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This article was published 16/11/2020 (591 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
To say Louis Riel didn’t get a fair trial in the aftermath of the North-West Rebellion in 1885 would be an understatement.
But it’s not the only reason the Métis leader and founder of Manitoba should be exonerated by the federal government.
Riel was convicted of high treason and hanged 135 years ago on Nov. 16 for his role in the rebellion, which saw the Canadian military and the North-West Mounted Police turn their guns on the Métis and First Nations.
A national coalition renewed calls earlier this month for Riel’s exoneration. The Union national métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba has written Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to declare Riel innocent.
The campaign to exonerate Riel has been growing since the early 1990s. As Canadians become more aware of the Métis leader’s true role in the early days of western expansion, including his lifelong commitment to Indigenous rights, it is increasingly untenable that his criminal conviction should stand.
In 1992, Parliament unanimously passed resolutions recognizing Riel’s many contributions to Canada, including as founder of Manitoba. He led a coalition in the Red River Settlement in 1869-70 to prevent the federal government’s unilateral takeover of the North-West territories. In a near-bloodless campaign, Riel and his supporters forced Ottawa to negotiate Manitoba’s entry into Canada. In so doing, they protected the democratic, linguistic and religious rights of all who lived there (rights that remain enshrined in Canada’s Constitution).
Riel could have lived out his remaining years peacefully in exile in the United States. He was living in the state of Montana with his wife and two young children, while employed as a teacher at St. Peter’s Mission in the early 1880s. But when called upon to provide spiritual and political guidance to disaffected Métis in what is now Saskatchewan, Riel moved his family north to answer the call.
It proved disastrous for him and for Indigenous groups seeking basic rights from the Canadian government. Instead of a willingness to address Métis and First Nations grievances peacefully, including negotiating outstanding land claims, prime minister John A. Macdonald used the NWMP and the Canadian military to quell the "uprising" in a violent clash that lasted five months.
When Riel gave himself up, he was arrested and almost immediately charged with "high treason," an ancient British law dating back to 1352 that carried a mandatory death sentence.
The case against Riel was stacked from the very beginning. It was presided over not by a judge but a magistrate with close political ties to the prosecution. A jury of six, not the usual 12, was selected — all anglophone protestants (Riel was French and Catholic). Riel’s lawyers insisted on using insanity as their sole defence, even though Riel vehemently opposed it. His counsel refused to call a single witness to testify in his favour and failed to cross-examine Crown witnesses in any meaningful way.
Riel’s guilty verdict should be set aside not only because it was a miscarriage of justice, but also to formally recognize his significant achievements as a great Canadian. The historical record clearly shows he was not a traitor but a victim of political persecution by the government of the day.
It’s time to finally right this historical wrong and set aside this unjust conviction.