Louis Riel – How I Became an Outlaw

Louis Riel – A Wanted Man

A biographical novella

By Peter Higgins

Published 2016

©Copyright MMXX



So many people get my life story wrong. In fact they stress the unimportant coincidences and ignore the important stuff. So it has been left to me to sort this issue out and set the record straight. This is my story.

In a lot of ways, I do symbolize Canada, being the child of a Frenchman and a Native mother. There were so many of us during this time in Canada’s birth as a nation, that I fear most Canadians whose families were here before 1900 are Métis themselves but are not aware of their Native blood. This fusion of two peoples created a unique character that reflected the ingenuity and determination and wisdom that this land demands from all men and women. It’s what makes Canadians so unique and distinct from our neighbours in the south. Perhaps in this way Canadians regard me as a symbol – and for the record, I’m all right with that. But there is more to the story.

Much more.

Contrary to many Canadians today, only my paternal grandmother was of mixed blood. I was a French Canadian mainly but the Native blood that coursed through my veins had an extraordinary impact on my view of the world. For it gave me a profound and active spiritual life that was mostly red, not white. In this I fought my whole life at the injustices I saw all around me in the treatment of those who were not fully white. This in itself was a constant battle for me and many others during the 1800s.

My family first landed in the New France in 1693. My maternal grandfather Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, whose house I was born in, spent the first eight years of his young life growing up on a farm 135 miles northeast of Montreal on the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River, into a family who was Catholic and who respected authority and as well as the priests who were so dominant in the town during that time. My grandfather was a good Frenchman who worked hard and who was proud to help build New France. When his wife died during childbirth, he went to live with his aunt in Trois-Rivières. At the time Trois-Rivières was fast becoming the commercial hub of the burgeoning fur trade, where young men saw coureurs de bois as a way out of the stuffy confines of a conformist life living in the strict morality of small town Catholic life. Whether it was a stirring for adventure or a thirst for profit and a means of moving up in the social stratum, all sorts of young men jumped at the chance to paddle the white water west along the Ottawa River and French River to the Great Lakes where they were free to trade with the Natives, as long as they were of tough fibre and strong constitution. The growing demand for beaver pelts opened up the west and enabled young men like my grandfather to leave the east for a new life on the frontier.

But as many young men found out, life of a voyageur was not for the weak. Frenchmen discovered that they were hired as servants for the business owners in Montreal, many suffering at the hand of tyrants and immoral men who operated with military discipline, often 18 hours a day, exploiting the courage and muscular labour required to transport beaver pelts from the interior to the depots in New France.

My grandfather signed up with the North West Company for a three-year contract, leaving Trois-Rivières in 1799.

My grandfather left the North West Company in 1804 and went on his own to hunt, trap and trade with the outposts of the North West Company and its main competitor: The Hudson’s Bay Company. He became part of the les gens libres – freemen, but it was a hard life and he decided to return to Trois-Rivières in 1805. But these six years of work in the heartland of the northwest of the New World had made him strong and put some money in his pockets, so when he returned home he cut a dashing figure. That was when he met my grandmother Marie-Anne Gaboury. Not interested in settling for a dull farmer, she – at 25 years old – was still unmarried, but when she met Jean-Baptiste, who had a flair for storytelling and recounting his high adventures, she fell for him. They were married in April of 1806 but it wasn’t long after that Jean-Baptiste began yearning for the adventure of the forests and rivers in the northwest. Faced with a decision that would change her life, my grandmother chose to join him on his journey west. And by all accounts, she was the first European ever to go so far west. She was the first to live the fur trapper’s life. Living to the age of 95, she would never return east and never see her family again.

Marie-Anne Gaboury

A life centred around the church in Trois-Rivières, I recall the situation as an impatient Jean-Baptiste and a determined Anne-Marie making the decision to stay together. But the move west wasn’t easy for her, especially at the beginning. They left that spring, traversing the portages and enduring the hardships that accompany les voyageurs journeying westward. Surviving several bad storms, with one of their canoes tipping over and several of the men drowning on Lake Superior, they landed in Fort William just in time for the annual celebrations of the Northwesters had every year. Going from the sedate Christian town of Trois-Rivières to this wild outpost with trappers and hunters drinking and carrying on, it was a shock for her that had a lifelong impression on me: She told me on many occasions that drinking was the root of all evil.

It was something I never forgot.

They travelled farther west to where Pierre de La Vérendrye had founded Fort Rouge in 1738 where the Red River and the Assiniboine River meet – present day Winnipeg. But Jean-Baptiste knew that Pembina was where they should go because that was where the buffalo were. They undertook the five-day journey south along the Red River to Pembina, which would be on the current US-Canadian border. By that time, in 1806, there were about a half-dozen families that had made Pembina their home, but these families were Métis. French traders had long taken Native wives to survive the harsh winters. It was a symbiotic relationship – their Native wives providing the skills and hard work that enabled them to adapt to the harsh climate and rough ways of living in the environment. Their wives taught them how to make pemmican and sagamité and how to get sap from Spruce trees to repair their canoes, often being the difference between survival and death. A hundred years earlier Frenchmen had begun laying roots in the west, most taking Native wives so that by 1806 there was a new culture of people – half breeds or Métis – that constituted these new scattered settlements that were connected to the fur trade. These ‘country-born’ offspring were initially of French descent but with the expansion of the Hudson’s Bay Company, many Scots and Brits soon joined the settlements, also taking Native or Métis wives, further adding to this new Canadian population. These marriages between Europeans and Natives were encouraged because of the mutually beneficial symbiosis, so it became “à la faҫon du pays” (according to the custom of the country), which of course changed the course of Canadian history.

Pembina, North Dakota, 1800s

The largest and most powerful people in the area at the time were of course the Natives, such as the Ojibwa, Cree, Blackfoot and Assiniboine. The Métis acted as a buffer between the Natives and the whites, often settling disputes before they exploded into outright conflict. So when my grandmother showed up with her blonde hair and blue eyes, many Natives at first were intrigued and helped her in her daily work, but soon there was some discord and they left Pembina for Grand Camp 40 miles up the Pembina River where they settled. Come January, 1807, with Marie-Anne pregnant, they returned to Pembina where they had the support of the Native women, who helped her give birth. This changed my grandmother, as she went from a sheltered European Catholic to a down-to-earth settler of Canada’s west, soon adopting the ways of her fellow women, carrying her newborn daughter Reine in a papoose full of moss.

But they didn’t stay long in Pembina due to over-trapping. Jean-Baptiste had met three fellow French fur traders who agreed with him that the Pembina area was over-trapped and the beavers with more desirable pelts were to be found farther west. He formed a partnership with these three Frenchmen. I was only told their surnames. They were Chalifoux, Bellegarde and Paquin, each of whom had a Cree wife. So in May of 1807 the four Frenchmen and their wives and children left Pembina for the west to where they would soon do business with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

This sketch is believed to be of Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière and his wife in Red River, 1800s

Up to that point my grandfather had only done business with the North West Company. This was because they paid cash for pelts, unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which only traded goods for pelts. Realizing that this new brand of trapper and hunter – Frenchmen with Native wives, or the Métis – were now the biggest traders of furs rather than the Natives, a savvy HBC factor by the name of James Bird wrote to the HBC headquarters to inform them that only by paying cash for pelts would they get the best the west had to offer. Not even waiting for a reply, James Bird chose to pay an extra pound for each beaver pelt compared to the North West Company. Thereafter my grandfather and his partners only traded with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In two canoes packed with everything they owned, they all paddled down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg and then up the Saskatchewan River to Cumberland House – a Hudson’s Bay outpost. I laugh at the scene that awaited my grandmother at Cumberland House. One of the partners had arrived earlier and had told the Natives and Métis at the trading post of the arrival of a blonde-haired European woman, who he said was a witch and could kill them by merely looking at them.

It was all in fun but the Natives were not always in on the joke.

There they remained for a week where they re-supplied and continued west along the North Saskatchewan River towards Fort Edmonton. My grandmother was full of stories I remember from my childhood, and one of her most dramatic stories occurred during this time of their trip. One night, when their canoes were tied up and the men were smoking a pipe around a fire, a man of the name Bouvier who had joined them en route, was out gathering kindling when they heard a terrible scream. Bouvier was mauled by a black bear who was protecting her cubs beside her. The men, hearing the screams, went to him and shot the bear, saving his life. Unfortunately for the man Bouvier, he was so badly mauled that he lost his eyesight. My grandmother nursed him back to health but he lost his sight permanently.

Early map showing the route from Winnipeg (F Garry) to Cumberland House

That year, in 1808, my grandparents welcomed their second child: Jean-Baptiste junior, who they nicknamed Laprairie. But life on the frontier was not easy. My grandmother often recounted the events that befell the group. The Cree wives of the three Frenchmen were killed in a raid by the Cree enemies: the Sarcee. There was another event that affected her that she often spoke of. One night out on the prairie she and her husband were taken hostage by the Sarcee. They insisted they would be released when their fellow Sarcee returned from Fort Edmonton, but Jean-Baptiste decided to flee during the night to safety, riding at full gallop for five days back to the fort where they did arrive safely just as the Sarcee appeared. They had made it back to the safety of the fort, but it soured her feelings on living in the north, which eventually resulted in leaving the Fort Edmonton area for the south again in 1811. A third child, a daughter named Josephte, was born in 1810, which kept her busy as a mother. My grandfather was disappointed by the lack of profits that were to be made as a fur trader around the Fort Edmonton area, so when he heard that a new settlement of Europeans was to be established in the Red River Valley, they decided to return. He would find another way to provide for his family.

When they returned to the relative safety at the Red River settlement, they were amazed to see the newly built Fort Gibraltar. With 18-foot high fencing and a guard tower, the new fort was the nerve centre of the North West Company’s trading post. The small settlement was bustling with blacksmiths and traders, who were building log cabins around the fort. They were mostly Métis and Natives, many of whom were buffalo hunters, with a few trying their hand at farming. One of the biggest differences was that many now spoke English rather than French, most of whom were English-speaking Métis.

Fort Gibraltar – the centre of the new Red River settlement

Instead of settling beside the fort, my grandparents chose to return to Pembina where Jean-Baptiste resumed his fur-trapping and hunting, earning a good living during the winter of 1811-1812. My grandmother gave birth to their fourth child Benjamin. But in the spring of 1812 they relocated to the Red River Valley roughly 12 miles south of Fort Gibraltar, in a place called St. Charles. He built a log cabin without any windows and without a wooden floor. It was to be a temporary shelter but would be the home for them for the next six years.

This happened during the summer when 100 settlers arrived from Scotland under the leadership of Lord Selkirk. It was a grand experiment, with the aim being to resettle the downtrodden. But the experiment didn’t go as planned. His settlement of Prince Edward Island with 800 Scots in 1804 had proven successful but his project to settle Scots at Lake St. Clair failed miserably in 1803 due to the swampy surrounding land. But Selkirk was undaunted and tried again in 1812. August 29th the 100 Scottish settlers arrived from York Factory, after enduring a year-long journey from Scotland. And there was nothing there when they arrived. Two months later another 70 arrived, this time with women and children. It was the rocky beginning to the long-term settlement of what was to become Winnipeg: the gateway to the west. It was perhaps the beginning of the end of a way of life on the prairies for the Métis and French and Natives who had lived and hunted there and had made it their home.

It soon dawned on the Scots that they were horribly underequipped to undertake farming, especially in the fall. Soon many moved south to the Pembina settlement where traditionally buffalo was hunted. Through the kindness of the Natives and Métis and freemen already there, these settlers endured the first winter in the New World. My grandfather was hired to organize hunting expeditions for these Scots by the new governor of the region. Hunting buffalo with the newly arrived Scots helped ensure the survival of the new colony. The following spring crops were planted and the new Red River settlement began to establish itself as a self-sustaining town, but the early years were fraught with hardship and suffering. Added to this was the War of 1812, with Americans simmering in the south having lost Fort Mackinac to the British. The cooperation and selflessness of the Métis and Natives helped achieve stability in the region and perhaps ward off a potential American insurgency.

I like to think that my grandfather Jean-Baptiste helped the early settlers survive during those first few years when struggle and strife were a daily experience. The Selkirk colony did survive and crops were planted and farms did eventually succeed in providing sustenance to the young settlement. But the troubles experienced in what would become Manitoba were not just from Mother Nature and the cold weather. The governor Miles MacDonnell, perhaps through his arrogance and ignorance of Native ways, caused much hardship. After issuing a proclamation in 1813 to limit the amount of pemmican that could be transported into the colony, nailing the proclamation on the door of Fort Gibraltar. The following year he forbade the foodstuff completely from coming into Manitoba, which cut off the food supply to Nor’Wester employees all across the west of the continent. This led to the confiscation of 400 bags of North West Company foodstuffs. Starvation became a real threat to the livelihood of the Selkirk colony.  In a very short time this created a bitter conflict between the Nor’Westers and their allies against the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Selkirk colony.

Kidnapping, murder and theft soon crippled the land.

Duncan Cameron, a long-time partner of the Nor’Westers, took it upon himself to exercise his Machiavellian mind and charmed the newly arrived Scots in their native Gaelic to leave the area for the rich farm lands of Upper Canada by providing transportation back east. This proved successful and the Selkirk settlement lost over half their European population to this scheme.

Lord Selkirk’s vision of the settlement saw whites living along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers with the mixed-blood Métis around the outskirts, but MacDonnell was more extreme in his views. Reflecting the imperialist thinking of the time, he openly condemned the mixing of the two races. He saw the Métis as in the way and thus began to push the Métis and Natives west. He forbade the Métis and Natives from hunting buffalo on horseback because he believed they were purposely driving the buffalo away from the colony. For most Métis this was the first spark that led to a stirring of Métis nationalism, a reaction that would snowball as time went on. They began to band together against this foreign force who were essentially trying to starve them. And since MacDonnell and Selkirk were working for the British crown and thus very closely associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Métis partnered up with the Nor‘Westers who were fearful they would be pushed out of the rich hunting and trapping lands of the Red River valley.

These tensions grew from 1814 to 1815 but my grandfather continued to respect authority and work hard to make the settlement a success. The Métis continued to steal horses and burn crops and kill cattle and dig up fences until MacDonnell resigned his post and went into hiding. By the second week of June, 1815, there were only 18 settlers left. MacDonnell finally gave himself up to the Nor’Westers to avoid bloodshed and he was promptly sent back to Montreal. Emboldened by their success, the Métis declared the colony be vacated. The remaining settlers took their few possessions and fled the colony. And as they left they could see smoke in the distance. Not wasting any time the Métis attacked and burned the Hudson’s Bay Fort Douglas in the heart of the colony. 

Fort Douglas, burned down by the Métis after McDonnell’s Departure east

For my grandfather it was cause for concern. Having allied himself with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he was fearful he was in danger of attack by the Métis but fortunately most of the Métis had gone west and south following the buffalo hunt. But fate would have it that a man by the name of Colin Robertson arrived on August 19th with the settlers. He was a seasoned man who knew the winters and ways of the land and knew that the fate of the settlers was not good unless they returned to the colony to try again. Robertson had found the colonists huddled together on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Robertson, aware of the extreme predicament of these people and the future of the colony, asked Jean-Baptiste for a favour: to walk to Montreal to tell Lord Selkirk of what was happening to his colony. He knew it would be one of the most dangerous adventures of his life. My grandfather left for Montreal on October 17th, 1815 with his snowshoes and rifle hanging over his shoulder.



During this time Robertson made peace with the Métis by supplying them with pemmican and furs and trading tobacco and rum. He captured Fort Gibraltar and arrested Duncan Cameron but this fragile peace didn’t last long. When the new governor-in-chief of Rupert’s Land Robert Semple took power, almost everything he did angered the Métis and the peace was shattered. Semple demolished Fort Gibraltar, which had become a centre for the Nor’Westers and the Métis, and sent the wood down the river to Fort Douglas. He burned the remains of Fort Gibraltar so there was nothing left.

The leader of the Métis at this time was a man named Cuthbert Grant. He was the son of a Scotsman and a Cree mother who had been educated in Montreal and Scotland, who had come back to the Red River Valley as an educated half-breed working with the North West Company. Grant was an English-speaking twenty-three year old who created his own cavalry of Métis sharpshooters. During the spring of 1816, after hearing of the burning of Fort Gibraltar, Grant and his cavalry attacked the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Brandon House where over 1100 pounds of pemmican was seized and then transported to voyageurs on Lake Winnipeg who then transported the food to North West Company trading posts. Of course this was against the law. Grant and his Métis battalion were only three miles from Fort Douglas when Governor Semple spotted them. Ignoring warnings from older settlers, Semple and two dozen volunteers rode out to meet Grant and his men. They met in a shady area known as Seven Oaks on June 19th, 1816. Boucher, the spokesman for the Métis called Semple a “damn rascal,” which Semple took offense to. Semple grabbed Boucher’s gun and the reins of his horse as Boucher jumped and ran back to his battalion. Shots rang out and twenty minutes later 21 settlers, including Semple, were dead. Only one Métis was killed that day.

Cuthbert Grant, 1816

The Battle of Seven Oaks was seen as a great victory and the birth of the Métis as a separate race and people.

Robert Semple, Governor-in-chief of Rupert’s Land, killed at the Battle of Seven Oaks

My grandmother watched the whole thing from Fort Douglas. She had moved into the fort after Jean-Baptiste had left on his mission to Montreal in the fall of 1815. Having giving birth to her fifth child, Pauline, in 1813, the fort provided her with the food and protection she needed while her husband was away. After the Battle of Seven Oaks, fearing the Métis under the leadership of Grant would be emboldened and attack HBC’s Fort Douglas, my grandmother was rightfully afraid. But the day after the battle a Saulteaux chief by the name Peguis, arrived at the fort and invited the Lagomodières to stay with him.

Chief Peguis had considered Jean-Baptiste a blood brother and therefore was obligated to offer shelter to his family while he was away.

My grandmother and her children stayed with Chief Peguis for the summer of 1816 until the fall when she moved into a cabin on the east side of the Red River. These were tough times for her as she waited for her husband to return from Montreal. She was convinced something bad had happened. She felt stranded and afraid with her brood of kids and with the demands of surviving a winter alone fending for herself, she was fortunate that others around her helped.

Chief Peguis

My grandfather Jean-Baptiste had survived a fierce winter, braving the elements and enduring hardships and having run out of food before arriving in Kingston. He had been forced to eat boiled moss and even a small dog in the last weeks of his incredible journey. Desperate and hungry and scarred from the adventure, he didn’t wait to clean up before finding Lord Selkirk the day he arrived. Instead he found his house, burst through the doors to hand him the envelope containing the urgent communications from Colin Robertson. Lord Selkirk happened to be entertaining that evening so this event was witnessed by the bourgeois of Upper Canada and a painting was made capturing this classic moment on March 10th, 1816. This painting was done by Adam Sherriff Scott and has become iconic of early Canadian history, showing my grandfather weathered and dressed as a woodsman – antelope-skinned leggings and coat, the ceinture fléchée (the famous L’Assomption sash) and a red cap –  with a very long, bushy beard. The woodsman in this famous painting is my grandfather! Very proud. He had walked 1800 miles (2400km) in the middle of winter alone to deliver the dispatches. Needless to say my grandfather left an impression on the partygoers in their rich clothes and luxurious surroundings.

This could be the painting Louis Riel is referring to by Adam Sherriff Scott

Jean-Baptiste relaxed for a few weeks in Kingston – then the capital of British Upper Canada – and bought clothes for himself and his family and ate food to fatten up for the trip back.

My grandfather soon retraced his steps back to Red River during the spring and summer this time but since the North West Company had caught wind of his mission, they organized a party to prevent Jean-Baptiste of returning. On June 16th, 1816, he was caught by ten Indians loyal to the Nor‘Westers and was taken to Fort William (modern-day Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior. He and his travelling companions were stripped of everything they had, including for Jean-Baptiste all the gifts he had purchased for his family. (He had been paid 50 pounds for his mission). Destitute and even stripped of his clothes, he likely would have perished if it wasn’t for the help of a Métis named Pierre-Paul Lacroix, who found them in Rainy River, or modern-day Fort Frances.

Pierre-Paul Lacroix, who helped out Riel’s grandfather returning from Kingston

He finally arrived back to his beloved wife just before Christmas. He shared the news that Selkirk was coming to the Red River Valley to establish order and save his colony. The government hadn’t allowed him to bring soldiers so Lord Selkirk hired mercenaries (Germans, French, Italians and Swiss) who had fought for Britain during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and then in the New World during the War of 1812. These four officers and 70 soldiers were promised parcels of land in Selkirk as payment but many of them were old soldiers who couldn’t make the transformation into productive farmers. Selkirk, who was coughing up blood into his handkerchief from tuberculosis, took the news of the Battle of Seven Oaks very badly and feared for the survival of his colony. Selkirk and his men arrived in July, 1817. Eager to rebuild his utopian settlement, he set out to survey the land and protect his land. The Saulteaux, who had remained loyal to the Hudson’s Bay Company, sold their land to Selkirk so that the colony grew in physical size.

The improvements attracted most of the early settlers back.

Jean-Baptiste was awarded with a sword for his service to Selkirk, and this sword hung proudly in the family house for many years. He was also awarded a very large parcel of land between the Red River and the Seine River in the shape of a triangle. Thrilled, the Lagimodières set to their new land by building a house – the first permanent settlement since their marriage 12 years before. This was the house I was born in. Unfortunately years after my death the family land was sold.

For my grandmother, things in her new world took a turn for the better when the first Catholic priests arrived in canoes. Quickly erecting a small church, my grandmother – since she was the only white woman – was made godmother to hundreds of baptized children. But rather than setting up schools first, the priority was to save the souls of the “savages.” It was unfortunate because her children were home-schooled and barely literate, receiving only a very basic education. My mother Julie was illiterate.

Over the next few years (1817-1818) the efforts of the settlers began to pay off. The retired mercenaries-turned-farmers collected together to build the settlement’s first focal point around “German Street,” fields now planted with peas and pumpkins and corn and wheat. Just as things were beginning to stabilize it was hit by swarms of grasshoppers that hit the settlement and destroyed their fields within hours. Biblical. Strangely the grasshoppers returned four years in a row. With wheat decimated, bread became highly sought after. The colony once again was forced to move to Pembina for the winters for survival. Jean-Baptiste and the Métis were again instrumental in the colony’s survival through his buffalo hunting. Again they had a disastrous crop in 1821 but then the next three years were quite good. The population grew to 400 and 42 new houses were built but then tragedy struck again. The winter of 1824-1825 was fierce, killing horses and cattle left outside during the unusual deep freeze. But it was the spring that brought the worst of it when the melting ice surged the riverbanks and destroyed houses. Thirty-three people lost their lives that winter and countless settlers lost their homes as the river flooded. The flooding started May 2nd and then reached its worst point on May 5th when the water levels rose nine feet within hours. Waters rose until May 21st, after more than 50 houses were destroyed. The settlers were forced to move to higher ground on Bird’s Hill and Silver Heights, many of them (including the original mercenaries from Selkirk’s journey) fled the colony. And our family wasn’t spared. The family house was lost, which forced my grandfather to once again build another house. My grandmother snapped and pleaded with Jean-Baptiste to move back to Lower Canada for the safety of Montreal but my grandfather shrugged and said that if the missionaries were tough enough to stick it out here then so was he.

So they remained.

In 1828 they had a bumper crop. After this point the colony was able to survive and even thrive after all the challenges they had faced. My grandfather focused on farming and turned his land into a very profitable farm, cultivating by 27 acres by 1832, and then by 1849 over 75 acres. He also spread into the transportation business, soon owning 14 cart and oxen. And they added to their family: Romain in 1819, Julie in 1822, and Joseph in 1825. All children survived the hardships of childhood, with all four sons going into the farming business on the family homestead in the newly named town of St. Boniface, named after the church built there. By all accounts the children did well and married and had their own families. Julie, my grandmother’s favourite, married a young Métis named Jean-Louis Riel who had bought land in the area. Their first born was me, Louis Riel, named after my Dad.



On my father’s side of the family it’s just as interesting. The Riels first landed in Lower Canada August 3, 1700. Jean Riol (as our surname was spelled back then) didn’t arrive from France but from the parish of Saint Peter in County Limerick, Ireland. France, as an ally with Ireland united against Protestant England, had history with Ireland. The two countries worked together to thwart English ambitions both in France and Ireland. My forefathers were fishermen from Brittany so Jean Riol/Riel had been one of those Frenchmen who had made Ireland their home.

Once in the New World, the Riels lived in the same piece of land on the St. Lawrence River in Lavaltrie for three generations, until the family moved to Berthierville just south of Maskinonge. It is very likely the Riels knew the Lagimodières. My grandfather Jean-Baptiste Riel was born there in April of 1785, and just like Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, dreamed of going west. When he was fifteen and eight months he signed as a voyageur, at first most likely what they called a “pork eater” (mangeur de lard). He was part of a twelve-man crew paddling west to the head of Lake Superior (Rainy Lake) and then brought back furs to Montreal. Seeking adventure he found it paddling the waterways of the New World, eventually finding a permanent wintering location in the North West Company’s fort at Ile-a-la-Crosse. He had graduated to the elite “Northmen” (les Hommes du Nord) by about 1809, having proved himself during his early years as a pork eater.

The fort was located on the Upper Churchill River – a key location when the fur trade was penetrating into the lucrative Athabasca region. Due to the small number of Frenchmen who had explored so deep into the Canadian interior at the time, it is more than likely my two grandfathers knew each other. (This was about the same time my maternal grandfather was living and trapping near Fort Edmonton).

One of my grandfather Riel’s friends at the time was Louis Boucher, a friend of the family’s from the east in Berthierville. He had also gone west though years earlier than Jean-Baptiste. He was notably older and had married a Chipewyan Marie-Joseph LeBlanc. In 1811 Boucher decided to return to the east but by that time my grandfather had fallen in love with their daughter Marguerite Boucher. They were living so far north there were no priests around to consecrate their marriage, so they began living together in 1812. My native blood is from my grandmother Marguerite, which made me a legitimate Métis.

They lived in the region for years following the austere ways of the traditional Chippewa living off of moose and caribou, beaver and fish. These natives were known as the Dene Nation, living north of the Cree and south of the Inuit – both traditional enemies. Due to the scarce resources, the Chippewa were quick to participate in fur trading. European weapons helped them ward off their enemies while gaining pots and pans and hammers from the Europeans for their furs. The trade-off was smallpox. Samuel Hearne, who had walked through the Athabasca Region years before, has estimated more than 90 percent of the Chippewa had been wiped out by disease. Heavy price to pay, but nonetheless they persevered and saw the change in their traditional lifestyle change to more competitive, changing their once communal ways into a more individualistic existence.

The Chipewyan women were known to be ideal mates for European fur traders, not thinking twice about putting in the hard work of carrying goods and the endless chores required in such a tough environment. From all accounts my grandfather and grandmother were very much in love, having seven children. They were in partnership with the Hudson’s Bay Company after the strong-arm tactics of the North West Company ticked off many in the Dene Nation. In an effort to have the natives trade exclusively with the Nor’Westers, they started to take Chipewyan women as payment for unpaid debts. The great struggle between the two fur-trading companies finally came to a head in 1821 when the North West Company was assimilated into the mighty Hudson’s Bay Company controlled from London, England. The famous North West Company and its forts and trading posts and its employees and traders with all their accumulated knowledge either joined their bitter competitor of left the fur-trading business altogether. George Simpson, the governor of the new HBC, was a penny pincher and his penny-pinching ways led to a drastic reduction of employees and forts. His decisions decimated the old North West Company and was the catalyst for Jean-Baptiste Riel to move back east to Berthierville.

My grandfather Jean-Baptiste decided to move back east in 1822. They had had their first child Jean-Louis Riel in 1817 in Ile-a-la-Crosse but were married by a priest a year later when they travelled to the Red River valley in 1818. Jean-Louis was five years old when he was baptized in Berthierville in 1822 with his grandfather Louis Boucher there at the christening. But my grandfather only stayed in Berthierville for five years, moving east of Montreal in 1827 to work in Mont-Saint-Hilaire – a forestry town. My father Jean-Louis Riel received an early education in carding wool at a local wool factory during his early years, a trade that would help him during the early years of the Red River settlement years later.

Early photo of Louis’ father Jean-Louis Riel, whose French father came from Ireland

There has always been robust speculation that my father Jean-Louis Riel was involved in the Lower Canadian Rebellion of 1837. He always spoke with vigor about the Lower Canadian leader Louis-Joseph Papineau. The truth is that my father had a fiery personality and would’ve been very at home at the secret meetings that were likely happening in Saint-Hilaire just before the fighting broke out but as it happened he had already left for the west when the fighting broke out. Within the family there is a belief that my grandfather used his fur-trading connections to get him a job at the Hudson’s Bay Company to protect him from the war.

Following the traditions of both of my grandfathers, my Dad became a voyageur. At first he was a middleman – someone who paddled in the middle of the canoe – but things in the fur trade for les voyageurs had changed quite a bit in the intervening years. No longer were the long canoe trips required to transport the furs east. Now the furs were brought to a depot where they were then transported up to York Factory on Hudson’s Bay where they were then taken to Europe. My father was stationed at the Rainy Lake depot near the Ontario-Minnesota border. It is recorded in HBC records that he purchased goods there on October 30th, 1837. He was one of 27 employees there at the trading post where he was listed not as “Canadian” but as “native.” His grandmother being Chipewyan marked him apart from the other Frenchmen there. He didn’t speak English despite his eastern education, which put him at odds with the English-speaking management of the Hudson’s Bay Company. His jobs reflected this prejudice, spending his time doing menial work at the post, such as tending to the garden and other cleaning jobs. His contract was for three years in Rainy Lake.

Historians often miss this important fact but I know that my father was married to a Métis woman during this time but that she died in childbirth. The child was brought up with the woman’s parents when Jean-Louis was released early from the HBC due to this tragedy. He returned east about this time though he did his best to provide for the child at every opportunity, which during this time in history was very difficult. She was named Marguerite and she eventually married Jean-Baptiste Zastre in 1859, and settled in Manitoba.

A note in the HBC records says Jean-Louis Riel “goes to Canada, left at Norway House” in 1839. He went to Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Being a man of deep religious conviction and having endured the tragedy of losing his wife at such a young age, my father entered the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to become a missionary. My father seldom spoke about this time other than saying he never took his vows and left after a few months. His temperament wasn’t a good fit but it shows how deep the Riel’s take their religion. Like me he kept his faith to the end of his life, finding the convictions of being Catholic at the centre of his world view. But by the year 1843, his restless nature provoked him to think of going west again, the freedom of the prairies and the life of a hard-working settler appealing to his strong sense of adventure. His time at the mission was not in vain for he heard that Father Provencher was going to set up a mission in St. Boniface, so he inquired into becoming the schoolmaster. He was sent to Montreal where Bishop Ignace Bourget wrote him a letter of recommendation and lent him enough cash to undertake the trip. The money was promptly paid back but not from his income teaching. When he arrived in Red River he discovered that a group of nuns (known to history as the Grey Nuns) had just survived the two-month journey from Montreal and had set up a school. So instead of becoming a schoolmaster he bought a parcel of land and became a miller.

This parcel of land in St. Boniface was right beside the Lagimodières. It wasn’t long before he fell in love with Julie and asked for her hand in marriage. The problem was that Julie refused. She also had a deep religious conviction and dreamed of becoming a nun. She experienced her religion deeply every day. Family prayers, the rosary were always in my eyes and ears. And they were as much part of my nature as the air I breathed. The calm reflective features of my mother, her eyes constantly turned towards heaven, her respect, her attentions, her devotion to her religious obligations left upon me the deepest impression of her good example. She had deep convictions and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind to a bishop when my reputation was being maligned. She grew up with Métis and Natives and had been exposed to the hardships that settlers faced, not at all prim and proper and weak. She knew the hardships of prairie life and embraced the native view of spirituality, seeing the divine in the physical world and very aware of the rich spiritual life of those around her. Indeed she was encouraged to embraced Jesus but while she was on this path she experienced a deeply meaningful vision during sleep that caused her to consent to marriage with Jean-Louis Riel.

She married him on January 21st, 1844 at the St. Boniface Chapel in what would become Winnipeg.

I had a happy early childhood. My memories were filled with laughter and memories of playing outdoors in the woods where my Lagimodière grandfather ran his mill. I had two siblings who died shortly after birth but my sister Sara, born four years after me, was ever-present during my childhood. We played with the kids around the neighbourhood, soon learning Cree before we even started school. But by far the dominant theme in my earliest years was religion. My earliest years were scented with the sweet perfume of faith, for my beloved father permitted no person to speak evil in my presence. My first confession at age seven and my first communion at St. Boniface Cathedral on March 25th, 1857 were tremendously emotional experiences. Deep religious conviction was the hallmark of my upbringing so that sometimes the other kids saw me as a bit of a momma’s boy and prig. There was an incident that my sister Henriette told often – that once when a young schoolmate took my hat and taunted me instead of fighting him for my hat back I told the boy: “I shall ask my mother if it’s all right to fight you: if she says yes then we’ll meet again.”

It’s not an overly flattering anecdote but it’s true. It did happen.

But the overriding character trait of mine that emerged from my youth was my strong sense of justice and charity towards others. In a zeitgeist that was full of revolutionary zeal and bitter discontent, these aspects of my person stood in stark contrast to the transgressions and nastiness that I grew up in. By without a doubt, I got these traits from my father, who also happened to be the leader of the revolutionary forces at the time. In this sense I inherited not only these traits but in a way the leadership role that was started much before I was born.

Things had grown worse in Red River. Lord Selkirk had died in 1820 so his estate then controlled the Selkirk colony by mainly autocratic, undemocratic ways through the three-man council that governed the colony. From this three-man council sheriffs and other positions of power were appointed, thus creating a government regime unsympathetic to the voices of the populace. In 1825 the Hudson’s Bay Company took over the governance of the colony of Selkirk, and in 1836 bought the colony outright thus started a new era of dictatorship that came from England. These HBC men in London did expand the council from three to twelve men and did include a Métis man Cuthbert Grant, but any grievance or issue that stood at odds with the Hudson’s Bay’s interests were overlooked and ignored.

Many of those in Selkirk on the council were regarded as HBC “toadies.”

At the time, with a population of 5391 people, the centre of power in the Red River settlement was the newly built Fort Garry – an HBC stronghold built on the same piece of land as the North West Company’s Fort Gibraltar between the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. The fort I remember was pretty impressive. About four acres in size, the walls made of wood and stone were 15 feet high and punctuated by about ten bastions that looked like turrets.

Fort Garry, Winnipeg

Inside was a stone house where the governor of the colony lived. Also inside the fort were accommodations for clerks and administrative staff, blacksmith shop, public store, carpentry shop, granary, the courthouse and the jail. Around 1850 a new Anglo elite was growing around the old St. John’s Cathedral, which would be the hub of the new town of Winnipeg. It was made up of mainly Scottish settlers from the Orkney Islands. Many retired employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company chose to settle around St. John’s. Just north of this area along the Red River was where the original settlers from the Selkirk colony made their home, in farms that ran from the river’s edge in the same manner as the original strips of land offered to settlers in New France two centuries before. And farther north near the old stone fort (Upper Fort Garry) was where the Métis/Half-breeds lived in an area called St. Andrew’s. And just north of St. Andrew’s was the St. Paul Mission, which was where the Saulteaux Indians lived. The Riel’s lived on the east side of the Red River across from the commercial hub of St. John’s Cathedral in St. Boniface, which was said to be the spiritual centre of the area and where French-speaking people lived – there and to the south in towns like St. Vital, St. Charles, Ste. Agathe and St. Norbert. Remnants of Selkirk’s mercenaries lived among the French in these areas too, as did the bourgeois Métis, including the Riels and the Lagimodières.

First built in 1825, the church grew into St. Boniface Cathedral in 1833, which then grew into a massive stone structure with two bell towers very much in the French style. A painted fresco ceiling and religious artifacts and a huge central window lent itself to a dramatic interior, which matched the Métis character for the dramatic. Unfortunately it burned down in 1860 but when I was growing up it was always there that inspired in me everything that was great about religion and the French culture. To me it symbolized home and the divine.

St Boniface Cathedral, Winnipeg

But the largest group in the divided and segregated community were the buffalo-hunting Métis who lived west of the settlement along the Assiniboine River closest to the open prairie and hunting grounds. This area was called the White Horse Plains. Fort Daer in Pembina had burned down in 1822, and the Sioux had become a more serious threat to the area. This coupled with debilitating wildfires during the dry summer months, many in the area chose to follow Cuthbert Grant to White Horse Plains, which was where he chose to live after being offered free land by Governor Simpson. Many still regarded Cuthbert Grant as the leader of the Métis after his historic victory at the Battle of Seven Oaks. Upwards of 169 families lived in the area by 1849. Simpson and the newly arriving Europeans hoped the Métis would take to farming but instead they chose to hold on to their passion for the buffalo hunt. There in White Horse Plains were the ideal location for them to access the roaming buffalo herds that flooded the plains each summer.

The buffalo hunt was vital to the survival of this far-west settlement in the Dominion. Without the skilled hunters of the Métis, settlers would have starved after countless years of crop failure. When bread wasn’t available the jerky and buffalo steaks and fat were. Pemmican (dried buffalo jerky mixed with fat) fostered a type of currency, used as payment for land, school fees or salary to workers. Its production was based on the buffalo hunt, and kept increasing into a type of currency each passing year throughout the nineteenth century. The British pound sterling was used sometimes but Pemmican was much more widely used. Not only this, without the ongoing buffalo hunt, expansion to the west would not have happened the way it did that produced the incentive and ability to settle the west into what would become Canada.  

Twice a year, in June and September, a massive group of Métis buffalo hunters would congregate near Pembina on the Canada-Minnesota border to begin the hunt. It was a raucous affair with lots of drinking and singing and gambling where people caught up on gossip, priests listened to confessions and married couples, and horses were prepped for the hunt. It was a unique culture – a mixture of the old French voyageurs and the Native ways. Women for the most part were tasked to make it all work as the men preferred to leave it to the hunt to show off their hunting prowess. But it wasn’t all a free-for-all party. There were elections where ten guides and ten captains were elected as well as a war chief. And ten elders were also elected, which coupled with the captains and chief created a form of government. This governing body would make the laws for the hunt and set the rules. Some of these laws included no hunting on the Sabbath, no hunting before the word was given to start. Any disputes that arose from the hunt were overseen by this governing body to decide on a just solution. Each captain appointed ten “soldiers” for the hunt who were tasked with protecting the hunters from Indian attacks and theft of goods as well as enforcing the rules. Any offenders of an infraction were dealt with swiftly, usually in the form of public humiliation through taunting, name calling and ridicule. It was a system that worked and was used for a long time during these years of the Métis buffalo hunt. It was the basis of the government I was to use in establishing a Métis homeland years later during the rebellions of 1869 and 1885.

The hunt always started with a mass given by the priest. The spiritual aspect of the hunt was central and often overlooked by European historian when describing the hunt. The carts that were pulled full of butcher knives and tents and blankets and ammunition were a logistical nightmare without the order enforced by the captains and soldiers, and without the obedience of the women who bore the brunt of the hard work required for a successful hunt. The cart would spread out in a staggered formation to cut down on the dust, an orderly line done with precision, but which could be arranged into a corral at the sight of the Sioux enemy. When the herds of buffalo were spotted, the carts were always positioned downwind and the hunters lined up quietly and in formation, quietly and with discipline. And then it would all begin with the word: “Allez!”

Uniquely Canadian.



During a buffalo hunt when the bulls sensed the danger of the encircling Métis on horseback, they surrounded the females to protect them. The Métis preferred the cows and calves for its more tender meat, so it was a dangerous task to penetrate the angry defense of the males. The hunters would then make a pass at the cows to make the kill, usually taking down a half-dozen buffalo per hunter. In 1845 it was recorded that the September buffalo hunt yielded 1776 buffalo. The meat, if it was the spring hunt in June, would be cut up into strips and dried out into beef jerky and then pummeled into a powder and mixed with buffalo fat and sometime berries. This was pemmican and it was then put into big buffalo hide sacks. The buffalo hunt was central to the Métis culture in what would become Manitoba during this time.

Then, with the increase in the number of Europeans immigrants landing in the New World the demand for buffalo robes grew significantly so that buffalo were being slaughtered for their skin and the meat left to rot, which of course led to the near extinction of the buffalo in North America. It is true that the buffalo herds posed a problem for farmers by stampeding their fences and decimating their crops but the main reason the slaughter en masse was for the robes for clothing. This led to a dramatic decrease in buffalo numbers and thus the destitution of buffalo hunters and their livelihood. It was the beginning of the end of this way of life for the Métis in the Red River settlement.

The Métis on a buffalo hunt, mid-1800s

However the Métis are a hearty people and they diversified into farming and fishing and the fur trade ensuring their survival. Crops included growing corn and potatoes and wheat and they fished Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba for sturgeon and white fish and golden eye. They continued to be the backbone of the Hudson’s Bay Company working as traders and labourers and packmen, and branched out into the transportation business through innovation of carts. Newer carts were made with massive wheels to tackle the deep mud of spring thus ensuring the flow of goods and successful trade.

But in many ways the Métis and Natives were kept down by the HBC through prohibition of trading with other companies. Anyone caught trading with an American firm was actually punished by the Hudson’s Bay thus preventing the Métis from really growing in power through profitable businesses. But despite these restrictions trails leading south to St. Paul Minnesota were well-trodden paths because there was always trade to be had with the Yankees. It was smuggling but it was necessary in order to survive and provide for family needs. Traded were buffalo robes and pemmican and buffalo tongues for blankets and tea kettles and knives. By 1843 the first regular cart service was established between Pembina and St. Paul and in 1845 the now-famous trader Norman Kittson built the first permanent trading post in Pembina. Paying for goods brought by the Métis and Natives were paid for in gold and goods thus attracting a healthy business.

Norman Kittson

The HBC at first turned a blind eye to this smuggling of goods across the border to Pembina but when they realized how much they were losing in revenue they began a nasty campaign to stop the smuggling business. They created their own “police force” and introduced a tariff for goods going to Pembina of seven and a half percent but the outcry was too much so they decreased it to four and a half percent. This didn’t work so HBC officials enforced the tariff by ransacking homes and stopping carts for search and seizure if goods were found from Pembina and no tariff had been paid. Thus started a very bad period of relations between the HBC and the Métis. The bad feelings caused from this crackdown led to a terrible situation, which only grew worse over time. The Métis were following basic economic sense: they traded with a firm that offered a better price for their hard-won goods. Thus the crackdown against “illegal smuggling” only meant that the Métis took different routes to Pembina rather than the main trail.

Pembina, 1863

And they traveled at night.

However, to enforce the crackdown by the HBC were the arrival at Fort Garry of 400 British troops in 1846. Ostensibly they were there to protect Canada from possible annexation by the Americans, but the mixed-blood Métis knew exactly why they had been sent, which made them even angrier. The Métis had tried earlier (in 1835) to figure out exactly what their rights were when they petitioned the HBC of what exactly their rights were in terms of trading and their farmland but they were never given an answer. Then in 1845 a petition of a thousand signatures (including my father Jean-Louis Riel) was sent to the British Colonial Office asking how precisely the colony was governed, but nothing came of it.

Lower Fort Garry, the site of 400 British troops to enforce the HBC tariff law

As mentioned earlier, Jean-Louis Riel was very active in the Métis rebellion against the forces of the government: the Hudson’s Bay Company and the local Assiniboia Council. He had had a bad experience with the Hudson’s Bay Company when he bought a carding machine from Quebec for his milling business. He had gone into partnership with the Hudson’s Bay and it turned out badly. The contract with the HBC was unfair and the operation of the carding machine and the mill ran into trouble from the very beginning. He stopped the mill the same year he started. He had also met a progressive missionary who opened his mind to the real intentions and operations of the HBC and the Assiniboia Council. The priest’s name was Georges-Antoine Belcourt. He ran a mission in Baie-St-Paul on the Assiniboine River 30 miles west of Winnipeg for ten years and had taken a sincere interest in the Native and Métis around him. He learned the languages and became a central figure in the area, which my father respected and admired. They spent a lot of time hanging out together during 1846-1847 when Father Belcourt lived in St. Boniface living and working as a teacher and carpenter. He was influenced by this free-thinking, strong-willed cleric who spoke English and wrote a Saulteaux-English dictionary. Early on he had developed a dislike for the Hudson’s Bay Company and their treatment of the Métis and Natives in the region, so much so that he became friends with Norman Kittson and encouraged the Métis to work beyond the boundaries of the Hudson’s Bay. Belcourt was also the leading figure in submitting the petition to the British Colonial Office in 1845. Branded a troublemaker by the Hudson’s Bay Company, it didn’t take long for George Simpson, the governor of the HBC, to persuade the Archbishop of Quebec to recall Belcourt from the west.

Georges-Antoine Belcourt, missionary in Baie-St-Paul on the Assiniboine River

This happened in 1847.

Bishop Provencher was complicit in removing Belcourt from the Red River settlement so the local Native population grew to strongly dislike the bishop. He had discredited himself as weak. It was a bad mistake because the Métis and Natives became even angrier resulting in another petition. 233 families from the White Horse Plains signed a petition demanding Belcourt be brought back west because he was the only person they felt was looking after their rights. They threatened bloodshed if Belcourt didn’t return so Governor Simpson agreed but only on the condition that Belcourt not participate in anymore troublemaking. Belcourt refused to the condition and instead took over the Catholic mission in Pembina on American territory. From the safety of Pembina, he carried on his fight for Native rights through guerilla tactics.

Belcourt’s influence was so great that over 300 Métis moved from the Red River to Pembina. Others who remained in the Red River settlement visited him often, including my father. Jean-Louis had become very much part of the scene during the year 1845 when he led a group of rebellious Métis to the gates of Fort Garry to demand the release of Belcourt, who had been arrested the year before after his cart had been stopped and searched. Despite the fact they didn’t find any wrongdoing he had still been unjustly brought to the fort. Belcourt was released. A year later my father led another group of armed Métis to the doors demanding a Métis woman be released after she had been falsely identified in a theft. Again the unjustly arrested half-blood was released. In the case of Belcourt a year earlier, it had been my father who had carried Belcourt on his shoulders to the steps of St. Boniface Cathedral to cheering Métis.

A few years later another man was arrested for illegally trading furs for goods in Pembina and then selling them to Natives north of the settlement. Pierre-Guillaume Sayer was kept in Fort Garry so again my father formed a protest committee and demanded his release. He traveled south to Pembina to consult with Belcourt.

Pembina, mid 1800s

During a mass just before Sayer’s trial he read a passage chosen by Belcourt, which more or less declared the laws of the HBC as invalid, inviting the affected Métis to take up arms to fight against the tyranny. The trial had been scheduled on Ascension Thursday with the expectation that the Métis would miss the trial and instead attend mass but mass had been rescheduled in order to free the congregation to pick up arms to defend against these illegal practices. Again it was my father Jean-Louis who stood on the steps of St. Boniface Cathedral to lead the group of rebels to the courthouse.

Over 400 armed Métis arrived at the gates of Fort Garry. As the trial began a delegation entered the courtroom and more or less took it over, declaring an ultimatum that if Sayer was found guilty there would be consequences. He was found guilty but the judge declared there would be no punishment and that his confiscated goods would be returned. In effect a crisis had been averted and there was no bloodshed. But the end result was that Hudson’s Bay enforcement was no longer effective. Moreover the muted victory of the Métis in this instance gave rise to a rallying cry: “Le commerce est libre. Vive la liberté!” I was five when this happened and I saw my father as a hero of major proportions. To me he was as cool as they came and without a doubt it coloured the way I saw the world. To lead a group of downtrodden hard-working men against this type of greed-inspired tyranny was a victory of monumental proportions.

But I think the most profound revelation of this event to me at that time in my life was the realization that there was this deep resentment and racism that divided people rather than brought them together. For such a religious kid who spent so much time in church and whose mother was always praying, it was troubling for me to acknowledge that there was this evil in the world – that there were those who sought to keep others down for the sake of financial gain. It was the beginning of me seeing the adult world – a world full of hunger and pain and deep antagonism. My life had been full of laughter and divine beauty, but after this I started to see the pretensions and resentments of the Irish Catholics and the English Protestants and the Scottish Highlanders all bickering between themselves and the scorn and disrespect I saw in their treatment of mixed-bloods and Natives. And the most repressive of them was of course the Anglican clergy. These conservatives really didn’t fit in the wilderness in the west.

To quote William Cochran, an Anglican priest who lived and preached in the area for 40 years, he believed that “the dominant Race of this Continent are the English.” He believed that the Métis and Natives would always be “immoral, capricious, intractable, indolent, callous, prideful, wayward, extravagant, ungracious, improvident and careless.” I didn’t see this at all. I saw the Métis as hard-working, passionate, strong-willed poets who had deep spiritual convictions who valued their freedoms over puritanical morality that had been imported from a far-away world. British called the Métis and Natives “savages” but they took that from the French word “savage,” which never meant the same in English. Instead it meant wild and strong. Natives were strong and free and impressive specimens standing much taller and much stronger than the average European at the time. For me it was the opposite: I saw the pale clergymen as strangely foreign and alien to the world of forests and rivers and deer, bitter and self-righteous men who could not grasp reality as it truly was.

This remained with me all my life – trying to reconcile how these weakly, pale men tried to dominate stronger and more able men.

And when I became older, the most striking incongruity I found was how these celibate, wimpy men of the cloth would prohibit and admonish and impose a puritan sexual morality on these men of action. It was the most revealing of all the upside-down craziness that I was witnessing all around me. For others not to see how insane it was I still have trouble with. This “Christian respectability” found fruitful ground when George Simpson divorced his Métis wife and married his 18-year old cousin, thus fostering an elitist fervor to establish a white upper class in this new settlement in the middle of the wilderness. This world always remained foreign to me – how divorced it all was from the rich soil and the vibrant animals that were all around us all growing up in the Red River area. This snowballed a dormant racism that had been there in the Hudson’s Bay’s policies and now was openly pro-white at the exclusion of the labourers and fur traders who went into the heart of the wild to trap the furs, or shoot the buffalo so they could eat.

As a young man it was troubling and confusing for me.

It was a complex mix of old world rivalries that took many years for me to figure out. This British ruling class was imposing their power over the veterans who had built the town that would become Winnipeg. So from a very young age I had a healthy suspicion of these white men of the book who exerted their power over the powerful men of commerce and politics. I didn’t know at the time how this precise conflict would consume me and end up defining my life. For time being however, I was part of the French-speaking population living across the river in St. Boniface and we all watched it with a deTachéd irony. My father was outspoken of this French-English rivalry that had existed for centuries. What was important was that it was being played out in this microcosm of the world in such an isolated wilderness location, which of course only highlighted how silly it all was to me.

Further to this my father was the leader in the petition and removal of Adam Thom – a Scottish journalist-turned-lawyer who was called “the judge.” He reported to the Assiniboia Council and to the Hudson’s Bay Company of the goings on in the Red River settlement, and through his actions it was plain to see how bigoted he was against both the French and the Métis. After leading the Métis to protest against the outright prejudice against them the HBC governor Simpson was forced to fire him from his post. He was fired but was allowed to remain as a journalist, still fermenting hostility and discord. The Métis then threatened to burn down his house unless he was removed from the area. Simpson, by now fully aware of the potential threat posed by the Métis and Native and French as a group agreed to remove him, sending Adam Thom to York Factory on the shores of Hudson’s Bay back to his native Edinburgh.

Adam Thom, troublemaker and racist

Without a doubt these happenings influenced me but at the time I didn’t know to what degree. The attention and respect my father had from his leadership role in the community were to pave the way for me to take up a leadership role in the name of justice, and the name Riel became synonymous with fighting justice in the name of the mixed-bloods and the French. However my father, despite his education, was passed over when it was time to appoint representatives on the Assiniboia Council, being regarded as a troublemaker and radical. I think it was more this injustice and slight that coloured us as a family more than anything else. From his political experience alone – organizing a movement to fight for just change – he should have been appointed to many different powerful positions within the Red River settlement but he was not. And we suffered as a family because of it.

This was a cause of deep bitterness to us all.

This bitterness grew and grew, especially in 1852 when torrential rain hit the colony and flooded our farm. We had to seek respite at Father Provencher’s house where we lived for a few months until the waters subsided. But by this time my father had tired of farming and wanted to return to milling so he proposed to buy the carding machine from the Council of Assiniboia that had been imported from Montreal and start his own business. A price was agreed upon but the Council didn’t allow him to pay for it over time so he was forced to take a loan from the Hudson’s Bay Company that would be paid back within three years. The grist mill went into operation and the loan was paid back by 1855.

By this time we were doing well financially. We built a new house, bigger than before for all the children that my mother was having. There was me in 1844 and then Sara in 1848, Marie in 1850, Octavie in 1852, Eulalie in 1853 and then Charles in 1854. I had started school in 1853 with the Grey Nuns – the same order that had been set up when my father had arrived in the Red River Settlement all those years before. And as usual, I lived in residence in the wooden, three-storey school that had come to dominate the skyline in St. Boniface near the cathedral. When the Christian Brothers arrived the following year in 1854 I was one of their first pupils, being fortunate to receive a classical education, with religion as the central theme in my early education.

At the time I was a neat little kid, with thick auburn-brown hair and serious brown eyes the shape of saucers. I was quiet and introverted, and had a habit of giving my lunch away to those in need of food. It was my nature from early on to give to the needy – to do the right thing – the Christian thing to help thy neighbour. One of the priests Alexandre Taché took a liking to me and told my parents I might be a good candidate for the ministry.

Alexandre Taché, Bishop of St Boniface, Manitoba

When Father Provencher died in 1853 and Father Taché took over as bishop, he kept his eye on me, giving me full access to the bishopric library when I turned 13 in 1857. I loved this act of kindness, taking full advantage of the books they had. For the first time I had access to philosophy and literature and all the fascinating books that nurtured my imagination and added to my growing knowledge of the world of books. I started to study Latin, being groomed for the priesthood. By the spring of 1858 Bishop Taché told my parents that I had been awarded a full scholarship to attend the best college in Quebec. My life was about to change.