Louis Riel was born in the Red River Valley on October 22, 1844. He was educated in Montreal and thought to become a priest, then a lawyer, but decided against either career and by 1868, he had returned to the Red River Valley. In 1869 and 1870 he headed a provisional government, which would eventually negotiate the Manitoba Act with the Canadian federal government. The Act established Manitoba as a province and provided some protection for French language rights. It is vital to understand that at this point in Canadian history, the Métis and the Native Peoples were increasingly viewed as second-class citizens by those in Ottawa, and efforts were in place to assimilate not only the Métis and Indians into Anglo-Canadian culture, but the French in Québec as well. The idea of British superiority at this time had roots in the growing British Empire and in European ideals of race and class.

The Métis had been in the Red River Valley since the early days of the Canadian fur trade. They did not take kindly to being dismissed by the federal government. Louis Riel, well-educated and ambitious, was very conscious of his heritage and of the increasing plight of his people.

What most see as the start of the rebellion in Manitoba was the arrival of surveyors from Ottawa in the Red River Valley in 1868. Surveying was being carried out in the Ontario style of survey, in square lots, instead of the system of long, narrow lots with river frontage which had originated in Québec and was used by the Métis. The new system divided up properties that had been in existence for generations. More to the point, surveying began before the land had been officially transferred from the Hudson's Bay Company to Ottawa. On October 11, 1869, proclaiming that the Canadian government had no right to survey the land, sixteen Métis led by Louis Riel stopped a crew of surveyors on the property of André Nault and chased them away. This the first act of resistance to the transfer of the Settlement to Canada and it established Louis Riel as the champion of the Métis.

In 1870, Riel was forced into exile over the execution of Thomas Scott, a captured prisoner of a Canadian expedition sent to wrest control away from the Métis. There was pressure on Riel to prevent the execution, but he refused and Scott was executed by firing squad on March 4, 1870.

Riel was the spiritual and political leader of the short-lived 1885 Red River Rebellion. Riel was increasingly influenced by his belief that he was 'chosen' to lead the Métis people. On May 15, shortly after the fall of Batoche, Riel surrendered to Canadian forces and was taken to Regina to stand trial for treason against Canada

His defence lawyers attempted to have him declared not guilty by reason of insanity, but to no avail. On August 1, 1885, a jury of six English-speaking Protestants found Riel guilty of treason. Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death. Attempted appeals were dismissed and a re-examination of Riel's mental state by government appointed doctors found him sane. He was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885. His execution was widely opposed in Québec.

When Riel had attempted to found a new province that would represent in Parliament the Métis, First Nations, and early (predominantly French and Scottish) European settlers, most French-Canadians in Québec believed it was the natural order of a gradual extension of what was then a bilingual Canada. The execution of Riel in November 1885 crushed not only the aspirations of the European settlers seeking provincial status, and those Métis seeking recognition of their rights, but was seen in Québec as an utter rejection of the aspirations to continue the bilingual and bicultural character of the Western territories, and therefore of Canada as whole. Had Riel been able to bring a second bilingual province into Confederation, which would have fully represented the aspirations of both Francophones and First Nations as well as the growing European population, the concept of Francophones within Canada would have taken a decidedly different turn.

At the time, Riel was called a rebel leader by the English in Upper Canada. To the Métis, he was the leader of a rebellion for survival and recognition within a developing country. Was he a martyr? A hero? A criminal? As political winds change in Canada, and this point in history is seen though the filter of time, Riel is now viewed by most as the founder of the province of Manitoba and the defender of the rights of the Métis and French Canadians. Some even call him one of the founding fathers of Confederation.

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