Louis Riel (at center) with his provisional government at Upper Fort Garry in Manitoba (present-day Winnipeg), 1870.

The meeting between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas has been the most well-known and studied contact between peoples in modern history. These events hold great symbolic value, and can help us understand the potential of the foreign and the encounter with the stranger. This merging of worlds produced new meaning for everyone involved and led to the gain of incredible fortunes, the spread of devastating disease, the exchange of technology, the introduction of foreign education and religion, and direct violence and war.

In contemporary discussions about this history, that interaction is viewed as an ongoing and unresolved conflict. What can get lost in these discussions of collective sins of the past — which spill over into the present — is the central problem that both peoples faced in their encounter with the stranger. It’s the problem common to all encounters with something novel: how does one properly reconcile differences, glean what is good and useful, and integrate that which is foreign and different. 

Much of Canadian history can be described as the process of breakdown and synthesis, which results from meetings between disparate peoples and cultures. If there is a single person who embodies that pattern, it is Louis Riel. He’s also probably the figure most written about in Canadian history, outside of the country’s founder, who was also Riel’s foe: John A. Macdonald. Riel has been characterized as everything from a revolutionary, fanatic, and traitor, to a martyr, and a statesman.

The story of Riel is conventionally centered in the context of injustices against Indigenous peoples of Canada. His political life is examined most closely as a leader of the Métis people (the descendants of French-Canadian fur traders and their Indigenous wives). Riel led armed rebellions on behalf of the Métis against the federal government in 1869–70 and 1885. The first rebellion resulted in the founding of the province of Manitoba, which was to be a homeland for the Métis. The second rebellion ultimately resulted in Riel’s execution.

Riel does not fit into political categories today any more comfortably than he did in his own time. He certainly recognized his own uniqueness. He thought and lived in a symbolic world of his own. He believed he was embodying an eternal story that was being expressed at a particular time, within a particular people. Riel symbolizes in a person the transitory or in-between in Canadian history.

Riel’s religious convictions and beliefs are often neglected or discounted in the telling of his story. But this must be a central component to any examination of his life in order to understand the man and his place in history. Thomas Flanagan’s Louis ‘David’ Riel: Prophet of the New World is an invaluable book for understanding Riel’s spiritual development and his creation of a symbolic framework to view the world. Flanagan quotes Riel’s own words about December 8, 1875, exactly six years since his first rebellion. During a Mass, he committed to the mission which would consume the rest of his life:

I suddenly felt in my heart a joy which took such possession of me that to hide from my neighbors the smile on my face I had to unfold my handkerchief and hold it with my hand over my mouth.... After these consolations had made me rejoice about two minutes, I was immediately struck by an immense sadness of spirit.... I prudently bore in silence the almost insupportable sadness I was experiencing in my soul. But that great pain, as great as my joy, passed away in just as short a time. And in my spirit remained this thought: “Are the joys and pains of man short on this earth?”1

Flanagan continues, “Riel claimed afterwards that 8 December 1875 was the commencement of his mission, of his new revelation. In his words: ‘There God anointed him with his divine gifts and fruits of the Spirit, as prophet of the New World.’ But his friends felt that his mind had come unhinged.”2

Furs and the New World

The European discovery of the Americas was a major enlargement of the Christian worldview, and the world itself. The edge of the known world was greatly expanded, with the new land being symbolically similar to the former “edges” of Christendom. On the fringes of the world, there is great wealth and great danger. There are unknown animals, peculiar traditions, hidden knowledge, and intermarriage between peoples.

In the new land which would be named Canada, a major motivation for continued exploration and travel came from the wealth of the fur trade. This is an important symbolic thread, which ties together the early Europeans and their relationships with the Indigenous. The garment of dead animal skins was a necessity for survival, but also led to great fortune for those able to master the trade.

In Genesis, we can see the symbolic value of these garments. Following the Fall, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve realized their own nakedness and covered themselves. This first technology of clothing was necessary to move further out into the world, once banished from the safety of the Garden. God bestowed a covering to them as well, Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21).

Icon of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (source).

Panayiotis Nellas presents a range of Patristic views on how humans clothe themselves in a vain attempt to return to the pre-fallen world. From the most obvious and first manifestation of our bodies themselves, to clothing, food, art, science, philosophy — all things apart from us that we add on to an imperfect existence:

The chief point that all these share in common is that the garments of skin express the mortality which man put on as his second nature after the fall... a new state in which man finds himself, about a “life in death.” The change is great and constitutes a complete reversal of the situation [before the fall].... Life continues only so long as death is postponed. That which exists now in the proper sense is death: “life” has been transmuted into “survival.”3

In the extreme climate of the frontier, these rudimentary garments of skin were central to life. The dead and the foreign became central to extending one’s potential. The mixture of peoples and cultures which developed around the world of furs was one of extremes. Those who could travel between worlds of identity, language, ethnicity, and culture rose to prominence and appeared when conflict arose. 

As the fur trade moved further inland, mariage à la façon du pays or “marriage according to the custom of the country” became commonplace. These were common-law marriages between fur traders and Indigenous women. The children of these families began to be referred to as métis (person of mixed parentage) or bois-brûlés (burnt wood). The most famous Métis is Louis Riel. 

Riel’s Environment: The Outskirts of Christendom

In the Canadian North-West, the fur trading society, which spread from New France (present day Quebec), gave way to denser agricultural communities. These new communities formed between the Missouri and Saskatchewan Rivers. The prairies of the North-West would become the margins where identity and culture were isolated and mixed together, taking unfamiliar forms.

The largest community in the early settlement of the North-West was formed on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (present day Winnipeg). Alexander Ross was a Scottish born trader who had worked for both major trading companies, The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. Ross wrote The Red River Settlement in 1856 after many years of living in the Red River Colony. He commented on the distinct culture and mix of lifestyles (and when he says ‘Canadians’ here, he is differentiating from ‘Europeans’, the former being mostly Francophone fur traders, the latter being newer settlers from Europe, mostly Scotland and England):

Canadians and half-breeds are promiscuously settled together, and live much in the same way, although we shall be able to point out some differences. They are not, properly speaking, farmers, hunters, or fishermen; but rather confound the three occupations together, and follow them in turn, as whim or circumstances may dictate. They farm today, hunt tomorrow, and fish the next, without anything like system; always at a nonplus, but never disconcerted.... Although we dwell on the outskirts of Christendom, holding as it were a middle course between refined civilization on the one hand, and gross darkness on the other, we live in all moderation and good fellowship in our semi-barbarous and semi-civilized state.4
Train of Red River carts. Versatile and rugged, these carts helped to commercialize the buffalo hunt and trade of furs (source).

A fellow traveller of Alexander Ross describes the society at its best: 

I have seen no part of the world where the poor man enjoys so many privileges, and is more happy and independent than in Red River. You seem, he said to me, to live almost without laws, and yet enjoy in that primeval condition more real happiness, comfort, and contentment, than any other people I ever saw.5

This bears similarities to how ancient histories speak of far-off places. To premodern people, the fringe and edges of the world bear a symbolic similarity. An example of this can be seen in Ethiopia, which was related to India in ancient “geography” or cosmology.6 Homer is the earliest known source to mention the Ethiopians as a people, and refers to them as a sort of catch-all for the extremes of the then-known (Greek) world, India in the east and North Africa in the west, “Poseidon had gone among the far-off Ethiopians — the Ethiopians who dwell sundered in twain, the farthermost of men, some where Hyperion [god of heavenly light] sets and some where he rises....”7

This view of the fringes or the edge of the world can help to explain why Europeans first identified Indigenous peoples of the Americas as Indians.

The Cosmic Mountain — image designed by Jonathan Pageau.

At the fringes or extremes of the world, symbolically, there is also preservation of a more extreme or extraverted version of the original. Here, the edge of the world functions as a container, or a cup which preserves the remainder or the left over — gathering up in a way almost outside of a main narrative.8 Riel was born into this sort of environment, on the margins, a meeting place between worlds.

Riel Chooses the World

Riel’s parents were both devoted Catholics and strongly considered entering into religious life.9 It was not surprising when their son was one of three Métis boys handpicked to be educated in the seminaries of Lower Canada (present day Quebec). That was done by Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché, the first archbishop of St. Boniface, Manitoba (present day Winnipeg). The young Riel was sent to the College of Montreal, where he was expected to excel in a classical seventeenth-century French education, then to return home as one of the first Indigenous priests in the North-West.

However, Riel’s future did not lie in traditional priesthood. In 1865, he left the College before graduating. His father had died a year earlier, and shortly after leaving the College, Riel became engaged to a young woman and attempted to launch a secular career in Montreal. In the next few years, he struggled to establish himself and his betrothal fell apart. With no reasons left to stay in Montreal, he spent time in the United States with friends and looked for work, but in 1868, Riel returned to Red River and took up his position as the head of his family. After a few short years back home, Riel would find himself at the center of national controversy. 

The land surrounding the Riels’ home at Red River was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was sold to the Canadian government in 1869. This would clear the way for widespread European settlement of the North-West. Later in that same year, Riel led a group of armed Métis men from the Red River Colony to confront surveyors sent by the Canadian government to map out townships — before the transfer had actually been finalized. As news of the confrontation spread, John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, urged caution to his representatives. He understood that, at that time, the government did not have the means to enforce their own laws against a hostile, armed, and determined group.

Riel knew this as well, and when a Canadian government representative crossed into the colony to announce the terms of the sale, Riel’s men retaliated. They arrested several English Métis and Canadians who opposed them, and proclaimed a provisional government.

“Tableau depicting Métis leader Louis Riel and others in opposition to the construction of a road through their lands without their consent or knowledge. Louis Riel stands on the surveyor’s chain marking the beginning of the resistance” (source).

The Confederation of Canada had occurred just a few years earlier, in 1867, which joined three British North American provinces — the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick — and united them into one federation called the Dominion of Canada. Riel’s group knew that Red River’s incorporation into Canada would happen eventually. They were eager for guarantees of their rights to their land and better terms to join the new country. Macdonald was occupied with expanding the new nation. He knew that a prolonged fracturing of the North-West would be a major blow to developing his transcontinental railway. Both men were on the cusp of ushering in their visions for the New World. The presence of the United States also loomed. The threat of American expansion and aid to a Métis resistance could cut Canada off at the knees before she could stand on her own.

Leader of His People?

There were several events in Riel’s life which share symbolic similarity to events in Scripture. The following sections begin with moments in Scripture from the lives of Moses and King David. We gain insight into Riel’s symbolic importance by bearing these events in mind as his story unfolds.

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow? And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known. Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.

– Exodus 2:11–15

On March 4, 1870, Riel made one of the worst decisions of his life. He did not have unanimous support in Red River, and many Canadians and English Métis were opposed to his hostile takeover of power. Riel arrested a group of these men who were attempting to take back control of the colony. Among those arrested was Thomas Scott. Scott was from Ontario, and belonged to the Orange Order, a religious and political fraternal society of Protestants and Loyalists that originated in Northern Ireland. Riel decided that Scott would be made an example of, to prove the sovereignty and authority of the provisional government. Scott was executed by firing squad.

The killing of Thomas Scott outside the walls of Upper Fort Garry, from the Canadian Illustrated News, April 23, 1870 (HBC Archives; source). 

English Canada was outraged at Scott’s execution. Riel achieved his goal, and he was now taken seriously as a threat to Canadian hegemony in the region. Macdonald knew the Canadian public wanted retaliation, but he was in no rush for justice. He needed the North-West as calm as possible for the railroad to be built. Ottawa accepted three delegates from Red River to discuss the terms of their joining Confederation. On March 4, 1870, the Manitoba Act was passed, creating the province of Manitoba and, at least on paper, ensuring land rights for the Métis. However, no amnesty would be granted for those responsible for Scott’s execution.

At this stage in Riel’s life, he attempted to become a leader of his people. He challenged the authority of the land and instituted his own principles through violence. In the short term, he appeared to be successful, but ultimately he was not ready or able to lead. Some comparisons can be made here with Moses. Moses shared similar struggles as a leader of the Israelites in Egypt. Moses’ killing of the Egyptian (in Ex. 2:11–15) did not connect him to his people. Moses was forced to leave his people and go to the land of Midian, as the authority he attempted to take for himself was turned back on him by Pharaoh.

In Midian, Moses became prepared to be a leader of his people. He watered the sheep of a priest named Reuel, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. She bore a son whom Moses named Gershon, the name relating to sojourning in a foreign land. At this point, Moses found the appropriate distance between Israel and another nation. He established a new identity away from enslavement and tyranny in Egypt and in proper union with the stranger. He did so without losing himself in the process or destroying that with which he had joined.10

Prophet in Exile

So David hid himself in the field: and when the new moon was come, the king sat him down to eat meat. And the king sat upon his seat, as at other times, even upon a seat by the wall: and Jonathan arose, and Abner sat by Saul’s side, and David’s place was empty. Nevertheless Saul spake not any thing that day: for he thought, Something hath befallen him, he is not clean; surely he is not clean. And it came to pass on the morrow, which was the second day of the month, that David’s place was empty: and Saul said unto Jonathan his son, Wherefore cometh not the son of Jesse to meat, neither yesterday, nor to day?

– 1 Sam. 20:24–27

Macdonald sent a group of Canadian militia men and British regulars to Red River to ensure order and establish Canadian authority. The law marching west had direct consequences for Riel. There was an active warrant for his arrest, but this didn’t stop Riel from winning a seat in parliament in the new electoral district of Provencher. He was elected in absentia in 1873, but was unable to take his seat for fear of being arrested. At one point shortly after his election, he was tipped off about a group of men coming to claim the $5,000 reward for his capture. He was assisted by friends, and hidden in the woods near Red River. 

Soon he travelled east — first to Quebec then to the United States once again. During this episode of evading the law, one of Riel’s friends compared him to the young King David — forced to flee the tyrannical King Saul and similarly unable to “take his seat at the table” (cf. 1 Sam. 20:24–27).11

Picture Bible, France, 1244–54. David waits for a sign from Jonathan whether or not to flee King Saul. Illustration of I Samuel 20:35–38 (source).

Riel remained a devout Catholic despite leaving the path to priesthood years before. He developed a personal identification with King David in the coming years. There were many striking similarities between the two. Flanagan writes:

Both had experienced unexpected youthful success against formidable odds. Both had been forced to flee from the power of government… David, when he sought safety with the Philistines, Riel when he stayed with his friends.... He was seven-eighths French Canadian and one-eighth Indian.... David was seven-eights Hebrew and one-eighth Gentile.12

Feigning Madness?

And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me? Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?

– 1 Samuel 21:11–15

Riel’s behaviour was increasingly erratic at this time.13 His friends and family grew concerned over his grandiose exaltations and unpredictable fits of emotion. There were several episodes, but one illustrates his new sense of himself and purpose. During a Mass on one occasion, Riel rose and loudly proclaimed three times, “Hear the voice of the priest!” referring to himself. 

On March 6, 1876, Riel’s uncle invited him on a carriage ride which led to the St Jean-de-Dieu asylum for the insane, in Montreal. He was admitted as ‘Louis R. David’. Here his behaviour clashed with authorities as he attempted to act out his new religious ideas. He was frustrated that they would not allow him to serve what he viewed as his rightful duties as a priest in the asylum’s chapel.

He began referring to himself through correspondence as “Prophet, Infallible Pontiff, and Priest-King” during his stay in the asylum. His behaviour during this time and the fact that his actions were concerning enough for his family to have him admitted to a mental hospital, certainly bring about questions about what exactly differentiates a genuine prophet from someone with a mental illness. Those closest to him clearly thought the lines had been blurred enough. 

A friend of Riel’s questioned him about his mental state and what his people now thought of him:

The Métis believed either that the government had put Riel in an asylum to persecute him or that he himself had feigned madness. After some hesitation, Riel stated that the latter alternative was true. He had pretended to go insane so that he would no longer seem capable of leading his people. Then the government might stop persecuting the Métis, who were no threat without his leadership.14
Picture Bible, France, 1244–54. David feigns madness before King Achish. Illustration of I Samuel 21:13–15 (source).

Riel expounded on new revelations in notebooks and letters. In February 1876, Riel claimed it was revealed to him that the North American Indians were actually the descendants of ancient Hebrews. He recorded a system of numerology based on the book of Daniel, which told of the transfer of the papacy from Rome to the New World. He also detailed plans for widespread intermarriage between Indigenous and Europeans. Riel envisioned that “the entire Indian race of North America would give way to a new race: a race of Métis of different fatherlands.”

Riel also began to be involved with figures of the church in Quebec associated with ultramontanism — ardent supporters of temporal papal power. These men were also strong proponents of maintaining a distinct French-Canadian Catholic identity. Chief among them was Montreal’s Bishop Ignace Bourget. This worldview helped to inform Riel’s religious and political outlook. His new system of theology and practice would have the Métis people leading the way in the New World. His new religion would be ushered in through a theocratic government, ideally with Bourget as the figurehead, to serve as an antithesis to encroaching liberalism and secular society.

Riel’s Mighty Men

On January 23, 1878, Riel was released from the asylum. Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie granted Riel amnesty for the Thomas Scott murder, with the stipulation that he remain in exile in the United States for five years. Riel was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on March 16, 1883. For the first time in his life he had some real stability. He was teaching at a school in Montana and was married with several children. This period of relative calm for Riel would not last long.

A group of Métis gradually left the Red River Colony, both before and in the wake of the first rebellion of 1869–70. Those Métis relocated further west along the South Saskatchewan River, forming a community called the South Branch Settlement. The Métis’ most urgent concern at that time was compensation for the loss of their aboriginal title to the land, and formal recognition of their existing landholdings, before development engulfed the region.15 

Gabriel Dumont was one of the most prominent among the group of Métis leadership who reached out to Riel because of these concerns. Dumont had been the de facto leader of the Saskatchewan Métis since 1863, when he was elected ‘leader of the hunt’ at the age of 25. Dumont had the kind of character that, if he were at the helm of the Métis for the next few years instead of Riel, things may have turned out much differently.

A biographer of Dumont discusses some of the differences between the two men:

Dumont has all the qualities of the kind of folk or frontier hero who is a contemporary equivalent to the great braggart warriors of Homer and Shakespeare; in the United States he would have acquired legendary status.... Dumont was the natural man par excellence, adapted to the life of wilderness, and in this he was profoundly different from Riel, who was as alienated as any modern Canadian from that existence.... There was a great difference between the Red River society of 1869 and the Métis settlements of hunters recently and unwillingly turned farmers ... in 1885.16
Louis Riel (source) & Gabriel Dumont (source).

In December 1885, the Métis leadership sent a petition of their grievances to the federal government.17 Ottawa responded months later with a promise to appoint a commission to review the grievances. But that was unsatisfactory to Riel and the Métis. They wanted representation in the form of a provincial government and guarantees to their land as soon as possible. Discontent reached the point of open rebellion once again. On March 19, 1885, Riel and the Métis leadership declared a provisional government of the Métis nation at Batoche.

Riel formed a governing council named the ‘Exovedate’ — derived from the Latin ex, “out of,” and ovis, “sheep”, meaning “chosen from the flock”.18 He governed and led according to his own symbolic understanding of how history was unfolding. He fashioned a flag to represent the miraculous deliverance that would occur. It was a banner bearing a large picture of Our Lady of Lourdes which had belonged to the Riel children. In his mind, the final battle would see the Métis victorious on their rightful land — regardless of firepower or numbers. That decisive confrontation of the North-West Rebellion of 1885 is known as the Battle of Batoche.

Batoche and Its Aftermath

Some of the people again rose up against Moses’ leadership and put pressure on him to transfer the priesthood to themselves. Although he made supplication to God on behalf of the rebels, the righteous judgment of God was stronger than the compassion of Moses for his people. For the earth, opening up like a chasm at the divine will and closing up again, swallowed all those who set themselves, together with all their kinsmen, against the authority of Moses. When two hundred and fifty of those who raved about the priesthood were consumed by fire, the people were brought to their senses.

– Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses 1.6919
Contemporary lithograph of the Battle of Batoche during the North-West Rebellion, based on sketches by Sergeant Grundy and others, published by Grip Printing & Publishing Co. (source).

The near completion of the railroad allowed Canadian forces to arrive at Batoche in weeks rather than months. Dumont had prepared to the best of his ability, digging trenches and pits for Métis riflemen, while Riel remained in a heightened state of prayer and reflection. Riel never carried a weapon — he was armed only with a wooden crucifix during the battle. The numbers of Métis had gradually dwindled to only the most fervent supporters, leaving about 250 men, coincidentally the same number of men which Scripture records having rebelled against Moses and Aaron, attempting to take the priesthood for themselves (see Num. 16:2). The Canadian forces well outnumbered the Métis, with more than 900 combined regular troops and militia. 

The battle lasted from May 9th to the 12th. Dumont’s rifle pits caused initial confusion and struggles for the Canadians, but that was short-lived. The Canadians were better armed and had the numbers. The use of artillery shells and a Gatling gun by the Canadians gradually wore down Métis defenses. After it was clear that Métis supplies were dwindling, the Canadians charged the town, easily overwhelmed the remaining defenses, and captured Riel, who surrendered willingly. Dumont was able to escape, and crossed the border into the United States.

Riel was charged with high treason. His defense team had a very difficult task. Their client actively sabotaged their efforts throughout the trial. They argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanity — which Riel adamantly denied. He was determined to use the trial to spread his religious and political ideas. He did not want to be discredited or written off as a madman.

Reactions to the trial illustrate the symbolic position of Riel in the history of Canada between its founding peoples. One could fairly easily predict what a given person’s opinion on the matter would be depending on if they were English or French. In Quebec, most did not wholeheartedly agree with or know all the details of Riel’s ideas, but he was still a francophone Catholic who was being persecuted by the state. For much of English Canada, Riel was an outsider in all respects. He actively threatened a developing culture and society.

An 1885 political cartoon showing John A. Macdonald with Riel on his shoulders, pulling two horses in opposite directions, labelled “English and French influence” (source).

Riel spoke as a part of his defense. He defended his role as a prophet and leader of his people, but he knew his audience. The trial took place in the North-West, in the new city of Regina, with a jury of English Protestants. He shared sparse details about his mystical experiences and specific convictions — showing that he had some insight of how these beliefs would be perceived to the general public. He emphasized ideas that were sympathetic to those in the courtroom, such as the shortcomings and abuses of Rome, and his personal encounters with the Holy Spirit.

The six-man jury found him guilty of high treason, but recommended clemency from the death penalty. However, the sentence of death was the only option available for judge Hugh Richardson, as a result of the charge. Riel accepted the verdict of death with dignity, but did not lose hope of a reprieve. Privately he still held onto the core of his mission as a prophet. He signed an abjuration in which he recanted his heresies, which Thomas Flanagan believes to be largely external — a formality that allowed Riel to receive the sacraments and show at least outward signs of deference to the Church.20

Riel speaks at his trial (source).

Until the end, Riel believed that his mission did not entirely constitute a break from Rome because he saw it as an extension of Rome and the Catholic faith, led by the priesthood of the New World. He spent the last months of his life in quiet reflection, writing and praying, with the belief that his sacrifice would be recognized as a necessary step in renewal which would continue after his death.

Riel was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885.

Remembering Riel

Riel attempted to fulfill the transitory or in-between role between old and new worlds. Despite the troubles he had with regards to soundness of mind or mental illness, it is apparent that he was not only highly intelligent, but also a genuine believer with deeply held convictions. His mission was  to renew his people and home — to bring the Métis and Indigenous people into the universal Christian story. 

Riel put himself into the role of a priest and prophet. In the words of Saint Gregory of Nyssa — speaking of Korah’s rebellion in the Book of Numbers to take leadership from Moses and usurp Aaron’s priesthood — Riel’s fate is a predictable one: “The Scripture teaches in the history, I think, that when one arrogantly exalts himself he ends by falling even below the earth. And perhaps, if viewed through these events, arrogance might not unreasonably be defined as a downward ascent.”21

Riel also took the law into his own hands with the execution of Thomas Scott. He started a cycle which would result in the violence of the Canadian state being visited upon him in a similar way. The state viewed Riel as Riel viewed Scott: an ethnic and religious enemy who threatened its authority and vision of the future. This is a major distinguishing moment between Riel and King David as well. King David left the task of avenging his enemies to his son Solomon — escaping a cycle of personal vengeance. Solomon had proper distance and the appropriate authority vested in him to administer justice. 

Often those today who try to claim Riel as an avatar to be grafted onto contemporary society, do so with only a veneer of the man. His superficial characteristics, mapped on to current identities, miss his symbolic importance. That is why commemorations and tributes to Riel often lay bare a dissonance and confusion over his place in history.

Duelling depictions of Riel. “Two statues of Riel are located in Winnipeg. One of these statues, the work of architect Étienne Gaboury and sculptor Marcien Lemay, depicts Riel as a naked and tortured figure. It was unveiled in 1971 and stood in the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building for 23 years. After much outcry (especially from the Métis community) that the statue was an undignified misrepresentation, [it] was removed and placed at the Université de Saint-Boniface. [In 1996] it was replaced with a statue... designed by Miguel Joyal depicting Riel as a dignified statesman.... A statue of Riel on the grounds of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in Regina was installed and later removed for similar reasons” (Wikipedia).

Mediating Between Nations

Riel symbolically fills the role of an important aspect of Canadian history. He is a microcosm of the attempt to find the appropriate distance between disparate peoples and cultures. This is a familiar notion in Scripture. There are varying degrees of success in Scripture of incorporating the foreign or the foreigner, and renewing oneself, or one’s nation. The perfect scenario is the first story of contact between humans, of Adam and Eve.22 The creation of Eve occurs without birth pains or suffering. Adam remains uncorrupted and undamaged by the process, and something new is brought into existence which enriches his life. Conversely, Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the first example in Scripture of improper renewal and integration.

In many ways we are living in the times of Riel and King David. We are looking for someone to provide a renewal of our traditions and the laws of our culture. We still require an imperfect incorporation of the foreign and the stranger, one which will not cause us to lose our identity and existence as a people. The book of Ruth is one example of many in Scripture of an imperfect union with the foreign or strange within a fallen world.23 The book itself seems to be a short digression wedged in between the larger histories of the Old Testament. 

The significance of Ruth’s lineage, and her place in the histories, is not revealed until the end of the story. She is from Moab, the descendants of Lot, who are enemies of Israel. An Israelite husband and wife, Elimelech and Naomi, travel to Moab to escape a famine in Israel. Their sons marry two Moabite women. One of them is Ruth. The husband and both sons die, leaving only Naomi and her two daughters-in-law; Ruth being one of them.

Naomi decides to return to Israel and implores her daughters-in-law to go back to their former lives in Moab. Ruth refuses and travels back to Israel with Naomi. Ruth was not obligated to follow her now unfruitful, childless mother-in-law. But willingly abandoning her former life in Moab leads to her own redemption. Ruth fulfills the role of the stranger through gleaning — literally, as in the story she gleans the leftover grain of the field — and symbolically Ruth incorporates what is fallen and left over, to renew herself.

In doing so, she is noticed by a relative of Naomi, Boaz. Boaz redeems Ruth and brings her into a union with her new people, the Israelites, through marriage. Ruth bore a son by Boaz, “…and they called his name Obed. This is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:17). This establishes Ruth as the great-grandmother of King David, and a Gentile ancestor of Christ. The story is a type or sign of the proper union between peoples that Christ brings to an imperfect world, as the mediator. He is the one in whom all nations will come to be represented, without losing themselves completely, in the kingdom of God.

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1.  Flanagan, p. 56.

2.  Ibid.

3.  Nellas, p. 46.

4.  Ross, pp. 193–94.

5.  Ibid., p. 210.

6.  Jonathan Pageau (with Richard Rohlin), “Universal History: the Mystery of Ethiopia | with Richard Rohlin (Ethiopia #1),” at 6:48. YouTube, July 2, 2021.

7.  Homer, The Odyssey 1.22–23.

8.  Pageau (with Rohlin), op. cit., at 19:52.

9.  Flanagan, p. 6.

10.  See Jonathan Pageau, “Slaves in Egypt: Exodus 1-2,” at 31:46. YouTube, November 25, 2022.

11.  Flanagan, p. 43.

12.  Ibid., p. 83.

13.  See ibid., pp. 63, 76, 90, 97, and 128 for examples of Riel’s behavior and ideas at this time.

14.  Ibid., p. 110.

15.  Stonechild and Waiser, p. 57.

16.  Woodcock, p. 11.

17.  Petition of Rights, 1884 Canadian Northwest. December, 1884.

18.  Flanagan, pp. 154–58.

19.  Saint Gregory of Nyssa, p. 49.

20.  Flanagan, p. 178.

21.  Saint Gregory of Nyssa, p. 126.

22.  Dan Sherven Interviews, “Matthieu Pageau: The Language of Creation (Dan Sherven),” at 53:50. YouTube, November 7, 2022.

23.  Jonathan Pageau, “September 2022 Q&A,” at 1:06:32. YouTube, September 28, 2022.

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