Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 12, 2015
I read with interest John Kalbfleisch’s ‘Second Draft’ column in this past Saturday’s Gazette (“Montrealers honoured Sir John A. Macdonald on his 70th birthday, Gazette, January 10, 2015, D-5). As January 11 was the 200th anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, it seems that everyone wants to recount a story about Canada’s first post – Confederation prime minister.
While Kalbfleisch wrote eloquently about Macdonald’s very warm birthday celebrations in January of 1885 in Montreal, he did not point out (probably for spacing reasons) the incredible irony that the ‘Old Chieftain’ was persona no grata in this city only some ten months later.
What happened between January and November of 1885 to cause such a drastic change in fortunes in the Province of Quebec for the Conservative Prime Minister? The answer to that question can be summed up in two words: Louis Riel.
At the same time as Macdonald was being fêted in Montreal for both his 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of his entry into Canadian politics, events leading up to the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 were rapidly unfolding in what was then the federal territory of Saskatchewan.
Louis Riel, a Métis born in Manitoba in 1844, was already in Macdonald’s bad books for having led the Red River insurrection against federal authority in 1869. The revolt was initially successful and Riel famously flaunted his power in the small settlement near Fort Garry (today, Winnipeg) by executing Thomas Scott, an Irish-born Orangeman, who had challenged the aboriginal leader’s political legitimacy.
In the end, Colonel Garnet Woseley, a Crimean veteran, crushed the uprising when he led an expeditionary force of over 1,000 men to chase Riel from power. Given the absence of a railway, Woseley’s troops took three months to get from Toronto to Winnipeg! The trek is considered to have been one of the most arduous in modern military history.
Meanwhile, Riel at first fled Manitoba for the United States but came back to Canada within a few months, although much of the time he lived in hiding. Despite this fact, he was later elected on three different occasions to represent the people of his native province in the federal riding of Provencher. He was never once, however, able to take his seat although on one memorable instance, he did stealthily sign the members’ register at the House of Commons in Ottawa.
Increasingly at odds with the Roman Catholic Church for his eccentric religious utterances, Riel later found himself incarcerated at Montreal’s St. Jean-de-Dieu Lunatic Asylum (as it was then known) at Longue Pointe. Shortly thereafter, for his own security, he was transferred to a similar facility at Beauport, near Quebec City.
When he was released in January of 1878, Riel returned to the American West where he eventually settled. He worked amongst the Métis people as both an interpreter and schoolteacher in the Montana Territory, ominously located immediately south of Saskatchewan. While there, he married Margeurite Monet, a Métis, and fathered three children with her. Riel became a naturalized American citizen in 1883.
By the middle of the 1880’s, the Métis, now in Saskatchewan, found themselves in a similar predicament to the one they were in the Red River fifteen years earlier. If anything, the strategic completion of the CPR railway through Western Canada was bringing even more non-aboriginal settlers to the area, and bringing them faster.
Riel could not resist the call of his people to return to Canada and help them in their valiant struggle to preserve their Michif language and unique way of life. Unfortunately, for Riel and the Métis, the new railway was not only capable of rapidly carrying immigrants to the area but could also transport federal troops quite quickly as well.
Consequently, the Northwest Rebellion was speedily crushed, Riel arrested and subsequently hanged for treason on November 16, 1885.
Only ten months after his birthday party in Montreal, John A. Macdonald is purported to have said of Riel, who was very much an unconventional folk hero in the eyes of French-speaking, Roman Catholic Quebecers: “He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”
Just six days after his execution, now 130 years ago, over 50,000 Montrealers protested on the city’s Champ-de-mars, including soon-to-be premier, Honoré Mercier, and the future leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Canada, Wilfrid Laurier.
Quite understandably, Sir John A. Macdonald did not show up, and the federal Conservative Party never fully recovered politically in Quebec until John Diefenbaker swept the province in 1958.
Below, Riel (centre) at his trial –