Confilcting Ideas of the Past in Canada
He has been called a prophet, a traitor, a martyr, a visionary and a madman, but whatever one thinks of him, Louis Riel, remains one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history. Does this man who has continued to haunt Canadian history for more than a century after his execution, deserve all of those descriptions? After reading three different interpretations of the rebellions, it is still difficult to decide which is closer to the truth. All three authors retold the Metis history and although they differ on crucial issues, there was agreement on the basic facts. The primary difference amongst the three authors was whether the Canadian and Manitoban governments acted in good faith in carrying out the terms of the Manitoba Act, whether John A. MacDonald purposely deceived the Metis as to what Canada’s intentions were with respect to the Canada-Metis Agreement and to what extent were there deceptions in the administration of the Metis land grants. How these three historians attempt to encapsulate Riel’s life, accomplishments, and mistakes is very different. How they attempt to separate fact from fiction and decide whether Riel was justified in his actions against the government is written from three very different perspectives. Where their sympathies lie, how subjective they are and how they interpret the facts is quite evident, but there are many sides to history and every side must be examined if a fair judgment is to be made.
One can surmise that historians have probably debated quite heatedly the rights and wrongs of all the players in the Red River Rebellion, and the Northwest Rebellion. Authors like Stanley, in his book, The Birth of Western Canada believe that the resistances were no more than struggles between “civilization” and “barbarism” because in both resistances, the rebels were the “natives” of the newly acquired territory. He believed that an aggressive, but compassionate, New Dominion had to defeat the “uncivilized” obstacles, because they were resisting progress. The natives had to fail in their stance against the government, because they were a “primitive people”, standing against the march of “civilization,”1 they had to be pushed aside so the new country could progress.
Stanley believes that up until the execution of Thomas Scott, the Red River Rebellion was relatively non-violent and the government probably would have forgiven the Metis indiscretions, because they even continued to follow the process of conciliation through to the passage of the Manitoba Act. “ Although Scott deserved some sort of punishment for his actions against the Metis people, his actions hardly deserved the death penalty.” 2
The execution of Scott was a huge faux pas on the part of the Metis officials and it invited terrible reprisals from the government. John A. MacDonald certainly could not ignore the execution because half the people of his newly formed country were calling...