‘The first time I received the Holy Eucharist, I was trembling,” said Louis Riel. Born at St. Boniface (Winnipeg) on October 22nd 1844, young Louis Riel had a very sensitive, passionate spirit with zero tolerance for bullying. According to Mousseau, ‘nothing irritated him as much as an abuse of strength against the weak.’ Riel also had a deep life of prayer and fasting, commenting in his diary: “Fasting and prayer are the two great keys to success in time and eternity…Nothing can resist fasting when it is done with humility, sincerity and devotion. Fasting opens prisons and releases the most hardened criminals…Three or four days of fasting accomplish more than an army on the field of battle…”
His mother Julie had wanted to be a nun. Instead she sent her Red River prairie-born son in 1858 to Montreal to become Canada’s first Metis priest. Riel was deeply impacted by his mother’s spirituality, noting that “the calm reflective features of my mother, her eyes constantly toward towards heaven, her respect, her attention, her devotion to her religious obligations always left upon me the deepest impression of her good example.” Riel was very Christ-centered, praying in his diary: “Lord Jesus, I love you. I love everything associated with You.”
You can imagine the shock to his mother when Louis dropped out of the College of Montreal just four months before his ordination. Louis went to live with the Grey Nuns in their convent. His father’s recent death had weighed very heavily on Louis as the new head of the Riel family. Also complicating his ordination plans was that he had secretly become engaged to Marie Julie Guernon, only to have the engagement quashed by her racist parents. In his diary, Riel commented: “Men can struggle as they will against the will of God and oppose its fulfillment, but they never succeed in excluding it from the guidance of human affairs. God has everything in His care. Have confidence in Jesus Christ…”
Returning to Winnipeg, he discovered agricultural, social, and political devastation, especially among his Metis people. When Riel stood up for the rights of the Metis, he woke up our sleepy Canada nation. After taking over the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Garry, Riel successfully forced Prime Minister MacDonald to recognize Metis land rights, and to accept Manitoba into Confederation as a full Province, and not just another territory. Riel stated to the Federal negotiator Donald Smith: ‘We want only our just rights as British subjects, and we want the English to join us simply to obtain these.’ On May 12, 1870, the Manitoba Act, based on the Métis “List of Rights,” was passed by the Canadian Parliament.
The tragedy of the Red River Rebellion was the Riel-authorized shooting of Thomas Scott. As a result, Eastern Canada would settle for nothing less than Riel’s head on a platter. Colonel Wolseley’s troops wanted blood. Leaving Fort Garry, Riel said: “We have fled because it appears that we have been deceived.” Bishop Tache later said regarding the promised amnesty: ‘The Rt. Honourable John A MacDonald lied like a trooper’
In escaping to the USA, Riel comforted himself, saying: “No matter what happens now, the rights of the Metis are assured by the Manitoba Act; that is what I wanted –my mission is finished.” Writing to his good friend Bishop Tache on Sept 9th 1870, Riel said: “My life belongs to God. Let him do what He wishes with it.”
The time of exile in the USA was very painful for Louis Riel. Bishop Bourget comforted Riel telling him that “…God, who has always led you and assisted you up to the present time, will not abandon you in the darkest hours of your life. For he has given you a mission which you must fulfill in all respects.” Riel began to move more in the prophetic, sometimes experiencing intense joy and deep sorrow in church services. With a great effort, Riel tried to suppress his weeping: “My pain was as intense as my joy”. In Riel’s diary, he memorably said: “The Spirit of God penetrated my brain as soon as I fell asleep…The Spirit of God affects us where He wishes, and to the extent that suits Him.”
Because of the intensity of his spiritual experiences, his friends hid Riel in a Montreal insane asylum. After being released in 1878, Riel commented: “I did pretend to be mad. I succeeded so well that everybody believed that I really was mad.” Perhaps Riel’s insanity was like King David’s feigned insanity before the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:13). Riel stated: “If I did disappear or if I should lose my mind, their relentless persecution may be relaxed…Then my enemies would probably cease persecuting my Metis people.”
In 1884, Riel returned from Montana with his family, at the urgent request of the starving Metis, to Batoche, Saskatchewan. Wilfrid Laurier, later to be Liberal Prime Minister, later declared on the floor of the House of Commons: “Had I been born on the banks of the Saskatchewan, I would myself have shouldered a musket to fight against the neglect of governments and the shameless greed of speculators.” Riel unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government before attempting to capture Fort Carlton. “I can almost say it”, noted Louis Riel, “our cause is shaking the Canadian Confederation from one end of the country to the other. It is gaining strength daily.”
Riel’s cause however was militarily doomed. Most of the 250 Metis had shotguns or old muzzle-loaders, but a few had only bows and arrows. My great-grandfather Oliver Allen, as part of the 1,000-strong Toronto militia, had Sniders, Winchesters, cannon and a Gatling gun- the forerunner of the machine gun. The Gatling gun had been loaned to them by the US Army, and operated by an American Lieutenant Arthur Howard. While conquering Riel, my great-grandfather met my great-grandmother Mary Mclean a Regina Leader news-reporter sympathetic to Louis Riel. Right before Riel’s hanging, Mary Mclean, who was fluent in French, disguised herself as a Catholic priest in order to interview Riel. Her newspaper editor had told her: “An interview must be had with Riel if you have to outwit the whole police force of the North-west.” Riel said to my great-grandmother on Nov 19th 1885: “When I first saw you at the trial, I loved you.” Shortly after, my great-grandparents Oliver and Mary married and relocated to start life anew in BC!
Before Riel died, he passionately prayed in his diary: “Jesus, author of life! Sustain us in all the battles of this life and, on our last day, give us eternal life. Jesus, give me the grace to really know your beauty! Grant me the grace to really love You. Jesus, grant me the grace to know how beautiful You are; grant me the grace to cherish You.”
My prayer for those reading this article is that we too may discover the passion of Louis Riel for his Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, Rector
BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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