Why or why not was Louis Riel guilty of treason?

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Canadian folk hero and "The Father of Manitoba," Louis David Riel (1844-1885) was a complex character whose actions that led to his charge of treason were equally confounding. Riel was a leader of the Metis people, one of Canada's aboriginal groups, and he eventually established the provisional government in Manitoba (then named Assiniboia) when it first joined the Canadian Confederation following the Red River Rebellion (1869-1870). During the rebellion, in which the Riel-led Metis refused to allow representatives of the English-speaking Governor William McDougall to enter the area, the Metis arrested and executed a man, Thomas Scott, who had threatened to kill Riel. The Canadian government considered the execution an act of treason, and Riel was forced into exile in Montana. Riel was elected three times to the Canadian parliament while in exile, but he never served. Riel returned to Canada to lead another insurrection in Saskatchewan, known as the North-West Rebellion (1885), which resulted in a number of Metis and Cree victories over government soldiers and mounted police before Riel surrendered at the Battle of Batoche in May 1885.

The ensuing trial of Riel is one of the most famous in Canadian history. Riel was charged with six counts of treason stemming from the two rebellions, and he was found guilty by an all-Protestant jury (Riel was a devout Catholic), who recommended mercy; the judge, however, gave Riel the death sentence. Riel had the opportunity to plead gulity by reason of insanity, which would have precluded execution, but Riel refused, claiming

"Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having."

Riel appealed, and Prime Minister John Macdonald

... was flooded with letters and petitions from sympathetic Québécois, who saw in Riel the French Catholic minority being oppressed by English Protestants. Macdonald refused to intervene to commute the sentence because of political pressure, and stated that the Riel would hang "...though every dog in Quebec shall bark."

     According to critics, the outcome of the trial was due to the underhanded conduct of the government and to the obvious rift between the lawyers and the accused. Throughout the trial Riel's lawyers ignored his advice and refused his requests (including the request to cross-examine the witnesses himself), and they threatened to abandon him halfway through the procedure. Riel insisted that had the witnesses been properly cross-examined, it would have been established that his men had been attacked first. "Happily they were when they appeared and showed their teeth to devour," he said. "All I was ready. That is what is called my crime of high treason, and for which they hold me to-day."

Riel was hanged in November 1885. According to one of the jurors,

... Riel was tried for treason but hanged for the murder of Thomas Scott.


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