The recent Supreme Court decision relating to Métis land claims is a reaffirmation that history indeed matters. In that spirit, a few points of clarification are required to understand the roots of the issues dealt with by the court.
Louis Riel was indeed the leader of the Red River Resistance and president of the provisional government. He did not, however, lead the negotiations that took place in Ottawa during the spring of 1870. That task fell to Noel Joseph Ritchot, parish priest of St. Norbert and Riel's closest adviser from the beginnings of the resistance.
Had Riel gone to Ottawa, he would have been immediately arrested, if not lynched by a mob. As it was, Ritchot and one other of three delegates were arrested despite what should have been diplomatic status. The secret intervention of federal lawyers and complaints from the British government secured their release. Ritchot's detailed notes of the negotiations held in the home of Georges Etienne Cartier remain the only substantial record of the discussions held between the delegates from Red River and the government of Canada represented by Cartier and John A. Macdonald.
Ritchot's fight to secure provincial status for Red River was mitigated by Ottawa's retaining control of the distribution and revenues of all Crown lands in the province. Unable to convince Canada to accord the unnamed province the same rights as the other provinces and offered to Prince Edward Island, Ritchot insisted compensation would be required if any agreement were to be accepted by the residents of Red River.
When he proposed a free land grant of 200 acres to all minors, he was told that Parliament could only approve grants for the extinguishment of aboriginal title. Ritchot then suggested that the grant be made to the children of mixed-race ancestry. The Canadians then complained that the Métis wanted to be treated as civilized men in respect to democratic rights while at the same time clinging to their rights as Indians. Ritchot responded that they had asked for no more than what had been granted to the other provinces with respect to Crown lands. He later added that a demand for equality with other provinces did not imply a willingness to lose rights to either individuals or nationalities such as the Métis.
After several days of discussion and the westward extension of the small province to include Portage la Prairie, the figure of 1.4 million acres was determined as the total to be set aside for eventual distribution to the Métis children. Second only to the amnesty question, the issue of how these lands were to be managed dominated the balance of negotiations. At the table it was agreed that the provincial legislature would control the distribution of the lands to the families who would then allocate them to their children under supervision to ensure the birthright would not fall into the hands of speculators or new immigrants.
At one point, Ritchot asked for a law to safeguard the rights of the children and keep the lands within the families. It is important to note also that the lands in question were to be taken anywhere within the province and did not include the long-occupied lands within the settlement belt along the Red and Assiniboine rivers. These occupied lands, within which Winnipeg now stands, were subject to Sec. 32 and, along with the amnesty question, are a separate chapter in the history of early Manitoba.
Unfortunately, none of these administrative arrangements found their way into Sec. 31 of the Manitoba Act. While Cartier was quite sincere in his undertakings, Macdonald had other ideas. As he told one correspondent, "When the blocks are set out, the (federal) government would make provision for giving the lots to such half-breeds as were claimants, taking care not to put them all together." As early as November of 1869, Macdonald was preparing to send a military expedition to Red River in the spring. His plans, which required the use of some British troops, had been tempered by London's insistence that the troops would only be used to support a negotiated settlement and not as conquerors.
Ritchot's protests over the vague wording of Sec. 31 were met by repeated assurances that in practice nothing would change, that an order-in-council embodying the verbal agreements would be passed by cabinet and that a local committee would be charged with the selection and distribution of the 1.4 million acres. None of this happened and it should be noted that the Supreme Court refers to a note written by Cartier assuring the acreage would "be of a nature to meet the needs of the half-breed residents" and that the division of the land would be done "in the most effectual and equitable manner."
Ritchot had spent several days lobbying Cartier for such a note, and 143 years later this same note is ruled as having, in part, engaged the "honour of the Crown." As the heirs on Manitoba's original Métis citizens, other supporters, and their legal counsel celebrate this victory for justice, Louis Riel is indeed smiling. But so is Father Ritchot, described by Macdonald as that "obdurate Priest" and even perhaps Georges Etienne Cartier.
Phillipe Mailhot, the executive director of the St. Boniface Museum, wrote a doctoral thesis entitled Ritchot's Resistance, Abbé Noel Joseph Ritchot and the Creation and Transformation of Manitoba (U of M 1986) and worked as a consultant to the MMF legal team.