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Louis Riel

Louis Riel
Courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company Archive

Louis Riel was the leader of the Métis people during the Red River Rebellion of 1869. The Métis, descendants of indigenous peoples and Europeans, fought against Canada's expansion into the northwest territory owned by the Hudson's Bay Company. The group claimed rights to a part of the land — known as the Red River colony — and desired more autonomy than annexation would allow.

While the company as a whole allowed Canadian annexation of its land in 1869, the Métis, under Riel, resisted. Late in the year, Riel and his followers prevented Canadian surveyors from entering the Red River region, and set up a provisional government at what is now Winnipeg.

In 1870, Riel and the Métis worked out a more specific treaty, known as the Manitoba Act, with the Canadian government. The agreement placed the Red River colony, now known as the Manitoba province, under Canadian control, but as a self-governing province. Despite its autonomy, Manitoba's public lands and natural resources were controlled by the federal government, which began railroad and immigration programs to further a sense of Canadian nationhood.

Granted amnesty in the Manitoba Act, Riel spent several years in the Canadian parliament, but he was outlawed for five years in 1875 and spent a year as a mental patient in 1877. He returned to Canada in 1885 to lead the Northwest Rebellion, an unsuccessful movement against Canadian rule of Saskatchewan. Quickly suppressing this uprising, the Canadian government captured, tried, and executed Louis Riel for treason.

Opinions on Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion differ widely. Seen by some as self-protection against rampant expansionism, and by others as an escapade gaining Manitoba premature autonomy, all agree that the episode marked the waning of Métis power in the Canadian west.

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