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Reflections on Louis Riel Day, 2013.

Historical intrigue and eco-activism mingle in perfect day for discussion on colonialism.

by Daniel Johnson

The author, an actor in The Trial Of Louis Riel theatrical re-enactment, & 3 of Canada's most respected Metis historians at the BC Metis Federation's Louis Riel Day 2013 celebrations, The Columbia Theater, New Westminster BC, Nov. 16, to my right is David Doyle, author of 'Louis Riel, From The Gallows, The Lost Testimony', and to my left are Terry and George Goulet, authors of 'The Trial Of Louis Riel, Justice And Mercy Denied'. Doyle and myself in charactar, our charactars are not very happy.
The author, an actor in The Trial Of Louis Riel theatrical re-enactment, & 3 of Canada's most respected Metis historians at the BC Metis Federation's Louis Riel Day 2013 celebrations, The Columbia Theater, New Westminster BC, Nov. 16, to my right is David Doyle, author of 'Louis Riel, From The Gallows, The Lost Testimony', and to my left are Terry and George Goulet, authors of 'The Trial Of Louis Riel, Justice And Mercy Denied'. Doyle and myself in charactar, our charactars are not very happy.

On November 16, 2013, people around the world held rallies to coincide with a major climate change conference in Poland. For many of those who participated in 130 communities across Canada, the day had added significance as it is the anniversary of the hanging of Canadian Metis rebel leader Louis Riel in 1885. 

Because, contrary to popular belief, history is not studied merely for the sake of entertainment or nostalgia. History is systematically studied in an effort to understand what is happening today, because people who study history know that while much has changed, not much has changed.

For example, many people who haven't studied the rebellion of 1885 would assume I was talking about Stephen Harper if I were to tell you about a Conservative Prime Minister who used a series of massive public works contracts to funnel public money into the pockets of wealthy business partners, foreign and domestic, while trampling the rights of citizens, especially Canada's indigenous and Metis people, giving away lands that were legally already someone else's according to treaties, and whose only response to non-violent protests and petitions was, in the words of Riel during his trial, 'police, more police, and no answer but police.'. 

This was, in fact, the founding government of Canada under John A MacDonald. 

  Canada is a much better country because of the actions of the Metis people who resisted MacDonald's policies. They may have lost the civil war of 1885, but it forced the federal government to acknowledge the rights of it's citizens when it had been used to simply steering them along with threats and harassment.

Though much has changed between then and now, Louis Riel's words are still significant today, consider the following extracts from his sentencing speech in 1885: 

The only things I would like to call your attention to before you retire to deliberate are: 1st That the House of Commons, Senate and Ministers of the Dominion, and who make laws for this land and govern it, are no representation whatever of the people of the North-West.

2nd That the North-West Council generated by the Federal Government has the great defect of its parent.

3rd The number of members elected for the Council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative government at all.

British civilization which rules today the world, and the British constitution has defined such government as this is which rules the North-West Territories as irresponsible government, which plainly means that there is no responsibility, and by all the science which has been shown here yesterday you are compelled to admit if there is no responsibility, it is insane.

Good sense combined with scientific theories lead to the same conclusion. By the testimony laid before you during my trial witnesses on both sides made it certain that petition after petition had been sent to the Federal Government, and so irresponsible is that Government to the North-West that in the course of several years besides doing nothing to satisfy the people of this great land, it has even hardly been able to answer once or to give a single response. That fact would indicate an absolute lack of responsibility, and 
therefore insanity complicated with paralysis.

The Ministers of an insane and irresponsible Government and its little one - the North-West Council - made up their minds to answer my petitions by surrounding me slyly and by attempting to jump upon me suddenly and upon my people in the Saskatchewan.

Happily when they appeared and showed their teeth to devour, I was ready: that is what is called my crime of high treason, and to which they hold me to-day.

If you take the plea of the defense that I am not responsible for my acts, acquit me completely since I have been quarrelling with an insane and irresponsible Government. If you pronounce in favor of the Crown, which contends that I am responsible, acquit me all the same. You are perfectly justified in declaring that having my reason and sound mind, I have acted reasonably and in self-defense, while the Government, my accuser, being irresponsible, and consequently insane, cannot but have acted wrong, and if high treason there is it must be on its side and not on my part.

The background story behind all of this is complicated, but Louis Riel's position was essentially legal and correct. 

 'Canada' was a foreign entity in the Red River area prior to the formation of a provisional government and it's eventual incorporation into Canada. The Hudson's Bay Company had 'stewardship' over the area, and had established long narrow 'river lots' that went from the river to the commonly owned pasture land, then a group of financiers bought the Hudson's Bay company and then 'sold' the area to Canada, but Canada didn't have legal jurisdiction yet.

McDougall was supposed to do surveys in the area and work with the locals to bring the Red River settlements into Canada, and they started construction of a road from the Red River settlements to Ontario, but brought foreign workers from Canada to do the work and then gave them land grants for what had been communal pastureland, but they didn't have the authority to do that.

The Metis started pushing the surveyors out and preventing the common lands from being settled, and there was a fight with the Canadian workers. McDougall didn't have the authority to start an army or any legal authority in Red River at all, but acted like he did and issued decrees and laws, etc., until a full on civil war broke out in the Red River settlement, which the Metis won, and then a provisional government was established. Riel drafted the Manitoba act and the settlement entered into confederation, there was an election and Riel won as MP, but in the meantime John A McDonald had tried a last minute attempt to have Riel assassinated but the attempt failed, Thomas Scott was one of the assassins but refused to quit trying and was starting fires and vandalizing fences, etc, to create problems however so he got executed, but since he was an 'Orangman' and they had their own 'solidarity cult' mentality and McDonald was an ally, the Orangemen had a bounty on Riel so Riel had to flee to the US.

Riel's actions in Red River were legal and legitimate. In Batoche the situation was different, but again Riel's actions were actually legal and legitimate. Riel originally started by unifying white settlers, First Nations and Metis into a single movement and petitioning for recognition as a province under the British crown.  

 The Canadian government had jurisdiction in the Saskatchewan River area, including Batoche, Frog Lake, etc., but, as Riel pointed out, their authority came with responsibilities they weren't living up too. 

On his arrival he had worked to convince the Metis not to rebel with force, they had been planning the rebellion when they sent for him with that idea in mind, but when the petitions were ignored and police were sent to harass Riel and the others involved, the fight was on and Riel was was ready for it. 

The rebellion was primarily led by Gabriel Dumont and some very militant Cree leaders, though Riel played a major command role.

They were taxing the people and restricting their livelihoods but not providing any services in exchange, and the people were legally entitled to patents on their land, but John A Macdonald and his little circle of friends were withholding the patents until they had mapped out where the railway would go, because the plan was for Macdonald's friends to own the land themselves and then 'sell' it to the railway, through their authority to buy land for the railway.

Riel's actions were legal, that's why he was tried in Regina, in a local court, with a minor magistrate presiding and 6 Anglo British jurists, instead of being sent to a proper court in Winnipeg with an actual judge and 12 mixed English and French speaking.

Riel was essentially not tried and executed according to the laws of the land, he was, in fact, murdered through a quasi-judicial process because the legal position of the Metis inconvenienced the plans of MacDonald's network of collusive, corrupt Orange Conservatives. 

The situation is even more serious today, we have a government in power that believes it's well worth endangering our very planet's ability to support life itself in order to facillitate continuing 'economic growth' for it's own sake, which is definitely insane by any rational definition of the word. 

Even the United Nations development agencies, long a supportive chorus of 'economic growth uber alles', has finally woken up to basic ecological reality, but we have a government in power who is willing to ignore international standards, so that Canada, once a world leader on environmental responsibility, is now ranked dead last out of the 27 wealthiest industrialized nations. and has become hostile to the UN in defence of it's obsession with letting the oil industry have whatever it wants without question. 

Riel's words need to be remembered in light of the courageous, however controversial, actions of the Mic'Mac warriors at  Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick earlier this year, which has been treated with condescending timidity by the 'respectable', and largely corporate funded and university trained, middle class environmentalists, many of whom seem to be less concerned with the ongoing ecological disaster and more concerned with maintaining their public image within the context of a corporate controlled mass media, their status as legal 'non-profit' corporate entities and building their C/Vs and having nothing but information campaigns, pickets, and the occasional token blockade, always carefully organized to ensure it doesn't actually obstruct or inconvenience the government or the companies in any way. 

I'm not saying those actions don't have any effect at all, but they have to be a part of a broader strategy that acknowledges a diversity of tactics and recognize that there has to be a line drawn when we acknowledge that the polite, fun, festive tactics that have become the norm for 'the movement' are doing nothing to stop the erosion of our rights and freedoms as well as the destruction of the planet we live on. 



Reginans Protest Climate Change, by Terrance McEachern, Leader Post, November 16, 2013

The trial of Louis Riel: Justice and mercy denied : a critical legal and political analysis by George R.D. Goulet, January 28th 1999 by Tellwell Pub

Louis Riel, From The Gallows, The Lost Testimony by David Doyle, 2012, published by North West Educational Productions.

Excerpts from the trial speech of Louis Riel can be found at:

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