Coolest School Trip Spotlight: Riel House National Historic Site

Politics, fur trade and treason – oh my! It may seem an unlikely combination, but it was one experienced by Métis leader and founder of the province of Manitoba, Louis Riel. Born at the Red River settlement into the unique culture of the Métis, Riel spent his early days studying to one day become a priest. His devotion to his faith endured through what would become a lifetime of political involvement that wound up costing him his life at the age of 41, when he was publicly hanged for committing acts of treason against the Crown. The house that Riel and his family lived in, located just outside of Winnipeg, has now become a national historic site of Canada.

Riel first became involved in politics in 1869, when the Canadian government was making plans to acquire Rupert’s Land and the North-West. This land had previously been under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company and was being treated in these negotiations as unoccupied land. This, however, was not the case and when the government sent surveyors to the Red River settlement in anticipation of this land transfer, they were less than well received by the Métis community living there.

As suspicions rose among the Métis of Red River about being forced off the land that they had occupied for generations, Riel and his people halted the Canadian surveyors and prevented them from entering Red River. Riel led the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870, a conflict between the Métis and the supporters of Canadian sovereignty over the land. The turning point of this rebellion came about when Riel’s men arrested a man named Thomas Scott, who was tried by the Métis, convicted of treason and publicly executed. Although Riel himself did not issue the order to have Scott executed, the majority of the Anglophone community in Upper Canada held him responsible for it, and issued a $5000 reward for his arrest – one which was never claimed.

 He successfully negotiated the entry of Red River into Confederation as the province of Manitoba, and was appointed the leader of the new government. Unfortunately, this was a short-lived victory for Riel. Rumours began to spread that the military expedition sent by the Canadian government to enforce federal authority in Manitoba had a secondary purpose, which was to have Riel arrested. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the United States where he remained living in exile for several years.

It wasn’t until 1884 when a group of Métis from the Saskatchewan Valley implored him for his help in fighting for their legal rights that Riel eventually returned to Canada. Upon his return to Canada, he took the lead in organizing what is now referred to as the North-West Rebellion – a conflict between the Métis, Indians and Western settlers from the Saskatchewan Valley who felt their rights were being infringed upon and the Canadian military forces that had been sent to stop the uprising.

His role in both the Red River Rebellion and the North-West Rebellion led to Riel’s eventual arrest, whereupon he was charged with treason against the Crown. The defense lawyers representing Riel tried to plead insanity, claiming that his political and religious delusions had caused him to make the decisions that led to his arrest, but the jury remained unconvinced that Riel was mentally unstable and found him guilty of the charges laid against him. Although his execution was postponed on three different occasions – twice to allow for appeals to a higher court and once to allow a full medical examination of Riel to determine whether or not he was, as his defense claimed, insane – it would seem that his fate was inevitable and he was hanged in Regina in November of 1885.

The house that Riel and his family lived in now stands as a commemoration of his life and the fight to preserve the rights and culture of the Métis people. The house was lived in by his descendants until 1969, and was purchased by Parks Canada the following year and restored to its 1886 appearance before being designated a national historic site in 1976. Visit the Riel House to learn about the life and times of Louis Riel and his family, explore the rich history of the Métis culture whose values he fought so hard to preserve, and you be the judge of whether Riel was a hero or a traitor!

Looking for ideas to make a video about Riel House National Historic Site? Here are some suggestions to get you started...

  • Lead the Métis of Red River in rebellion against the avid supporters of Canadian sovereignty and ownership of the land. What was the primary battle that was fought as part of this rebellion? Who were some of the prisoners taken by the Métis and what was their role in the conflict? What led to the trial and subsequent execution of Thomas Scott?
  • Attend the general meeting called by Riel as one of the 40 delegates from around the region to discuss his proposed provisional government of Red River. Who were some of the other delegates in attendance? What was decided about the government that Riel was proposing? What type of representation would there be from the Francophone, Anglophone and Métis members of the community? What was the end result of this meeting?
  • Relive Riel’s time spent living in exile. Where in the United States did he live and what did he do while he was there? How did he meet his wife? Who in Canada did Riel remain in contact with and what kind of news would he have been given about the situation of the Métis in Canada?
  • Recreate the trial that found Riel guilty of treason. What was involved in the Crown’s case against Riel? Why was he charged with treason? How did his defense present his case to the jury and what was his own reasoning for doing the things he had done?