Riel, Dumont and the Métis

Historical context of the struggle for their rights of a people of mixed Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage

by Michel Lapierre

This text is adapted from an article that first appeared in 3900, a publication of the Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui.

On April 14, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa ruled that Métis, who live primarily in western Canada, are considered Indigenous—specifically, Indians—under the Constitution. Reaction to this historic ruling was swift and joyous: television news clips showed people proudly sporting the ceinture fléchée (arrow sash) and a fiddler playing a lively tune, all in the finest Quebec folk tradition.

What exactly is this people called the Métis? Joseph Boyden, an English-speaking writer born in Ontario in 1966, though proud to claim Métis blood, spiritedly avoids iconographic clichés. Quoting Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, he writes, “It must be God’s great joke to create a race that is composed of three such deeply troubled identities: French, Indian, and Catholic, all rolled into one!”

The Métis trace their origins to the mixed marriages between First Nations women and French‑Canadian voyageurs, descendants of the pioneers of New France who settled in the St. Lawrence Valley. John A. Macdonald (1815–91), a Scottish Protestant of European heritage, a Father of Confederation, a Conservative, and Canada’s first prime minister, described the Métis in dismissive terms: “Thankfully, they are mostly ignorant buffalo hunters and their population is small enough that they don’t deserve too much attention.”

Victims of British imperialism

To Macdonald, a fierce champion of the British Empire, this New World race was an outrage. What better excuse to deny these people the rights to the land they had cultivated, and brand them squatters? In defending the rights of their Métis brothers, Louis Riel (1844–85), visionary leader of the resistance, and Gabriel Dumont (1837–1906), man of action turned guerrilla strategist (particularly at Batoche, in present-day Saskatchewan), were following their dream of an America that would rise above the European system.

However, they realized that the French-Canadian Métis, together with their Liberal allies in Quebec led by future premier Honoré Mercier (1840–94), as well as a small contingent of First Nations people sympathetic to their cause, were no match for Anglo-Protestant expansionism and conservatism. The advance of the transcontinental railway into western Canada symbolized the aggressive power of the British Empire.

So much so that Dumont, as Boyden writes, “knew he had lost the support of most, if not all, of the English settlers.” Even mixed-blood Anglophones didn’t dare to align with the French-Canadian Métis in the struggle. A master of the bison hunt, Dumont was also the military leader of Riel’s supporters. Riel himself was a political leader and a passionate advocate for a home-grown North American Catholicism that was condemned by the clergy as unreasonable and unorthodox. As a follower of this New World prophet, a man much better educated than himself, Dumont confronted the European settlement of the West under the Anglo-Protestant yoke, which he viewed as tantamount to the dispossession of the Métis and First Nations people.

In diametrical contrast to a rail-based culture, Dumont proposed a society based on the harmonious intermingling of people of European descent and Indigenous people. In 1888, he wrote to Laurent-Olivier David, president of the Association (later the Société) Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, “I can honestly say that we Métis have been the pioneers of civilization in the North West.”

Quebec and the Métis cause

Fortunately, Métis status was primarily a matter of the heart and political instinct, which is why, as Riel pointed out, French Canadians seemed “more Métis than the Métis themselves.” And indeed, shortly after the hanging for high treason, in Regina in 1885, of the political leader of the Métis uprising, a huge crowd gathered on the Champ-de-Mars in Montreal to protest Prime Minister Macdonald’s evident satisfaction. In a famous speech delivered at the protest, Mercier wasn’t exaggerating when he called Riel his “brother.”

In a single sentence, the most compelling in his Histoire de la nation métisse dans l’Ouest canadien (1935, published in English as Hold High Your Heads: History of the Métis Nation in Western Canada), Auguste-Henri de Trémaudan—who was born in Quebec in 1874 and lived in western Canada before ending his days in California in 1929—captured all the North American aspects related to anthropology, domination, ethnicity, religion and politics surrounding the hanging of Riel, condemned as a traitor to the British crown. It’s a quasi-summary of the history of Canada and Quebec, if not of the entire continent.

“This trial of an Aboriginal man by a White court,” wrote Trémaudan, “pitted East against West, Upper Canada against Lower Canada, Ontario against Quebec, Orangemen against Catholics, Anglo-Saxons against French, Conservatives against Liberals.” To underline the truly global scope of the conflict, he might have added “the Old World against the New”!

We tend to underestimate the prominent place Quebec occupied in Riel’s heart and mind. In 1870, in one of his many oracular-sounding poems, Ô Québec…, Riel called out in French, his mother tongue, to “the motherland,” to his “beloved province,” never despairing of her enduring love for her Prairie sons.

“Never forget your Métis Canadians / … Your children,” Riel implored. Here, the word “Canadians” has its original meaning, i.e., descendants of the settlers of New France, who were the first to enter into mixed marriages with First Nations women, and thus literally to give birth to the Métis nation. Trémaudan stresses the fact that “French was the first European language spoken in western Canada.”

Even so, and like Riel, whom he naturally places at the centre of his historical fresco, Trémaudan rejects any jingoism or sectarianism. On the contrary, he describes as “fraternal” the relationship between these “Métis French Canadians,” these Catholics, and their compatriots of mixed British and Indian blood, members of a younger and smaller community, most of whom spoke English and practised the Protestant religion.

As the historian tells it, Riel did everything possible to forge a kind of “holy alliance” between Francophones and Anglophones, be they Métis or White. It was all in the interest of opposing the federal government’s idea of stripping the occupants of their lands, particularly between Ontario and the Rockies, and gradually integrating into Confederation a vast territory, Rupert’s Land and the North West Territory, previously owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and transferred to Ottawa by London in 1870.

Unfortunately, the Anglophones proved far less willing than the Francophones to take a stand against the British Empire. John Christian Schultz, future lieutenant governor of Manitoba, led a movement of Whites who opposed Riel and fanatically defended Anglo-Protestant interests. Supporters of the movement, a holdover from the age-old religious and political quarrels that plagued Great Britain and Ireland, were quite rightly called Orangemen.

Riel’s Utopian vision

Schultz enjoyed the tacit approval of Canadian prime minister Macdonald. Meanwhile, Quebec-born Liberal MP Wilfrid Laurier, and at the provincial level, Quebec Liberal leader Honoré Mercier, sided with Riel. Riel himself was subject to mystical visions, part harmless folly, part Utopian aspirations of a wounded soul.

In sharp contrast to the Anglo-Protestant cultural steamroller that threatened to crush the existing western Canadian cultures, not to mention those of the immigrants arriving in ever-increasing numbers, Riel dreamed of independent states—one for Indians, one for French-Canadian Métis, alongside a “new Ireland,” a “new Bavaria,” a “new Poland,” and so on. He even imagined an American branch of Catholicism distinct from the European form, and governed not from Rome but from Montreal!

“It is God’s wish,” wrote the prophet of the Métis nation, “that [Pope] Leo XIII should come to New France, to the city of Mount Royal, to preside over an ecumenical council of all New World bishops.” Though this somewhat feverish religious zeal is a little disconcerting, albeit born of the appealing notion of a harmonious spiritual intermingling of people of European and Indigenous heritage, it’s important to put it in context and perspective by comparing it to the vision of another 19th‑century Utopian, the free thinker Louis-Joseph Papineau.

As a countermeasure to the encroachment on this side of the Atlantic of the heavy European yoke of the English monarchy, Papineau, a Montreal-born, non-religious democrat, pictured a confederated republic of all New World peoples. Riel and Papineau: what dreams they left us! It would seem that, in order to survive, the dwindling Quebec diaspora, and most important, Quebec itself, must constantly reimagine America.


MICHEL LAPIERRE is a journalist and contributor to the daily newspaper Le Devoir.