Happy Louis Riel Day

Riel has a colourful history.
Riel has a colourful history.

Riel was charged with treason after leading a failed rebellion, and hung in 1885. Elected to Parliament in 1873, he never occupied his seat there. His body rests in the St. Boniface Cathedral graveyard.

The third Monday in February is Lois Riel Day in Manitoba. This year, it falls on Feb. 18. Louis Riel Day is a welcome respite in the dead of winter. It commemorates the founder of our province.

Louis Riel, born Oct. 22, 1844 at the then Red River Colony in Rupert’s Land, was elected to Parliament on Oct. 13, 1873 and held this seat until Jan. 22, 1874. He never officially took his place in Parliament, but legend has it that he slipped into the chamber one night while he was on the run.

All this happened as a result of the transfer of lands from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the government of Canada. The Métis had settled and worked the land but had no official title to it. They were concerned now that they would lose their homes, and unrest over the transfer had grown. Riel and his group demanded that the federal government negotiate with them before the transfer was effected. The government ignored this and sent a party to take over. The group was stopped at the Canada-UnitedStates border by Riel’s men, who seized Fort Garry at the same time.

Riel declared a provisional government with himself as president and began negotiations with Ottawa. There were divisions within the settlement, however, and the opposition, the “Canadian Party”, refused to defer to the laws of the provisional government, resulting in an execution of one Thomas Scott. This complicated things, but the negotiations proceeded nonetheless, and on May 12, 1870, the Manitoba Act formally admitted Manitoba into Confederation.

This did not result in amnesty for the provisional government, however, and an expedition to arrest Riel was launched under Colonel Grant Wolseley. Riel fled the Red River settlement but after a period of exile returned to Canada at the behest of Sir John A. Macdonald who wanted to keep Quebec appeased.

Riel eventually ran for Parliament and was elected three times, as his original elect

ion was quashed and he was returned twice in the resulting byelections. But Riel never took his seat for fear of being arrested under the old charges related to the “rebellion” by the provisional government. He did, however, slip into the House of Commons and sign the register in January, 1874. His election was annulled but he stood for a third time in the resulting byelection, making his political point.

Riel once again went into exile in the U.S., ultimately returning to Canada and leading another “rebellion” in Saskatchewan as a tactic to force political negotiation. This failed and he was ultimately arrested, charged with treason and hung in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885. His body was then returned to his mother’s home in St. Vital. On Dec. 12, 1886 he was finally laid to rest in the graveyard at the Saint Boniface Cathedral.

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