Truth is the first casualty of nation building, and Canada is hardly unique in preferring flights of fancy to bitter lumps of fact. It is sweet to believe that this country was created through peaceful negotiation, without resort to force of arms, through the goodwill of a few dozen bewhiskered, frock-coated gentlemen sequestered in conference rooms. And to think we have been living that dream of compromise and inclusion for the last 150 years. No wonder, then, that Canada tuned up the brass band and baked its sesquicentennial cake: a state built on the sincere reconciliation of differences would be something to celebrate.
But, as this summer’s protests have served to remind us, there are worms in this beguiling version of the country’s origins. When the British North America Act came into effect on July 1, 1867, it brought together four former British colonies—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec—under the aspirational motto A mari usque ad mare, a nation from sea to sea. Implicit in this transcontinental vision was the acquisition of the vast heartland of the projected country, an area known as Rupert’s Land: three million hectares of prairies, lakes and forests that extended from what is now northern Quebec west to the Rocky Mountains. The assertion of Canadian sovereignty over this enormous territory was not achieved solely through diplomacy and talk. The West was won by force.
If there is one person who embodied this conflict, in his life and in his death, it is Louis Riel. The son of a French-Canadian free trader and a Métis mother, Riel was born on October 22, 1844, in St. Boniface, near the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. He was hung by the Canadian state at Oskana kâ-asastêki, Pile of Bones (also known as Regina) on November 16, 1885, at the precise intersection of what are still the most treacherous cross currents in Canadian society.
Riel was francophone, Roman Catholic and proudly Indigenous in a nation that, despite the cultural and linguistic compromises that underlay the British North America Act, quickly revealed itself to be what the French call Orangiste: anglophile, imperialist and “anti-papist,” with unrepentant white supremacist tendencies. In 1870, when the government of Sir John A. Macdonald (himself an Orangeman) attempted to extend this toxic polity unilaterally across the western plains, Riel successfully led his people, the French-speaking Catholic Métis of Red River, in an armed uprising.
As a result of this resistance, which caught Ottawa unprepared, Red River would enter the young Dominion not as the colony that Macdonald had envisaged but as the self-governing province of Manitoba. The Manitoba Act, or Manitoba treaty as Riel sometimes called it, served as a visionary model in miniature for the country as a whole: it provided for official bilingualism, with equal status for English and French in the legislature and the courts; guarantees for sectarian schools; and—with promises to respect pre-existing land holdings and to reserve a substantial homeland for the Métis and their descendants—a tangible acknowledgement of Indigenous rights and presence.
In the end, none of these gains would hold. With the political solution still under negotiation, Ottawa acted quickly to dispatch a force of 1,200 armed men (including 400 British regulars and more than 700 Canadian volunteers) to assert its authority on the disputed ground. Instead of maintaining the peace, elements in the militia established a “reign of terror”—arson, assaults, even killings—directed against “rebel” Métis. With the balance of power now firmly in Canada’s hands, the push for settlers began, and English speakers, many of them from Ontario, immediately began to flood in. Empowered by sheer force of numbers, the anglo majority soon had its way: French language rights were abolished—ditto separate schools—and the Métis land claims were allowed to bog down in fraud and bureaucratic ineptitude. (In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, responding to a case brought by the Manitoba Métis Federation and others, concluded that, in the case of the Métis lands, “a government sincerely intent on fulfilling the duty that its honour demanded could and should have done better.”)
But if the signature achievements of the Red River resistance were easily erased and forgotten, its signature affront to anglo-Canadian pride was not permitted to fade. That glowing ember of resentment was the death—some would say the murder—of a disputatious young thug and Orangeman fresh from the troubles in Ireland named Thomas Scott. Court-martialed for insubordination by Riel’s provisional government, Scott was executed on March 4, 1870, by a Métis firing squad, and anglo-Ontario ignited in outrage. Warning: this was not the country we think we know today. We are talking about an English Canada that would soon boast more locals of the Loyal Orange Lodge than Northern Ireland itself. We are talking about an Ontario in which Protestants and Catholics routinely duked it out in the streets, with four full-on riots in Toronto alone the 1870s. The death of a “brother” Orangeman cried out for revenge, and English Canada knew where to pin the blame. The full force of their righteous fury fell on Louis Riel.
Thus it was, that although Riel was elected, and twice re-elected, to serve as member of Parliament for the new Manitoba riding of Provencher, he was never permitted to take his seat, for fear of arrest or worse. “If Riel is such a fool as to poke his nose into that mess,” the prime minister noted in a letter to one of his deputies, “he must abide the consequences on his person. I have little doubt that the mob will soon dispose of him.” The mess he had in mind was the Canadian House of Commons.
Ultimately, Riel would seek safety in Montana—un Canadien errant, banni de ses foyers—and that was where he was, with his wife, Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur, and their two young children, when a delegation of Métis from the Saskatchewan country turned up on his doorstep in late spring of 1884 to ask for his assistance. The story they had to tell was sadly familiar: Canada was continuing to extend its authority westward, laying claim to the land with the implacable logic of the surveyors’ grid. But what of the people who were already resident in the country, and whose lives and homes were being overwritten, caught up in that net? Entreaties, letters and petitions had gone unanswered. It was time to take a stand. Maybe Riel, only Riel, could persuade the government to bargain.
But in contrast to 1870, when Ottawa had been caught short and forced into treaty making, the troubles that broke out in 1885 found the state forewarned and forearmed, able rapidly to deploy an army of 5,000 fighting men. And so the chain of events was triggered that would lead the Saskatchewan Métis to defeat in battle against the Canadian state and send Louis Riel to the gallows.
It was at this cheerless junction that a bit-player in the action made a flashy entry. He was known as Robert Armstrong, and we meet him in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Batoche, during his engagement as a scout and dispatch rider for the newly victorious Canadian Field Force. As he tells the story in a memoir published for the first time in John D. Pihach’s fascinating new book, Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel, Armstrong and two companions were riding a mop-up patrol through the hill country east of the South Saskatchewan River a few days after the cessation of hostilities when they spotted a small party of men travelling through the brush on foot. One of them turned out to be that most wanted of fugitives, Louis Riel.
Rather than resisting arrest, Riel threw himself on Armstrong’s mercy. “He at once fell forward on his knees and began to pray—he thought it was my intention to kill him.” Armstrong recalled. “I, however, ordered him to stand up, which he did, at the same time handing me a note he had received from Gen. Middleton,” the Canadian commander, requesting his surrender and promising to deliver him safely to justice. Far from apprehending his prisoner by force, Armstrong ended up escorting Riel to military headquarters in a kind of protective custody, riding him double on his horse and lying—oh, this guy is nobody special, just Riel’s cook—to safeguard him from members of the militia who had sworn to shoot him on sight.
Lying came readily to Robert Armstrong who, as Pihach demonstrates in his spirited commentary on the memoir, was not at all who he seemed to be. Born in Kansas in 1849 as Irvin Mudeater, he was actually of Indigenous ancestry, the descendant of prominent Wyandot and Delaware families. In the United States, this identity could occasionally be worked to his advantage, but in Canada, he preferred to pass as white. Despite his apparent solicitude toward Riel, he was a hard case, with a hair-trigger temper and a plainsman’s stomach for blood and guts. He was full of brag about slaughtering thousands of bison—126 of them in a single day—and gleeful about the occasions when he had been involved in killing “Reds.” Given his propensity for casual violence, it seems likely that the former Mr. Mudeater escaped to Canada to avoid prosecution for crimes committed south of the line. In his new persona as a Presbyterian from England (or was it Ireland?), the newly minted Robert Armstrong emerged from the heat of battle shining like a star, celebrated for the “famous deed” of capturing Louis Riel.
By mid July, 1885, Armstrong and thousands of other “Victorious Soldiers” would find themselves in Winnipeg (future home of the Thomas Scott memorial branch of the L.O.L.), where they were fêted with fireworks, marching bands and uproarious crowds. “The biggest day Winnipeg has ever seen,” the Manitoba Free Press declared. Riel, meanwhile, was confined in a cell in the North West Mounted Police guardhouse at Oskana kâ-asastêki, charged with six counts of high treason. Unlike other leaders of the Métis resistance—Gabriel Dumont among them—who had fled to safety in the United States, Riel had chosen to surrender because he wanted his day in court. Here, surely, he would have an opportunity to voice the unresolved grievances of the Métis and to bring a neglectful and irresponsible government to justice. Yet, as events unfurled that summer, it became clear that Riel’s faith in the system was tragically misplaced. It was not just that he found himself charged under a weird and draconian 14th-century British statute resurrected for the occasion, or that the six members chosen for the jury—“half a jury,” as Riel described them—were all anglo-Protestants, or even that the trial was conducted predominantly in English. There was also the questionable behaviour, really the treachery, of his own legal team who, against his express wishes, attempted to persuade the jury to acquit him on the grounds of insanity.
These are just a sampling of the serious legal shortcomings that David Doyle enumerates in Louis Riel: Let Justice Be Done, his searing examination of Riel’s trial and political career. A retired school principal and long-time Riel advocate, Doyle was recognized as an Honorary Métis by the British Columbia Métis Federation in 2013. He argues that Riel was the victim of a purposeful perversion of justice orchestrated by men at the highest levels of Canadian society. As evidence, he points, among other sources, to a collection of documents known as the “Crown Letters” that were brought to public attention in the late 1990s by Winnipeg lawyer Ronald J. Olesky (misidentified here as Oleskey) and that, in Doyle’s view, “implicate Canada’s prime minister, justice minister and the chief justice of Manitoba in criminally manipulating” Riel’s trial, sentence and appeal. Frustratingly, Doyle does not walk his readers through this inflammatory correspondence in forensic detail, allowing us to witness the connivance at first hand. Nor does he acknowledge that the documents in question are subject to other interpretations. The controversial Riel detractor Thomas Flanagan, for one, is on record as finding the contents of the Crown Letters unremarkable, even banal. The result is that, although Doyle presents his conclusions with unshakable conviction, I often found myself, as a non-expert, on uncertain ground, unable to evaluate the accuracy of his assertions and ill equipped to counter other claims to truth.
Indeed, Doyle has such confidence in his conclusions that he not only dares to speak for Riel but through him. The book is cast as the verbatim transcript of an imagined and long overdue inquiry into Riel’s career, in which a commissioner poses brief, sympathetic questions and Riel, miraculously alive and walking among us, with the full benefit of 20th-century scholarship into his life and times, answers in his own voice. This ventriloquistic strategy has the advantage of restoring an oft-told story to first-person immediacy and offering Doyle’s version of events an aura of authenticity. But appropriating the persona of a public figure—especially when that person is a visionary and a poet—is not without its risks. Would Riel really have said that Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché “played a hugely significant role” in his life and career? Would he not have insisted ad infinitum, as the historic Riel was prone to do and Doyle’s hero seldom does, on his divinely inspired mission to reform Christianity and to take his rightful place as a New World prophet?
If these lapses of characterization are sometimes distracting, what bothered me most about Doyle’s text was the absence of documentation. In 206 densely researched pages, there is not a single footnote. Although Doyle describes his work as “creative nonfiction,” he clearly wants his findings to be taken seriously. So why, then, has he chosen not to provide sources for the evidence he presents, whether he is drawing on Métis oral history or on archival documents? Without this grounding in the small print, the reader is left adrift among spectral voices, unable to tell where the nonfiction stops and the creativity begins.
Doyle concludes his book with a report from his fictive commission that, unsurprisingly, absolves Louis Riel of all charges and complaints ever brought against him, from minor allegations of bribery and corruption, to responsibility for Thomas Scott’s execution, to his own conviction for high treason. “We accept,” the commissioner declares, “that Mr. Riel’s establishment of the Provisional Government of the Saskatchewan, his  resistance, was a direct result of aggression by the Canadian government.” Faced with provocation from the army and the police, what option did the Métis have except to act in self-defence? And what choice do Canadians now have, Doyle argues, except to rectify this historic injustice by exonerating Riel—wiping the slate miraculously clean—and acknowledging him as Canada’s Indigenous father of Confederation?
In Doyle’s view, making amends with Louis Riel would be the icing on the cake for Canada’s 150th birthday. If only it were that easy. If only we really could call Riel and Dumont and their allies back from the dead and start all over again. But some facts are beyond redemption, so bitter that no amount of revision can ever sweeten them. Far better, I think, to address the ills of the present, creating justice here and now, so that seven generations on our descendants will have reason to look back on us with pride.