The year is 1870, the hour just past noon on a frigid day in early March. At the heart of the red river settlement the heavy oak doors in the south wall of Upper Fort Garry burst open and a gang of weathered irregulars spill out, some dressed in buffalo-skin coats and fur hats, some waving rifles, the lot of them jostling and hollering in French. In their midst, a young man held at gunpoint can be heard screaming at his tormentors, repudiating their authority, belittling their sanity and integrity. You’re all cowards! he hollers as he stumbles through the crusted snow.
A pair of grim-faced Metis in shirt sleeves, despite the cold, push forward carrying a hastily constructed plank coffin. As they come alongside the prisoner, he realizes for the first time that the death sentence passed on him the previous day is no mere political ploy. His voice cracks, he stumbles, and the clergyman helping him along struggles to keep him upright. On what would otherwise have been an unremarkable afternoon in this settlement of farmers, traders and hunters, a crowd begins to gather, women and children on its fringes. Some are excited by the show, others appalled at what is happening.
The defiant and traumatized prisoner is Thomas Scott, a twenty-five-year-old surveyor from southern Ontario, an Irish immigrant, who a few months back had arrived in Red River, at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine, along with a cadre of his Protestant compatriots, his purpose was to begin preparing the west for the advance of Canadian Confederation. The great vision of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to build a country from sea to sea had taken root three years earlier, when Macdonald and the Fathers of Confederation brought Canada’s first four provinces into a reluctant alliance. Now, in its determination to move west, Macdonald’s government had sent surveyors and administrators to the largely French settlement of Red River. Townships, property lines and straight roads would have to be established. Protestant churches and English schools had to be built.
What Macdonald had not counted on in his determination to annex Red River and its surroundings was the presence of another fiery twenty-five-year-old, a St. Boniface mystic named Louis Riel, whose resistance to Confederation, at least in Red River, was as vehement as Macdonald’s determination to see it succeed. The charismatic young organizer was the oldest of eleven children born to a Metis family whose roots in Red River dated to the settlement’s founding in 1812. At the tender age of thirteen, he had been sent to Montreal for training as a priest and for education in the arts and sciences. But he gradually lost interest in the priesthood and in 1864, at the age of nineteen, went to work for a year in a Montreal law firm. By this time, he had developed a passion for politics, particularly as it affected minorities such as the Metis. After stints of employment in the United States, in Chicago and St. Paul, he returned to Red River in July 1868.
Full of political fervour, and in the face of advancing Confederation, Riel quickly developed a noteworthy vision of his own. At its core was the founding of a jurisdiction quite unlike what Macdonald had in mind, a place where Metis and Native rights would be held in highest regard, where French would be a respected language, and where Native and French culture would not be just served, but celebrated.
Not that Riel had anything against English-speaking settlers in Red River. At the time there was a growing number of them, recently arrived from Ontario and the northern US. But in the face of English insensitivity toward the Metis, Riel was determined that his people would not be overrun by the expanding anglophone culture – or by Macdonald’s commitment to serving that culture. In Riel’s earliest vision, he foresaw a Metis territory stretching west from the Red River Settlement to the Rockies. It would be called Assiniboia.
Meanwhile, deeply disturbed by Ottawa’s attempts to subordinate Red River without consulting its inhabitants, Riel and his confreres established what they called the Metis National Committee and, with it, a provisional government in the settlement. Riel was appointed president of that government, and his makeshift militia forcibly took control of Upper Fort Garry, a one-time Hudson’s Bay Company post used less for trade than as an administrative centre for the company.
Now, inside that fort, a local catholic priest, Father Lestanc, and a newly arrived emissary from ottawa, Donald A. Smith, pleaded with Riel to spare Thomas Scott’s life. Not only had Scott been sentenced by a court martial of dubious authority, but the charges against him had been somewhat overstated. Smith argued that Scott was being executed not so much for treason as for mere insults to Riel and the Metis, a version of insubordination.
But the fiery president, who since child- hood had been known for his stubbornness, was in no mood for pardons. He had already commuted the death sentence of Major Charles Boulton, Scott’s ally, who, in the name of Canada, had joined Scott and thirty-two others several weeks earlier in an attempt to wrest control of the fort from Riel and his troops. The attack had been turned back, and the attackers ar-rested and imprisoned in the fort.
If Riel and his men had expected contrition from their foes, they did not get it. Scott, in particular, had proven to be a loudmouth and a hothead and for weeks now had been a goad to his guards and to the self-esteem of the provisional government. From his cell he screamed taunts and spit curses at anybody who came within earshot. The Metis were cowards! They would never have the guts to put him to death! Riel himself was a coward! Scott’s thick Irish brogue had become a near-capital offence in itself.
Riel had originally attempted to mollify the mulish Orangeman to assure him that his rights and those of his co-conspirators would be protected under Metis authority. But gradually he had grown to loathe Scott – and to loathe the government whose decidedly Orange preferences now echoed so aggressively within the fort.
By this time Riel perhaps harboured a measure of self-doubt. After all, he was not by temperament an executioner. He was an intellectual. He was also moody and insecure and unfortunately had become trapped in his need to stand up to the Canadian government, to let Macdonald know that the Metis meant business and were not to be taken lightly. As a last resort, Smith argued that the one great merit of Riel’s campaign so far was that it had been peaceable – and as such showed Ottawa that the Metis were worthy of consideration, both moral and legislative. From Smith’s point of view – and perhaps even from Riel’s – Macdonald’s annexation of Red River and its surroundings was inevitable. The best Riel could hope for was protection for his people and their culture.
“Why risk vengeance?” begged Smith.
“We must make Canada respect us,” answered Riel, who terminated the meeting with the comment that he had done a good thing in sparing the life of Boulton, adding – “but I must execute Scott.”
Riel’s chief lieutenant, Ambroise Lépine, who had been listening from the shadows, now assured Riel that the sentence would be carried out promptly, and left the room. With bloodless calm, Riel turned to Lestanc and suggested he offer a prayer for the condemned man. Smith did not wait to hear it.
Having learned that there would be no clemency, one of Scott’s guards ordered the now-trembling prisoner to his knees. Lépine fastened a blindfold across his eyes.
The firing squad stood in line some twenty feet from their mark and loaded and raised their rifles, uneasy in their role. None of them had ever shot a man. Their minds raced. Was the sentence right in the eyes of God? Or were they themselves committing murder and risking eternal damnation?
When the order came, they fired – four rifles, four rounds, only two of which found their mark, ripping through the condemned man’s shoulder and chest. Scott fell face forward, blood seeping quickly into his clothes and onto the snow. His taunts were replaced by groans of pain.
One of Riel’s lieutenants stepped forward and fired a round into the fallen man’s head. But the bullet lodged in his jaw with- out killing him. In the seconds that followed, several members of Riel’s militia wrenched Scott off the snow and dumped him into his coffin. Having nailed down the lid, they carried Scott quickly into the fort.
Riel, who had observed the botched execution from a distance, spoke sharply to those who had gathered, ordering them back to their homes.
If Scott’s cries had antagonized the fort dwellers in preceding weeks, they must now have created torment. All afternoon and into the evening the Irishman’s muted howls could be heard emanating from his coffin. In the middle of the night, he begged to be set free or killed. Only in the early morning did he fall silent.