Louis Riel’s ill-fated Ottawa journey

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Anna Heffernan

During his lifetime, Louis David Riel was a controversial figure—a leader of two uprisings, regarded as either a hero or a traitor—but today he is recognized for his contributions to the development of the Métis Nation, the province of Manitoba, and Canada. In 1992, he was named a founder of Manitoba, and in 2016, he was recognized as the province’s first leader. Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been celebrated as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a rich selection of materials relating to Louis Riel and the movements he led. The We Are Here: Sharing Stories project digitizes Indigenous-related materials in LAC’s collections. One of our priorities is to digitize the documentary legacy of Riel to make it more accessible to Métis Nation communities and researchers. While Riel is one of Canada’s most famous historical figures, some aspects of his life story are less known.

Most Canadians will recall that Louis Riel led the Red River Resistance in 1869–1870. At this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their rights to Rupert’s Land, granted to them by the British Crown, to the Dominion of Canada. Métis Nation and First Nations peoples who traditionally inhabited the area did not recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claim to the land, and therefore saw this as an illegitimate sale. In response to the sale of their homelands, Louis Riel and his colleagues formed a provisional government, pictured below, at Fort Garry.

A black-and-white photograph of 14 men, arranged in three rows (the front two rows sitting and the back row standing), with Louis Riel seated in the centre.

Louis Riel (centre) with the councillors of the provisional government in 1870 (a012854)

However, not everyone supported Riel’s provisional government. A group of Ontario settlers were captured by the provisional government’s forces while preparing to attack Fort Garry. One of the group, Thomas Scott, was executed for insubordination on March 4, 1870. Despite this incident, negotiations with Canada continued, and Riel successfully negotiated the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. When the negotiations were complete, a military expedition was sent from Ontario to enforce Canadian control over Manitoba. Many in Ontario viewed Riel as a traitor and murderer for the execution of Thomas Scott. Fearing for his life, Riel fled to St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the less-well-known stories of Louis Riel’s life is his ill-fated journey to Ottawa. In 1873, Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba, and he was re-elected twice in 1874. Riel travelled to Ottawa to take his seat, but his foray into federal politics was to be short-lived. His attempt to sit in the House of Commons is documented in our collection by some interesting material. The first item is the test roll bearing his signature, pictured below, which every Member of Parliament signed upon taking the oath.

Page with six columns of signatures. Louis Riel’s signature is seen at bottom right.

Caption: Page from the House of Commons test roll signed by Louis Riel (e010771238)

Going to Ontario at this time was an enormous risk for Riel. After the execution of Thomas Scott, Ontarians reacted with anger—particularly Protestants, because Scott had been a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization. In response, the premier of Ontario offered a $5,000 reward for Riel’s capture, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. In Parliament, a motion to expel Riel was brought by Mackenzie Bowell, an Orangeman from Ontario. The motion passed, and Riel would not return to the House of Commons, despite being re-elected a third time. The second piece of material relating to Riel’s journey to the capital is the photograph below. Before leaving hastily, Riel had his photograph taken in Ottawa, inscribed with the caption “Louis Riel, MP.”

Sepia-tone vignette photograph of Louis Riel facing the camera, with handwritten inscription underneath reading “Louis Riel, MP.”

Caption: Studio portrait taken in Ottawa after Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba (e003895129)

In 1875, Riel went into exile in the United States. From 1879, he lived in Montana Territory, where he married Marguerite Monet, dite Bellehumeur, in 1881. They had three children. He followed the buffalo hunt and worked as an agent, trader, woodcutter and later teacher. Riel returned to Canada, to Batoche in what is now Saskatchewan, in July 1884.

The test roll and the photograph of Riel in Ottawa are examples of how even some of the small items in our collection can illuminate moments in Canadian history. By researching and digitizing more of the Indigenous documentary heritage in our collections, we aim to share the stories not only of famous figures like Riel but also of many other Indigenous people in Canada.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.

Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

4 thoughts on “Louis Riel’s ill-fated Ottawa journey

  1. Anna,

    Thanks for the short entry on Riel.

    If I recall correctly, that photograph is a copy of a photograph which was probably made elsewhere than in Ottawa. It certainly does not represent the sort of work that most studios in Ottawa were capable of producing. But when and where it was made are up for grabs….

    Andrew Rodger
    Photo archivist (ret’d)

    • Hi Andrew,
      The contention that it was made in Ottawa is based on our record of the item, which states that it was taken in Ottawa as you can see if you click on the link beneath it. As far as I know it is accurate. If it is not, it would be the responsibility of the archivist in charge of that portfolio to update it. I would assume the archivist who described it would not have written that it was taken in Ottawa unless there was some evidence to suggest that is where it was taken. I suggest you get in contact with a current photo archivist if you have evidence to the contrary so that they can investigate the provenance of the photo and possibly update the description if necessary.

      • Hi Anna,
        Just browsing and I stumbled across this. Nice to see this blog. But, Andrew is correct in this case. That image is more likely dated to 1870, around the same time as the famous “provisional government” group and was frequently copied. I think you’ll find that the LAC has another photograph of Riel in 1875 that would be a more likely candidate for this time period. (I believe that Acc. Number is 1984-296 NPC). Compare that with another image at the Saskatchewan Provincial Archives. It corresponds with the dates of his trip to Ottawa. (See their portrait, Item R-A2305.) He is much more “parliamentarian”. By contrast another good source for information on Riel’s trip, also available at LAC-BAC archives, are the newspapers. They reported on his arrival and the stir it created. They are a wealth of information on the topic.
        Max Hamon

  2. I always knew Riel came to Ottawa. Family lore says he stayed at the stone home of John Allen Snow on the Aylmer Rd. if only for 1 day/night. Riel liked Snow, both Riel and Snow didn’t like Scott. Look up Scott in the western newspapers and you will find he was not a nice man. Snow didn’t like the idea of Scott going west with him as he knew there would be trouble and he was right. Scott even pointed a gun at Snow and said he’d shoot him like a dog if he didn’t get his pay (after a strike occured). Riel didn’t imprison Snow, when he imprisoned Scott, Schultz et al. Riel even let Snow enter the jail and bring food and clothes etc. for the prisoners. Since Riel and Snow got along, it is quite possible that the family lore is true. John Allen Snow was a surveyor and my great grandfather x3. The house still stands on the Aylmer Rd.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.