Louis Riel: a Father of Confederation the Métis’ Struggle Essay
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“In a little while it will be all over. We may fail. But the rights for which we contend will not die.” – Louis Riel, May 6, 1885 The Métis are often overlooked when discussing the Confederation of Canada. In particular, Louis Riel was a critical leader of the Métis that strived to sustain the Métis way of life, and eventually led Manitoba into enter Confederation. For this reason, Louis Riel should most definitely be remembered as a “Father of Confederation” that strived for peaceful negotiations.
In the early to mid 1800s, the area that we know of today as Manitoba was called the Red River Valley. Its inhabitants consisted of mostly the Métis, people that had European fathers and native mothers.
As a part of Rupert’s Land, the Red River Settlement was greatly affected by the Canadian government’s plan to purchase Rupert’s Land. Many factors contributed to the Canadian government desire to possess this vast territory.
The National Dream to build Canada as a nation from “sea to sea” was threatened when the Americans purchased Alaska. As John A. MacDonald said, “I would be quite willing, personally, to leave that whole country a wilderness for the next half-century but I fear if Englishmen do not go there, Yankees will,” expanding Canada westwards was inevitable.
In consideration of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the US was justified and destined to conquer all of North America, Prime Minister MacDonald states his fear that the Americans may conquer the surrounding territory around Canada. This motivated the government to purchase Rupert’s Land and to start expanding Canada westwards. In addition, with the growth of the population came a bigger demand for farmland. Stimulated by the cheap plots of land, settlers, mostly Protestants and members of the Orange Order, a group of people that were anti – French and anti – Catholic, established themselves in the Red River Valley. Inevitably, this led to inequity and prejudice against the French and English Métis.
In addition to the hardships that the settlers brought to the Métis, the Canadian government created more tension with the arrival of surveyors. In 1868, surveyors were employed by the Canadian government to mark lots of land for future settlers. The arrival of the Canadian government’s surveyors caused the Métis to worry about being chased out of their homelands as well as the threat of being assimilated due to the swath of European and Canadian settlers. Although the Métis had been living in the Red River area for a long time, they did not have the legal documentation needed to prove property ownership, therefore the surveyors did not consult them.
The government was unreasonable to demand for legal documentation to prove property ownership as the Métis followed different customs of proprietorship. The idea of a piece of paper having the ability to determine whether you had the right to live on a piece of land was completely foreign to the Métis. In addition to the Natives, the Métis were considered to be “uncivilized savages” and often referred to as “ half – breeds.” These conceptions of the Métis caused the surveyors, as well as the Canadian government to ignore discussions with the Métis on neither the division of plots of land nor the purchase of Rupert’s Land in the first place.
Essentially, the Canadian government’s discrimination and lack of respect for the Métis cannot be justified because of their narrow-mindedness and the Victorian belief that the Natives are primitive and barbaric. In times of rising antagonism, a Métis leader was needed to represent them. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the National Métis Committee was formed to fight for Métis rights and most importantly, the right to their land. The National Métis Committee was strongly against William McDougall, the lieutenant governor of the North West Territories that was appointed by John A. Macdonald to solve the Red River Resistance. Despite the National Métis Committee’s defiance against McDougall, he ignored their opposition.
This led to the Métis conquering Fort Garry, seizing weapons and ammunition. Led by Riel, the Métis were prepared to fight for their rights. In response to the Métis’ rebellion, MacDonald’s goal in the dispute with the Métis was to stop what was thought of as an obstacle to the National Dream, and he hoped the Métis would assimilate into the settlers’ culture. Known to be strongly anti – French, McDougall ordered for an army to force Riel and his supporters out of the Red River Valley. The government’s actions cannot be justified because the Métis were not rebelling against the government and in fact were willing to co-operate in negotiations. Furthermore, the Métis were never a direct threat to the National Dream.
The Métis did not have intentions to overthrow the government nor sovereignty. The only ambitions the Métis had were to maintain their traditional way of life as well as the right to their land. These two desires were exactly what Riel demanded for, yet the Canadian government disregarded Riel. In early December of 1869, Riel and a party of armed Métis arrested John Schultz, a leader of the anti – Métis Canadian party and 48 of his supporters. Nevertheless, Riel only decided on this arrest as he feared the Canadian Party was equipped with arms and preparing to take over the Red River Settlement. Although the Métis’ actions may be deemed as rash and impulsive, they were only trying to defend their homeland and their people.
The government and many Canadians believed the Métis were rebelling against the government, but as opposed to these groundless assumptions, the Métis’ intent was not to rebel. In fact, the Métis were not against joining Confederation, as long as the Canadian government acknowledged the rights of the people of the Red River. Due to the rebellion for Métis rights and the interest in Confederation, Riel formed a Provisional Government. A delegation consisting of both Métis and members of the Canadian Party arrived in Ottawa to negotiate the creation of the province of Manitoba.
To satisfy the anti – Métis sentiments in Ontario as well his own anti – Métis views, John A. MacDonald refused to allow for provincial control of land, but granted 200 000 hectares of land to the “children of the Métis.” In addition, the Manitoba Act was passed, which was a legislation that preserved and protected the Métis way of life. On May 12, 1870, Manitoba officially became a province of Canada. While Riel’s objective of protecting the rights of the Métis was achieved, he became a “wanted man.” He eventually fled to the US, where he resided for a period of time. However, it is clear that Louis Riel was critical in the founding of Manitoba.
Not only did he preserve the Métis culture, but he was also a prominent figure that led to the negotiations of Manitoba entering confederation. In essence, Louis Riel is and should always be remembered positively as a father of Confederation since he played an indispensible role in Manitoba joining the Confederation of Canada. But just as significantly, Louis Riel stood by his Métis heritage and allowed for the Métis culture to continue to live on. In conclusion, it is due to the efforts of Louis Riel that Manitoba was peacefully created through negotiation.