The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Louis Riel was no hero

By in Opinions

Opinions Writer

As you enter the doors of Place Riel you may notice a plaque honouring the Canadian historical figure, Louis Riel. It tersely outlines his past, the final line reading, “His name is synonymous with leadership in the fight for Aboriginal, Métis, and minority rights.”

It seems that today, most Canadians remember Louis Riel (if the nomenclature of many prairie streets, highways and buildings are any indication) as a hero of the Métis and their fight for equality.

This is a faint-hearted, simplistic view, which says nothing of Riel’s selfish motives and aspirations.

There are several key events surrounding Riel which suggest that not only was he not the hero he is so often presented as but was responsible for several blunders that did nothing but hinder the Métis’ chance at addressing their grievances through politics and rebellion.

Riel’s zealous religiosity and borderline insanity led him to use the grievances of the Métis people (a group which had every right to rebel) as a means to his own self-interested ends.

Riel’s family had strong ties to the religious community and he was raised in an atmosphere that was quite pious. He was chosen to travel to Québec, and entered studies that would eventually lead to priesthood. After his fathers’ death in 1865, Riel withdrew from his studies and eventually moved back home, quickly becoming involved in discussions regarding the political and economic status of the Red River area. Here he found massive support and rose to a position of considerable authority within the Métis community.

The first action Riel undertook as leader of the Métis was to disrupt the Canadian surveyors as they crossed into the Red River area in October 1869. With a group of armed Métis followers, they were able to take control of a Hudson Bay trading post called Fort Garry and defended their territory in a subsequent raid by government troops, during which the Métis captured several of their attackers.

This is when Riel made his first gaffe as the Métis leader, executing Thomas Scott, a member of the attacking Canadian faction.

News of the execution spread quickly, and caused widespread outrage in Eastern Canada. The next summer, a military expedition came to establish peace in the newly created province of Manitoba. Riel was forced to flee into exile where he would remain for more than 10 years.

During his time in exile, Riel concerned himself with religious matters more so than he did political issues. Riel undertook several mystical visionary experiences which he looked upon as an inauguration of his role as the prophet of the new world, and became convinced that he was the divinely chosen leader of the Métis.

After being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1878, Riel produced religious writings and continued to harbour an assumption of self-apotheosis. He began inscribing his name as “Louis David Riel” for the reason that he believed he was the David of the new world. According to Riel, these were not self-affirmations but an expression of a direct anointment from God.

Riel later established a small government called the Exovedate in which religion and politics were inextricably combined. Here he was able to proselytize his new religious affirmations and was able to convince his followers to recognize him as a prophet with an authority of divine inspiration.

As an anointed prophet from God — and with a sizeable following who believed this to be so — Riel expected to triumph in what would become the North West Rebellion.

With the rebellion well underway, Riel continued to hinder the Métis’ progress. Gabriel Dumont’s attack at Fish Creek was continually halted to say the rosary. Dumont in many cases did not agree with Riel’s strategy, saying, “I yielded to Riel’s judgement. Although I was convinced that from a humane standpoint, mine was the better plan, I had confidence in his faith, and that God would listen to him.”

To borrow a phrase from Trotsky, the end may justify the means if there is something to justify the end. If one looks at Riel’s goals, it becomes painfully obvious that they far outreached the Métis’ justification for rebellion. Riel believed that he would be able to successfully defeat the Canadian Government and eventually reform Canada’s religious and political climate. Riel even believed it was possible to relocate the papacy to Canada, and was convinced that this and more could be achieved because God had appointed him as the prophet of the Métis people.

It seems clear to me that Riel’s time as leader did nothing but derail and hinder their cause.

The evidence can lead us to only one of two conclusions. The first is that Riel was a religious crackpot whose apotheosis appointment hindered and harmed the Métis cause in the fight for equality and dissent. The second possibility is that he was mentally ill and in need of psychiatric care.

There are valid arguments for either side, but a hero or idol he was not.

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image: Stephen Zacharias/Flickr

  • rrr

    What time pirioed did he live in ?

    • ctrl v


  • Greg

    This article is willfully ignorant and one-sided. You can't right off someone's entire life and cause because they had delusions of grandeur late in life. Executing Thomas Scott was clearly a mistake; whenever a minority resistance movement gets violent, the dominant power feels justified to violently remove them. However, the author of this article doesn't explain the circumstances around Scott's execution.
    I think it's clear that Louis Riel went kind of loopy, but being faced with tremendous adversity and knowing, all the while, that his cause was just, well, that could give any number of people delusions of grandeur. They might not think they are speaking directly with God… but the messiah notion I can kind of understand.
    Also, "time pirioed"?!

  • Mitch

    So I take it this guy wasn't a Riel fan? It's a little ironic to point out how Riel is only remembered for the good that he did, and than say he wasn't a hero by using nothing but negative facts. Completely biased article.

  • Alex

    "So I take it this guy wasn't a Riel fan? It's a little ironic to point out how Riel is only remembered for the good that he did, and than say he wasn't a hero by using nothing but negative facts. Completely biased article."

    That's a tautology. Expounding bias is the purpose of an editorial.

  • Tyrel

    Riel lived from the 1844 till 1885. I tried to express my dislike for him to foster some conversation. I am open to any discussion that may disagree. I also agree that to write about the Thomas Scott incident in one or two lines does not do it justice. For a facinating read about that and other aspects of Riel's life try Albert Braz or Thomas Flanagan's book from the library. Louis David Riel. After review of the evidence it seems that Riel was not justified to execute him. It looks as though he tried to exert some political power and exercise capital punishment. Scott did not even understand his trial because it was conducted in a different language.

    • Elen

      Firstly, it is quite obvious that this article, while researched (and I use that term loosely), is based on very biased and inaccurate facts. I'd like to know, Tyler, if you have ever attended a Native Studies class on Louis Riel or the Metis or if you simply decided to pick a book at random and felt you were fully educated on the matter?

      The Scott trial, while conducted in French (which was not Scott's first language), was also translated for him so he could understand. The trial had a jury and this jury sentenced Scott to execution. Louis Riel was not on this jury, nor was he the court marshall.

      I'd also like to point out that the "government troops" who attacked Fort Garry while it was under Metis control were not government troops. They were a small group of angry, very racist Canadians.

      Besides those two points there is a wide range of 'facts' you use that are inaccurate.

      As a closing note: it was a RESISTANCE, not a rebellion.

  • Elen

    Thomas Scott was a little more than an obnoxious prick. He was a disturbance to the peace. It is recorded that while he was captured, people who were also detained with him did not want to be in the same cell as him as he was a violent angry man. When he was free he ended up beating an innocent man to death because he and other thought he was a spy. His whole mind frame was to overthrow the provisional government that was set up in any means possible, including violence. The very same government that wanted to work towards confederation on their own terms rather than be bought and absorbed by Canada. His execution did not help things. But It did not destroy all that had been worked for. The execution of Scott did bring some peace to the area instead of a civil war.
    Civil war was a possibility and the Prime Minister had even warned other government officials to not get too involved with the group of Canadians (including Scott) because they were loud and violent. The execution of Scott (as unfortunate of a decision as it was) kept the peace.
    To say that Louis Riel is no more than a crackpot based on this event and his religious beliefs is short sighted.
    My point is that the basis of your argument is backed up inaccuracies and that maybe you should do a little more research before you try to discredit Louis Riel so fiercely.

    I'm not sure the comment section on is considered an academic setting, but I suppose I shall watch my typing in the future so that my mind doesn't get too far ahead of my fingers causing typos.

    • zach

      thomas scott was doing the same thing riel was doing to canada

  • Alex

    "Actually, that isn't a tautology. If you are going to self-fellate on a comment board by using the most obscure language possible, use it properly."

    I didn't feel compelled to indicate the tautology to which I was referring was the (implicit) "biased editorial." That, my friend, is a tautological archetype. Apparently I was wrong in assuming that the denizens of this website would understand what I was talking about.

  • cayden

    come on i have 2 do a report on this guy

  • Bobby

    Tyrel Eskelson, you should read and respond to the link above.

  • S

    This article is absolutely laughable. You generalize and leave out key details to your own end. You should be embarrassed.

  • izzy

    heeeeeeelp i have to write an essay on this and its due tomorrow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Bobby Popoff

    not knowing I did a 48 hour marathon dance at the MUB now the Louis Riel something back in 1971 with Gwen Brower

  • Christian 711

    This article doesn’t tell me what his name is!!! :( :( :( :(

    • Zoe

      look at the first paragraph

    • David Anderson


  • Zoe


  • Louis

    Poorly written misinformation with a childish conclusion: mental illness and religious beliefs don’t disqualify one from heroism any more than idiocy disqualifies one from publishing foolish bullshit on a 4th rate website.

  • Vaughn Zeiss

    I Have To Do A Report On This THANKS FOR WASTING MY TIME

    • Sarah Khandoker

      Hello Vaughn, this is your classmate Sarah. I have to agree with you but still don’t be mean. What we are writing is 5th grade level so this is a waste for us. But if you consider who the website was made for or who it was made by, you might have realized it was for people older the us. Before commenting disrespectful things on websites you should consider other points of views.

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