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Buffalo at Sunset

Buffalo at Sunset by Paul Kane, c. 1851 – 1856 (National Gallery of Canada)


“I have done three good things since I have commenced: I have spared Boulton‘s life at your instance, I pardoned Gaddy, and now I shall shoot Scott.”
(Louis Riel, Wikipedia)


Riel, Louis and the First Provisional government, 1869 (courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-1039-1) (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

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March 4, 1870. Protestant Orangeman Thomas Scott is executed on orders from Louis Riel (from the Illustrated Canadian News, April 23, 1870/Glenbow Collection) (Photo credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia) 


Executing Thomas Scott is in fact the worst thing Riel ever did. “Some historians say this was one of Riel’s most fatal errors.” (See Execution of Thomas Scott, A Country by Consent.) It was.

Irish-born Thomas Scott, an Orangeman from present-day Ontario, was captured when he and his party tried to break into Fort Garry, the former Red River Colony and future Winnipeg. He could have been freed on the condition that he leave the valley, but he wouldn’t leave the valley. He was a member of the Orange Order, named after Dutch-born Protestant king William of Orange, anti-Catholics Protestants who looked upon French Canadians as “morally inferior:”

Its [the Orange Order’s] members generally viewed Roman Catholics and French Canadians as politically disloyal or culturally inferior. Some Orange members argued that their association was the only one capable of resisting Catholics who, they believed, were subservient to the Pope’s spiritual and political authority and who were therefore disreputable crown subjects.

(See Orange Order, The Canadian Encyclopedia)

As an Orangeman and very anti-Catholic, Thomas Scott repeatedly taunted his captors and threatened to kill Riel.” (See Execution of Thomas Scott, A Country by Consent.)  Moreover, Orangemen had a “penchant for violence and secrecy.”

Colonial administrators in Upper CanadaCanada West were at times thankful for their loyalty and service, and other times disparaged their penchant for violence and secrecy.

(See The Orange Order in CanadaThe Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Canada buys Rupert’s Land

One can understand that after Canadian Confederation, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, and his government might wish to expand westward. In 1867, the United States had bought Alaska from Russia. Moreover, the United States had developed an ideology, Manifest Destiny (c. 1850), which suggested that Americans “were destined to expand across North America the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, etc.” (See Manifest Destiny, Wikipedia.)

Therefore, John A. Macdonald and his government purchased Rupert’s Land, a vast territory, named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who supplied Pierre-Esprit Radisson with a ship, the Nonsuch, that took him near the center of the continent. For men employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670, portages were minimized. The HBC’s trading post was York Factory, built in 1684.  However, in 1774, the Hudson’s Bay Company built Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River, its first western inland post. “Brigades” of canoes would go down waterways to acquire beaver pelts used to make top hats or chapeaux haut-de-forme. At this point, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North-West Company became fierce competitors until the merger of the two companies in 1821.

This [Rupert’s Land] amounted to an enormous territory in the heart of the continent: what is today northern Québec and Labrador, northern and western  Ontario, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, south and central Alberta, parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and small sections of the United States.

(See Rupert’s Land, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)


Rupert’s Land (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Winter Fishing on the Ice by Peter Ridinsbacher, 1821 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Red River Colony

However, although one can understand Prime Minister John A. Macdonald‘s wish to expand the new Canadian Confederation westward, but he did so without consulting the inhabitants of the Red River Colony, depicted above in Peter Rindisbacher‘s art, many of whom were Métis. The Earl of Selkirk had settled the Red River Colony in the early decades of the 19th century. So, the Colony’s citizens were alarmed because of the influx of immigrants that followed Confederation. New Canadians were moving West in a manner that did not reflect the way the Earl of Selkirk’s had settled the community. (See The Red River Settlement, Canada’s First Peoples and Lord Selkirk’s Grant, CBC.ca) It was located at the juncture of the Red River and the Assiniboine, in modern-day Winnipeg.

When he returned from studying in Montreal, Louis Riel, the grandson of Jean-Baptiste Lagimonière, or Lagimodière, and Marie-Anne Gaboury, noticed that life was changing in the Red River Colony and that it was not changing to the benefit of the Métis, who numbered 10,000. For instance, “[t]he Métis did not possess title to their land, which was, in any case, laid out according to the seigneurial system rather than in English-style square lots.” (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.) French seigneuries were narrow strips of land on the shores of the St. Lawrence. Given that they were narrow, several seigneuries could be built on each side of the St. Lawrence River. Such a configuration facilitated transportation.

In short, entry of the Red River Colony into Confederation seemed a takeover.

The Red River Rebellion

A timeline of events

On 20 August 1869, a survey party arrived. On 11 October, the survey’s work was interrupted so, on 16 October, a “Métis National Committee” was formed at which point Louis Riel was summoned by the HBC-controlled Council of Assiniboia and “declared that any attempt by Canada to assume authority would be contested unless Ottawa had first negotiated terms with the Métis.” (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.) On 2 November, unilingual William McDougall, who had just been appointed Lieutenant Governor of  Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory, attempted to enter the settlement. McDougall had participated in the purchase of Rupert’s Land. He and George-Étienne Cartier had gone to London seeking funds to purchase Rupert’s Land. Métis “led by Riel seized Fort Garry [present-day Winnipeg].” (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.) The Métis formed a Provisional Government, the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, on 6 December and on 27 December 1869, Louis Riel became its President. On 4 March 1870, 28 year-old Irish- born Thomas Scott was executed by firing squad, but he may have been left to die of his wounds. (See Louis Riel, Library and Archives Canada.)

The execution of Thomas Scott: a mistake

The execution of Irish-born Ontario Orangeman Thomas Scott, on 4 March 1870, is central to an account of the Red River Rebellion and to the fate of French-speaking Canadians in western Canada. Thomas Scott was violent. “He took part in a strike in 1869, for which he was fired and convicted of aggravated assault.” Therefore, he may have attempted to kill Louis Riel. Moreover, “Scott backed the annexation of the Red River Settlement to Canada, and the rest of his life revolved around this conflict. Scott had persecuted many metis, or “Half Breeds” in Winnipeg, and his first town, Ottawa, with a mysterious man named Gnez Noel.” Members of the Orange Order “generally viewed Roman Catholics and French Canadians as politically disloyal or culturally inferior.” (See Orange OrderThe Canadian Encyclopedia.)

In fact, colonial administrators were of two minds with respect to members of the Orange Order.

Colonial administrators in Upper CanadaCanada West were at times thankful for their loyalty and service, and other times disparaged their penchant for violence and secrecy.

(See Orange Order in CanadaThe Canadian Encyclopedia)

In short, Thomas Scott was not a model citizen. On the contrary. Yet, would that, however “violent and boisterous” he was, 28-year-old Thomas Scott had been spared a death sentence, if only out of compassion.  I should think a pardon would  have prevented Riel’s own demise and, perhaps, allowed French Canadians to settle west. Thomas Scott was a very young man whom almost everyone would have forgotten, but who would, henceforth, be considered a martyr taken into captivity at Fort Garry, and murdered by a so-called government of ‘Half Breeds.’

Besides, was the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia a government? In their own eyes, they were. Yet, if French Canadians were “morally inferior,” one would surmise that French Métis, a blend of French Canadians and Aboriginals, at first, were morally inferior to French Canadians. I doubt that the Métis Provisional Government, or the  Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, could be taken seriously and I believe it could not anticipate the impact of the execution of Thomas Scott (The Canadian Encyclopedia). I suspect that for many Canadians, Métis could not form a government.

In fact, it would be my opinion that Riel was very angry, which is the reason he would be committed to an asylum in the mid-seventies. After the Red River Rebellion of 1870, he was elected to Parliament three times, but he was never allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons. It has been suggested that Riel suffered from megalomania, which could be the case, but, first and foremost, he was very angry and had reason to be.

His [Riel’s] mental state deteriorated, and following a violent outburst he was taken to Montreal, where he was under the care of his uncle, John Lee, for a few months. But after Riel disrupted a religious service, Lee arranged to have him committed in an asylum in Longue Pointe on 6 March 1876 under the assumed name “Louis R. David[.]” Fearing discovery, his doctors soon transferred him to the Beauport Asylum near Quebec City under the name “Louis Larochelle.”

(See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.)


The inhabitants of the Red River Colony, the Métis and Aboriginals especially, had a right to their land. It had belonged to the Hudson’s Company Bay since 1670, but colonial powers usurped the land they occupied. As for the Red River Colony, it had also been settled. The Earl of Selkirk‘s family had bought sufficient shares in the Hudson’s Bay Company to acquire the land he settled, but that land have been claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, not purchased.

However, the notion that land in North America had been claimed, not bought, was probably lost on John A. Macdonald and his fledgling government. It had been lost on all colonial powers and colonists. By modern standards, it seems legitimate on the part of the European citizens of the Red River to determine their relationship with Canada.

The Red River Colony occupied land that had been bought by Lord Selkirk.  One could say that it was not Rupert’s Land. One could argue that William McDougall and his surveyors were trespassing on land bought by the Earl of Selkirk, that now belonged to the citizens of the Red River Colony, the future Winnipeg, which means that the inhabitants of the Red River Colony had rights. Although Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché and Hudson’s Bay Company governor William MacTavish, advised caution on the part of John A. Macdonald’s government, the Canadian minister of public works,  William McDougall, ordered a survey of the area, he and his men arrived on 20 August 1869. (See Louis Riel, Wikipedia.)

(See Alexandre Antonin Taché.)

As for John A. Macdonald, at this stage, he was still inexperienced. He therefore  purchased Rupert’s Land, part of which belonged to the Red River Colony (Upper Fort Garry) was located, without consulting its inhabitants, which led to the Red River Rebellion. Following the Red River Rebellion, there was little room in Western Canada for Catholics, French Canadians, and Métis. A committee of three travelled to Ottawa:

Riel’s Provisional Government sent Father Noël-Joseph Ritchot a close adviser of Riel’s, Alfred Scott, a Winnipeg bartender, and Judge John Black, to Ottawa to negotiate with the Canadian government.

(See The Birth of Manitoba, Manitobia.)

The news of Scott’s execution arrived ahead of them. John Schultz and Charles Mair, who had both been imprisoned by the Provisional Government for a period of time, were now in Ontario and determined to turn public opinion against Riel.

(See The Birth of Manitoba, Manitobia.)

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The Manitoba Act 1870

Yet the Red River Rebellion did lead to the Manitoba Act of 1870 (la Loi sur le Manitoba), a negotiated entry into the Canadian Confederation.

The Manitoba Act reads as follows. It is

[a]n act of the Parliament of Canada that is defined by the Constitution Act, 1982 as forming a part of the Constitution of Canada. The act, which received the royal assent on May 12, 1870, created the province of Manitoba and continued in force An Act for the Temporary Government of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territories when united with Canada upon the absorption of the British territories of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory into Canada on July 15, 1870.

(See Manitoba Act of 1870, Wikipedia.)

The Wolseley Expedition

However, no sooner was the Manitoba Act of 1870 signed than John A. Macdonald, fearing the United States would annex Manitoba, dispatched the Wolseley Expedition (or Red River Expedition) to “restore order.” The Expedition left Toronto in May 1870 reaching Fort Garry, or the Red River in late August 1870.

After a journey lasting three months of arduous conditions, the Expedition arrived at, and captured, Fort Garry, extinguished Riel’s Provisional Government and eradicated the threat of the U.S. being able to easily wrest western Canada from Confederation.

(See Wolseley Expedition, Wikipedia.)

Riel flees (1870)

Riel fled the Red River upon the conclusion of the Wolseley Expedition (Wikipedia). During the 1879s, he was elected into office three times, but was never allowed to sit in the House of Commons. After his illness, a nervous breakdown, he went to the United States, worked as a teacher and married, Marguerite Monet, à la façon du pays, and fathered two children. He returned to Canada in 1885, summoned by Gabriel Dumont, he was taken prisoner when Métis were defeated at the Battle of Batoche, Saskatchewan, (in May 1885).


How does one conclude?

Louis Riel attempted to protect land the white man, Europeans, had taken from North-American Indians, Amérindiens. However, Riel made the mistake of condemning Thomas Scott to death, giving a martyr to the Orange Order and pursuing Riel for fifteen years and executing him? The Métis were not recognized as an aboriginal people until the Patriation of the Constitution (The Canadian Encyclopedia), in 1982.

As for the Métis List of Rights (A Country by Consent), recognized in the Manitoba Act of 1870, they were short-lived rights. In 1890, Manitoba passed An Act to Provide that the English Language shall be the Official Language of the Province of Manitoba (See Manitoba Act, The Canadian Encyclopedia). In March 1890, the government of Manitoba “passed two bills amending the province’s laws on education: An Act respecting the Department of Education and An Act respecting Public Schools.” These bills abolished the province’s dual school system: Catholic and Protestant. French-speaking children attended English language schools.

Orangemen disparaged the Jesuits’ Estates Act of 1888 and resented the influx of French Canadian Catholics into Eastern Ontario at the turn of the 20th century. Finally, in the debates surrounding the Manitoba Schools Question and the Ontario Schools Question, Orangemen vigorously agitated against Catholic education because of its ties to the French language.

(See Orange Order, The Canadian Encyclopedia.)

Moreover, “[t]he Order [Protestants] was the chief social institution in Upper Canada.” (See Orange Order in Canada, Wikipedia.)

As for Riel, he was neither a hero or a rebel, but a victim, a victim of colonialism. Amerindians were nomadic, which they could not be after the purchase of Rupert’s Land. Colonial powers gave themselves rights they did not have. Riel was executed for High Treason, after the Battle of Batoche, following the North-West Rebellion (1885).


Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1877 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sources and Resources


  1. French Canadians as a Founding Nation (19 January 2018)
  2. Louis Riel, as a Father of Confederation (2012 & 2018)
  3. Voyageurs Posts (a page)

Sources and Resources

À la claire fontaine 


© Micheline Walker
20 March 2018