In the Eye of the Historian

Three takes on Louis Riel

There was a time when historians used some rather unsavoury, frankly racist language to talk about the Métis, the descendants of Indigenous women and European men, who emerged as a collective group in the Northwest around the turn of the nineteenth century. In these older histories, they typically appeared in accounts of conflict — with the fur trade companies, with the early settlers, and with the Canadian government.

Most of these histories touched on two particularly famous, or infamous, conflicts. The first happened in 1869, after the new federal government purchased the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claims to vast stretches of land covering much of western Canada, without first consulting the people who actually lived there. Then, in 1885, the Métis called on their leader from that earlier conflict, Louis Riel, to return to Canada and help the communities along the South Saskatchewan River to force Ottawa to respond to their petitions. And while most historians now describe these two conflicts as the Riel or Métis resistance movements — and not rebellions — that’s not how many saw the events at the time.

In The North-West Is Our Mother, Jean Teillet, a lawyer in British Columbia and a proud descendant of the Riel family, offers a distinctly Métis perspective on this history. Documents from an earlier era “rarely tell the Métis side of the story,” she writes early on, and the histories produced from these records “are anything but neutral and unbiased.” Teillet cites historians like Alexander Begg, who talked about the nation’s “wild and improvident” nature, and George Stanley, who described the Métis as “indolent, thoughtless and improvident.” It all sounds rather sordid, and a reader might be inclined to seek out an alternative perspective, which Teillet certainly offers. Her book retells Métis hist ory from the origins of the “new nation” in the 1790s through what she calls its five moments of “national resistance.” That takes us up to the present day and the legal battles with the government of Canada over Manitoba Act land grants (and whether they were the equivalent of a treaty), as well as the battle to define who is (and, most importantly, who is not) Métis.

Teillet’s opening, though, performs a sleight of hand. She pretends that the views of scholars like Stanley or Begg or the political scientist Thomas Flanagan actually represent current opinion and scholarship: “The fact that these versions of history have until very recently been accepted uncritically as the history tells us more about the writers and Canada than about the Métis Nation.” But Begg published his book in 1894, and Stanley’s work, which Teillet calls a “standard text,” first appeared in 1936. These aren’t exactly contemporary scholars. And Flanagan, while a more recent practitioner and prominent in his own fashion, is more of a contrarian outlier in the writing of Canadian hist ory. In fact, what’s almost entirely missing from The North-West Is Our Mother is any indication of how much history has been rewritten lately to include — and sometimes wholly adopt — Métis views of the past. It’s a useful omission for Teillet’s purposes, and a classic case of a straw man argument.

In reality, the push to account more accurately for the Métis side of things has been under way for decades. Even back in the 1950s, when Donald Creighton published his biography of John A. Macdonald, he was criticized for being far too biased against Riel and the Métis. Historical writing since then (not exactly “very recently”) has more often been sympathetic to the “new nation.”

Teillet actually mimics, in a funhouse-mirror way, the biased accounts she criticizes. She eschews the idea of a balanced history and instead offers up a one-sided narrative. In recounting the infamous Seven Oaks incident, for example, when a group of Métis killed a large party of settlers, she leads us to believe that the stupidity and cruelty of the HBC governor were to blame. On the battles between Métis and government forces in 1885, she lists the names of every Métis combatant who fell in battle, in a kind of reverential Remembrance Day fashion. What she doesn’t do is mention the name of anyone who died on the other side.

Such complex events have been analyzed quite well by several modern scholars, but for Teillet, Seven Oaks matters more as a nation-building myth: “A battle in which your ancestors successfully defended themselves against outlanders who came to take their land — that is a good story, one that a people can be pleased with, one that teaches them about their noble origins — as a good people who fought to defend their lands and their families.” For generations, some settler accounts did the same thing but in reverse, recounting the incident as a brutal massacre by vicious “savages.” Teillet just switches the roles and makes the settlers the one-dimensional bad guys.

If you blotted out all words in the text except for adjectives and descriptive phrases, you would still know when Teillet is describing someone who was Métis: a “noble” people for whom “family was deeply treasured.” They lived by “reciprocity, mutual support and the sharing ethic.” They were known as “ ‘the best hunters, the best horsemen and the bravest warriors’ of the Plains” (she quotes the nineteenth-century explorer Joseph Nicollet). As they do now, they possessed an oral culture that gave them amazing memory skills, but, as she condescendingly puts it, were “tolerant of the poor memory skills of those who live in reliance on writing.” The leader Gabriel Dumont was “a man of his word and a man who cared for the people he led.” He was a “lodestone” and a “mighty hunter,” who was “forged in . . . battle.” Other leaders “seemed invincible” as they rode into battle “ fearlessly”— like “holy men.” Throughout, Teillet assures us that Métis and other Indigenous leaders were “chosen for their gifts of grace, fine oratory, qualities of courage and vision, and for their charisma.”

The contrast to her descriptions of Euro-Canadians is striking. Settler leaders were “creatures of hierarchical training.” One was “two-faced.” Another was “a blunderbuss, full of his own importance and righteousness.” When that man, Governor Semple, was killed, along with most of his small group of followers, it was really his own fault. Teillet repeats the insults of the day, calling him “Mr. Simple” and describing him as “impulsive by nature.” Settler leaders, in general, were “autocratic, incompetent or corrupt.”

The effect is Lego Movie history, where “everything is awesome”— at least when it comes to Teillet’s own people. To give her a modicum of credit, she pretty much admits this up front, arguing that her people need stories of which to be proud.

Jean Teillet tackles the larger Métis story, but with The Audacity of His Enterprise, the Queen’s University historian M. Max Hamon focuses specifically on the nation’s most famous man, Louis Riel. Hamon is among the many “ally” scholars who have taken it upon themselves to “unsettle” Canadian history and Canada itself. They see their work on “settler colonialism” as a kind of academic activism. They aren’t on the barricades, but their goals are decidedly political. And so Hamon makes two broad arguments about Riel’s life: First, Riel wasn’t just someone who “resisted” Canadian expansion; he and his people were directly involved in creating the country. Second, Riel was a translator between the Métis and Canada.

Hamon starts with Riel’s family and parents, arguing the Métis had a much more involved notion of kinship than Euro-Canadians (he uses the Cree word “wahkohtowin,” as others have). Where some have suggested thirteen-year-old Riel felt out of place when he headed east to study at a Sulpician school, in Lower Canada, Hamon insists that he felt right at home. Where other biographers have highlighted the fact that Riel was asked to leave early, without becoming a priest, Hamon argues that we shouldn’t read anything into this — many students left early. So too, when a young woman rejected Riel romantically, we’re meant to believe this was absolutely fine and that the young man wasn’t bothered at all. He actually headed back west, Hamon suggests, because he was now well educated and had excellent contacts with which to bring opportunities to his people.

Yet much of the evidence for this period of Riel’s life is scanty and leaves rooms for dispute. For instance, if you ask someone to marry you and she rejects you, you might think this would hurt. It could well be that Hamon’s arguments are correct. But your decision to accept his (as opposed to any other biographer’s) interpretation is somewhat arbitrary. It just so happens that Hamon always seems to select the interpretations that make Riel seem magnificent. The irony here is that, early in his book, Hamon cites the French historian François Furet on how some biographers make “too much” of their subjects. And then he offers a version of Riel who is always in control of his destiny and never makes mistakes.

The most intriguing chapter in The Audacity of His Enterprise presents a long description of an incident Hamon uncovered in the archives. As a student in Montreal, Riel took part in a prominent debate with another student. The two re-enacted a disagreement between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Borde. Rousseau was famous for his critique of civilization, for his romanticization of “natural” man, and for his argument that the origins of human inequality could be found in civilization. You might expect Riel to have taken Rousseau’s position. In fact, he defended that of Borde, who argued for the benefits of education and culture to improve the uncivilized.

Hamon recounts the debate and assures us that the whole thing was a stroke of genius on Riel’s part. The colonial record has erased Riel and his Métis identity, he argues, and we need to give Riel his “agency” back. The young man was being ironic, as he “intentionally deployed his Indigeneity to add weight to the matrix of epistemological dichotomies of civilized/savage and morality/corruption.”

Riel’s adoption of Rousseau’s arguments, Hamon insists, was a ploy: clearly, his status as Métis — that is, as Indigenous —“contradicts his argument for civilization.” As with much in the book, this may well be true. But the whole argument comes directly out of the historian’s mind: it isn’t backed up by anything in the primary sources

The Audacity of His Enterprise follows a similar trajectory elsewhere, as Hamon combines interesting archival research with overstretched arguments. He wants us to pay less attention to the physical violence of the 1869–70 resistance and instead focus on Riel’s role as someone who brought people together. And though Riel clearly did build a kind of political consensus at Red River, other historians have told this story — with less theoretical jargon.

Hamon goes on to give a rather one-sided account of the many controversies of the rebellion, including the execution of Thomas Scott, an Irish Protestant settler. The lasting controversy over Scott’s death is, Hamon argues, merely the result of “Canadian propaganda.” Again, this isn’t entirely untrue (much was made of Scott’s execution for political ends), but the leaps of logic that Hamon and other ally scholars take in defending the 1870 execution seem a little careless — as if the fact that Scott was a ruffian justified his death.

Still, Hamon doesn’t go as far as Teillet, who claims that Scott, a prisoner at the time, was “perfectly placed to lead an attack from the inside.” Imagine all the executions that could be justified if prisoners were somehow too dangerous precisely because they were prisoners. You don’t have to accept uncritically the Ontario Orange vilification of Riel, whose provisional government ordered the execution, to think that there might also be something wrong with undisguised anti-settler accounts.

The killing of Scott sealed Riel’s fate. The Canadians from Red River went east and used the incident to denounce the Métis uprising. The prime minister, John A. Macdonald, had already set in motion a military expedition to head west and solidify Ottawa’s hold on the colony. The government negotiated with the representatives from Red River, but when the military arrived at Fort Garry, Riel was forced to flee.

Hamon’s account of the next portion of Riel’s life is both intriguing and, again, overstated. In his interpretation, the following five years stood as something of a triumph. He traces Riel through his exile and especially his involvement in the campaign to get an amnesty for himself and others. Hamon draws on the various letters Riel wrote to figures in Quebec and the United States, and the documents he amassed about himself and his people. The book includes diagrams of Riel’s interconnected circles. According to Hamon, Riel “made strategic alliances with Canadien networks in an effort to hijack the Confederation project and place Métis interests at the centre of the Canadian political consensus.” When his colleague Ambroise Lépine was arrested and then tried for the murder of Thomas Scott, Riel was there in spirit, helping to build the coalition that called for commuting the death sentence.

All of this might be convincing, or at least interesting, if it were tempered by some important contextual details. For one, Riel’s letter writing wasn’t at all unusual. Anyone who has been through the archives of any political figure (and really just about anyone from the past) knows that people wrote letters. You could come up with similar diagrams showing the “networks” of influence for literally tens of thousands of Canadians; many would look pretty similar to what Hamon wants us to believe was so special. It is useful to know how involved Riel was in the campaign for his own amnesty, certainly. But the larger interpretation needs a little more modesty.

Hamon ends The Audacity of His Enterprise in 1875, after the Lépine trial and the political solution that Alexander Mackenzie’s Liberal government imposed: Lépine’s death sentence was indeed commuted and most of those involved at Red River were given amnesty. (The three exceptions were Lépine, Riel, and the Fenian William O’Donoghue, who were exiled for five more years.) It’s an odd place to end the book, though. Not long after 1875, Riel’s friends had him admitted to an insane asylum. When he finally left it, in 1878, he went back to the United States, where he married and started another life, all with marginal success.

Hamon defends his end date, saying it’s “intentionally unsettling” and part of his larger attempt to “decolonize history.” Ending things in 1875 also allows him to conveniently sidestep evidence that doesn’t square with a pre-selected and highly politicized story, including Riel’s final act, when he was invited back to lead another, less successful movement, at the end of which he was executed for treason.

Unlike Teillet, Hamon is not a nationalist who is motivated to provide great stories for the Métis people. His book is more like an exercise in what the late British philosopher Roger Scruton called “oikophobia”— the opposite of xenophobia. This is not the dislike of foreigners but the dislike of one’s own culture and history. A significant number of scholars have taken up the oikophobic interpretive lens, attacking Canadian sovereignty, fixating on the worst blemishes of the Canadian past, and offering highly ideological renderings of old stories so that they are retold to emphasize the bad intentions and harmful actions of so‑called settler colonialism. (It’s the kind of scholarship that offers an intellectual smokescreen for those who pulled down a statue of John A. Macdonald, in Montreal, last summer.)

One of Hamon’s stated goals with The Audacity of His Enterprise is to promote Riel as a nation builder, someone who created and didn’t just resist. But where has Hamon been over the last three decades? Back in 1992, the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba declared Louis Riel a founding father. In 2007, Louis Riel Day became a statutory holiday in the province. For a quarter century, anyone who has walked past the legislative building in Winnipeg has been greeted by an eleven-foot statue of Riel, gripping his list of rights and looming over the entire scene. This is hardly someone who has been relegated to a dark corner of history.

It has long been possible — and established practice — to offer accounts of historical events that are actually balanced. From Gerald Friesen’s classic work on the prairies to the books of J. M. Bumsted, we have had many decades of excellent scholarship that doesn’t insist on an overly politicized interpretation of Métis history. In A Rush to Judgment, the former Superior Court of Ontario judge Roger E. Salhany follows in this tradition and takes the reader through Louis Riel’s trial for treason, in July 1885.

A lot has been written about the three-day trial and its fairness, but Salhany offers the historically informed view of someone steeped in the law. Sometimes he is a little “presentist”— assuming or wishing that current ideas of justice had prevailed at the time. But mostly Salhany keeps this tendency in check and provides a brilliant overview of the trial and a wonderful analysis of why parts of it were “unfair.” Anyone looking for a short and balanced account of Métis history and the history of the larger resistance could do much worse than to read his first two chapters, which neatly summarize the key events and stories.

Salhany then presents the personalities of those involved in the courtroom. Over the years, the proceedings have been criticized for many reasons: They were held in Regina, in front of a jury of only six men and not the usual twelve. They could (or should) have been held in Winnipeg, where the jury would have contained six French or Métis members. Riel was charged under a medieval statute, which dictated a penalty of death, rather than an updated statute that would have allowed for a lesser sentence. And the trial was rushed and didn’t allow the defence time to prepare. An even more modern-day critique, put forward by scholars steeped in settler-colonial theory, would be that Riel ought not to have been tried at all, because the Canadian state itself was engaged in genocidal warfare. A Rush to Judgment doesn’t address this last point, but Salhany carefully goes through all of the others.

What Salhany ends up with is a measured analysis of the evidence that dissects the trial in useful ways. He is especially critical of the judge, Hugh Richardson, who probably should not have presided in the first place (for one thing, his boss appeared on behalf of the Crown). Salhany also highlights several instances where Richardson got in over his head, allowed for improper lines of inquiry, and failed to rule out inappropriate questions.

Riel’s lawyers opted to put forward a defence of insanity. In The North-West Is Our Mother, Teillet argues that this choice was “their” defence, not Riel’s. And surely this reading is correct, for Riel wanted to defend himself by arguing the merits of the Métis cause in front of the jury. But it’s worth pointing out (as Salhany does) that in deploying an insanity plea, his lawyers were trying to save Riel’s life. The evidence of treason was overwhelming, and a defence of the justness of Riel’s cause was not a valid legal argument. The only way to save Riel was to convince the jury that he was not of sound mind. At the end of the trial, Riel finally had his chance to make his own case. “The fact that his speech from the dock was a disavowal of his insanity,” Salhany writes, “was probably the strongest evidence of his insanity.”

Riel likely wanted to die as a martyr and, ultimately, he got his wish. Here, Salhany’s interpretation is worth quoting at length, because it so resoundingly goes against Hamon’s version of Riel as a triumphant state builder:

His life had been certainly one series of failures after another. The earlier rebellion in Manitoba . . . had ended in his exile, and a life of poverty and ignominy in the United States. He had fought the Canadian government twice and lost. His dream of creating a separate Métis country had been dashed and it was unlikely that there would ever be another chance to lead his people. If he died at the hands of the detested federal government, at least in death he would be remembered.

A Rush to Judgment is a fine example of sympathetic, thoughtful scholarship, with a clean style that neatly summarizes complex topics in digestible chunks, all the while rooted in the evidence of the time. It is exactly the kind of scholarship that we need about controversial topics. One might quibble with particular points, but it’s clear how and why Salhany is making his assessment: he follows the sources closely.

Back In 2000, the political scientist Alan Cairns warned in Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State that we were in for a tumultuous period of conflict between differing accounts of history. It was to be expected. The colonizers’ version — with all of its assumptions of cultural superiority — was finally being overthrown by the Indigenous take. Of course, there was much to be gained by this reversal, and Cairns hoped for a “continuing dialogue between competing versions of the past”— competing versions that could “keep each other honest.”

We can still hope for this emphasis on diverse viewpoints, where a variety of perspectives allows us to understand yesterday (and its implications today) in a more truthful and rigorous fashion. We might hope that scholars and historians don’t necessarily see themselves as telling only “their” side of the story, as if one’s ethnic background means putting on a pair of glasses that allows one to see only in a certain colour. We can also hope for scholarship where non-Native scholars are able to be more than mere “allies” to Indigenous peoples, relegating themselves to oikophobic attacks on a nation’s history.

There is much to be critical about in Canadian history, especially as it relates to the Métis and Louis Riel. But it would be a shame if we simply replaced the racist term “half-breed,” with all of its insulting stereotypes, with the term “settler,” which is increasingly taking on a racially charged hue of its own, with equally simplistic clichés. In A Rush to Judgment, at least, there is hope that we can escape the tragic pretense of progress, when we claim to be moving forward only to find ourselves back where we all began.