Louis Riel #
Manitoba’s origins #
Issac Cowie describes Manitoba as he saw it in 1867, three years before It was incorporated as a province of the Dominion of Canada:
“It was in a state of nature outside the Red River Settlement and the pickets of the posts and mission stations, as it was when it was first discovered and explored. Only nature’s highways through the webs of interlocking waterways were in use, except where the Red River carts roved complaining o’er the plains. But the great changes were casting a shadow and 18 years later the prairies had been swept of their buffalo and the great transcontinental railway had invaded the domain of the cart.
The prairie Indians when I first saw them were monarchs of all they surveyed, living like princes on the fat of abundant game, hunting their sport and war their glorious pastime. No more pitiful result of the coming of civilisation in the contrast of the Chief, his warrior leading ….and the poor ragged outcasts who now pick up the leavings of the people who are now the lords of the lands….
Yet the Metis hunters and the freighters of the plains found their old happy days were over and many were too old to ever to become reconciled to the civilisation which had eclipsed the things of the past.
Yet these were the men who were the forerunners and blazed the trail and beat the path for the newcomers,…gave freely of the benefit of their long experience…Their successors woe them a debt that can never be repaid.
During the French occupation of North America, it can be assumed the relationship between the indigenous populations and the European invaders, was more mutual, cooperative and respectful. It was British arrogance, paternalism and exploitive that decimated the first nation peoples.
Riel grew up in the Red River Settlement in present-day Manitoba. At 14 He travelled to Montreal to study for the priesthood. Montreal (though he was never ordained) and worked at various jobs before returning to Red River in the late 1860s. In 1869 the settlement’s Métis population was alarmed by arrangements to transfer the territorial rights of their settlement from the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land) to the Dominion of Canada.
In 1970, the people of the Red River consisting 12,000, predominately - 85% mixed blood, and understandably elected a capable and articulate Metis leader - Louis Riel as a provisional leader, following the Manitoba Act, 1870, incorporating the previous Indian Territories administered by the Hudson’s Bay and North West lands.
This would not do, as the English could not tolerate anyone other than a British ruler over any of their lands as they spread their hegemony across the globe in India, South Africa and even China in an obscene race for more colonies – always governed by a British appointee.
The Metis were especially worried about the expected influx of English-speaking settlers that this transfer would bring. Riel became spokesman for the Métis insurgents, and formed a provisional government representing the people. Riel managed to halt the Canadian surveyors and prevent the governor-designate, William McDougall, from entering Red River. They then seized Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and established a provisional government with Riel as president to negotiate acceptable terms of union with Canada.
During the insurgency, Riel’s government court-martialed and executed Thomas Scott, an English-speaking Canadian, after he had been warned of sedition in strongly opposing the insurgency. Scott’s execution was used as a symbol to stir up hostility in Ontario toward the Métis.
In 1871 Riel urged his followers to join with other Canadians in repulsing a threatened attack by American Fenians (Irish revolutionaries), for which he received public thanks.
In 1873 he was elected a member of the Dominion Parliament for Provencher, but, though he took the oath in Ottawa, he did not assume his seat. The following year he was expelled from the House but was quickly reelected for Provencher.
In 1875 Riel reported having a holy messianic vision that called him to become a prophet for the Métis, who were identified as a people favoured by God. This claim and Riel’s other behaviour concerned some of his followers, who committed him to a mental hospital in Quebec in 1876. He was released the following year. In 1879 he moved to Montana and later married and started a family.
In 1884 a delegation of Métis from the Northwest Territories appealed to Riel to represent their land claims and other grievances to the Canadian government. He returned to Canada, and, though he tried to proceed through legal means, he later established a provisional government (March 1885). A brief armed uprising followed, but this was quickly crushed by the military might of the Canadian government, and Riel surrendered. He was tried in Regina, found guilty of treason, and hanged. His death led to fierce outbreaks of ethnic and religious disagreement in Quebec and Ontario, helping to galvanize French Canadian nationalistic opposition to the federal government.
In 1970 Manitoba was 85% Metis and understandably elected a capable and articulate Metis leader - Louis Riel. What happened to Riel was one of history’s greatest abominations - and we were its beneficiaries. For this we share the burden of guilt of British expansionism.
As to England’s boast that “the sun never set on the British Empire”, the French retort was “because god doesn’t trust the bastards”.
The first world war was caused by the British protecting their hard won empire from Germany. Paradoxically both wars were so draining, that England ended up losing all its dominant power.
Thomas Scott, enraged by Riel’s election, set off from Toronto to overthrow the self-governing Metis. Riel, to no avail, issued several warnings of sedition before arresting Scott, trying him in a legally instituted court and eventually hanging him. Even John A. MacDonald had labelled Scott as “foolish and criminal”.
As Voltaire put it:
“to kill another human being is always murder; unless it’s accompanied by trumpets!”
Because he forgot trumpets, the execution of Scott caused outrage in Ontario, who saw it as a barbaric act to murder one of their own. Canada’s first military expedition had a strength of 1200 soldiers, 400 British regulars, 400 laborers and Iroquois boatmen. Donald Smith, the commissioner noted “that the greatest danger was in the temper of the men who enlisted with a desire to avenge themselves on the French for the “murder” of Scott”
As predicted, despite assurances from John A MacDonald, that the force would be sober and temperate, when the men finally arrived in Winnipeg, they immediately settled into a drinking venue and when fully soused, the rumour spread that one of the accomplices to the execution of Scott was near the river, the mob raced out to summarily execute him by drowning.
Settlers were lured to Manitoba to dilute the percentage of Métis and create a white European majority. As Bismarck remarked:
“the sewers of Europe were drained to fill the plains of North America”.
Just as Catherine the Great used the Mennonites to displace the Turks she had driven from the Ukraine, the Canadian government lured us, with incentives, to dilute and displace the Indian and Metis population of Western Canada.
Both Henry Gerbrandt and Frank H. Epp report on the first party of Mennonites were threatened by hostile indigenous occupiers but protected by British soldiers. The first nation people wanted us to go away and leave them alone.
On Dominion Day, July 1st 1873, a they encountered a Métis who had over indulged in celebrations engaging the driver in a conversation.
Accounts differ on how the whipping began, but soon several more Métis appeared and the travellers had to seek shelter in House’s Tavern overnight until re-enforcements of fifty soldiers arrived from Winnipeg.
As a result of Louis Riel’s resistance to non-French setters, authorities were on high alert to not alarm Mennonite settlers.
One letter to the Editor of the French Métis weekly, Le Métis, poured scorn on the overreaction of the holiday brawl accusing the government of criminalising celebrations. It was at this time; Riel was losing his elected seat in Parliament causing resentment by the Métis and the French. They felt they were losing their open country to the Mennonites and other European settlers.
Winnipeg has a fascinating history due to the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers aka “The Forks”, creating a focal point of all Canadian travel from earliest times of the fur trade.
From 1873 to the first world war, Winnipeg became a boom town, fuelled by Canada’s promise to British Columbia of a “spinal chord”, cross continental railways. It was the advent of the two railway companies that added to this significance. The period from 1870 to 1920, populations boomed as the railways began their expansion.
Expectations were high as Winnipeg was seen as the “Paris of the North”. With the increased commercial activity, building soared with some stately substantial and spectacular architecturally designed buildings.
On May 8, 1912: The Manitoba Free Press reported that more immigrants from the United States were expected to come to Canada, as many as 170,000 in the coming year, and that the campaign “Million for Manitoba” to encourage people to settle in the province was already attracting interest in the U.S.
The first world war was caused by the British protecting their hard-won empire from Germany. Paradoxically both wars were so draining, that England ended up losing all its dominant power.
Several factors caused Winnipeg’s boom to turn into a bust. The competitive opening of the Panama Canal created a serious downturn in cross continental freight transport.
The senseless sacrifice of World War I, disastrously affected all parts of the British Empire. The greatest challenge of the world would be to overstate the towering arrogance combined with the senseless folly of the British High Command. Mindless slaughter of limitless cannon fodder caused world wide repercussions. The vindictive Treaty of Versailles ensured that this would be repeated a short interval later in the Second World War. Both wars were avoidable.
The widespread pandemic of 1919, American Flu, spread from Kansas to Europe, by soldiers, killed more people than the war.
Another significant factor was the General Strike of 1919. Workers in all countries were dismayed, coming back from war after their selfless sacrifice, only to find that many laggards had stayed home and hugely benefitted from the obscene profits that wars produce.
On May 15, 1919: The Manitoba Free Press reported that attempts had failed to prevent a general strike in the city, with many unions obeying the strike order; members of the police service would not be ordered out by the strike committee and would remain on duty.
Racism intertwined with 1919 strike as more than 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked off the job in May 1919, demanding better wages, labour conditions and collective bargaining. It was one of the largest social action movements in Canadian history, credited with unifying the political labour movement and shepherding massive labour reform.
As all ground swell protests, the strike was ruthlessly and brutally suppressed.
Early migration of European settlers into Manitoba resulted in layered class distinctions and pretensions of WASP power and privilege that have lasted a long time. These paternalistic and patronising pretensions include not only the stuffy, narrow-minded elitism that still exists in the cultures of some small quarters of society, especially in bureaucratic institutions, but also an entrenched mentality of unaccountable power at the top. All politicians and Judges, like the leading animals of Animal Farm, need to challenge this mind set, instead of grovelling to its superior might.
We all share nostalgic bonds that tie us to the place of our birth. “You can take us out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of us”. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg describes his cold, snowy city with warmth and not a little affection.
That he does so while sitting on an outbound train leaving Winnipeg behind him - beautifully illustrates the ironic bonds a love-hate relationship which will be familiar to many people throughout the world.
“They’re really hard on their own in Winnipeg - they booed Neil Young out of town in the ’70s. And while I’m not flattering myself that I’m in Neil Young’s league of accomplishment, I’m hoping they have it in them to boo me out of town.”
Despite its inauspicious origins, by the fifties, Winnipeg had evolved into an upright and well organised civil society with many institutions committed to equity and a fairness with high standards of civic responsibility. It earned a high status as a well governed province.
The first indications of a decline occurred in the late eighties – also evident in many other countries as well, as the Westminster System was incipiently, incestuously, incrementally, and insidiously abandoned.
Today Manitoba appears to be on the path of a failed state in terms of legal and political maladministration, aka, corruption.