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Louis Riel Collection (C209)

1866-1944. - 5 cm of textual records.

Administrative History - Biographical Sketch:

Louis "David" Riel was born on 22 October 1844 in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba. He was the son of Louis Riel (d. 1864) and Julie Lagimodière. After his studies at Collège de Montréal and a brief stay in the United States, Louis Riel arrived back in Saint-Boniface and was appointed secretary of the National Committee of Métis in the Red River Settlement, and president of the provisionary government in 1869. On 11 October 1869, Riel had led a group of Métis opposed to the surveying of the lots along the Red River, stopping the work of the government survey team.

Riel played a leading role in bringing Manitoba into Canadian Confederation. Elected to the House of Commons in 1874, that same year he was expelled from it and exiled from Canada. Although re-elected in 1875, Riel never sat in Parliament. Alexander Mackenzie, on the recommendation of Lord Dufferin, granted Riel an amnesty for his role in the conflicts of 1869-70 and the execution of the agitator Thomas Scott in 1870. But, with the situation in the Settlement still volatile, Riel was exiled from Canada for five years in the hopes that calm would be restored to the territory. During this difficult period, Riel's mental health deteriorated, and he was sent to an asylum at Longue-Pointe in Montréal in 1876, before being moved to the one at Beauport, close to Québec City. By 1879, Riel was residing in Montana, where he married Marguerite Monet dit Bellehumeur, even becoming an American citizen and taking a teaching post at the St. Peter mission.

His return to Canada in 1884 led to the creation of a provisionary government of Métis and to the North-West Rebellion. Despite attempts to negotiate, on 26 March 1885 violence broke out at Batoche, Duck Lake and Frog Lake. Ten days after the fighting broke out, troops led by General Middleton arrived in Winnipeg, then made their way to Batoche. Although Middleton's troops outnumbered the Métis, the latter held out for four days at Fish Creek, eventually conceding defeat on 12 May. Riel was captured three days later and transferred to Regina to face trial. On 6 July 1884 Louis Riel was accused of treason, the only one of the rebel Métis to get this charge, which carried an automatic death sentence. Riel's trial opened on 20 July; he pleaded not guilty but was found guilty on 1 August and condemned to death. Despite last-minute appeals and commutation petitions, notably from Québec, Louis Riel was hung at North-West Mounted Police headquarters in Regina on 16 November 1885.

(Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

Scope and Content:

This collection deals with the life of Louis Riel, and more specifically, his involvement in the Rebellion of 1885 in Manitoba. It contains writings by Riel such as a poem dedicated to George-Étienne Cartier and dated 1866, a letter about "francophone Métis" and their split with Rome, a letter to Colonel Acheson Gosford Irvine of the North-West Mounted Police on his writings and his divine mission as well as his last wishes regarding his writings and his burial. The last two letters were written while Riel was in prison awaiting his execution.

The collection also contains letters about Riel written by others. There is a letter to Big Bear, the aboriginal chief, by Major General Frederick Dobson Middleton, commander of the Canadian militia, announcing that Riel was captured and urging Big Bear to turn himself in, or else "I shall [...] drive you into the woods to starve". There are also five letters on what to do with Riel's remains after the hanging. These letters, dated 17 and 19 November, were exchanged by M. Chapleau (sheriff for capital cases), Colonel Irvine and Edgar Dewdney (lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories).

The collection also contains a scrapbook put together by J. E. Walker and consisting of articles on Riel and the Rebellion of 1885, as well as four publications on the same subject. Two of them were published the same year Riel was hung, namely: a memorandum by Sir Alexander Campbell and a text that appeared in La Presse entitled "Louis Riel. Martyr du Nord-Ouest" (Louis Riel Martyr of the North-West). The two other texts date from the 20th century: one is a series of articles from the Prince Albert Daily Herald (1935) and the other is a text by Lionel Groulx dated 1944.

Finally, the collection has a printed photograph of Riel at his trial, a page of typewritten notes by David Ross McCord about the documents on Riel and a letter sent to McCord about Riel's personal diary.

The collection is divided into the following series:

  • C209/A: Writings of Louis Riel
  • C209/B: Writings of others about Louis Riel
  • C209/C: Printed documents about Louis Riel
  • C209/D: Miscellaneous notes and documents