Main The Audacity of His Enterprise: Louis Riel and the Metis Nation That Canada Never Was, 1840-1875

The Audacity of His Enterprise: Louis Riel and the Metis Nation That Canada Never Was, 1840-1875

Louis Riel (1844-1885) was an iconic figure in Canadian history best known for his roles in the Red River Resistance of 1869 and the Northwest Resistance of 1885. A political leader of the Métis people of the Canadian Prairies, Riel is often portrayed as a rebel. Reconstructing his experiences in the Northwest, Quebec, and the worlds in between, Max Hamon revisits Riel's life through his own eyes, illuminating how he and the Métis were much more involved in state-making than historians have previously acknowledged.

Questioning the drama of resistance, The Audacity of His Enterprise highlights Riel's part in the negotiations, petition claims, and legal battles that led to the formation of the state from the bottom up. Hamon examines Riel's early successes and his participation in the crafting of a new political environment in the Northwest and Canada. Arguing that Riel viewed the Métis as a distinct people, not caught between worlds, the book demonstrates Riel's attempts to integrate multiple perspectives - Indigenous, French-Canadian, American, and British - into a new political environment.

Choosing to end the book in 1875, at the pinnacle of Riel's successful career as a political leader, rather than at his death in 1885, Hamon sets out to recover Riel's agency, intentions, and imagination, all of which have until now been displaced by colonial narratives and the shadow of his execution. Revisiting the Red River Resistance on its 150th anniversary, The Audacity of His Enterprise offers a new view of Riel's life and a rethinking of the history of colonialism.
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The Audacity of His Enterprise

Louis Riel and the Métis Nation That Canada Never Was, 1840–1875


McGill-Queen’s University Press

Montreal & Kingston • London • Chicago

© McGill-Queen’s University Press 2019

ISBN 978-0-7735-5937-0 (cloth)

ISBN 978-0-2280-0008-2 (ePDF)

ISBN 978-0-2280-0009-9 (ePUB)

Legal deposit fourth quarter 2019

Bibliothèque nationale du Québec

Printed in Canada on acid-free paper that is 100% ancient forest free

(100% post-consumer recycled), processed chlorine free

This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Title: The audacity of his enterprise : Louis Riel and the Métis nation that Canada never was, 1840–1875 / M. Max Hamon.

Names: Hamon, M. Max., 1980– author.

Description: Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20190189525 | Canadiana (ebook) 20190189630 | ISBN 9780773559370 (cloth) | ISBN 9780228000082 (ePDF) | ISBN 9780228000099 (ePUB)

Subjects: LCSH: Riel, Louis, 1844–1885. | LCSH: Métis—Prairie Provinces—Biography. | LCSH: Prairie Provinces—History—19th century. | LCGFT: Biographies.

Classification: LCC FC3217.1.R53 H36 2019 | DDC 971.05/1092—dc23

This book was typeset in 10.5/14 Sabon.


Table and Figures

Preface: Riel and the Resistance


Introduction: An Argument

1 Family of a Métis Nation

2 Métis Government: From Sayer to Miller

3 Métis Leadership Transformed

4 The Collège de Montréal

5 Louis Riel’s Education

6 A Study in “Civilization”

7 The Public Sphere of Red River

8 A Wind of Revolution Blows

9 The Storm Is ; on the Horizon

10 A Network Approach to Confederation

11 Red River Networks

12 The Amnesty Issue

13 The Sine Qua Non of Confederation





Table and Figures


5.1 Riel’s semester grades at le Petit Seminaire, posted in his bulletin (grades for “conduct”/“application”/“achievement”)


0.1 Map of Red River Settlement, 1870, by C.C.J. Bond. In George F. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961), 15

4.1 Class of Syntax, Collège de Montréal, 1867, photographed by William Notman. McCord Museum, I-26764.1

4.2 Class of Belles Lettres, Collège de Montreal, 1867, photographed by William Notman. McCord Museum, I-26762.1

5.1 Carte de visite of Louis Riel, c. 1866. In George F. Stanley, Louis Riel (Toronto: Ryerson University Press, 1963), 19

8.1 H.A. Strong, Interior of Fort Garry, 1884. McCord Museum, M15677

8.2 Louis Riel and members of the provisional government. Photograph attributed to Joseph Langevin. Archives of Manitoba, Red River Disturbance 1, N5396

10.1 Graphic representing the correspondence of Riel during the amnesty issue. Created by the author in NodeXL

13.1 Louis Riel to Judge [Charles-Joseph] Coursol, 24 June 1874. Fonds Société St-Jean Baptiste, BANQ, P82

13.2 Clipping from Le Franc Parleur, 24 November 1874, advertising a subscription for donations to the Lépine defence. Le Franc Parleur, 24 November 1874, BANQ Numerique

13.3 Henri Julien, “La Question de L’Amnestie,” L’Opinion Publique, 24 December 1874, BANQ Numerique


Riel and the Resistance

Louis Riel is best known for his roles in the Red River Resistance of 1869 and the Northwest Resistance of 1885, which led to his execution. The violent annexation of the Northwest by the Canadian state is an epic story, and the resistance of the Métis is a key act in this drama. Riel, as the leading figure in the Métis resistance, is therefore an important figure for understanding the history of Canada. Yet, Louis Riel did not make the resistance. Rather the resistance has made Riel, and even that is not the whole truth.1

The implications of the construct Riel-as-Resistance came into focus for me in February 2016, as I watched a production of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Stage Play, put on by RustWerk ReFinery theatre in Montreal. The play was a galloping re-enactment of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, using cardboard caricatures inspired by Brown’s artwork. Fast-paced, hard-edged, and with a clarity of purpose, it was exciting. Brown’s comic-strip creation has inspired a new genre of graphic novels, but he told a story that many already knew: a plotting, drunken John A. Macdonald sets out to dispossess the Métis of their lands. The Métis resist, but are ultimately outgunned by imperialist forces and betrayed by the Catholic Church. Riel, their idealistic and inspiring leader, is executed for his crimes, and Canada becomes a nation. The puppet play brought this narrative to life, but – by the use of two-dimensional cut-outs – further emphasized the flatness of the plot. The description of the play states, without awareness of the irony: “Louis Riel breathes in life-sized 2 dimensions, he mourns in shadow-imagery, and rallies his men in the voice of the actor. A piece of Canada’s history is sketched out on stage document by document, fort by fort, prayer by prayer, and battle by battle.”2 The irony of this description (“breathes” and “mourns” and “two dimensional”) flags the need to probe the black-and-white version of Riel’s life. In the search for clarity, we lose depth. The sketches oversimplify the undetermined human experience of history, and by shining the spotlight on the cut-out, a shadow, larger than the figure itself, forms behind.

Watching the shadow-play, I realized that the lit figures tell a narrative of nationalist proportions. The shadows cast by these two-dimensional cut-outs obscure the depth and humanity of the tale.3 As a two-dimensional cut-out Riel is an icon of resistance, rather than a man. And through a narrative of the resistance Riel has become part of the nation state’s cultural and political quest to dominate history.4 Through the celebration of resistance, Riel has become “Canada’s Riel.”5

The year 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the Red River Resistance and is a fitting opportunity to revisit Riel’s story and to challenge “the enormous condescension of posterity.” This book uses the term “resistance” rather than rebellion to emphasize the fact that Riel’s actions in the Northwest were marshalled against an invading foreign power that failed to establish a legitimate claim to the territory in the Northwest. Yet, the emphasis upon “resistance” has been problematic.

The focus on Riel’s resistance has trivialized his relationship with the creation of Canada. Riel did not struggle against Canada, he struggled for recognition. The use of “for” not “against” has profound implications in any approach to the story of his life. Riel proposed a version of Confederation that competed with the vision being formed in Ottawa and, because it was compelling, he won many allies and friends to his cause. Stepping outside of the resistance framework presents an opportunity to expose a double standard in Canada’s history. Riel challenged a binary of settler/savage that has long been at the heart of Canadian history. Invariably, Indigenous peoples have tried to participate in political activities, such as Confederation, defined as “normal” by the cultural elites, but have faced prejudice. If they sounded like “Indians,” they were not deemed legitimate experts. If they sounded like “politicians,” they were considered assimilated and no longer authentic. A similar double standard has, at different times, been applied to French Canadiens, the Irish, and other cultural minorities. The Canadian state, a deal brokered between diverse groups, was the product of old colonial loyalties that were twisted into accommodation and deal making. Participating enthusiastically in the political games of nation building Riel challenged the formula whereby Indigenous people were disenfranchised and made “irresponsible.” Riel’s life illustrates how Indigenous politics could effectively engage with the state’s legal and political discourses, even if that engagement was later denied.

Telling truths about Canada, to borrow the subtitle of John Ralston Saul’s book A Fair Country, involves examining how “resistance” has marginalized Riel’s vision of Canada.6 It is praiseworthy to say, as Saul does, that Canada is an aboriginal nation, and to celebrate the Other “within.” Indeed, Riel, the Métis, and many other Indigenous peoples sought to make it an “aboriginal nation.” However, they were oppressed by an increasingly powerful nation state, which imposed boundaries that disrupted their lives and livelihood. The omission of oppression and dispossession is the problem with John Ralston Saul’s image of Canada as a “métis” place.7 Saul’s attempt to recognize Canada’s aboriginal roots dismisses, with astonishing myopia, the marginalization of people by centuries of exploitation and dispossession. To suddenly hear that those boundaries do not in fact exist, because “we” are all métis, is not merely preposterous, but also painful to hear. To speculate whether Macdonald or Riel had a greater influence on the Canadian state and society is a laudable endeavour. Yet, such an exercise must also be placed within the context of a colonized people still struggling to have their right to self-determination recognized.

Riel’s early successes suggest that his execution in 1885 was not a sign of his own failure, but a failure of Confederation. Today, we lament that lack of understanding and struggle for it. If we revisit Riel’s life through his own eyes, rather than Canada’s, we can learn valuable lessons about past choices made – which we might now make differently. As Thomas King teaches us in The Truth about Stories: “Take it. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to your children. Turn it into a play. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.”8


This book is the result of ten years of research, teaching, conversations, writing, and reflection, and over the course of those ten years I have made many good friends and new acquaintances, and grown with my family. Acknowledging the support and encouragement of all these people is no easy task. My sincere thanks to everyone.

I acknowledge with great pleasure the support and guidance of two superlative advisors at McGill, Elsbeth Heaman and Elizabeth Elbourne. Your unflagging belief in me and your frank critiques have fundamentally shaped this work. I cannot express the depth of your influence on my intellectual growth over the past years. Also, during the course of my PhD in Montreal, I felt privileged to receive advice from Allan Greer at McGill and Karl Hele at Concordia. The entire History Department at McGill was collegial and supportive. For eight years I have had wonderful conversations with Tassos Anastassiadis, Ned Blackhawk, Kate Desbarats, Brian Lewis, Laura Madokoro, Nancy Partner, Mary Anne Poutanen, and Jarrett Rudy. Suzanne Morton, without your guidance I would not have published my first article. Thank you, Jon Soske, for a most interesting year of reading together. The internal examiners at my defence, Jason Opal, and particularly Allan Downey, had a profound impact on how the thesis transformed into a manuscript. Michel Hogue, as my external examiner, you have been enthusiastic and generous, committed beyond all expectations, and your suggestions and corrections have been immensely helpful. Thank you to the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada for the scholarship and the space. Thank you, Mitali Das, for keeping me on track. Thank you, Colin, Matthew, Stephanie, and Daniel. Thank you to my reading group, Andrew, Sonya, Rami, Colin, Catherine, and especially Carolynn, for having carefully read my thesis. You know who you are!

I acknowledge that the subject of this work, Louis Riel, also warrants thanks. I had the privilege of time to reflect upon his writings on the history of the Métis and of Canada. From this, I have learned much, and I hope that my work brings honour to a life that deserves to be remembered with integrity and clarity. I am grateful to the editors of the Collected Writings for starting me on the path. Thank you to all of the archivists, librarians, and other knowledge keepers I have consulted: Sylvie Bédard, Michel Dahan, Jim Davis, David Émond, Ron Evans, Peter Gagné, Nora Hague, Gilles Lesage, Marc Lacasse, Chris Potecki, Tamara Splonskowski, Sophie Tellier, and Celine Widmer. Thanks to the societies, agencies, and organizations which employ these people and make the archives available to historians. My profound gratitude goes to the librarians, particularly those involved with interlibrary loans at the Redpath-McLennan library. You make research possible.

I presented my first papers on Riel at conferences in Windsor and St Boniface in 2010. The conference “De Pierre-Esprit Radisson à Louis Riel: Voyageurs et Métis,” organized by Denis Combet, Luc Côté, and Gilles Lesage, has had a long-term effect. Ruth Swan, you were the first to encourage me to work more closely with Métis researchers; Darren O’Toole, your candid amity was inspiring. I met Ron Bourgeault, Maurice Charland, Thomas Flanagan, Hans Hansen, and others at a conference, “Riel’s Defence.” Here, Desmond Morton’s encouragement made the difference. I first conceived of the project at the University of Prince Edward Island, where the adjunct faculty fund and the Invisible Scholar Lecture Series supported my preliminary work. Thank you everyone in the History Department, but especially to Susan Brown (for mentioning the flags), Lisa Chilton (for early guidance), Ian Dowbiggin, Ed MacDonald, James Moran, and Richard Raiswell. My thanks also to Brenton Dickieson (for camaraderie above all) and Ron Srigley for motivating me.

Over the years, I have received invaluable advice from colleagues, kind listeners, and fellow conference attendees. I have learned much from many, and would like to particularly mention the advice of Elizabeth Manke, Jerry Bannister, Dennis McKim, Scott See, Carolyn Podruchny, Emilie Pigeon, and the other participants in the “Violence Order and Unrest” conference. Also my sincere gratitude to all of the members of the Montreal History Group. Brian Young, by inviting me to the book launch of Les Sulpiciens de Montréal at the Grand Seminary, you did me a great favour. Thank you to Adele Perry for inviting me to the University of Manitoba. Thank you, Taiaiake Alfred, Brian Gettler, John Hall, Ollivier Hubert, Sherry Olsen, Amanda Ricci, Daniel Rück, Russell Smandych, Jean Teillet, and all the others for sharing your time and resources with me. Thank you to the organizers of the annual meetings of the Canadian Historical Association and the Institute d’histoire de l’Amèrique française, your work provides essential spaces for discussion and sharing of ideas that have shaped my writing.

As this book transformed from an academic dissertation, I had the wise counsel and support of the editor at McGill-Queen’s University Press, Jonathan Crago. I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and kind praise – the book is much better for it. Thank you to Patricia Kennedy for all the editorial help and for saving me from embarrassments. Of course, any errors that remain are my own. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences Aid to Scholarly Publishing program. Thank you to Don Nerbas and the Chair in Canadian-Scottish Studies for support as I put the finishing touches on the book. My research was made possible by bursaries from the McCord Museum, the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, Media@McGill, the McCall-McBain Foundation, Joseph Schull Lang, and other funding from the McGill History Department. Sections of chapters five, six, and ten were previously published in articles from the CHR and Violence, Order, and Unrest; thank you to the University of Toronto Press for permission to reprint them here.

Over the years I benefited from the advice and corrections of numerous readers of my drafts, thank you Betto, Hasan, Martin, Anna, and anonymous readers. Thank you to friends and neighbours who have entertained and supported me and my family through it all, especially Hamid, Wenge, and Maxence.

Writing is an isolating experience, but my family gave it meaning and space. Thank you, Dad, for your support and encouragement, but most of all for teaching me to breathe and keep pace for the long haul; and Mom for passing on your sense of joyful discovery and contrariness, which has proved a good instinct in the archives. Thank you for all your gifts. Agi and Arpad nagyon szépen köszönök mindent, az emlékek útasásainkrol és a làtogásokról velem maradnak. Thank you to Robert, Anna, and Oscar for entertainment and distraction. Thank you to my children, Emma, David, and Felix, for doing what you do best. Keep it real. And thank you to Engie. Your tolerance and wisdom have been a great gift and a constant source of inspiration. Kedvesem, szeretlek.

Figure 0.1 Map of Red River Settlement, 1870, by C.C.J. Bond.



An Argument

Born on the 23d of october 1844 in the morning, a beautiful day, said to me my dear mother. Went to confession when seven years old, to Reverend Father Bermond. Made my first communion twenty fifth of March 1856. Began my latin studies at the Boniface on the 1st September 57.1

Louis Riel made these autobiographical notes in the Regina jail in the summer of 1885.2 Held prisoner in the sweltering jailhouse, he had time for reflection and an opportunity to develop ideas he had been entertaining for many years. Regular meetings with his confessor, the Catholic priest Father André, and letters written to his family and friends helped to clear his mind. Written in Riel’s own hand, this is a fragment of a more polished text likely edited by Father André, and then published in the Toronto Globe on 17 November 1885.

Composed largely in the third person, and in English, the notes alert us to Riel’s own sense of the forces that animated his life. He understood that this was an era of converging worlds. While the bison hunt was declining, increasing numbers of Indigenous peoples, as well as Canadian and American settlers, were taking up permanent homes along the Red River. The news of the birth and death of his third son, and the precarious health of his wife, must have furthered his sense of vulnerability. Riel saw the homeland of his people, the Métis, the borderlands between the United States and British North America, becoming colonized by people from the East. Missionaries were being given more power and authority to educate the children of Indigenous peoples of the Northwest. Confederation spelled the end of the era that had sustained the borderlands nation.

Yet the notes are also evidence of Riel’s desire to preserve whatever independence he could by documenting his own life. Anticipating his execution, Riel appointed guardians of his papers, gave directions to photographers regarding copyright, and wrote instructions for the publication of his writings and any income derived thereof.3

Perhaps Louis Riel worried that future biographers, less able to comprehend the cultural modes and philosophy specific to Métis society, would denaturalize and misunderstand his own life. In addition to these autobiographical notes, Riel left drafts of his writings and records of his thoughts and of political meetings in diaries and scrapbooks. He wanted, to borrow a phrase from Maureen Konkle, author of Writing Indian Nations, “to write the nation back.”4 His last dated note, presented to an officer of the North-West Mounted Police who led him to the scaffold, can be read as both a submission and an affirmation of the importance of his life work. It contains only three words: “Pray for me.”5

Riel’s writings speak to his own sense of history in the making. Because Riel wrote himself into history, archives across Canada have preserved his writing. The Collected Writings of Louis Riel, published in five volumes, provides access to a critical perspective on modern Canada, one in which Indigenous peoples played a role in founding a modern state. Careful study of the documentary record is a way for us to get away from the icon to attempt to understand the man. Of course, there are basic methodological concerns to be addressed in taking this approach. Above all, in returning to the writings we need to pay careful attention to the context: Why were they written? Why were they kept? And above for whom were they written?

First, and foremost, what follows is a story of resistance to colonization and dispossession. Yet, even as colonialism defined and subordinated people through the institutionalization of ideas of difference, Riel was able to cut across and run athwart the lines of empire. In so doing, he shook up the lines of influence, at times even reversing them.6 Riel’s life is not a story of straightforward resistance. He integrated himself and the Métis into political structures. The perspective of this book is that his encounter with Canada was dialogic rather than didactic, a dialogue involving multiple perspectives and considerable negotiation.7 It presents an effort to rethink the history of the state from the bottom up, and supposes that resistance shaped and created the modern state. In other words, Louis Riel did not simply resist Confederation, he shaped it.

Riel’s life demonstrates that the process of inclusion and exclusion in colonial societies is complex. That complexity is key to understanding colonial relations, and we need to pay attention to the individual responses rather than apply broad rubrics. It is easier to celebrate resistance to westernization than to grapple with the partial incorporation of western myths and technologies by Indigenous peoples.8 The life of Louis Riel exposes the inadequacy of the analytic categories of colonizer versus colonized. This book instead highlights the intersections between the creation of a metropolitan hierarchy and the alternative sources of authority in the borderlands beyond the control of empire.

This book presents two main arguments. The first is that, against all the odds, Louis Riel participated in crafting a new political environment in British North America. As a possessor of significant cultural capital that had currency in both Canadian and Métis worlds, he would play a central role in the political transformation of the Northwest and Canada. Riel and the Métis were much more involved in state-making than historians have previously acknowledged.

The second claim is that Riel attempted to integrate Métis (and more broadly Indigenous) perspectives and Canadian (French and British) perspectives in his project. Riel translated between these worlds and frequently had to respond creatively to the novel situations created by convergence. His versatility with cultural encounters and his ability to read their political significance has left its mark on Métis and Canadian – and, more broadly, North American – history.

This book is not a conventional biography. It is written from the perspective of a white Canadian who is worried about the manner in which Riel and Indigenous peoples more generally are presented in Canadian history of the state, in culture, and in heritage. Riel has been constructed in various ways for various reasons, often far removed from his own interests. These constructions rely upon categorical understandings of difference which prove unhelpful for a critical understanding of the settler nation-state. My goal has been to understand how, despite all the oppression, Riel maintained his power. What alternatives did he propose? Biography brings his perspective to the fore. Adopting the perspective of one individual allows an historian to explore the tensions between moral agency and historical determinism, and thereby highlight the aspirations, goals, and the emergence of identity, in conjunction with social interactions, across space and time.9 By simultaneously respecting the agency of an individual and the structures of society, a study of Riel’s life can illustrate broader cultural and social phenomena. In this way, Riel’s life becomes an allegory for the tensions that make up the broader issues of nineteenth-century North America rather than, via the execution of a rebel, a synecdoche of Canadian state sovereignty.10

This book embraces a transnational approach; that is to say it does not dismiss the nation, but rather seeks to see how it constructed some forms of authority and supressed others. The transnational approach is necessary, because in his life Riel inhabited multiple worlds.

Riel was born in St Boniface, but he went to school in Montreal. He gave public speeches in Winnipeg and wrote for newspapers in Montreal. Riel claimed British rights, even while he challenged Canadian national sovereignty. While Riel courted American annexationists, he opposed a Fenian invasion. When exiled from Canada, he sought refuge and resided in the United States. He negotiated with Cree and Dakota nations. He used British courts to seek justice against Canadians, and he corresponded with American politicians. Riel held audiences with bishops and played the gentleman to the women married to the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But most of all Riel travelled: by horse, by train, by wagon, and on foot. He was reputed to be an excellent rider. The ability to move between culturally distinct worlds empowered Riel to see the possibilities that could hold a new country together. He navigated the political and cultural boundaries to contest the imagined nation of Canada’s founders.

However, Riel did not merely move between the Northeast and the Northwest of the American continent; he brought these worlds together. In Montreal he told his fellows about life in the Northwest. In Red River he taught his family and neighbours about the clout of the newspapers in Montreal. He showed the Catholic Church the strength of the smallest nation God had ever created, and attempted to use the Catholic social networks to encourage immigration into the Northwest. Travelling across and through these different worlds gave Riel an awareness that allowed him to slip across political and cultural borders to seize the moment of encounter; he transformed culture into political currency. He refused the efforts of others to prescribe his actions. He became an expert in weaving together different contexts and providing new meanings and founding new worlds. But, most of all, he sought to tell his own story.

Examining Louis Riel’s life allows us to reconstruct a moment when worlds were crossing and merging, and to shed light upon the cracks in Canadian statehood today. Riel staged a confrontation between the Canadian state and the Indigenous people of the Northwest that was quite different from the confrontrations of the present day. Yet his legacy continues to perplex us. A series of different cultural influences, Catholic and Métis spirituality, French traditions, English culture, British legal understanding, and American political rhetoric, provided him with the intellectual and social resources to formulate a Métis nation and to justify the right of the Métis to live on their land. He was so effective that even today he confronts Canada’s claim to national sovereignty and forces the state to recognize the violence in its own foundation. This is why he is such a central figure for understanding the history of the Canadian state: his transnational life exposes the fissures in the national experience.

By returning to Riel’s life, we see Canadian sovereignty denaturalized and confronted. Riel’s adamant demand that Métis sovereignty be recognized forced Canada to evaluate and understand its own claims. He refused to acknowledge Canada’s annexation of the Northwest as natural. There is an opportunity in that refusal for us to better understand how the state sovereignty displaced national sovereignty. As professor Audra Simpson has argued for the borderlands politics of the Mohawk, “One does not entirely negate the other, but they necessarily stand in terrific tension and pose serious jurisdictional and normative challenges to each other: whose citizen are you? What authority do you answer to?” In essence, “Sovereignty may exist within sovereignty.”11

The book is structured according to four main phases of Riel’s life, each corresponding to a different theme: family, education, political culture, and networking. Not narrowly biographical, each section is complemented by an in-depth study of the general context, or “worlds,” of Louis Riel. The four sections are not isolated, since the themes bleed into one another and are reflected upon in the other sections. The book follows his movement from Red River to Montreal, back to Red River, and finally back to Montreal. Covering the years from 1840 to 1875, it spans two generations and offers an analysis of the political and social influence of his parents and his early manhood.

Chapters 1, 2, and 3 introduce his parents. Their lives illustrate the centrality of the family in Métis governance. The principles of family ties, or kinship, accompanied by “frontier” liberties, defined the first Métis communities. These chapters show how family relations, as the root of Métis governance, played a key role in state formation in the borderlands. Riel’s father, Jean-Louis Riel,12 and his mother, Julie Lagimodière, moved from resistance to an alliance with state authority in Red River. The Métis were increasingly involved with, rather than marginalized by, the colonial state. Analysis of feminine authority in the structures of Métis governance illustrates the implications of historical changes for kinship authority and gender power. These Métis practices of governance and theory of Indigenous rights provide an important foreshadowing of Louis Riel’s later theoretical confrontation with Canada.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe Riel’s education in Montreal, where he attended a Catholic boy’s school from 1858 to 1865. A study of the context illustrates that this was not an environment characterized by clerical domination, but a superbly crafted site for the reproduction of cultural capital. Louis Riel joined a cohort of young men who were being vetted by the French-Catholic cultural elite to reproduce the cultural capital necessary to maintain the social structures of French Canada. This institution nutured a sense of selfhood, or récit de soi, that encouraged the internalization of disciplinary authority, even while inviting reflective critique. Through a study of Riel’s discourse, it is argued that even as Riel learned the rules of grammar and literary distinction at the heart of imperial culture, he was also invited to reflect upon and provide transformative critiques of Sulpician education and “Western Civilization.”

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 move back to Red River to re-examine the events of 1869–70, as the worlds of Canada and Red River rushed together. Through a study of political culture, the focus of this section shifts away from the drama of physical force and violence to an examination of the public sphere in an effort to address issues of opinion making and consensus forming. It argues that Riel’s public authority was founded on his ability to employ the mediums of communication expected by both non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. Weaving these worlds together required someone adept in cultural encounter. This was a field of expertise in which politicians in Ottawa, because of their ignorance of the local political culture, were remarkably lacking. Riel demonstrated, contrary to beliefs at the time, that Indigenous opinions could make a difference in the contest to formulate consensus.

The last four chapters examine the way Riel used networks between 1870 and 1875 to hijack the Confederation project and argue for political amnesty for the Métis involved in the events of 1869–70, and particularly Ambroise Lépine and himself. Through a study of the political context I argue that networks were at the core of the Canadian political project. A study of Riel’s networking shows his influence – and his awareness of the broader political stakes. He used these networks to demand “better terms” from Canada. Riel’s efforts to defend the interests of his people fit into a pattern well established in the negotiations for Confederation, and this was something that politicians were forced to recognize in 1874. Through his networking, in both the Northwest and Montreal, Riel would transform the worlds he inhabited.

Under the influence of a racial discourse about civilization, Canada’s “founding fathers” were prevented from understanding the necessity for accommodating the interests of Indigenous peoples. By contrast, Riel, using cultural capital, social networks, and an intellectual toolkit informed by multiple worlds, envisioned an institution that would defend and represent the interests of the Métis. He brought Métis understandings of politics to Canadian political situations, and vice versa.

One of the reasons why the paradigm of Métis rebellion/resistance is so deeply ingrained in the Canadian historical tradition is that Riel’s life has been studied so much. The first histories emerged from the pen of the Catholic missionary Reverend A.G. Morice.13 Morice’s A Critical History of the Red River Insurrection after Official Documents and Non-Catholic Sources appeared in 1935. While Morice pointed out that the term rebellion was likely invented by newspaper editor, his main purpose was to write a defence of Bishop Taché.14 An historical committee of Métis objected strongly, and confronted him with a detailed report of the errors in his book regarding Riel’s life.15 Morice, unrepentant, replied with a long public letter in La Liberté, stating that it was “difficult to change a negro’s colour.”16 Unsatisfied, the Métis comité historique employed Auguste-Henri de Trémaudan to write a more favourable history. This was published in 1936 as Histoire de la nation métisse dans l’Ouest canadien.17 Trémaudan was given access to the Riel family papers and conducted interviews with the family. He cast Riel as a nationalist and the leader of a small group of people oppressed by English Canada. However, Trémaudan died before he could finish the chapter on 1885, and his history was published with an appendix rather than footnotes.18

In the same year, 1936, George Stanley’s The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions appeared. While it radically transformed English academic opinions on the significance of the “rebellions,” it established the idea that the events of 1869–70 and 1885 were not the “western battle ground of the traditional hostilities of French Catholic Quebec and English Protestant Ontario,” but a manifestation “of the problem of the frontier, namely the clash between primitive and civilized people.”19 The idea of Riel versus the West was founded.

Following Stanley, a new era of scholarship began, introducing works more sympathetic to Riel’s cause and influenced by anthropological interests. Marcel Giraud published his massive Le métis canadien in 1945, which analyzed the conflict as an anthropological issue and the resistance as a key instance in the process of ethnogenesis.20 Giraud further cemented the idea that the Métis nation was born of conflict and war. Montana historian Joseph Kinsey Howard’s Strange Empire, published posthumously in 1952, recast Riel as a warrior for racial justice – or, as he put it, “The John Brown of the Half-breeds.”21 Howard’s book in particular became a cult classic for a generation of readers in the 1960s.22 It was in reaction to this new attention that Stanley determined to write his “authoritative” biography of Riel – or perhaps it was a wry response to his teacher Douglas Creighton, who had written his biography on John A. Macdonald, Riel’s nemesis.23 Either way, Stanley’s Louis Riel, for which he had extensive access to the Riel Papers, would become the benchmark for studies of Riel. For Stanley, the founding director of the first chair in Canadian Studies (at Mount Allison University) and the man behind the design of the Canadian flag, Riel was set up to fight a losing battle against the Canadian state.

During the 1960s, regional studies increasingly displaced the sweeping histories of the earlier generation,24 and during the 1970s, as regional history continued to fragment the story of national destiny, social and cultural history generated new historical knowledge. Historians interested in Riel’s life moved him from the centre of the national narrative.25 A collection of Riel’s poetry and his diaries were edited and published.26 Cultural studies began to influence the interpretation of Riel’s life: Thomas Flanagan and Gilles Martel argued in two independent studies that he ought to be understood as a messianic prophet struggling against modernity.27 Their works revisited Riel’s motivations, but left Stanley’s broader narrative of a conflict between civilization and savagery intact. Riel remained a figure of resistance.

In the 1980s, biographies of “great men” seemed less meaningful.28 Historians became more interested in the history of the Métis and in critiquing the “Red River myopia.”29 The methods of social history, first introduced in the Northwest by feminist historians Sylvia van Kirk and Jennifer Brown, would radically transform research into the history of the Métis.30 Researchers moved away from the Riel Papers, to examine scrip, census data, and the records of Hudson’s Bay Company forts. In 1996, Gerhard Ens published Homeland to Hinterland: The Changing World of the Red River Metis, a remarkable synthesis situated between the social and political approaches to Red River.31 Increasingly, Riel was viewed as the leader of a much broader social movement against Canada, rather than as the creator of a new religion. Researchers began to investigate representations of Riel’s life and how they served to create an “other” against which Canadians could define themselves. Albert Braz’s far-ranging study The False Traitor, published in 2003, was a landmark in this respect.32 Jennifer Reid’s work on Riel’s life through the lens of post-colonial theory has explained the important symbolic work that Riel did in the process of founding a nation state.33

Yet despite all this interest, the titles of books by recent biographers such as Maggie Siggins, Riel: A Life of Revolution, and J.M. Bumsted, Riel vs. Canada: The Making of a Rebel, show that Riel is still seen as Canada’s other. The image of Riel and the resistance remains fixed in a narrative of politico-military force with little attention to the intellectual and cultural processes at work.

As recent theorists of the Métis resistance Adam Gaudry, Darren O’Toole, and Chris Andersen have remarked, the resistance is a central element of Métis nationhood.34 It was fundamental to an ethnogenesis that located and made political claims of Peoplehood concrete. While this is his legacy, I would nevertheless argue that Riel believed he could teach Canadians to understand Métis claims of nationhood and rights, and strove to create sympathy for the Métis with the Canadian public.

To decolonize history, it helps to begin by rethinking periodization, the division of the past into discrete blocks of time. To that end, this biography does not end with Riel’s death in 1885, but rather in 1875. Its climax is not the death and suppression of the Métis nation, but rather the successful ratification of the Manitoba Act in the resolution of the amnesty for the participants in the Red River Resistance of 1869–70. This choice, perhaps the most controversial for historians who might object that his life after 1875 seems like an unfortunate postscript, is intentionally unsettling. This is not the definitive biography, but, as I argue, this approach offers a better horizon from which to reinvestigate Riel’s life, a view outside the perspective of the nation (where the “insanity” of Riel, in the post-1875 period, is just what scholars say it was).

The choice of ending, conscious or not, determines the story and which parts of his life to emphasize. Author and academic, Judith Zinsser writes, “With these choices historians decide which aspects of an individual’s life and personality to expose, which part of her contemporary reputation to highlight.”35 This book seeks to break up the narrative of rebellion/execution and emphasize a period that highlights Riel’s success. It is worthwhile to reflect that 1875 was climactic in his career as a political leader. Riel had successfully brought Manitoba into Confederation, and the issue of the amnesty had been resolved. Riel still believed in his future. He continued to believe in his influence in the political circles of Manitoba and Quebec, and he believed in the success of his mission in a way that complicates our understanding of his life and of Canada more generally.

The years after 1875 were no postscript; they have been well documented by numerous historians and biographers. It is a tragic story. Frustrated and perhaps insane, Riel was forced into an asylum by his friends. When he was released, he was advised to stay away from politics. Following this advice, he went back to the Northwest, where he started a family with Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur. Yet, politics followed him, first in Montana, and then ultimately through a delegation of Métis from Saskatchewan who asked him to help in their protests against the Canadian government. In that story, Riel, through his exile, seeks resolution by donning the mantel of a millennial prophet who proclaimed the will of God.

In that well-established narrative, it seems inevitable that Riel, now thoroughly persuaded of the evil of his times, or possibly profiting from the ignorance of his fellows, would clash with the modern Canadian state. The Resistance of 1885 appears as a failed spiritual quest for redemption – or, more cynically, the “madness” of his mission is defeated by modern colonial forces. Found guilty of treason against the queen, he is executed. It is noteworthy that the Canadian heritage minute that describes Riel’s execution is labelled “a part of our heritage.” The execution, and 1885 more generally, has become a watershed event for Canadian sovereignty in the Northwest. Prior to the mobilization of 1885, what has been dubbed Canada’s “First War,” there was considerable ambiguity over who was really in charge. The attention given to the events of 1885, central as they are to the national narrative, have cast a shadow on the rest of Riel’s life and are an obstacle to our understanding of the complexity of the past and our recognition of the humanity of victims of colonization who did not go quietly.

As theorist David C. Scott has argued, the narrative of tragedy, which pervades colonial history, tends to obscure the motives of historical agents, their intentions, and their imagination.36 To try to understand Riel without the shadow of the hangman’s noose is to disrupt this wellworn narrative. The result is a compelling story of a state that missed an opportunity to grasp the nettle. It shows a young Métis man struggling for acceptance and understanding. In this story Riel makes sense.

Unsettling dates like 1885 challenges the historical determinism that is laced into the history of settler colonialism. This book sets out to recover human intention and agency, even when we know that this agency is limited. Revisiting Riel’s life is an opportunity to rethink the history of colonialism, and to understand that past choices were not predetermined. The date 1875 emphasizes his motivations and sense of mission, rather than the consequences of his life. He acted with the belief that the Métis could be respected and would be accepted within Canada. We can learn much by recovering Riel’s own perspective. Riel did not act with the knowledge of what was to come, and his intentions in 1870 were not the same as in 1885. His politics and philosophy were different – and, as a result, his motives were different.

The choice to end the book in 1875 also offers an opportunity for readers to understand Riel prior to the distressing experience of being placed in an institution for the insane. Understanding the history of insanity brings its own set of problems, not the least of which is its complex relationship with histories of power. We should not read Riel’s spiritual awakening, or madness, back into the years he was at school, as previous biographers Thomas Flanagan and Gilles Martel have done. Rather we should follow the historical archive and carefully study context in order to draw our conclusions. The Flanagan/Martel thesis has powerful traction with the reading public, as seen by the success of Chester Brown’s graphic novel, which portrays Riel as a visionary who is stigmatized as a madman.37 Stepping away from the narrative cast in the shadow of “madness,” “rebellion,” and execution allows us to reconsider Riel’s intentions without the enormous weight of historical condescension and examine the implications of his life in their own context. This is a story of colonization, but, in this complex and multi-layered process of converging worlds, Riel was empowered because of his ability to travel through multiple worlds and to shift his identities as the circumstances required. As anthropologist Nicholas Dirks has argued, colonization was a process of cultural control,38 and Riel, crossing the boundaries imagined by nation founders, was well equipped to contest Canada’s claims to determine cultural and political superiority.

The historian François Furet has written that there are two ways of totally misunderstanding any biographical subject: “one is to detest the man, the other is to make too much of him.”39 By emphasizing the exceptional, surprising, or odd influence that Riel wielded, previous biographers portrayed him as someone who didn’t fit, caught between worlds. A central claim of this study is that Riel was connected to, rather than disconnected from, the worlds that he encountered. Louis Riel remains the figure most written about in Canadian history, and it is almost obligatory to speak of his role in history as controversial. As a result, Riel is continually reincarnated in Canada’s history wars. Yet, such interpretations delegitimize his desire to speak for and on behalf of a people that he believed he represented – French Canadiens (who I refer to hereafter as simply “Canadiens” to distinguish them from English Canadians), Catholics, the Métis, and Indigenous peoples. Turning Riel into a symbol, as Nathalie Kermoal argues, “has a reductive effect on the intellectual scope of his thought.”40

This is not an intellectual biography in the traditional sense, but this study takes “ideas” seriously. It explores the clusters of ideas that informed the cultural process of colonization. Ideas about liberty, state authority, and representative government were tools juxtaposed by Riel with Indigenous ideas of governance.41 The genius of Riel’s experimentation with transnational ideas about “civilization” is to be found in this nexus. His versatility with the idioms of civilization sharpened the debate about who had legitimacy to determine the political future of Confederation. Riel’s ideas and his intellectual work were grounded in the culture and conventions of his time, but those ideas were formed in dialogue, and they were much more experimental than programmatic. By examining the social and material construction of ideas, I have attempted to piece together a history of his thinking from a wide spectrum of epistemological influences, including, but not limited to, family, gender, philosophy, religion, and political networks. I explore how Riel engaged his opponents as a public intellectual and used his pen to explain the justice of his cause.

By drawing out Riel’s perspective on an issue like Confederation, I attempt to show how Riel justified and understood his sense of self and place. As Marshall Sahlins argues, agency is a cultural construct.42 We have to remember that Riel believed in himself. Understanding of self, as author and academic Kim Anderson writes, “is not about simply playing certain roles, or adopting a pre-set identity; rather […] it is an ongoing exercise that involves mental, physical, spiritual and emotional elements of our being.”43 Following Anderson, I ask: What was his “recognition of being”? The goal in this study of his life has been to privilege Riel’s voice, to listen, and to attempt to draw meaningful lessons from a mid-nineteenth-century critique of Canada.

As we saw at the beginning of this introduction, the key to understanding Louis Riel’s thought is his own writings, many of which were reprinted in the Collected Writings of Louis Riel/Les ecrits complets de Louis Riel edited by George Stanley, Raymond Huel, Gilles Martel, Thomas Flanagan, and Glen Campbell. Yet, in some respects, this collection, which offers so much – making it possible to think comprehensively about Riel’s life and his achievements – served to cap research rather than open it up further.44 Stanley, Flanagan, and Martel had made their indelible mark on the biography of Riel. Yet, the conclusions of some of the editors, Flanagan and Martel in particular, have made researchers cautious of the Collected Writings. It is significant that recent research by Métis scholars has been muted or silent with respect to the Collected Writings.45

Another legitimate concern with the Collected Writings is that they oversimplify the documents, and this can lead to a misinterpretation of the texts.46 For my research into Riel’s intellectual genealogy, returning to the archives proved immensely fruitful. The result is original archival research on the life of his father (Jean-Louis Riel), his mother (Julie Lagimodière), and Louis Riel himself. As this biography seeks to overturn earlier interpretations of Louis Riel, which were grounded in the archive, it often helped to remind myself of the nature of our historical evidence. Throughout my research, I asked myself, whose interest did it serve to keep these documents? It is an important historical lesson to learn that colonial archives reinforce colonial power structures. Acknowledging this dependency upon written documents, as a limitation, fosters a healthy skepticism about the structure of the colonial archive.47 Where possible I have tried to correct this intellectual bias for colonial archives. Oral traditions have influenced some of the questions used to frame the direction of research, however they are not the central source of knowledge.48

The subtitle of this book, which alludes to the Canada that never was, is the key to understanding historical contingency and the potential of Riel’s intellectual work. Riel’s vision of Confederation, as a nation in which the Métis could belong, was still possible in an era when racism and dispossession had not yet marginalized the Métis. Seeing Riel as part of Canadian state formation complicates our understanding of Canada. There was serious resistance to the centralizing tendencies of state-building in Canada, and the history of the state needs to better incorporate the influence from the “frontier.” Riel’s life emphasizes the need to pay attention to the “east-west” interaction in Canada. In contrast to previous regional studies, this biography links together the histories of the Northeast and the Northwest of America. This book argues that Louis Riel cannot be understood without a careful study of the political, cultural, and social contexts in Montreal, and in Quebec more broadly. Neither can the history of Montreal be understood without paying attention to the political events that took place in the Northwest.

By defending Métis rights in public, Riel tested the flexibility of what historian Ian McKay has called “the liberal order project.”49 And, when the liberal order fell back upon ideas of racial difference to preserve white rule, Riel exposed the incoherence of racist theories.50 This incoherence has been written out of history through the framework of resistance. In fact, Riel, as the founder of a province and an active participant in the politics of Confederation, does not naturally fit into the camp of opposition, and he shows us the poverty of such a binary. As opposed to a Canadian “synthesis,” which lumps together dissonant stories, Riel’s life allows us to map unfamiliar territory, or what McKay calls a reconnaissance, to show that “Liberal Canada was surrounded by ‘exceptions’ that defined the ‘rule’: and sovereign was he who decided on the exception.”51 Robin Jarvis Brownlie points out that opposition by Indigenous peoples reshaped liberalism: “Though First Nations people have lost and suffered a great deal in their interactions with Canada … they have inflicted some important defeats as well … they have done so in part by blocking liberal order initiatives and in part by selectively deploying liberal rhetoric about rights and justice, infused with their own understandings of such concepts.”52

Thus, we might say that Riel’s response to the Confederation project checked the “liberal order” and forced it to negotiate new terms. Or, more precisely, following Robert McDonald’s critique of the framework, I would argue that Riel imposed the Métis as a hegemonic group with their own stake on the liberal order.53

Closer study of Riel’s writings also provides an excellent opportunity to reflect upon our understanding of the mixing of cultures and politics that occurred in imperial spaces, and especially métissage. The recent work by Michel Hogue, Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, Brenda Macdougall, and Nicolas Vrooman has informed my understanding of Métis community formation.54 These recent works argue that the Métis were not simply the offspring of fur-trading men and Indigenous women – in other words “mixed.” Rather they are a “People” who emerged and survived in the Northwest borderlands according to a particular history and with a distinct identity. The capitalized form of the term is intended to indicate a political autonomy. The term “peoples” when speaking of Indigenous groups is intended to signify the diversity of communities and political identities.55

“Métis” is one of the most contested terms used in this book.56 The term was rooted in ideas about racial mixing, but “racial” categories (all people – indigenous or otherwise – are genetically and culturally mixed) quickly erode under closer scrutiny. As author and academic Chris Andersen points out, to equate Métis with “mixed” only perpetuates colonial racial constructs; consequently, it is increasingly difficult to sustain the argument that the term refers to persons of mixed “Indian and Euro-Canadian ancestry.” Needless to say, racial mixing is not the definition used in this study.

I began my research into this topic in 2012, the same year Jacqueline Peterson publicly declared that she had been wrong to apply the term “Métis” to the people of mixed heritage in the Great Lakes. The debates have only intensified. This book cannot resolve these debates. What it does provide is a reading of Louis Riel’s reflection on, and use of, the term Métis. Study of Riel’s political, cultural, spiritual, and intellectual experiences suggests that the boundaries of what constitute Métis identity, sometimes arbitrarily drawn, were frequently ambiguous, and usually contested.57 Riel declared his Métis identity to the Canadien public, while in Red River he used the labels “English” and “French” to describe the different communities. Later, he referred to the community as the “People of Assiniboia” and considered the Métis as the original settlers (anciens colons). In Red River, his distinction between the Métis and the Canadiens was not entirely clear. On other occasions, he referred to the children of Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) officials as Métis and to himself as a “Halfbreed.” The terms were context specific and part of contemporary debates. A more extended discussion is presented in Chapter 1.

Riel’s life also provides an opportunity to reflect on the topic of métissage in imperial spaces more generally. Much of the literature examines the emergence of a place “in between,” or the “Middle Ground” of American historian Richard White. Riel, however, was not caught between worlds; he was “at home with empire,” and he moved effortlessly between worlds he mediated. The interventions of Gilles Havard, Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, Brett Rushford, Susan Sleeper-Smith, Sophia White, and Michael Witgen have enriched my own thinking about how an individual navigated the spaces created by unequal imperial consolidation.58 These different imperial spaces complemented Riel’s itinerant career. He was a quintessential imperial citizen, or even a trickster,59 who evaded categories by disguising and transforming himself as the circumstances warranted. At the same time, he was a product of the liberty of the “frontier.” Riel understood the Métis as a people who defined themselves by their emergence in the margins of colonial spaces where, as historian Gilles Havard points out, imperial fantasies of domination were exposed as fabrications.60 This understanding – that it was possible to disrupt imperial power – informed Riel’s mandate as leader of the Métis.

Riel’s writings are a rich source for understanding how an Indigenous man thought about empire. Riel reflected long and hard about how empire, race, and civilization constructed imperial space. At times he himself borrowed upon the tropes of western intellectual traditions such as civilization and savagery. But, he also had a penchant for irony, and it is not always possible to tell if he is smirking at the inadequacy of these terms. In other words, returning to Riel’s writings offers an important way to “speak back” to the power of empire that is so central to the analysis of these discussions. Riel’s life shows us how one individual could respond creatively to the discourses that attempted to define and limit individual agency.

I close this introduction with a final comment on the nature of narrative. The nature of a tragic tale is to render the hero passive and explain how a hapless victim of fate meets their doom. This is a particularly poignant technique in narrating stories of resistance against imperial forces. As David Scott writes, “Picturing colonialism in one way – as a system of totalizing degradation – enables (indeed obliges) the critical response to it to take the form of longing for anticolonial overcoming or revolution.”61 Casting Riel in this mould has been a great temptation for many historians. The madness of a “Hamlet,” complete with the legacy of a haunting by his father, pervades much of the history of Riel; but this is a tired discourse. Rather than Hamlet, I’d like to consider Riel as Ulysses. The Odyssey is much less linear in its construction. It also feels as though the opening lines were written for Riel: “Tell me, O muse, of the man of many devices who wandered full many ways.”62 As Riel steered between the Scylla of liberal revolution and the Charybdis of Catholic counter-revolution, the sails of his ship were filled with the winds of kinship and frontier liberties.


Family of a Métis Nation

Faites que ma chère famille

Donne au prochain de grand secours

Que mon sang regénéré

brille En travaillant pour Dieu toujours

Riel, “Prière,” 1885

Family shaped how Louis understood his relationship to the land, to the community, and to God. The above poem, written in the summer of 1885, reflects his own understanding of the centrality of family in doing the work of God. It is a small, but important, part of a longer prayer to the Holy Virgin, asking her to bless the future of his family (donne aux prochain de grand secours) in order that his children (mon sang regénéré) will continue to do the work of God and bring great things in the future. The prayer was likely modelled on one that his own parents left for him. Writing to Bishop Taché, Louis Riel provided the following description of his parents.

My mother is honourable. My Father was a good man. And I have the confidence that he is in heaven. The finest aromas of faith scented my first years. My beloved Father would not permit anyone to speak badly in my presence. Family prayer, and the rosary, were always before my eyes. And to me they are natural, like the very air that I breathe. My mother, an open-hearted figure, with her eyes continuously directed towards the heavens, her humility, her focus, her devotion in all the pious exercises have left, and continue to leave, on me the vivid impression of [her] good example.1

It would not be an exaggeration to say family was at the root of how he understood the world. To appreciate the relationship between Riel, the resistance, and Canada, one needs to have a better understanding of his parents, of how they influenced him, and of what family meant to him. The first three chapters of this book present the first attempt at comprehensively documenting the Riel-Lagimodière family. In so doing they lay the foundations for Riel’s understanding of Métis politics, identity, and the idea of métissage at the edge of empire.

It is important, at the beginning, to recognize that Riel was born into and nutured according to relationships defined by Métis governance and ideas of Peoplehood. As the fur-trading colonial relationship shifted to one based upon white settlement and Indigenous dispossession, the Riel-Lagimodière family was confronted with the expansion of state authority that characterized the northern Red River Settlement between 1840 and 1860. This development provided both challenges and opportunities. As a key political broker, this family was ultimately implicated in the process of state-building. These were the changes from which their son would later benefit.

Through the Riel-Lagimodière family, this chapter examines the relationships that defined Métis governance. The family was the primary public institution for the Métis. It was the centre of social relations and the root of political sovereignty. In the 1840s and 1850s, the social and political relationships of Red River were largely governed by Indigenous ways of relating to land, community, and self. As will be shown, laws of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the teachings of the Catholic Church, two of the primary institutions of colonization, often overlapped or accommodated Indigenous understandings. Chapter 2 uses the struggle for free trade to open a discussion of how the Métis inflected the emergence of the colonial state, with a central focus on the Guillaume Sayer affair. Through a case study of petition-making, Chapter 3 illustrates how the new political context transformed Métis governance itself.

Previous biographers who have done research into Riel’s life have not recognized the full importance of family in his cultural and intellectual formation.2 The full extent of his father’s political activity as a Métis leader has also not been recognized in the historiography of Red River. Historians have limited their discussion of the father’s achievements to his involvement in the Guillaume Sayer trial, more generally for his resistance to the HBC fur-trading monopoly, and his operation of one of the first water mills in the settlement. He did more than “grumble while he ground his wheat,” to use one historian’s turn of phrase.3 Biographers have likewise given too little weight to the formative influence of Julie Lagimodière on her son. A consideration of her experiences presents a sharpened perspective on the process of settler colonialism in Red River. Her life draws our attention to the role of gender as a determinant of social relations in Red River and sheds light on the role of patriarchy in the process of colonization. The first “White” family in the settlement, but accepted as Métis within the community, the Lagimodière family is a tangible illustration of the problems associated with racial essentialism, particularly ideas of a “mixed-race,” and the history of the racialization of public order that attended settlers’ colonial dreams of domination.

To reconstruct the public and private lives of Jean-Louis and Julie was not easy, as there are large gaps in the archival record. Researching the life of Métis women is especially difficult, and archival records for Julie are rare. Where possible, this chapter builds upon the work of other scholars to draw parallels that fill in the gaps. Fortunately, as historians Douglas Sprague and Ronald Frye write, the Red River settlement is one of the “most thoroughly documented of all proprietary colonies in English colonial experience.”4 Thus this chapter brings together a diverse, and somewhat scattered, series of sources to evaluate the influence of the Riel-Lagimodière family on the early development of the Red River Settlement: government records, newspapers, court transcripts, letters, and petitions.5

There are some difficulties, particularly with names. In the interests of clarity, I have chosen to use the name Jean-Louis to identify Riel père – however, the archival documentation also referred to him as Louis Riel, Louis Riel dit l’Ireland, or Louis Rielle, and there is also at least one instance where he is referred to as the son of Jean-Baptiste La Gimodière (his father-in-law). To make things more confusing, his own father was Jean-Baptiste Riel. Similarly, there are multiple spellings of the Lagimodière name (Lagemonier or Lajemonier).

Jean-Louis’s life is sometimes used to exemplify part of the emergence of the Métis as a People, but in many ways the details of his life are different from those that form the classic image of a buffalo-hunting family.6 As mentioned in the introduction, the term Métis, as well as other related terms, such as Half-breed or mixed-blood, are much contested and debated terms, in academic circles – as well as in more public ones. All of the terms are imbued, to some degree, with racial essentialism, and can be seen as derogatory. As will be seen, applying labels to the family Riel-Lagimodière is not simple. Jean-Louis is referred to as a “Halfbreed” in English documents, and a “Métis” in French documents. It is clear that the distinctions “English” and “French” were used to identify distinct communities that today might be described as “Métis” or “Halfbreed.” The archive itself is based upon misrecognition and is biased. Canadiens, also considered “original settlers,” were often included with the “French” Métis party. To this complexity is added the fact that the definition of these communities was a constant process of negotiation and redefinition, as in reality French-speaking men hunted in troops led by English-speaking men. In sum, the “tender ties,” identified by Sylvia Van Kirk, may have been clearer to contemporaries than they are to us precisely because of their flexibility. It is best to not to try to simplify the historical complexity in the effort to achieve categorical precision. Riel used the term Métis to refer to those families that saw themselves as “natives” of the Northwest, different from the white settlers, and different from the other First Peoples. He included English-speaking Métis. Where it was necessary to indicate differences between English and French groups, I have stated it explicitly. Tied together by kinship and common economic and cultural interests, Riel saw the Métis as a People or a Nation. I have capitalized the term to recognize the political and cultural coherence and autonomy of this collective.

Jean-Louis Riel was born at Île-à-la-Crosse, North West Territories in 1817. He was the son of a Canadien fur trader, Jean-Baptiste Riel dit l’Ireland, and a woman named Marguerite Boucher.7 The name “dit l’Irelande” suggests that he was a descendant of a soldier of the French Merchant Marine, Jean-Baptiste Riel, who served in Lavaltrie, Berthier County, at the end of the seventeenth century.8 One early biographer claimed, based on family interviews and eyewitness reports, that Marguerite Boucher was “Montagnais” Métis, a term that was used to denote Dene peoples.9 In the early nineteenth century, the Métis were a part of a constellation of Plains peoples who were “transformed by the expansion of mercantile capitalist markets for furs as well as the introduction of epidemic diseases, metallic weaponry, and other goods in the eighteenth century.” These early Métis communities were marked “by their occupational identities as key players in the fur and provisions trade, and by their expansive kinship networks.”10

Family relations, or more specifically the Cree (Nehiyawewin) concept of wahkohtowin, rather than racial and cultural divisions, were central to their identity.11 Wahkohtowin refers to a principle of governance founded upon social relations. As historian Brenda Macdougall points out in her study of Métis genealogies, wahkohtowin, the sense of a relationship between people and landscape, was key to the complex web of family, place, and identity that defined the Métis. She uses this concept to argue that the community was not the product of external, but rather internal, forces:

In the northwest, Metis people and communities were not primarily united or created by external forces like the fur trade, the church, or nineteenth-century nationalist movements that developed to the south and east of them, but rather by the relationships created and nurtured through wahkohtowin, which shaped identity, community, and society that, in turn, forged their place within the fur trade and the Church.12

Other scholars, such as Adam Gaudry, however, have stressed that Métis governance was also rooted in their sense of themselves as “free,” gens libre, or in Cree as Otipemisiwak.13 As free-traders that were not subject to the rules of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Métis disrupted the imperial fantasy of domination. As historian Gilles Havard has argued, the “margins” of colonial rule, a frontier where liberty could be imagined, was central to the creation of relationships that challenged the certainty of imperial control, even as centrifugal forces permitted the expansion of the empire.14 Louis Riel himself might have said that the Métis people, freed from the control of Company contracts and imperial ideologies, were a product of that liberty. These were the people that HBC governor, Miles Macdonell, targeted in his attempts to control the Pemmican trade in 1814. His lack of success culminated in the Battle at Frog Plain (also known as the Battle of Seven Oaks), where North West Company Métis defeated an HBC militia. This victory would be commemorated as a national tradition by the Métis People. Even after the merger of the NWC and the HBC in 1821, many Métis, now aligned with the American Fur Company, who had taken over the NWC trade network, were the backbone of the resistance against HBC incursions into Métis territory.15

Jean-Louis was to some extent separated from this Plains culture, as the family moved to Lower Canada in 1822. He was baptized in Berthier-en-Haut, a community north of Montreal, and educated at a local school.16 As historian Emilie Pigeon points out, this relocation meant a journey of four thousand kilometres on foot and by canoe from Ile-à-la-Crosse to Berthierville. Jean-Louis would have been five.17 Later his sister Lucie Lee married a carpenter by the name of John Lee, an Irish immigrant living in Montreal. Another sister, Sophie, married Edouard Lapierre in Berthier in 1845. In 1851 the census data for Montreal records that all three families were living next door to each other in St Louis parish.18 As they are not listed in Montreal in the 1861 census, it is reasonable to assume they had moved back to Berthier.19 Meanwhile, between 1820 and 1850, his father, Jean-Baptiste (that is, Louis Riel’s grandfather) travelled back and forth between Red River and Montreal. It is unclear where his mother, Marguerite Boucher, was living, but parish records of Notre Dame indicate that, when Jean-Baptiste was interred there in 1868, at age ninety-three, Boucher, who had predeceased her husband, had also been buried in Notre Dame parish.20

Despite the great distance between Montreal and the Northwest the family maintained connections to both places through kinship ties. Even while living in the Northwest, Jean-Louis kept in contact with this Montreal side of the family, and they helped care for his son. This is confirmed by the existence of letters written by Louis Riel while at school in Montreal. In one letter, written after hearing news of his father’s death in 1864, he gives the news from his aunts and uncles on the Riel side.21 Maintaining kinship ties over extended distances and time is characteristic of Métis communities and a core part of the wahkohtowin principle that sustained the New People, as the Métis sometimes referred to themselves.22 The persistence of these intimate ties illustrates the limitations of imperial policies and administrative efforts to define people according to their proximity to centres of power.

In his twenties, Jean-Louis Riel moved back and forth between Montreal and the Northwest. Between 1837 and 1838, he was back in the Northwest, working for the HBC in the Lac La Pluie district (where present-day Minnesota, Manitoba, and Ontario intersect).23 This work was familiar to someone whose family had been engaged in trading on the plains for many years. At this time he would also certainly have met the Sayers, Nolins, Cadottes, and other families that traded in the upper Great Lakes region, a fact which underlines the significance for historians of recognizing the links created by Métis and Canadien traders between the Red River and the Great Lakes.24 There is slim evidence to confirm this, but the Lac La Pluie Post-Journal records report that, in October 1837, “W. Shaw, Riel and the young lads about the Fort digging and carting some fine rich black earth from the portage to the Kitchen Garden with a view of improving the soil and to mix with the large quantity of dung already spread upon it last spring.”25 Other activities from this time included fishing sturgeon and building a new house and a boat. In 1842, Jean-Louis returned briefly to Montreal, but, by the mid-1840s, he had returned to Red River and become engaged in cross-border trade near Pembina, moving back and forth between the British settlement and the American trading post. As we will see, he would return to Montreal again in the late fifties with the capital necessary to start a milling operation in the Northwest.

This mobility and the fact that he came of age in the revolutionary era of the 1830s in Lower Canada, when the discourse by Papineau and other Patriotes about republican liberties was overturning established authority, only seems to have exaggerated his resistance to colonial domination, and his sense of Métis rights and freedoms.26 He may have been involved in early agitations and been persecuted, which would explain why he had taken a contract in 1837 to work in Lac La Pluie.27 According to Margaret MacLeod and William Morton, Jean-Louis Riel “brought with him much talk of Papineau, and of how the new Recorder in Assiniboia, Adam Thom, had written against the French in Montreal and had helped Lord Durham prepare the Report which said that the best fate for the French would be to be assimilated by the British.”28 In Sault Ste Marie, HBC Factor William Nourse feared that the violence of Lower Canadian rebellions might spill over, as he believed that the Métis sympathized with the Patriot cause.29 Alexander Ross, a contemporary historian and local political commentor, also reported renewed agitation on the prairies around this time, and it seems likely that Jean-Louis Riel was the source of the “Papineau standard.” As Ross wrote:

The Papineau rebellion which broke out in Canada about this time, and the echo of which soon reached us, added fresh fuel to the spirit of disaffection. The Canadians of Red River sighed for the success of their brethren’s cause. Patriotic songs were chanted on every side in praise of Papineau. In the plains, the half-breeds made a flag, called the Papineau standard, which was waved in triumph for years, and the rebels’ deeds extolled to the skies.30

Hard evidence is lacking for this connection between the Métis and the Patriots, but it is a reasonable assumption. Riel greeted Thom with hostility and the Métis were generally considered sympathetic to the Patriot cause.

It is fair to say that Jean-Louis Riel was not born into leadership, but he became an influential figure among the Métis of Red River by developing social ties while working on the borderlands, as well as by forging new political skills adapted to meet changes in the socio-political order of the mid-nineteenth century. He emerged as a key figure of resistance against the HBC-appointed government and a spokesman for the otipemisiwak, the “people who own themselves.”

Jean-Louis’s wife, Julie, Louis Riel’s mother, came from a different social context, but one that powerfully illustrates the centrality of wahkohtowin to the Métis People. Born in 1822, she was the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière and Marie-Anne Gaboury, both immigrants from Lower Canada. Her father, Jean-Baptiste, had been rewarded with land for his loyalty to Lord Selkirk when he made a harrowing trip of eighteen hundred miles to Montreal to warn Lord Selkirk about the North West Company’s attacks on HBC forts in 1816. As loyalists, the Lagimodières were one of the more successful families to settle in Red River, and would have been considered “anciens colons,” or original settlers. Marie-Anne Gaboury is on record as the first white woman resident in the Northwest, following her husband on the long canoe trek into the Red River region in 1807. During this time of hostility between the two communities, and with her husband away in Montreal, Mme Lagimodière née Gaboury feared that the Métis of Pembina would attack Fort Douglas, where she was living, and so she took refuge farther north with Chief Peguis, an Ojibwa leader and key ally of Lord Selkirk.31

While not allied to the Métis linked to the North West Company, Jean-Baptiste had close ties to other Indigenous communities. He was originally married to a Cree woman, Josette, and had at least one child with her. With his marriage to Gaboury, and her trip to the Northwest, he brought an end to that relationship. However, Gaboury may have raised one of the children from this previous relationship and named one of her own daughters Josette.32 Indeed, it seems that the Lagimodières continued to maintain good terms and trade with different Indigenous communities. Such relationships were too important to be disdained. The durability of relationships formed in the Northwest illustrates how the entangled nature of family ties, understood by the Métis as wahkohtowin, sustained the people and their identity. As Laura Peers and Jennifer Brown point out, the relations between Indigenous peoples are durable and frequently surprising.33

It can be reasonably assumed that the principle of wahkohtowin brought the Lagimodières into the Red River Métis community. With nine children, the Lagimodière-Gaboury family was linked through marriage to other principal families. Their eldest daughter, Reine, married twice, first to Joseph Lamer and later to Michel Petrin. Josette (daughter of Gaboury but possibly named in honour of Jean-Baptiste’s first wife), known to her nephew as La Cyprès, was married to Amable Nault, another immigrant from Lower Canada. Through this marriage they were connected to other important families, such as the Delormes and the Proulx clan. Benjamin Lagimodière was married into the Carrière family, while Apolline was married into the Harrison family and Romain was married into the Vaudry family. As discussed below, Julie Lagimodière’s own children also married into Métis and Canadien families. These complex relationships were the backbone of the Red River community. The privilege of relations also carried responsibility – because everyone was related through kinship, families could hold one another to account. In practical terms, this respect for family relations was critical for success in the Indigenous public sphere of Red River. Well aware of the importance of these family relationships, Louis Riel’s letters home would devote considerable space to acknowledging and addressing the extended family at every opportunity.

The complexity of the Lagimodière relations confirms Métis scholar Chris Andersen’s point that current racial logics limit our ability to recognize the Métis as a People.34 Both of Julie’s parents were white Canadien settlers, and in 1875 Julie herself would apply for land scrip as a white settler.35 While Julie’s whiteness would later become a marker of her identity for state purposes, in Red River she was identified as Métis because of her lifestyle rather than her race or genetic heritage. Her children applied for land scrip as “Half-breeds.”36 It is likely that within Red River Julie, and likely her parents themselves, were identified with the Métis community. A white mother was unusual for a Métis family (Riel himself stated that it was through their mothers that the Métis had rights to make land claims), but this only illustrates the point that race did not determine Métis identity; community, kinship, and religion were far more important. Her brothers and sisters also married into Métis families, who applied for scrip as “Half-breeds.”37 In sum, the state administrative documentation, like scrip records, are a poor indicator of identity.

Far more important to Métis families was the practice of matrilocal residency. When Jean-Louis Riel and Julie Lagimodière were married by Bishop Provencher on 21 January 1844 in the chapel of St Boniface Cathedral, they initially went to live with the Lagimodière family, and Jean-Louis Riel’s first mill was set up on Lagimodière land.38 This matrilocal land settlement practice derives from Métis traditions, and supports the view that, despite their “whiteness,” the Lagimodières were a Métis family. The “Canadien” families of Joseph Landry, Henry Coutu, and Felix Latreille, living in Red River since 1822, offer similar examples.39

The Riel-Lagimodière marriage represented a merging of two borderlands communities that had been growing apart since the end of the Fur Trade Wars (1819). While Jean-Louis was actively involved with the Pembina community, the Lagimodière family was, because of their ties to the land, concentrated in St Boniface. The Pembina community, like the Métis of St Francis-Xavier described by historian Gerhard Ens, sustained themselves through the buffalo hunt.40 The Métis in the north, such as those living in the parish of St Boniface and its extensions St Norbert and St Vital, had more extensive farms, and their own, smaller, buffalo hunt. According to Métis Elder Ron Evans, the Métis themselves distinguished between these two communities by their distance from the HBC fort.41 The differences were not hard and fast, however it does indicate an important marker of identity based upon lifestyle. Unions like the Riel-Lagimodière marriage served to reinforce the ties between these diverse communities and to reinforce the commonalities in the face of important changes in politics, economics, and social dynamics.

Irene Spry and others have pointed out that divisions between English and French, Catholic and Protestant, have been “grossly overstated.”42 The overlapping and sometimes ambiguous nature of the identities that emerged from these relationships does not mean that the boundaries did not exist, but rather they were constantly being negotiated.43 As Nicole St-Onge points out, “identities are negotiable and situational and the actual lived context of the Métis nation contained anomalies, fuzzy boundaries and ambiguous criteria of belonging.”44 Recognizing the negotiated nature of the Métis is key to understanding Louis Riel’s own understanding of, and struggle to define, what it meant to be Métis.

Wahkohtowin was essential to public authority in Red River and was used to negotiate relations with other colonial institutions, such as the church. Both Jean-Louis and Julie were devout Catholics. When they married, in January 1844, they were aged twenty-seven and twenty-four respectively.45 Their son Louis Riel was born in October, ten months later. Abbé George Dugas tells us that Julie only married because she was ordered to by God.46 While respecting the possibility that this story is a conventional Catholic trope, it seems that Julie Riel passed on to her family a strong awareness of divine direction in life. This is confirmed through a story retold by Henriette Riel, one of Julie’s daughters. One day, “She [Julie] was suddenly enveloped in flames. Dazzled, frightened, she raised her eyes and there in the clouds, she saw an old man, flashing with light and encircled with fire, who in a powerful voice boomed out, ‘Disobedient child … when you return to your home you will tell your parents that you will obey them [and marry Jean-Louis].’”47 While an obvious trope within Catholic – and more broadly Christian – world views, this vision should not be dismissed, as it demonstrates the importance of the spiritual in Riel-Lagimodière family. If one reads between the lines, the vision also illustrates one of the complex ways that women used Catholicism to exert some control over their marriage partners.48

The Riel-Lagimodière family, as part of the new middle class, had the financial means to ensure that their first children were taught the basics of grammar and religious morality and discipline. The Catholic priests, who operated the schools, worked on the implicit presumption of a “spectrum of moral, social and cultural development between la sauvagerie at one pole and la civilisation at the other,” and saw the Métis presence in these schools as a sign of great potential in the Northwest.49 Thus schools were allies of the colonial state, in the sense that they sought to teach children nineteenth-century ideas of European culture and Christian religion. The Catholic missionaries that ran the primary school that Riel attended were no exception in their attention to scriptural and doctrinal knowledge, as well as basic academic and industrial subjects. As Jonathan Anuik argues, the emerging middle class of Red River did not object to the “civilizing mission” of the first schools.50 The early education emphasized learning the basics of language, arithmetic, and other practical skills. For instance, an example of the embroidering done by one of Louis’s sisters is held in the Riel family collection in the provincial archives of Manitoba.

Roman Catholic priests may have attempted to dominate the spiritual milieu of the Métis in Red River, but that spirituality was also flexible and subject to the influence of Indigenous thinking.51 As historian Emilie Pigeon has pointed out, the Métis, through their petitions for clergymen, were agents in control of their own religious communities and practices.52 They used the Church to govern their communities, and Indigenous spirituality, including visions, inflected Catholic practice and spirituality. Visions, and especially recalling visions, were an important means for lifelong learning and building relationships in Anishinaabe and Métis spirituality. As Métis scholar Chantal Fiola explains, visions have become an important strategy for self-knowledge and resisting colonization.53 Henriette’s notes, as well as the letters of Louis Riel’s sister Saint-Marguerite (originally Sara) and Louis’s own writings, provide ample evidence that divine revelation and direct intervention of God were part of the family upbringing.54

As will be seen, kinship ties and extended family networks were also the primary means used by the Métis to exert their influence over the state. Wahkohtowin provided coherence to Métis social order and the authority necessary for governance and active civil society. The social capital invested in kin relations meant that labour and economic capital could easily be pooled, whether for farming, hunting, child care, or building. In Métis society, as in other Indigenous cultures, genealogical terms (parent, relation, père, soeur) were frequently used to justify decisions and action. As Scott Stephen’s study of master-servant relations concludes, the principle of the “household” in HBC governance overlapped with Indigenous relations.55 It was the overlap between these two systems that allowed for reasonable efficiency in the first institutions of government. Family relations inspired intellectual and theological concepts that were the basis for Métis political formation in the context of the borderlands, where linguistic, religious, and ethnic boundaries blurred in the ambiguous spaces at the margins of empire.

Louis Riel was born in 1844 in the Lagimodière-Gaboury house, the home of his grandparents, a small one-room structure that stood just north of St Boniface at the fork of the Red and the Sienne rivers. Louis grew up in close proximity to his maternal grandparents and other relatives. Julie was one of more than eight children in her family, but it was the land-based wealth of her family that provided the foundation for the Riel family in Red River and tied their children to the settlement. This was the land across from Douglas Point, originally granted by Lord Selkirk. One of Julie’s elder sisters, Marie Rose (b. 1801), already a widow, lived in the same house. Julie’s elder brother Jean-Baptiste (b. 1808) had moved out to live with his wife, Pauline Harrison. Two older sisters, La Reine (b. 1807) and Josette (La Cyprès) (b. 1810), were also married and living in St Boniface. When another Canadien, Pierre-Henri Coutu, moved to Red River from Lower Canada, he also married a Lagimodière, Marie-Catherine, and built a house on Lagimodière land. By building their homes close to, or on, Lagimodière land, these families circulated among each other and formed strong social bonds. Young Louis Riel grew up in close proximity to aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and with a strong tie to the Lagimodière lands.56 This context and the particular role of women in management of family property provided the groundwork for his understanding of Métis territorial sovereignty and nationhood.

Métis gender dynamics were negotiated by a matrilocal connection to the land.57 As Métis scholar Nathalie Kermoal argues, Indigenous epistemological systems are rooted in female knowledge and experience of the land, and any understanding of place must be linked to social, economic, political, environmental, and cultural processes. This followed the practice of other Métis families: while women took the name of the husband, the couple frequently resided on land from the wife’s family. Because the knowledge of how to “live on the land” was gendered, Red River women contributed significantly to cultural continuity through sharing “specific knowledge of resources that allow[ed] for the survival of the household.”58 Moreover, because Indigenous women were the reason their own families had access to the land, marriage allowed women to control and direct alliances and relationships.59 This was a source of women’s authority. While it is important not to overstate this authority, as Macdougall explains, matrilocal residence encouraged “bride service, in which a man moves in with his wife’s family but sets up his own household after he has met his obligations to repay the family.” It also permitted “the wife a period of adjustment as she makes the transition from child to married woman.”60 While this understanding of being tied to the land of the mother was not always clear in Red River, where HBC men were granted “company” land, the Riel-Lagimodière family did follow the matrilocal pattern, and thus Julie would have had considerable authority in family matters.

Over the next few years, Jean-Louis and Julie built their own home on one of the nearby lots, likely Lot #50.61 The spring ice dams caused a major flood in 1852, and the family took refuge in the Catholic mission; but by September Jean-Louis had secured a mortgage of $100 on his mill property for the purpose of digging a canal and erecting a new mill on Lot #50, adjoining the Lagimodière property and backing onto the Catholic mission. According to Diane Payment, the family moved there in 1853 to begin farming and mill work.62 Julie’s other elder brother, Benjamin Lagimodière (b. 1811), and his wife, Angélique Carrière, were also residing on this lot in the 1850s.63 The two families likely operated the mill together, but had separate residences.

Julie’s involvement in the careful management of family property is evident in the family history. Between 1864 and 1867, sometime after Jean-Louis died, Julie and the eight children who were still living with her moved to the front of the lot along the Red River to be closer to the bishop.64 However, she was no helpless widow hiding under the protection of the church. In 1868, Benjamin gave the land they had jointly occupied to his son-in-law Eduard Ellémont dit Bodé, a Canadien immigrant who had also married into the Lagimodière family. Bodé sold this land back to Julie in 1871. Then, in 1873, she sold the back of the property to her son-in-law Louis Lavallée. She was carefully ensuring her own daughters would have land to settle on.65 Upon the death of Jean-Louis Riel, it was likely the widow who attended to the sale and management of a mill that was waiting for delivery in St Paul.66 While she consulted with her son Louis about the management and sale of lots #50 and #51 in St Vital, the lots were in her name.67 In 1875, she also requested that Louis send her a power of attorney and that she apply on his behalf for a land grant, while giving him the details about the harvest.68

The act of marriage brought Jean-Louis into the Lagimodière household and tied him to their land in a way that rippled through all aspects of family life. As Brenda Macdougall writes, “Metis society emerged and gained strength because of its connection to Indigenous worldviews that were predicated on the children’s ancestral connection to the lands of their female connections.”69 Julie Lagimodière, as the inheritor and manager of land, inspired her son’s vision of Métis land rights and territorial sovereignty and nationhood. It was the source of Louis Riel’s sense of belonging – what nineteenth-century Victorians might call “home.”70 As Riel would state at his defence trial in 1885, in his richly flamboyant manner,

Today, although a man I am as helpless before this court, in the Dominion of Canada and in this world, as I was helpless on the knees of my mother the day of my birth. The North-West is also my mother, it is my mother country and although my mother country is sick and confined in a certain way … I am sure that my mother country will not kill me more than my mother did forty years ago when I came into the world, because a mother is always a mother, and even if I have my faults if she can see I am true she will be full of love for me.71

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Riel-Lagimodière family was increasingly involved in political negotiations, and Jean-Louis in particular was seen as one of the principal leaders of the community. Cross-border petitions illustrate his leadership and the valence of the Métis family as a source of political identity in the frequently ambiguous borderlands context. One petition, discussed below, illustrates particularly well how the northern Plains was not an easy space in which any state could assert its sovereignty. The Northwest was a place of multiple, layered, and conflicting claims to territory, where several different legal structures competed for recognition.72 This gave the Métis the upper hand.

The Memorial from the Halfbreeds of Pembina has not been treated by previous scholars of the Red River Métis or by Riel’s biographers. The Minnesota Historical Society, which holds the archives for the State of Minnesota, contains a copy of this petition, translated into English for the Council and House of Representatives, as well as the original in French.73 It was addressed to Republican Governor Alexander Ramsay, who in turn presented it to the Minnesota Territorial Government on 1 October 1849. It was written immediately after the famous Guillaume Sayer trial, which ended the HBC’s claims to a monopoly over the fur trade, and, as we will see, usefully complicates our understanding of that famous event. The original was likely drawn up with the aid of Father Belcourt74 and contains the names of heads of one hundred well-known Métis families. A note at the bottom of the document, signed by Belcourt, states these are “the principal hunters who have come home early, but their names represent the general will.” The second name on the list is “Louis Rielle”; this was surely Jean-Louis. The name above is Joe Rollette, otherwise known as “Jolly,” a well-established trader in the region, who in 1851 would be elected to the Minnesota Territorial Legislature.75 Rollette, like many of his generation, lived in the “borderlands,” frequently crossing the invisible boundary between British and American territory: while he did business in Pembina and St Paul, he married Angelique Jerome at St Boniface, and his children were educated in the British settlement. Rollette was the first Métis to sit in the American legislature, and he argued for extending the vote to the “civilized Indians” (and half-breeds).76 The names of other borderlands families are also recognizable, such as Wilkey, Desjarlais, Vandal, and Azur. That the names Riel and Rollette were at the head of the petition suggests their position as leaders of the community.

The Memorial sheds new light on the way the Métis community attempted to bargain for a better deal with the American government. Inhabitants of a territory that was increasingly contested by the American republic and the British empire, the Métis were in a jurisdictional grey zone, and their allegiance was an important stake in the race for the west. It also shows that, far from merely resisting colonial control, the Métis were appealing for state institutions, likely as a means of controlling competing claims. First, the “Métis of Pembina, living on the Red River” congratulated the governor of Minnesota on his new appointment and asked for his support against British incursions on their trading activities. The petitioners requested American protection against the British and:

1 Redrawing of the territorial lines;

2 Sale of lands to settlers;

3 Establishment of courts of Justice;

4 Exclusion of British Subjects from hunting on the Half-breed lands;

5 Agreement by American and British governments to ban “spirituous liquors”;

6 Establishment of a fort occupied by soldiers.

They protested violations of their freedom and accused British agents of abusing their power. Their requests for a court of justice and a fort manned with full-time soldiers shows their recognition of nation-state power and a strategy for confronting British imperialism. By demanding the exclusion of “British Subjects,” they presented themselves as non-British, and potential American citizens. Finally, they demanded that land be sold to settlers. The signators clearly believed that they would benefit from this (although it is not entirely clear whether they would be buying or selling the land).

According to the petition, the British had violated the “Laws of the People” (droit du gens) as well as the “Laws of Nations” (droits des nations). This “rights talk” and republican rhetoric is worth emphasizing. The petition concludes:

If by your influence, and the great interest which you manifest for the good of all the inhabitants of the Territory you obtain for us these favours before two years are passed we are more than 5000 souls who escaping joyfully from the state of slavery in which they were held by a stern necessity will come here, to enjoy the sweets of Liberty to them at present unknown and who will consider you as their Liberator [emphasis in original].77

The language is striking. Twenty years later, Jean-Louis’s son would use similar expressions when he published the famous Métis Declaration of Rights and Proclamation of the Inhabitants of Red River. Darren O’Toole, who did not include this petition in his study, would have seen this as further evidence of a Métis political discourse informed by “republican” and “revolutionary” language. The vocabulary (“Liberator” and “state of slavery”) might seem flamboyant, but these phrases reveal the Métis flexibility with respect to political rhetoric. Borrowing from British, American, and their own Indigenous languages, the Métis intellectual traditions of political protest emerged from the dynamics of dialogue and exchange in a colonial contact zone.78

While the government of Minnesota did not ultimately grant their wish, Ramsay admitted during negotiations with the Pembina Chippeway in 1851 that the Métis believed “it was they who possessed the country really and who had long defended and maintained it against encroachment of enemies.”79 On 17 September 1849, Ramsay had receive