was difficult for me at first. After growing up unrestrained in the wide-open fields and forests of Red River, I found the discipline and ascetic routine a bit claustrophobic. I remember spending long hours wondering why we were not let out of the school grounds free to explore the fascinating nooks and crannies of the city. I wrote to my patron, Madame Masson in 1862, which still survives:

Alone and far from all that is dear to a son’s heart, I need not tell one such as you who has so tender and good a soul what I am feeling at the New Year approaches and I think of my family’s home … as it is impossible for me to share in the joys of this wonderful day, the joys of family, I compensate by bestowing my warmest wishes…

But in no way did I ever lose sight of the fact that I was extremely privileged to have been given such a quality education. Holidays like New Year’s reminded me of lost freedoms but I never felt I was losing out. I knew I could return to the wild forests and freedom of Red River life after I graduated. Doors would open for me if I wanted. The classical education I received would serve me in any endeavour I would choose in life.

Considering I had come from “the sticks” compared to many of my fellow students, I did well. After the first month I was 24th in my class of 37, and then moved up to 13th a month later. I started to win academic prizes, especially in Latin. And my fellow students I think regarded me as coming from the Wild West. My fellow schoolmate EusTaché Prud’homme wrote of me the following:

A young man from so far away who knew about pemmican and the tomahawk, who had seen the long hair of the Sioux, of the Blackfoot or other warriors belonging to the savage tribes of that vast region, a young man who had maybe almost been scalped; that was more than enough to pique the curiosity of his classmates, little imps of twelve to fifteen years of age. In the hours of recreation, after the excitement of the games the unruly boys were somewhat calmer, they would gather around him and their young faces bore the expression of whatever emotion he wanted to give them in the course of his story. He would tell some story about the habits and customs of his region, or a comical tale about a remarkable adventure of which he was never the victim. These were scenes of terrible prairie fires in the west, of children crushed and kidnapped by the wild horses of fearless hunters who could jump over a large river in a single bound to end their determined pursuit of ferocious animals.

Indeed many of my classmates remained friends of mine throughout my entire life. Some even defended me during the turbulent times of rebellion and fighting injustice. I had – even from a young age – valued loyalty and protecting the weak. Another aspect of who I was during this time was that I was not very interested in sports. I would much rather discuss the meaning of life rather than kick a ball. And I wasn’t a saint either. I could be a bit rebellious and cantankerous. At times when I might have been singled out because of my Native blood I employed my sharp tongue with liberty, often showing that I could defend myself against slander and falsehoods. I could be feisty and I was a boy who was developing a rather serious code of ethics that I kept on exploring and polishing so that this moral code was just and rational that would remain with me for the rest of my life. Other parts of my personality started to manifest too. I was moody and stubborn at times, and hated it when others insisted their view was right and mine was wrong. I harboured a quick temper and a simmering passion for what was just, being relatively intolerant of other view. I remember wondering how others were not the same – which others didn’t really care about their own opinions and beliefs. I regarded them at times as flimsy in their principles, something that my father would regard as weak.

In 1862 our class of students moved into a newly built premises on Sherbrooke Street. It was much more grandiose than the old austere residence on St. Paul Street. We had a garden and a three-tiered library and much more space, giving us more comfort. And it was here in the new school that I really started to establish myself and character. Defending the underdog was what I became known for. Many times I stuck up for a classmate who was being bullied against those who lacked basic sensitivity for their fellow man. Again it is the virtue of justice that governed so much of my life.

I also wrote a lot. Poems scatter my notebook from this time. In them past biographers have found many themes that proved to be foreshadowing of events that would ultimately define my life in history. One poem called “La Souris” (The Mouse) is all about bickering politicians who instead of running the government in the best interests of the people they represent, are busy bickering and squabbling in a vengeful frenzy. This contrast between the petty arguments between antagonistic politicians versus the ideal of the philosopher-king working selflessly for the populace he represented is found throughout my poetry because it was the world in which I grew up in. Not so much in Montreal but in Red River where there had always been a divide between righteous governance for the people – all the people – and the actions of appointed men focused on gaining power for those who put them in power, namely the Hudson’s Bay Company and by proxy the conservative British elite based in Upper Canada (Toronto and Kingston), and London, England.

During the summers while at school in Montreal we used to spend it with the Grey Nuns on the Ile St. Bernard at Chateauguay. It had a great view of the St. Lawrence River and gave us all some time to relax away from the strict discipline of the school. But as the years passed by, there were fewer of us. First Daniel McDougall left because of extreme homesickness and then my friend Louis developed a bronchial infection that plagued him for a long time. The doctors ultimately decided it was better for him to return to Red River because the climate was dryer than the humidity of Montreal. This was a major blow for me as Louis was my best friend.

So by 1861 I was the only student left of the original four who had been chosen years before.

Old Montreal

I also spent part of the summer with my patron Madame Masson. Her husband had made a lot of money from the import-export business so their home very big and luxurious. My father, finding out that they owned a carding machine for milling, was able to buy it for a mere $200 when it was valued at $1000, further helping him achieve high profits at his milling business in Red River. Madame Masson was a central figure during these years, and their son became a staunch supporter of the Métis cause later in life. At the Masson home in Terrebonne I learned a lot about the upper classes, such as their beliefs and manners. I became acquainted with British conservative political philosophy in the home and widened my perceptions of the real world.

But soon I would be graduating from the lower school towards higher studies preparing me for the priesthood. I was still deeply religious and still prayed daily. I was not yet troubled by the inequalities and injustices of the outside world so in 1863 at age 19 I entered upper school to study philosophy. Up to that point I had had a very emotional connection to Catholicism, having developed my beliefs in an environment that really hammered the fear of God in me. The austere and severe ambience of quiet study halls and musty churches brought home the severity of this vocation and instilled in me a reliance and dependency on God to be just and make things right. My belief was pure and my path was clear: I would become a priest and spread the word of God and inspire those towards the light and strike down those who trespassed against others and suppressed the meek. I confessed my sins dutifully and believed the repentant were spared by God. Those who were killed in the fire that swept through Montreal around this time were, I thought, sinners who had been punished by the Almighty. More and more I developed the sincere belief that because I had faith and I confessed my sins that I would be spared the wrath of God.

I believed that He, the Almighty, was on my side.

But all of this was sent into turmoil in 1864 when I was 20. I had been studying at the College de Montreal for six years with the Sulpicians when I learned that my father, after a brief illness, died. It was such a profound shock. My father was only 46 years old. His business was finally doing well. He had remained active politically in Red River, continually representing the Métis in their struggles against the establishment and even had two more children since I had left. He was a respected man in the community, often helping those in need. He helped the Grey Nuns set up their own mill so they could become weavers. He was a fun-loving and tender man who was always kind and caring to me who I admired like no other in my young life. It was such a devastating blow that I don’t know if I ever really recovered. I was simply not prepared for it.

I was blindsided in every sense of the word.

I changed. I became more pious and spoke in rather extreme religious prose. It was an emotional reaction but for anyone who has spent six years away from their family at a boarding school will know, this kind of extreme reaction is not uncommon. The anchor and cornerstone of my life had unexpectedly been removed – and I imploded. I became extreme. That’s the best way I can explain it. And this extremism last almost two years. Some say this was the beginning of a mental illness that would eventually put me into an insane asylum but I’m not a psychologist. Needless to say, it wrought havoc in my heart and caused me to question all my beliefs up to that point because my father was a just man.

Why would God take him from this earth?

Because I had studied so carefully and deeply, and because I cared so much about God and my studies for so long I was able to coast for the rest of the year at school, getting decent marks and maintaining a respectable front but I knew in my inner core that I had been rocked and this austere world of ceremony and routine was far from where I wanted to be. My father’s death instilled in me a new belief: that life should be lived and the gospel should be brought to the needy through acts of kindness and not always from a pulpit. I thirsted for the forests of Red River and to see my family who I had not seen in so many years. A seven-year life cycle had been completed and it was now time to return, educated and thankful for my time in the big city and among the civilized men and women with the Sulpician Order and the Grey Nuns.

In 1864 I quit the order. I saw myself as inheriting the mantle of the family. I was needed in Red River to support my eight brothers and sisters. For me it was time to enter the real world and eschew the dry conformity that I had already mastered. I knew that the religious life could not support a family of nine. As much as I was at home within the cloistered walls of the order, I knew in my heart that my destiny lay outside in the wild prairies of what was to become Manitoba.

But at first I was more scared than thrilled. I hedged my bets and asked the school if I could attend my classes as a day student and live at the convent of the Grey Nuns. It would give me much more freedom that the stuffy cloistered halls of the Sulpician residence. Reluctantly they agreed but this did not last long. I began to skip classes and I all but ignored the curfew. It was actually a disaster.

But the truth was I had fallen in love.

Marie Guernon was a twenty-two year old girl I had met through my aunt and uncle Riel. I was love struck, and everything in my world seemed to be second in importance to the urgency I felt towards Marie. When my father died I reacted with deep emotion and began to question God’s will, but when I met Marie I was convinced that my calling was outside of the church. I became so distracted by her that my studies suffered and my attitude to my education waned. The tragedy of it was that her parents knew I was of mixed blood and therefore did not approve of the marriage. They told me that she was too genteel for me – a roundabout way of being racist. But I persevered and kept my hopes up that somehow and someday we would overcome their opposition and that we would be together.

Another unfortunate tragedy from this situation was that I was only six months away from graduating with my baccalaureate. After six and a half years of extreme dedication, sacrifice and hard work, I couldn’t sustain my efforts to reach the finish line. I was too torn up about my father and devastated not to be with Marie to continue so I informed the school that I was quitting. I knew I was letting down Father Taché and the priests at the school but I had nothing left. The director of the school wrote Father Taché a letter:

We have no regret for having given him his education. It is true that we would have been happier if we had been able to return to you, in his person, a good missionary. But God does not seem to have called him to that estate. I am very much afraid that the poor boy was not worthy of it. In any case it is a thousand times better that he should be an ordinary Christian than become a bad priest.

I was obviously very upset at this letter since it stated clearly I wasn’t worthy of the education. Yet I was always near the top of my class and did well at school. I still feel it was a veiled reference to the wild Native blood in me – that I had the call of the wild in me and was not civil enough to remain calm and cut off from the vibrancy and healthy instincts of life. Had I just been a test to see if a Métis could become a missionary? I would never know the answer to this question.

And to be honest, it bothered me for the rest of my life.

But I wouldn’t become an ordinary Christian – not by a long shot.

So what was I to do with my life? Educated but leaving without a degree. In love but without my woman at my side. Healthy and able but with no trade, I had some serious, life-defining decisions to make. Do I remain in the east or do I return to my family in the west? Wisdom told me to try to find work in Montreal in the post office or a bank or in customs. I had been inspired by George-Etienne Cartier’s speech about a united Canada and his efforts to fight for minority’s rights in the new Canada so I wrote him a letter asking for a job. I had become even more interested in politics, especially with Métis rights in Red River, and thought getting a foothold in the door in Montreal would be the wise move but I didn’t hear back from Cartier. I wrote a second letter, and then a third but didn’t get a reply.

But as luck would have it I landed a job as a law clerk.

When I started work at Laflamme, Huntington and Laflamme on 232 Denis St. in Montreal, things changed for me. Rodolphe Laflamme was an extraordinary Quebecois nationalist and not afraid to express his opinion against the establishment, which included his anti-clericalism. It was a breath of fresh air for – a sort of new world where the fetters had been cut and one was allowed to speak freely their true feelings on truly important matters. There was a moment in my life when I thought I might be in the right spot for my life to prosper. I liked the job and I was still courting young Marie but ultimately there was just too much opposition. Marie at one point agreed to marry me and we drafted a marriage contract but her parents didn’t agree and Marie sided with her parents. It was the final straw for me and rather rashly I quit my job at the law firm and left Marie behind, leaving Montreal for the wild west of the Red River and my home in St. Boniface.

It was finally time for me to return west.



When I left the east for Red River my duty was clear as day: the Riel family was on hard times and as the eldest child it was now my responsibility to help my mother and siblings. But instead of landing in Red River I chose to go to Chicago where I knew there was a cabal of nationalist Quebecois who looked after their own. Many had fled Quebec because of Confederation. It was 1867 and many Frenchmen and their families uprooted from New France to settle in Chicago – the site of an old portage route during the fur trade where many of its settlers were Métis and French. There was an expatriate Canadien there named Louis Fréchette who knew my old boss Rodolphe Laflamme.

Louis Fréchette, French nationalist based in Chicago after Confederation in 1867

Fréchette was a Quebecois nationalist like Laflamme and grew to resent the growing British power and influence of Upper Canada over the French Lower Canada so that he picked up and left Lower Canada for Chicago where he founded the French-language newspaper L’Observateur. There in Chicago he established himself with other French nationalists. Frechette was a prolific poet who wrote several books of poetry and even an opera – all dealing with the theme of French in a British New World. When I arrived in Chicago I had a letter of introduction and so Frechette invited me to stay with him. Immediately I found myself in the epicentre of French resistance in Chicago. I wrote a lot of poetry during this time in Chicago, influenced by both Frechette and the French poet Alphonse Lamartine. The poems were full of despair and brooding, lost love and a strong sense of disempowerment. But I discovered quickly that living with Frechette in Chicago was not for me. I yearned for the Red River and my family so I continued west to St. Paul Minnesota.

It had changed a lot since I had passed through six years before. The United States had just finished the terrible Civil War that divided and decimated the populace, affecting its politics and stirring up notions of annexing the northwest from Canada. In St. Paul I listened to these arguments closely, and found a somewhat sympathetic ear insofar as the northwest was indeed a separate entity from the eastern power structure of Montreal and Kingston. It was the summer of 1867 and Canada was becoming its own nation. Confederation was becoming a reality and there were plenty of detractors calling for a separate nation in the Northwest, whether Canadians or Americans. In St. Anthony, an old French settlement beside St. Paul, I found various people calling for the French and Métis to claim the northwest of Canada, and in this I found a logical argument – and one that would change the course of my life.

I stayed in St. Anthony (St. Paul) and worked at a dry goods store where I was desperate to save some money for the family that awaited me in Red River. I wanted to return but I thought it prudent to have a means to make money first. I saved while I worked there and sent money back to my mother in Red River, knowing they were experiencing a drought and another invasion of locusts that threatened to decimate the Riel farm and the entire Red River settlement. I worked for a year in St. Anthony before I picked up to leave for Red River but even before I reached my family I stopped in the Métis village of St. Joseph to do some business, the same village the trader Norman Kittson had established after the terrible floods of 1852. The priest Georges Belcourt was there too, where he still wielded power against the injustices against the Natives and Métis people by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the local Assiniboia Council. It was there I met Antoine Blanc Gingras – a fur trader who would become a very good and trusted friend.

It wasn’t until July of 1868 that I finally arrived home in Red River, a full ten years from the time I had left as a boy. I revelled in seeing my family again! I hadn’t seen my mother for so long and I could see in her eyes how proud she was of me. I embraced all of my siblings and felt the familial love that I had yearned for during the long years away from them. But as joyous as this was, I was appalled at the hardships of the settlement. Not only had the grasshoppers overrun and destroyed the crops and vegetation, the drought had wreaked havoc on the crops. Everywhere I saw destruction. It was like a battlefield. And to top things off a tornado had hit the village and destroyed the Anglican Holy Trinity Church. It was as if God were punishing the townsfolk. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the buffalo hunt that June had been a bust. Fewer and fewer buffalo could be hunted – the result of overhunting and killing buffalo for their hides.

The livelihood of the Métis was seriously at risk.

One of the biggest changes was that the family had moved from our old spot on the Seine River to a lot on River Road in St. Vital, four miles south of St. Boniface on the west side of the Red River. The land had been owned by my mother’s brother Benjamin who sold it to the family at a good price. The move was wise because the milling business, while it had proved profitable for a few years, had waned due to changing demand. Also, the land had better soil for their agricultural purposes. There was a two-storey house with a central fireplace that was big enough for the large family, and the Grey Nuns had set up a school only a mile away, close enough for the children to attend school. My eldest sister Sara had taken her vows to become a Grey Nun so deep was her religious convictions, and my other sister Marie, who was eighteen, was teaching school in St. Charles. And many close friends lived in the area so my mother had the support of her friends during times of trouble.

I worked hard alongside my siblings to make the farm profitable. I learned a lot as I worked, soon becoming quite good at the various things required to become a good farmer. It was hard work yet I had been so protected by the cloistered life in Montreal in the Sulpician Order that I took to the hard physical labour and enjoyed witnessing how my muscles firmed up and my spirit followed suit. There were very difficult days of hard work yet I found it exhilarating how toil could bring such a glorious result that seemed to feed my self-esteem way more than good marks could at school. I was with my family and I became part of the community and earned the respect of my neighbours. I felt I was home and it grounded me. I loved the smell of the soil and for the first time I felt that sense of belonging that man has experienced throughout the ages.

I was proud to have a home and land to till.

It didn’t take me long to start to buy more land. In January of the next year 1869 I bought 84 acres of land adjacent to our family plot of land. Everyone could see that the new village of Winnipeg was succeeding and that more and more European settlers were arriving from the east. Confederation and the formation of the Dominion of Canada called for new immigrants and citizens from Upper and Lower Canada to move west to settle land, so many of us in the area started to buy up plots of land as an investment. The Hudson’s Bay Company surveyed land and divided it up into lots for sale. I bought more land later in 1869 on the south bank of the Seine River. But for all my ambition as a land owner and farmer, I became more and more intrigued with the political situation in Red River. Like my father I couldn’t help but become involved.

It would prove to be a fateful year for me in 1869.

Meeting my old friend Louis Schmidt had a lot to do with it all. He had left Montreal years before me and took a job in Pembina with the Catholic establishment translating documents into Cree. He had always been a sharp guy so it was with some ease that he picked up the Cree language. This opened many doors for him and gave him good insight into how the Cree were feeling about the American government’s efforts to reel them in to the reservation life. Schmidt wore the black robe of the Catholics so the Cree trusted him as a man of God. There was immense respect for the Black Robes but tremendous suspicion of those who sent him to them – namely the government. Louis did what he had to in order to pay his way and earn enough to support himself doing writing jobs and administrative work, including teaching in St. Boniface – a job he hated. He wanted to become a freighter so he worked hard to save enough to buy a vehicle. Finally he made enough to establish a mail route between Abercrombie in North Dakota and Helena in Montana. He worked as hard as he could but he ran into catastrophe after catastrophe until finally, in 1868 he experienced a tragedy that left him crippled for the rest of his life. He became separated from his group in a blizzard on his way west to Montana, finding himself in dire straits after his horse froze to death. He almost died but somehow managed to find help, ending up with a frozen foot. He had three tows amputated, which left him with a limp.

It was right after this event that I invited him to my house in Red River to catch up during the summer of 1868.

I quickly learned of the rampant bigotry happening among the political elites that ran the local governments in the area. It was far worse than during the time when my father lead resistance against the Hudson’s Bay Company and the governors of the Selkirk colony. It was clear to both Louis and I that the existence of the Métis people was in peril. A lot of it boiled down to one particularly zealous Anglican preacher who was a member of the Orange Order. He preached against Catholics as if it were Manifest Destiny. His parish was west of Winnipeg on the Assiniboine River where most of his congregation were English-speaking Métis. Week in and week out he designed his sermons to foment discontent and resentment against Catholics, whether they be Métis or European French Catholics. This Reverend Griffiths Owen Corbett believed Catholics were degenerates and that where they lived was protestant land. These seeds of discontent kept the local people at each other for years, beginning as far back as 1858.

Reverend Griffiths Owen Corbett, an anti-Catholic Orangeman

Corbett was a troublemaker so it wasn’t too long before he caused an uprising. Father Corbett was arrested for trying to abort an unborn baby from a 16-year old whom he had been having a relationship with. He was jailed in Fort Garry without bail. After a trial he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. So it wasn’t long before his supporters submitted a petition to give him a pardon, but when this was refused his supporters broke into Fort Garry and freed him. The Hudson’s Bay Company governor Alexander Dallas decided to create a posse of constables to find Corbett and the ringleader James Stewart and jail them both, which they did but this merely promoted more unrest. Father Corbett’s supporters again stormed Fort Garry and released both Corbett and Stewart whereupon Governor Dallas decided to let it all go. He knew that without a proper police force he couldn’t enforce the law. Corbett was eventually removed from his parish but he left behind a rattled and divided populace of English-speakers against French-speakers and Protestants against Catholics, and had severely dented the authority of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Another development in Red River I learned about from my friend Louis was how there had been two exploratory expeditions during the years 1857-1860 when two groups explored the area and concluded that the Red River area was ideal for farming, with its rich soil and access to water. This led to an influx of “carpetbaggers” from Ontario looking to establish farming communities. But these new arrivals also brought with them their prejudices. One distinct group settled about 25 miles west of Red River along the Assiniboine River in modern-day Portage Le Prairie that was exclusively English Protestant. Another group of freemen who were intent on making money from land speculation settled in the village of Winnipeg just across the Red River from St. Boniface. Many of these arrivals were Orangemen whose beliefs were such that they were very intolerant to half-breeds and Catholics. It was the manifestation of “Manifest Destiny” – a push to solidify the land as Canadian but even more so the bread basket for the Anglo-Saxon race. For the growing Anglo establishment in Toronto, this far-off piece of land that was the gateway to the rest of Canada was now the centre of a fierce struggle for control. Whoever controlled this gateway would control the settlement of the rest of Canada: to the Rockies and beyond to the Pacific Ocean.

Ironically, most of these new arrivals had a strong dislike for the Hudson’s Bay Company despite it being a British institution. Many of these Protestant Orangemen were sceptical about this company that ran the frontier as a type of French mafia whose monopoly of the fur trade had corrupted it. The Orangemen wanted a British style government void of any privately run corporation. And as an extension of this belief, the Orangemen looked at the Métis as lesser people, a lazy people not worthy of equal representation in the area.

In short, the Orangemen regarded the land as theirs for the taking and any effort to thwart them from achieving their Manifest Destiny was an obstacle to be overcome by any means necessary.

For me it was upsetting because I knew the old world of the buffalo hunt and the struggles from the beginning of the Selkirk colony. Talking to Louis Schmidt I could feel the emotions stir within my gut, which brought some degree of angst when I pondered the future of my homeland and the basic rights I would have of my newly purchased lands. Upper Canada and Lower Canada had had their rebellions in 1837, and these lands where I lived were still not a province in the Dominion of Canada. Indeed they were still lands owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, so for all who were concerned it was a place where there was to be a showdown. These new arrivals, who were called “Canadians”, added a strong spice in the mixture of the population whom the Council of Assiniboia regarded with extreme suspicion, especially when they set up the only newspaper in the area called the Nor’Wester. In this newspaper the Canadians perpetuated the British ideal of Manifest Destiny. In effect it became a propaganda tool for the Toronto-based newspaper The Globe.

In many ways it stirred up resentments and hard feelings among the diverse groups of people who were now living in the area.

Furthermore, during my lively chats with Louis Schmidt, I learned more and more about Dr. John Christian Schultz. First of all let me say that I respect the hard work and the discipline it takes to graduate as a medical doctor and the gumption required to build a business in a new up-and-coming settlement like Red River, but what bothered me about Schultz was his racist politics. As mentioned he trained as a medical doctor but upon arriving in Red River realized quickly there was no money in treating the sick. He knew that underneath all his education he preferred to become wealthy rather than heal the sick. He bought some land and became involved in the fur trade and built a retail business, and then built a restaurant and inn. In 1864 he left the hotel business and focused on general trade, building a large new building in the heart of the growing village of Winnipeg. In 1867 he bought shares in the Nor’Wester newspaper, which gave him the platform to voice his most passionate desire: to annex the northwest into the dominion of Canada. As a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, he became a leader in the movement to stretch Canada coast-to-coast. But underpinning this desire was the knowledge that the land he had bought would soar in value if this dream would become a reality. In Schultz’s vision, the northwest would become part of Canada and new immigrants would flood into the region pushing up land values, and these new immigrants would buy supplies from his store. His plan had some logic, and controlling the Nor’Wester was his best move to make this happen.

Dr. John Christian Schultz, successful businessman and promoter of Manifest Destiny

But add to his cunning and guile was a man who deeply disliked Métis and Catholics, and believed the land all around him should be controlled by white Protestants. In 1864 he set up the first masonic lodge in the area called the Worshipful Master of the Northern Lights Lodge. Here in the lodge he would meet and greet like-minded Orangemen and other white Protestants who would share their thoughts on how to gain control of this vast land and thus fulfill their collective Manifest Destiny. It would become the rallying centre for the Protestants to fight and overcome the French Catholics and the Métis who stood in their way.

By 1868 Winnipeg was becoming a rather quaint frontier town. A downtown centre had formed with Schultz’s general store and drugstore in the thick of it, beside his house and a few doors down from the offices of the Nor’Wester. The Hudson’s Bay had an outlet on King Street as well, with free traders scattered all around the downtown core, their stores and houses making the beginnings of Winnipeg. Andree McDermot, an Irishman who had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and who had arrived with the Selkirk settlers in 1812 had made a very prosperous business for himself by striking out on his own, learning the language of the Natives he traded with and opening a store where a settler could by everything from a harness strap for a horse to a horse itself. This store he built was called Emerald Grove, and it was the busiest store in town built on the shore of the Red River.

Old Winnipeg, mid 1800s

McDermot married a Métis women and they had fifteen children, many of whom became powerful citizens in Winnipeg. Some married wealthy businessmen, further consolidating McDermot’s power base as a businessman. What was important about McDermot and his family was that because they had made lots of money with the Hudson’s Bay Company still ruling the land they were protective of the HBC to remain in power so they could continue to make money. Therefore this network of Irish-Métis folks fought against Schultz and his Canadians from annexing the northwest because it would disrupt their money-making. They were much more sympathetic to the Métis and Natives as freighters and traders and would ultimately fight tooth and nail against the masonic cabal led by Schultz.

The other thing Louis Schmidt told me about was the presence of the Americans in Red River. It was true there had always been Americans in the Red River settlement before, it was also true that their numbers had increased dramatically during the after the American Civil War, particularly after 1865. They, for the most part, did not take part in the fur trade but rather they had become successful merchants believing that the United States would annex the northwest. The trade between St. Paul and the Red River had always been robust and they believed that because of that the American government would make it their duty to take over the lands to the northwest because of trade and the fruitful soil found there. The Americans tended to spend their time at O’Lone’s Saloon and Dutch George’s Emmerling’s Hotel. They chose to keep their annexation beliefs to themselves in the hopes it would happen by surprise and that they would stand to profit immensely from the military campaign north.

Dutch George’s Emmerling’s Hotel, before it was renamed Davis Hotel, Winnipeg

And they were particularly cordial to the Natives and Métis, knowing firsthand the importance of good relations with the Natives.

So these were the political undercurrents happening in Red River at the time, but it’s important to remember that the Métis were by far the largest part of the population. The issue was that we were losing power and our standard of living was decreasing. We didn’t have enough say in the governance of our land. Couple this with the decimated buffalo population and you see a picture of despair and hunger. A way of life was dying, mainly due to the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo by Americans with rifles. A note Métis Norbert Welsh wrote in MacLean’s magazine in 1933 about what he witnessed:

The Yankees shot more buffalo for their hides than all the Half-breeds and Indians together. Parties of Yankees used to come up to shoot for sport. Buffalo Bill once came on a trip and shot five hundred buffalo. Colonel Cody had a contract for a Kansas Pacific Railway to supply its laborers with buffalo meat. In eighteen months he killed 4,280 buffalo.

And the American government was complicit in the slaughter. By killing off the buffalo herds they would be able to exercise some control over the troublesome Indians and Métis to put them on reservations, and thus open the west up to immigration and settlement by European farmers and homesteaders. It was a calculated effort to subdue the wild men of the plains. And this campaign directly affected the Natives and Métis of Red River and our quality of life. Hunters would have to go farther and farther west to find any buffalo. In 1868 however, there were no buffalo to be found.

The extinction of the way of life had become a reality.

Other factors came into play as well, such as the decline of beaver pelts. Fashion styles changed and the demand for pelts shrank, which had a profound ripple effect in the Red River area. The voyageurs were hit hard as were the freighters who transported the furs, which were mainly Métis and French. The Hudson’s Bay Company was pinched too. Many turned to farming but income from farming was dependent on weather fluctuations and machinery required to till the land. Many were not adept at farming and suffered. In short the economy of the Red River settlements and the French, Native and Métis who populated the majority were adversely affected by the decimation of the buffalo herds and the shrinking of demand for furs. This coupled with the influx of white Protestants who were buying up land in the hopes of annexation into the Dominion of Canada, the Métis felt marginalized and desperately looked for a leader who would stand up for their rights and fight for equal representation.

With my education and my ability to write and speak English made me an ideal candidate to lead the Métis in their struggle.

Right around this time it was decided that a road needed to be built linking Winnipeg with Thunder Bay – a road opening up settlement to the west. It not only facilitated Manifest Destiny and the conquering of more lands for the Anglo-Saxons, but it was imperative for the survival of Canada by warding off an invasion of the United States into the northwest. It was, for Prime Minister Sir John A MacDonald, a question of national security. Many resources went into the building of the road alongside the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. And the workers hired to clear the land and build the road were from the Red River area, including many Métis. It was welcome work but tough work clearing the land. In fact the lack of proper machinery necessitated men to carry cleared trees on their backs, all for a paltry wage of $15 a month. But it was work and it was welcomed. The project was spearheaded by Simon Dawson, a civil engineer and surveyor.

The 95-mile stretch of road from Winnipeg to the Lake of the Woods would be called the Dawson Road.

But what many did not foresee was the unexpected influx of immigrants from Upper Canada who almost immediately began staking out claims of land along the road. And many of the laborers who were hired were Americans who had just finished fighting in the American Civil War. These men were a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking lot who had very little regard for the hard work required to undertake such a mammoth project. One of these men was Thomas Scott – an Orangeman from Ontario (Upper Canada) who almost immediately began to cause trouble. He persuaded his fellow workers to go on strike when he was not paid traveling expenses to get to the work site, which wasn’t in his contract. When he wasn’t paid he threatened his employer by dangling him over the swift flowing current of the Seine River. When his boss finally did pay him and his fellow workers the extra wage to cover traveling expenses, he returned to Fort Garry and charged Thomas Scott with assault. He and another man were convicted.

But it wasn’t the last time history would hear from this bad-tempered man.

And there were others as cantankerous as Thomas Scott. One of these men was Charles Mair, one of the co-founders of the imperialist Canada First Party. Founded in 1868, these men formed an association to further the white Anglo-Saxon mandate of Manifest Destiny to counter the power held by the French Catholics who had settled the far-reaching western frontiers towns. Mair would be appointed as the paymaster for the Dawson Road crew through connections from Upper Canada, namely the men in charge William McDougall and John Snow. In this role he could act like a spy and report back to his bosses what was happening in this now important area of land: the gateway to the west.

Charles Mair, poet and paymaster for the Dawson Road crew

Charles Mair was a man of numerous talents to be sure but a man nonetheless on the payroll of the men who wanted to claim the northwest for the white Protestants. He had published a book of verse just before arriving in Red River and had become a bit famous for being a poet of note. Fancying himself as a writer, he chose to publish his thoughts in the Globe newspaper in Upper Canada about the people in the Red River settlement in terms that angered the Métis. He singled out the Métis as being lazy and dependent on handouts. When the people in Red River caught wind of his thoughts about them it didn’t take long for Charles Mair to be on the receiving end of a lot of ridicule himself. One time a woman who was Métis cornered him in the post office and flogged him with her horse whip much to the amusement and approval of the women and men who were there. Even I could not remain silent. I chose to send a letter to the newspaper in Montreal called Le Nouveau Monde saying my piece. It was dated February 1st, 1869. Here is what I wrote:

Mr. Editor,

Please be so good as to give me a little space in the columns of your journal, so that I too may write of Red River.

I cannot resist temptation since I have read the outrages which a journal in Upper Canada (the Globe) has just uttered in publishing a letter of a certain Mr. Mair, who arrived in Red River last fall. It is said this gentleman, an English Canadian, is gifted in writing verse; if such is the case I advise him strongly to cultivate his talent, for in that way his writings would make up in rhyme what they lack in common sense.

Only a month after his arrival in this country, Mr. Mair set out to describe it and its inhabitants. He was as successful as the navigator who, passing by a league from the coast, writes in his log: “The people of this country seemed to us very accommodating.”…

I am a half-breed myself and I say that there is mothering falser than those words. I know almost all the name of those who received help this winter, and I can assure you that they were of all colours. There are some half-breeds who do not ask for charity, as there are some English, some Germans and some Scots, who receive it every week.

It was not, of course, enough for these gentlemen [Mair and company] to come and mock the distress of our country by making unfortunate people driven by hunger, work dirt cheap [on the Dawson Road crew]. They had also to spread falsehood among the outside world, to lead people to believe that the relief sent to R. R. was not needed…

For me it wasn’t difficult to write. I felt I needed to say something in defence of my people against this man who was badmouthing innocent people. What I didn’t expect was that so many people would be affected by what I wrote. I couldn’t foresee the emotional reaction it caused, not only by those white Protestants like McDougall and Mair and Snow but by the Métis who I was speaking for. I hadn’t realized how much they were looking for someone to fight on their behalf. I didn’t even sign it by my name, only my initials L. R.

I knew what he was up to. He was using his skills of poetry by writing about how beautiful it was in Red River so that new immigrants would take the journey west and settle the lands to make it part of an enlarged Canada. He and Schultz and a few others were buying up the best lots in and around the village of Winnipeg so they could cash in. By marginalizing the Métis as indolent freeloaders living on handouts, he was sowing the seeds of making half-breeds second-class citizens and paving the way for a British Protestant power structure that could annex the rich farmland into the Dominion of Canada. Seeing this I could not sit back and let them do this. Something inside of me burned indignantly, and a light was lit that fueled in me the desire to fight against this plan of attack to usurp my homeland into their greedy, imperialist hands. My thoughts turned to my father and his efforts to fight the Hudson’s Bay Company’s injustices, so it was logical that I assume the reigns in the fight that he started years before. I realized that I had all the tools to fight these men at their own game: language, education and political savvy. I didn’t expect it to happen through a simple letter to the editor like this but in effect it did happen because of this letter. I knew in my heart that after the reaction my letter caused I would follow it through to the end – until the slander and falsehoods would be upturned and that our land would remain in our hands.

I didn’t know where it would take me but I would fight against this theft and guile.



Louis Schmidt filled me in on what had been going on in Red River but for me it was plain to see with my own two eyes. I could see Mair and Snow and Schultz conspiring to buy up all the best lots in the area. I could see why Mair was writing articles praising the beauty of the area, with its pristine lakes and abundance of wildlife. And I could see why he was writing such romantic prose: to lure the Anglo-Saxons west to settle and thus to buy land. It was about money and it was about power. All this at the cost of my brothers and sisters: the Métis. Snow and his cohorts stooped as low as they had to in order to secure land from the Native Indians. They sold them liquor, which was illegal, and they traded goods for vast tracks of land. It was thievery in its rawest form, employing the lowest kind of cunning and guile.

On top of this, in 1869 it became apparent that the Hudson’s Bay Company was about to sell its vast lands to the Canadian government. The cost of governing the large territory of the northwest was proving too much for the HBC. The Canadian government after confederation in 1867 had started negotiating with the Hudson’s Bay Company for its land but the negotiations had progressed slowly. The government wanted to fulfill its vision of a dominion reaching from sea-to-sea but it also regarded the lands in the northwest as rightfully theirs since fur traders and explorers had been using the land for almost two centuries. It was a contentious negotiation but one imperative to the government from Upper Canada. Compensation to the HBC was tricky but some sort of deal had to be offered in order to prevent the Americans from moving in and wrecking this vision of a coast-to-coast Canada.

Finally, on December 1st, 1869, the Canadian government agreed to pay the Hudson’s Bay Company £300,000 cash, and let them have 45,000 acres around each trading post as well as insuring the HBC had no restrictions against the company’s trading as well as receiving one-twentieth of all township land opened for settlement. Of course the Hudson’s Bay Company gained significantly from the deal, ensuring its survival for centuries to come, but more importantly the backbone of Canada as a country was born. But the cost of this deal was the displacement of the people of Red River who had essentially settled and built the gateway to the northwest.

Charles Schultz and his white Protestant allies and cronies were overjoyed at the deal, which provided them with the opportunity to become very wealthy men as well as achieving their dream of seeing a united Canada stretching from the Maritimes to the Rocky Mountains. Upon hearing the news Schultz erected a large Union Jack with the word “Canada” written across it. To most of the citizens of Red River, they were stunned to learn that they had been sold like cattle to the government without a say in the deal. They had a new master now, a master that had manipulated the rules of the game to their advantage and represented by people who had no honor and were full of deceit.

This was the brave new world we were now living in come the summer of 1870.

Even before the closing of the deal with the HBC, the government in Ottawa had passed a bill establishing a governing council for Rupert’s Land (the HBC lands of the northwest) and the Northwest Territories (land up to the Arctic north of the 60th parallel) to be run by a governor and his council. The Métis and French in Red River knew this would all be run by the Anglo-Saxon Orangemen who were growing exponentially in the area. New immigrants were before 1869 a trickle but come that summer the white Protestants were flooding into the region like the grasshoppers had in the past. Fortunately it had been a wet spring and I was very busy with farming, which brought much needed revenue for the Riel family. We were busy, sure, but we also saw the large celebrations on Canada Day – white English-speaking families playing cricket and drinking tea throughout the village of Winnipeg.

It was a gradual coup and we had had virtually no say in the matter.

Despite all the work needed to be done on the fields there was still time for meetings at the local church. The French settlers were upset by the developments, knowing that the British were excellent at exploiting advantages like this by passing laws and increasing their hold on the newly acquired lands. They were rightfully concerned about the laws that would come that would diminish their say in how things would be run. I listened sympathetically to these concerns, and soon became great friends with a priest who facilitated many of these meetings: Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot. In a lot of ways he would become like Father Belcourt to my father thirty years before – a mentor and reliable friend.

Father Noel-Joseph Ritchot. Roman Catholic Priest in St Norbert

Father Ritchot saw what was going on too and expressed his worries over the developments during the last year of two. Since Ritchot ran the church in St. Norbert, which was south of St. Boniface and on the west side of the Red River, he was separate from the power structure already in place and felt the freedom to let his opinions be known, finding safety in his somewhat isolated geography. A road that had been built between Red River and Pembina brought more people into his parish in St. Norbert, which soon attracted a rebellious element into the church. Ritchot, with his long beard, was a big man and rebellious in his heart, not afraid to say what he thought and thus encouraging others to join him in his fight for justice. I found the environment inviting enough to express myself too, finding a sympathetic voice in his church in St. Norbert.

And it was in St. Norbert where I first met Snow and Mair. The two were in the area staking out claims of land and dividing them into lots with wooden stakes along the road. Knowing full well what they were doing, the local Métis soon surrounded them and told them they were not welcome in the area. The Métis on their horses yelled at them and threatened them to leave or face a lashing, so the two men ran to their horse and buggy and left St. Norbert. Since the Riel farm is so close to St. Norbert, I found out about their presence and rode my horse south to confront them too. There in front of me were these two greedy men, plump and round from the life of drinking and socializing in Winnipeg. I, on the other hand, was hardened from working on the farm, lean and muscular in comparison with these two dandies. I took an instant dislike to them, and I could plainly see that they regarded me with fear – not from my blue-collar look but from the way I spoke to them. They could see the danger of an educated half-breed. I didn’t fit into their view of what and who the Métis were.

They perhaps had never thought a half-breed could be educated.

But that day, for me, was when I became actively involved in fighting for a Métis homeland. To me it was so clear what they were doing: parcelling up non-surveyed land and selling lots to English-speaking immigrants in what traditionally was Métis and French-speaking land. It was so blatant that for the first time I felt the blood boil within my heart. And looking at these arrogant, florid faces made me determined to fight them off and defend the land I was born in.

A few weeks later I caught wind of some new lots that had been cleared and sold to new English-speaking immigrants just south of St. Norbert on the east side of the Red River. Trees had been cut to make room for the house that would be built and a well had been dug, which was ready for the new land owners. My fellow Métis brothers felt enraged like me at this intrusion and proceeded to scatter the cut trees back over the lot and fill in the well. It was a language that could be understood. The new settlers left the plot of land in fear for their lives.

We organized a meeting that day – July 5th, 1869 – with Jean-Baptiste Tourond and Jean-Baptiste Lépine and decided to create mounted patrols of the area to prevent this from happening again. It was a French parish so there would be no English in the area. It was a significant day because from that point on we would be organized and coordinated in our defence against these intrusions into our lands. In effect we became a militia that day – out of need, not out of desire to hurt. Our mission was to defend what we owned: the land we had purchased and cultivated with our own hands.

And almost immediately it had an effect.  

On July 24th we put a notice in the Nor’Wester newspaper announcing that there was a meeting for all Métis to discuss the taking over of the Red River by the Canadian government. The leaders at this time were Pascal Breland, William Dease and William Hallett. Many people attended the meeting five days later but it also ended in no clear decisions. William Dease declared that the £300,000 should be paid to the land owners and not the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was received warmly by those in attendance. But then Dease went on to declare that then all the lands, including Fort Garry, should be taken over and that he, William Dease, should then become governor. This second motion was debated with no clear resolution. But what was important here was that at this point first John Bruce spoke up against this and then I spoke up against this. It was the first time I initiated a stance on the issue in front of the rank and file of the Métis resistance. Like so many things in my life, it wasn’t planned; it just happened because I felt obliged to speak up just like my father did a few decades before.

The truth of the matter was that we didn’t trust either Dease or Hallett. We had the suspicion that they were in the pocket of Charles Schultz and were agents provocateurs for the Canadian group. Their mission was to deflect the Métis resistance and to bring us under their false leadership, a fully Machiavellian move that reflected the guile of the white Protestants after our lands. When in the months following this meeting we could all see that both Dease and Hallett were sympathetic to the Orangemen and Canadian government we, the Métis land owners, banded closer together with suspicion that kept us together into a cohesive whole. We all knew each other and were now very distrustful of new faces in our ranks.

Adding to this brewing mixture of intrigue and players was the newly arrived American spy Oscar Malmros – a man well-chosen for his English and French speaking ability. He made himself at home in O’Lone’s Saloon and kept his true purpose close to his chest. The Americans believed that they would succeed in securing the lands of the northwest as their gateway to the north. They were fully aware of the value of the prairies, with its rich soil and boundless natural resources. But they had to be careful with the daily influx of white Protestants from Upper Canada for the purposes of settling the land and securing their own Manifest Destiny. And Malmros didn’t waste time waiting to meet me and the Métis rebels who were now outwardly protecting our farmlands and advocating for a governing body that represented our rights. Malmros offered us $25,000 to be in league with him and his American agitators to help them defeat the new Canadian government in Ottawa.

No amount of money would make us ever jump into bed with Americans.

Since the deal with the Hudson’s Bay would not close until December 1st, 1869, none of the surveying by the Canadian government was technically legal. Yet this didn’t stop a group of a half-dozen surveyors descending on the Red River settlements on August 20th with their fencing and their stakes ready to outline a new township. It was a further provocation against the Métis who had owned the land for decades. The leader of the surveying group was John Stoughton Dennis, a man who had made his career in the military as a surveyor. He had been tasked with mapping out strips of farm land 180 acres parcel, instead of the 160-acre plots that the Americans had been using. The larger Canadian lots were more suitable to the flat rich soil that would be used to grow wheat. And of course it was designed to attract the “right kind” of farmers – namely white Protestants. But the carelessness of Dennis was immediately apparent to the Métis landowners. Indiscriminately he hammered posts into the ground to map out parcels of lands, enraging the existing landowners to drastic action. It was true that things had been close to boiling for some time now, but this action was so blatant and done with such disregard for the people who owned the land that it could not be accepted.

Those stakes he hammered into the ground represented a direct threat to their livelihood.

John Stoughton Dennis, surveyor of the Red River lands in 1869

And the way he had mapped out this parcels ignored the most important thing to farming: water.

The thing that caused a lot of confusion was the custom of land purchases up to that point. The Métis who had bought land often did not possess a title to the land despite having been purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Most of the time an entry was made into the HBC’s books as a record of the transaction but the landowners did not have an actual title to the land, and the Canadians led by Schultz exploited this to their advantage. It had been the custom to buy land without the receipt of a title but the Canadians knew they could take advantage of this shortcoming. There were a few however who did insist on receiving a title to every purchase they made, one of whom was Andrew McDermot. For the many parcels of land he had purchased, he had insisted on getting a piece of paper stating what he had bought and for how much.

It would be used by Schultz’s men to prove that the Métis had not legally bought the lands they claimed.

Dennis did take steps to warn the French and Métis what he was doing, by visiting Father Taché in St. Boniface but at the time he was attending an ecumenical council in Rome so a Father Lestanc was in charge, choosing instead to acquiesce to Dennis and his claims for surveying only those lands that fell outside the ownership of the French and Métis. Dennis was smart to begin his surveying far south of the Métis lands at the beginning because he knew the situation was tense and he was waiting for legal documents to arrive from Ottawa that would clarify who owned what according to the Hudson Bay’s records. Dennis surveyed for months until the line north from the US border had been mapped out. So then he began on lands around Red River, lands that were close to the land owned by my family. One piece of property that Dennis surveyed that was already owned was the land owned by Edouard Marion – a Métis landowner. A cousin of mine, a Métis named André Nault, was working the Marion land when the surveyors appeared. Nault confronted them. He explained that they were trespassing but the surveyors couldn’t understand a word of French so Nault went to get me and some other Métis who promptly rode over to Marion’s land on our horses. I clearly told them: “You go no further. This land belongs to Monsieur Marion.” They understood this and they understood our body language and how we encircled them with some degree of menace.

When they left the land we all knew that what would be called the Red River Rebellion of 1869 had begun.



That same day William McDougall arrived in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He had just been appointed the governor of the Northwest Territories. Despite the fact it was still July and the deal between Sir John A. MacDonald’s government and the Hudson’s Bay Company wouldn’t go through until December 1st, his arrival with two deputies spelled trouble for the Métis in the region. William McDougall was a well-established politician whose allies were entrenched in the Canada First Party. His political sensibilities were clearly pro Orangemen. To us, who had become rather emotional at the constant underhandedness of the new Canadian government, were upset about the exclusion of the Métis and French on any participation of the new local government.

With no representation how could it be representative of its population? We Métis were the majority.

Willian McDougall, appointed Lieutenant Governor of Rupert’s Land, 1869

During the two weeks it took for McDougall and his cadre to arrive in Winnipeg I rode around on my horse preaching rebellion. It was now clear to me that the Métis were the “lords of the land” and that we were a separate people. We had always been hardy folk, from our long years as fur traders and les voyageurs, to the buffalo hunting and farming that had shown the world that we worked hard and had a passion for this land like no other. The constant influx of pale whites from a far off land just served to highlight our unique genetics; that we were of the land and were destined to protect this land from usurpers. We sang the songs of les voyageurs and felt united in our cause against this foreign invader.

In 1870 I wrote a letter to the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant outlining what was going on:

That learning through public press, our only medium, that we had been sold by a company of adventurers residing in London, England, with our lands, rights and liberties as so much merchandise to a foreign government; and further learning through the same medium, the press, that the Parliament of the Dominion of Canada had organized a Government for our country, as if it had jurisdiction over us, and that we were to have no voice in the Government, and that a Governor appointed to rule over us, clothed with “almost despotic power” had started from Canada en route to our country, accompanied by a band of unscrupulous and irresponsible followers, who were to form his Council, and fill other offices in the Government, and thus plunder and eat out our subsistence.

Yes, I kept referring to the Red River as our country because in essence it was what we were fighting for: our own Métis country. This language however didn’t go over well with a portion of the respectable bourgeois Métis in Red River. There were many who were rather happy with the new representation and believed any resistance against the governor was foolish and would only result in death and destruction. Many of this Métis middle class didn’t participate in our patrols to protect our farmlands from surveyors, but that was fine because not everyone had that fiery spirit conducive to fighting against tyranny.

And so the only logical conclusion from our summer patrols was to organize a “committee of safety.” We spread the word that we would meet in St. Norbert in October to elect a committee that was based on the traditional Métis buffalo hunt. We would use the same democratic structure. On one level it was an innocent yet organized group set up to protect our lands from overzealous surveyors yet on another level it was the formation of a new government that had the potential to become the basis of a national government to run our new Métis country. So on October 16th, 1869, we met and elected members into this “National Committee.” First we all took an oath of loyalty. Then we elected John Bruce, of course a Métis, as president. He was much older than me and had tremendous gravitas that would give some dignity to our movement.

I was elected secretary.

A photo of this ‘National Committee,’ 1869. (John Bruce is sitting on Louis Riel’s right)

More than just a group of men sitting around discussing issues, we formed a militia or army or police force to protect our lands. Many of these Métis soldiers were old buffalo hunters who were very well versed on a horse and very handy with a rifle. These were not administrators who had never fired a weapon. We were, for the most part, seasoned professionals and hunters who knew how be effective while armed. Many were workers who had just finished working on Dawson Road. Again just like the buffalo hunt we created brigades with the same number of warriors, each with a purpose and a position in the hierarchy. There would be discipline and organization in our safety group, so we were wise to put Maxime Lépine in charge of all the brigades. With each soldier armed with “a musket, a revolver, a powder horn, and a bag of cartridges, with a dirk or hunting knife,” Lépine would have to use all six-foot-three of his stature to exert control over his band of Métis soldiers.

We were all sure to keep in our minds our past success at the Battle of Seven Oaks.

Maxime Lépine, in charge of this band of Métis

Within one week of forming our resistance committee we received word that part of McDougall’s baggage were over 350 Enfield rifles that we believed were for his new police force, which would be used to order us off our lands at gunpoint. Of course this would be a disaster if we allowed them to bring these guns into Fort Garry so we expertly organized a blockade of the bridge over the River Sale along the only road from the south into Fort Garry. Here, where we piled heavy logs three feet high on the bridge, we could disarm McDougall and prevent a lot of potential bloodshed.

And it would certainly show the future governor that the Métis meant business. And wouldn’t stand for anymore underhandedness.

Word spread quickly throughout the lands of the Red River and soon it became clear that not all Métis were sympathetic to these moves by the National Committee. Wisely a meeting was called on October 24th where both the rebellious Métis debated with the more conservative Métis who favoured no conflict. It didn’t take long for both sides to reach a bitter argument that was veering towards outright violence. It was Father Ritchot who employed his political savvy and pointed out how tragic it would be if Métis battled Métis. That day the conservatives agreed to step back and not become involved, preferring instead to become benign spectators of the events that were about to unfold.

For me personally it was the confidence and latent permission that I needed to fully dedicate myself to the cause and believe in the divine nature of our fight.

John Schultz and the Canadian “Loyalists” were surprised that the French-speaking Métis would have enough guts and organizational skills to undertake a resistance to their policies of opening up the northwest to settlement in the name of the newly established Dominion of Canada. It might have never occurred to them that we would ever battle against their Manifest Destiny and that thinking of entitlement. But we did and it didn’t take them long to feel the threat and ask me to attend a meeting with them on October 25th. The man in charge of the Assiniboia Council at that time was a man I liked: William MacTavish.

William MacTavish, governor of Rupert’s Land, 1869

He had been a clerk and then a chief trader at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading post in York Factory on the Hudson’s Bay for almost 25 years, until he was appointed the governor of Rupert’s Land – the lands of the northwest owned and run by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The poor guy hated his new job and he was dying of tuberculosis. I liked him because he was open-minded and was able to see both sides to a dispute; he had even married one of Andrew McDermot’s half-breed daughters. But he wasn’t there that day on the 25th. He had been too sick, so Judge John Black was there.

The Judge told me that our movement could only bring “disastrous consequences” but I countered to say that we were “being crowded out of our country” by William McDougall and his new government and the influx of white settlers. I left that night saying that we were “determined to prevent Mr. McDougall from coming into the Settlement at all hazards.”

After I left the council they devised a plan to send William Dease (a mixed-blood) to try to coax the Métis to put down their arms by offering them money and other gifts but the Métis just laughed at him. They all knew he was in the pocket of John Schultz. This meeting happened on October 27th. And there were many Métis from all over the region at this meeting but Dease failed to find a sympathetic ear and, ultimately, the meeting was a disaster for Dease. Instead it gave me a platform to rally my fellow Métis to our cause. I pointed at Dease and his bribes as an example of how afraid they were of us united in the name of defending our land. Three days later, on October 30th, the council met again and declared their efforts had failed, so a decision was made to write a letter to William McDougall in Pembina to tell him of the Métis resistance and to advise him to remain in Minnesota until December 1st “for his own peace and safety and the public welfare.”

The Council of Assiniboia never met again after this. As far as they were concerned, the problem was now for the new government headed by McDougall and his Loyalists.

It is well known now to history that the new governor declared that he wasn’t aware of the new developments and problems besetting the northwest, but this was surely an effort to deflect blame. Even his chief surveyor, John Dennis, had written to him warning that the Métis rebels were “likely to prove a turbulent element.” But more than that, how could he not have noticed the Métis on horseback all around his caravan during his journey north to the Red River area. Even a doctor who joined McDougall in St. Paul, John Harrison O’Donnell, told McDougall that he and his caravan would never be permitted to enter Fort Garry, but this too was ignored. The new lieutenant-governor told the doctor that his man in charge there Charles Mair had insisted that it was all unfounded gossip. So they all left for Red River and, as O’Donnell wrote, “all faced the north cheerfully, as if on a pleasant outing.”

And so the conflict happened. When McDougall reached Pembina, which on October 30th, 1869, was a ghost town compared to how robust and bustling it used to be during my father’s era, he encountered two of our men: Janvier Ritchot and my cousin André Nault. Politely my men handed the new lieutenant-governor a communiqué we had written nine days before. It read:

Dated at St. Norbert, Red River, this 21st day of October, 1869


                The National Committee of the Métis of Red River orders William McDougall not to enter the Territory of the North West without special permission of the above-mentioned committee.

                By order of the President, John Bruce.

Louis Riel, Secretary

McDougall was insulted but he wisely chose not to cross the border that day, so he set up camp to think about his predicament for the night. The next morning they did set out across the border but only traveled a short distance of a mile and a half to the first Hudson’s Bay trading post they found. It was a small post and ill-equipped to accommodate the lieutenant-governor’s party but they did stop there. McDougall decided that he would send an emissary to Fort Garry, J. A. N. Provencher, the nephew of the late Father Provencher, the first bishop of St. Boniface. It was a strategic move, one that clearly was designed to bridge the gap between his caravan and the Métis National Committee. But just as Provencher was about to depart, Captain Cameron (who was there to create a police force) insisted he go along with him to scout for a house for his pregnant wife. McDougall tried to dissuade him but he had no authority over Cameron. McDougall – for that matter anyone – could see that Cameron was a cantankerous bastard, ready for a fight and lacking any degree of grace.

Helpless, McDougall watched as the two traveled inland to Fort Garry.

Cameron insisted on bringing all his luggage so Provencher left without him, instead traveling solo towards Fort Garry and being followed by mounted Métis scouts. Cameron took so long that he didn’t catch up with Provencher. Instead, Provencher came to some barricades at St. Norbert with around 40 armed guards. Father Ritchot had opened his house and his stores to the Métis guards and soldiers so that it had become a virtual army camp of over 200 men. Provencher was escorted to Ritchot’s house where he was invited to attend mass that was only a few minutes from beginning. Provencher had never prayed as hard as he did that morning! So I met him after the mass, and listened to what he had to say about the new Canadian government that was camped just inside the US border. Then I told him our view of things, and I could see that there was genuine understanding and sympathy, so we agreed to escort him not back to his camp where the lieutenant-governor was still camped but across the border to Pembina. But just as Provencher was leaving Cameron arrived, yelling at him to take down the fence blocking his travel. Frustrated, Cameron tried to usher his horses over the barricades but two Métis guards grabbed the bridles of the horses to prevent any injury. So Cameron was taken into Father Ritchot’s house where he was given a large tumbler of whiskey to calm him down. Politely he was told to leave their country and he and Provencher was escorted to Pembina with a military guard.

They chose to confiscate Cameron’s luggage.

Just as this was happening about 50 armed Métis soldiers rode into the Hudson’s Bay trading post north of Pembina where William McDougall and his caravan were camping, but rather than harass the new lieutenant-governor they selected a fellow half-breed from his group William Hallett. This man Hallett had been working for the Canadians yet disguising himself as an ally to the Métis – an act of dishonour and treason that really touched a nerve with the Métis brethren. Hallett was tied to a wagon wheel, just punishment for his betrayal. This army of fifty men was led by Lépine, a man well chosen for this work. McDougall was given his say and was listened to but to no effect. Lépine asked that his group relocate back to Pembina as per the letter he had received earlier. McDougall agreed and departed the next morning for Minnesota, leaving all his luggage there as he left in haste.

Lépine though made sure he received all his luggage, but his guns and ammunition were confiscated.

During his stay in Pembina McDougall was miserable. He wrote to the Prime Minister requesting an army of 1500 men to help him establish himself and the new government in Rupert’s Land. But what he didn’t know was that we had taken over Fort Garry. Once we took the fort, we had control of all of Rupert’s Land. With so many guns and so much ammo, we had in effect executed a bloodless coup. A fluke of timing or perhaps fate, our actions were just every step of the way, warranting a reaction not too dramatic but enough to result in change. At the heart of it all we were simply protecting our lands from surveyors and land speculators that had no regard for a man’s private property. The issue was simple yet historians are now not afraid to paint our movement differently. We weren’t bloodthirsty revenge-obsessed drunks. Instead we were sober, hard-working people who loved the land that these new arrivals were taking from us.

Fueling our reaction was the arrogance of the Orangemen and the condescending tone used to talk about the Métis. Granted racism was much more entrenched during the middle of the nineteenth century, there was still an acceptable level of respect afforded to all Christians under the sun and we were not given this basic respect.

When we took over Fort Garry we gained enough resources to sustain our now 400-man army. These soldiers needed to be paid for their services so by taking the fort we gained about £100,000 worth of pemmican and other resources. The ease at which we did all this in such a short amount of time made us all feel that our mission was blessed and we had the backing of God. And this was super important for a people like us with such a rich spiritual life. Father Ritchot became a rallying point at his church in St. Norbert, the men often meeting there for mass and to pray.

This was what happened with taking over Fort Garry: One of our men entered Fort Garry from the back door, and then seeing that the fort of under guarded waved a handkerchief in the air signalling twenty men to enter the same way. Once in we took over the Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters and within 15 minutes had complete control over the fort. We made sure governor MacTavish was confined to his bed and we took control. When asked why we had taken the fort, I replied: “We have come to guard the fort from a danger that I have reason to believe threatens us.”

MacTavish, ill from tuberculosis, was castigated for not arming the fort with sufficient guards but at the time there was no police force. Basically we had prevented the new police force from gaining a toehold in our country. It was a brilliant move yet a move we didn’t realize would be dealt with so harshly by those in the Canadian government based now in Ottawa. It was true we hadn’t hurt anyone and even the pemmican and other resources we found inside the fort was inventoried so that everything we took we assured the Hudson’s Bay would be paid back. We also made it clear that William MacTavish was still the governor and that we, the Métis National Committee, were merely guarding the fort from a hostile enemy whose sole mission was to confiscate our lands from under us and sell the land to new white Protestant immigrants.

I chose not to live in the governor’s house, instead choosing to live at the house of Henri Coutu, a friend and relative by marriage.