Canada’s Metis

No rebel has graced the heights of Canadian history like Louis Riel. Educated in Montreal by the Sulpician Fathers, Riel was trained to be a lawyer. His deep spirituality had destined him to enter into the ecclesiastical order. But Louis Riel was Metis. And, from 1869 to 1885, he led his people in two separate struggles, striving to have its rights recognized as sovereign by Canada’s nascent federal government. The courage of his leadership cost him his life.

When the Hudson’s Bay company relinquished its ownership of the northwest Rupert’s Land, basically today’s Manitoba and beyond, Riel petitioned John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, to grant the Metis rights over their homeland. Settlers were also coveting the territory, and its sale sparked Canada’s first westward venture. The dramatic events to which it led is better known as the 1869-70 Red River Metis rebellion.

The Metis had settled, farmed and dominated a large area of the northern prairies for close to a hundred years. By the mid-eighteenth century, they barely numbered 10,000. After the failure of the first revolt, Riel fled into exile. A decade later, with rebellion in the air again, the wayward rebel was summoned back to lead a last ditch effort at saving the Metis’ sovereign claims. Defeated, captured and put on trial, he was found guilty of high treason and executed in 1885. Ever since, Riel’s name has hovered over Canada’s history like a constitutional ghost.

Last week, on October 21-23, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the English-language version of Societe Radio-Canada, beckoned that ghost to become a man again. In an unprecedented act of political television, producer Mark Starowicz and his team decided to stage a re-trial for the Metis leader. In his closing testimony, Riel, played by French-Canadian barrister Guy Bertrand, cited Canada’s national anthem in French. The opening line, “Oh Canada, terre de nos aieux,” noted Riel, translates differently to the English rendition. Where it intones “Our home and native land”, the French sing “Home of our ancestors”.

“Who are these ancestors?” asked Riel. The answer was to plain to hear: “My native ancestors.” No English Canadian in 1870, very few in 1960, and perhaps only a handful in 2002, could sing this line in French as theirs. Canada has remained a divided nation. Yet for the Metis, this people of mixed franco-, anglo-, and indigenous origins — the ‘half-breeds’ as they were once disparagingly called —, to be able to claim the line is testimony to their place as one of Canada’s founding peoples, the original Manitobans.


The beauty of the sciences’ obsession with objectivity is that when its object begins to blossom and wilt, to split in the way the atom once did, its outstretched form shows just how subjective knowledge systems are. When the atom whispered through the help of the right instrument, were it a microscope or model, what it said was that it could still be divided, and would be so long as humans were its observers. When behaviorism’s ‘black box’ model for the mind began to utter from within its depths, it pointed to being populated with the frictional push and pull of genetic activity. As evolution speaks, theory shifts from selection to adaptation, when it doesn’t hearken back to the nostalgia of creationism.

Until recently, the myth of Canadian nationhood furrowed between two founding peoples, the French and English. The story stretched tautly over an echo chamber within which resounded Native Indian truth. When the European colonial membrane finally grew holes and began to breathe again in the 1970’s, a triangular reality rearranged it. Slowly but steadily, Canada’s First Nations returned to engrave their mark on a country that was more willing to be adorned with the idea of multiculturalism than grant them anything beyond their ‘titres de noblesse’, which happened to be territorial and political autonomy.

Canada’s pedigree of nationhood now confronts a novel step in this history of the past in the making. Few events demonstrate as clearly how history steps backward. It spreads from the future into the past. As far as most Canadians as concerned, I could, or maybe should, be writing in another language. For from the denial generally cast upon the founding role held by the indigenous peoples, many Canadian ideologues react by embedding self-denial into their own nationalism.

Debates to admonish patriotism rage among Anglo-Canadians on the topic of national identity. They portray themselves as having a hard time settling on who exactly they are as a nation. The Anglo-Canadian brew simmers from a dash of the American uplifted by a sprinkle of the British, all fomented with a spice of Ire. Yet the big chunk of actual identity seems to melt into thin speech. Oddly, it vanishes alongside with the other flavors that have diluted the true-bred Canadian over the last century, a mention for them not worth recalling.

And right when Anglo-Canadians were getting accustomed to the schema of a triangular reality involving the founding peoples, a new omen has arisen. >From atom to quark, and now onto cords. The Metis are literally on the way to etching out their rightful place in history. But instead of heading towards four peoples, integers split into fractals. Unlike other numbers, fractals describe the process of moving from one dimension into another. Their inter-dimensional complexity only does greater justice to the study of history. That’s because once you step outside of the hard and fast and dominant version of history, the sagas of the conquerors and their conquests, a sense of subtlety becomes the master.

Canada’s indigenous peoples are so much more than founders of the country. They are the soul of the land and its soil, its air and sky. Yet until recently in terms of the nation’s actual configuration, their heritage and presence has barely inflected its key policies since the early nineteenth-century. The reasons for this absence have next to nothing to do with will, desire or abnegation. Tecumseh, Big Bear and Joseph Brant were all natives, and all participated and struggled to build the prototype of this nation. When the moment came to commemorate their devotion by recognizing their territorial claims, all were dismissed when they hadn’t already died in battle — at times in alliance with the British white man against the American, at others against the British themselves.

At this point, the Metis’ role appears as less alienated. Like the First Nations, its people stand at the heart of the country and continent’s indigenous heritage. They have also helped to shape Canada as a nation. With the coupling of Indians and French, and Indians and Scots, and the further intertwining among their descendants, the Metis formed a population stimulated by the political and judicial behavior of the European ancestor. That continent’s innovation was to have founded nation-states that are bureaucratic, centralized and mainly democratic in character, divided into jurisdictional entities such as states/provinces and counties in structure.

On the heels of Confederation’s enactment in 1867 through the union of four provinces, the Metis aspired to be bound to the new country. They had preserved the autonomy of the northern Great Plains in their victory against the Plains Indians a decade earlier. More importantly, they had built a distinct society. Even more, by the very meaning of their name in the French language, the Metis embodied and anticipated Canada’s future multicultural fabric a hundred years before its time.

As historical details acquire their rightful place, anglophone Canadians will probably object that the colonial war they are accused of sponsoring against the Metis was, in fact, fought with a broader objective. The government sought to prevent American settlers from invading the northern Great Plains. Their advocates would ad that the alliance system characteristic of Canadian history, as proven by its ties with the Iroquois especially, would have been pursued in quite different manner were it south of the border.

In other words, the British North Americans were protecting the Indians from the expansionist Republicans bounding westward and north. After all, the Iroquois paid a heavy price for siding with the British in the 1812-1814 war. Already threatened by the advance of settlements, as the war concluded in a stalemate between the white powers, the Iroquois would be deported from their homeland out from the northern US.

Let the Canadian’s objections stand, then, as a reminder of their will, so long as they recognize that the means used to achieve continental access to the Pacific only considered the Metis’ well-being as a trickle-down side-effect.


The CBC’s objective was to call on Canada’s leading legal minds so as to try Riel according to today’s laws. The trial would bear in mind the Charter of Rights and Freedoms passed in 1982 when the Constitution was, finally, repatriated from England. In the end, any referral to that Charter merely played a role to lend legitimacy to the act of staging the re-trial. For as was revealed, the legal point of contention remained then-prime minister John A. Macdonald’s decision to use an old British law of high treason by which to charge the Metis leader. Not only did this law not exist on Canada’s books, its evident purpose was to legally put Riel to death.

The series opened with a biographical portrayal of the Metis leader. The re-trial took place on the second evening, after which viewers were asked to act as jurors and vote on-line to either convict or acquit Riel beyond reasonable doubt. Poll results were to be broadcast in the course of the third evening when distinguished members of the Metis people were invited to speak of Riel, the trial and re-trial, their history since the fateful rebellions and what the Metis expect today. Over these three hours, our uncompromising public network has rarely been as ambitious.

So much lay on the agenda that the name of a most prominent political leader was left out. Yet in 1990, the name of Elijah Harper had many a Canadian dizzy. For over two hundred years the English and French, Euro-Canadians, had lived in two distant and separate worlds. Two solitudes it was once said to be. But a Siamese twin is what they come closest to resembling. The Constitutional amendments of that time, known as the Meech Lake accords, were meant to harmonize the life of this bickering couple by enshrining French-speaking Quebec as a distinct society to which exceptional collective rights were due. Mr Harper quashed the attempt “silent, with a feather”, in the words of John Saul.

As a member of the Manitoba assembly, Mr Harper reminded Euro-Canadians that there can be no harmonious constitution without either the ancestral peoples of the land, or the silenced other, the Metis. He managed to block the Manitoba provincial government’s ratification of the accords precisely according to what the Charter of Rights grants to the nation’s founding peoples and minorities. With Manitoba’s failure to ratify the accords, though, Quebec stared in awe as if suddenly recalling its distant cousin.

Riel was hung in a bloodsucker’s bash in Regina on November 22, 1885. In Montreal, far from its cheering crowds, 50,000 French Canadians stormed onto the Champs de Mars, after “Ils l’ont pendu-They hanged him” was splashed on newspaper front pages. There was no god of war trudging this field, but simply a man of rights. Wilfred Laurier, who would become the first French-Canadian Prime Minister and steer the country away from MacDonald’s legacy, spoke out to the demonstration. “Had I been on the banks of the Saskatchewan”, he declared, “I also would have taken up my rifle.”

In Quebec’s view a century later, history’s kiss was given from smirking lips. And for its latest Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, the promise being repaid to his Quebec constituency had fallen into pieces through the device of the Manitobans. Mulroney would still give it one last chance in 1995. By then, the indigenous renaissance had already grown. Few were able to see eye-to-eye on rights, and even fewer have felt like touching the constitution since.

So the negotiating table has turned an increment and slid into another venue. The re-trial mustered up two primary pieces of litigation. The prosecution accused Riel of murdering Thomas Scott, an Orangeman from Ontario, imprisoned during the Red River rebellion. That charge was only meant to trigger a list of wrongdoings: establishing a provisional government, setting up a capital, Batoche, establishing a tribunal and killing 90 officers of the Canadian mounted police, dispatched there to establish order. Riel claimed that they, as Scott himself, had come to kill him.

The prosecution then emphasized Riel’s religious beliefs as obsessive, quoting him as “the prophet of the new world”. It tainted the wandering that followed his initial defeat as a slide into insanity, therefore explaining Riel’s two-year tenure in a mental asylum in Montreal. Finally, the prosecution quoted from the letter Riel sent to the Canadian forces amassed outside of Batoche. In it he had vowed to wage “a war of extermination” against the Canadian forces were they not to return to Ottawa.

The defense council represented Riel’s devotion to his people. The fight he led was argued to have been waged in self-defense. Prime Minister Macdonald was harshly scrutinized in his desire to execute Riel. In fact, after the Metis surrender in 1885, 76 leaders were charged with treasonous felony. Riel alone received the charge of high treason whose only sentence was death.

The circumstances of a further procedural problem had arisen as well. Riel, a francophone and speaker of ‘Metisian’, had the right to a trial in French before a jury comprised of his peers. But MacDonald chose to shift the trial further west to Regina, ensuring that no Metis would be part of the jury. Only one of the jurors was able to speak French. Understandably, Riel acting as his own witness explained with difficulty how “waging a war of extermination” was merely meant as a message to intimate and scare off the Canadian forces. There was no battle plan, no “rebellion”, which would not have been a suicidal venture to his mind, given the Canadians’ military superiority.

Based on the campaign to deprive Riel of a just hearing, offset by the claim of self-defense faced with the invading Canadian police and military forces, the defense counsel then asked for the jury — the Canadian viewers of the program — to decide again on a verdict beyond reasonable doubt.


Out of the roughly 10,000 viewers who phoned in between 9 pm October 22 and 8 pm October 23, 9 out of 10 voted to acquit Riel. Close to 90% of viewers had found him innocent of the charges laid against him. Announced toward the end of the forum in which representatives of the Metis people were invited as witnesses and guides, the results left the gathering profoundly moved.

One hour could not be enough to contain their enthusiasm. Nor could any objections to its lack of legal value override the moral legitimacy of the vote and its historical implications. Indeed, one of the barristers participating in the re-trial, Edward Greenspan, vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court. Again the objection could be raised that only those were watching who had already decided in favor of acquittal. Still, it’s quite evident that these viewers thought over the controversy, and based on their research chose to alter the historical verdict. In the end, the re-trial managed to raise the reasonable doubt in face of which the charge of high treason could not be held up in a court of law.

Even more, it isn’t just Riel who has received historical justice here. It is the Metis people he led. They have emerged from the shadow of shame into which Canadian history had attempted to shut them. Shame of their heritage and shame of the unprecedented and unsurpassed violence of the clash the Canadian federal forces led against them.

What have the Metis wanted since then? The distinguished guests present had to keep recalling that their status as a distinct people, distinct from French-Canadians, English-Canadians as well as the First Nations, had been implicitly recognized by Ottawa. Moreover, these rights are explicitly enshrined in the UN’s definition of a people. What they still expect, though, is settlement of the pending land rights claims, left unattended since Riel’s execution. In the meantime, the Metis got a piece of history back, however small.

There was nothing happenstance to this implication. Anyone could feel it in the emotions expressed by those attending. A young woman pondered: How does one define being Metis? When returning to the history and traditions of her ancestral people, and then especially, she could feel that she was Metis. Rewriting the history of the conquerors into progressive history may proceed by small steps. Its accomplishment is reached when the feeling finally blossoms, confirming that justice has been given its due.


There is a brief technical note to be made on the forum discussion. The public television channel, its cable version Newsworld, like any other of Canada’s proud publicly built and developed cultural institutions, have also had to resort to the use of commercial advertising due to relentless budget slashing. Yet the most annoying management of advertising time, and when to cut for it, prevailed throughout this forum. So much so that participants would be cut off in the middle of a point about their history worth more than reading 10 books that tell the official version.

To add insult to injury, the way the broadcast closed was atrocious. Here we have the first manifestation on a national scale elevating the Metis to the place of a founding nation. For over a hundred years, they as a people have been subdued, crushed and almost erased from the historical and cultural landscape. And what does the CBC host do? She cuts off a participant just minutes into the proud elation she was expressing about the results of the vote, only to break off the program with barely a closing word — just with a quick thank you to all for participating.

How smooth is the slide of political television into the reality show format! The CBC has to offer a follow-up program to continue the discussion. Otherwise, its interests in Ottawa will simply show through. In an age of reality shows, the CBC participated in redrawing reality, bringing it a step closer to justice. It cannot, without letting down the Metis, leave without a statement as to the implications of this program.

Save for these flaws, CBC/Radio-Canada has to be congratulated for such a powerful lesson on nation forming. Its perspective is not only to inform, but to right the wrongs of history, exposing Canadians to their fascinating and complex stories. This is no small task in a nation that perpetually downgrades its own history, considered by Canadians themselves as, quite simply, ‘boring’. Would a country be prevented from becoming an empire by its name, deriving from a Huron word meaning ‘village’? That the most interesting parts of the country’s history are often left out from the curriculum is symptomatically reversed in the continual adulation of the US’s epic representations, be they good or not.

Author’s comment: I am a first generation Canadian born and raised in Montreal from Hungarian parents. It took me the opportunity of studying in Europe and reading the history of European contact with the Americas to understand that non-Anglo and non-Franco immigrants to Canada also shared the plight of colonizing this land and disenfranchising its native peoples.

Perhaps I’m slow, distracted and blind. Little around, save for their walking living memory, had led me to see our arrival differently, as my parents’ generation strove to fit into a new country and be recognized by the ‘native’ Canadians. Assimilation in the case of my peers and myself, whether in Quebec or Canada, was successful by the standards that any state can afford to give its newcomers. Living with that need and working through it closes historical space down. Immigrants tend to care less about what happened a hundred years ago. And once this problem of assimilation has been settled, the reality of the continued colonization of Canadian land and people to the expense of the rights of the First Nations to their own land and traditions is only further distanced. For far from the metropolitan hubs, Canadians know little of the living conditions of the native populations.

The 1867 confederation brought together four provinces: French-speaking Quebec, English-speaking Ontario, and the split former-fourteenth British North American colony of Acadia, from which the majority of its French-speakers had already been deported.

The fifth to join was Manitoba, the Metis’ homeland, from whose sovereignty they were torn. Now a minority, the Metis have found some truth, a little retribution by acceding to the pantheon of the nation’s founding peoples.

NORMAN MADARASZ is a Canadian philosopher. He welcomes comments at: