16 November

The execution of Louis Riel

Louis Riel Hanged

Where did Sir John A. Macdonald really stand on the question of Louis Riel? After the Red River uprising and the shooting of Thomas Scott in 1870, Protestant Ontario was bitterly demanding that Riel be arrested and tried for murder. Sir John would say, "Where is Riel? I wish I could get my hands on him." Privately he was sending him money, on the understanding that he would leave the country.

After the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, Riel was tried in Regina. Once again there was an uproar in Quebec, especially after Riel was declared guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The date of the execution was postponed several times, as pressure on Macdonald continued to mount. Pleas for clemency came from many parts of the world. Conservative members of Parliament from Quebec told Sir John that they would not be responsible for the consequences if Riel were hanged. There was a flood of threatening anonymous letters. The Government was adamant, however, and Sir John said, "He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour." Riel was hanged on November 16.

Yet it is possible that Sir John tried to help Riel, as he did after the Red River uprising. It seems clear that there was a scheme to free Riel before the day of the execution. One story is that the Northwest Mounted Police on guard were to turn their backs for half an hour while Riel was taken from his cell. A relay of fast horses would carry him across the American border. If this story were true, then it would have taken someone in high authority, possibly Sir John, to have arranged it. The present-day Royal Canadian Mounted Police, successors to the Northwest Mounted Police, say they have nothing in their records to substantiate the story. It may have been that the escape was planned by Gabriel Dumont, a friend of Riel, who had found refuge in the States (see December 10).

In any case, the escape became impossible when an enemy of Riel heard about it and "spilled the beans." The hangman was another enemy. When he put the noose around Riel's neck, he asked, "Do you know me, Louis Riel? It is my turn today."


16 November

-1686    Britain and France signed the Treaty of Neutrality governing possessions in North America in the event of war in Europe.

-1837    Warrants were issued for the arrest of Papineau and other rebellion leaders. 1869 A convention of Métis at Red River formed a provisional government with Louis Riel playing the leading role.

-1950    Canadian troops for the Korean War arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington, for training.