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...