Trials

From Land of the Red and White 1975Justice Minister Campbell heard that Middleton planned to send Riel and the other prisoners to Winnipeg for trial. The government decided that Louis should be tried under Manitoba or Territories law. At Winnipeg he would have been entitled to a twelve-man jury, and would have had the right to insist that half that jury be French-speaking. Also, once the prisoners were in Manitoba, it would take new government legislation to get them back to the North­west Territories. Regina was therefore chosen as the site for the trial. Under Territories law there would be a six-man jury, and not a mixed one, either. On May 23 Riel and his escort proceeded to the jail at the Mounted Police Barracks at Regina.

Of the 129 prisoners, 46 were half-breed, 81 were Indian, and 2 were white. Most Indians were charged with treason-felony, and 44 were convicted. Poundmaker's trial was called a farce. "The Week" newspaper of September 10, 1885 quoted Poundmaker - "Everything I could do was done to stop bloodshed. Had I wanted war I should not be here now. You did not catch me. I gave myself up. You have got me because I want peace." Poundmaker was sentenced to two years in prison. Before the winter of 1887-88 he was released. He died at Blackfoot Crossing. Of the 18 half-breeds charged with treason-felony, 11 were dis­charged.

Riel was charged with treason, under an old British sta­tue of Edward III in 1352. He was an American citizen and actually owed the Queen no allegiance or fidelity. In the Territories there was no bill of indictment or grand jury. The judge was Magistrate Hugh Richardson. It was accepted that treason was within the court's jurisdiction, and that American citizenship was irrelevant. Riel's lawyers argued that he was insane, but he denied it. His secretary, W.H. Jackson, was let off on a charge of complicity of treason, on the grounds of insanity. The trial ended on July 31. After being out one hour the jury came in. Five of the six jurors said he was guilty of treason and was sane. They recommended mercy. The jury felt the government was responsible for the rebellion occuring in the first place, but it could not justify Riel's acts of rebellion. He was sen­tenced to die on September 18, 1885, but the date was set back to October 16, then November 10, and finally November 16. The first postponements were because of appeals by Riel's lawyer, and the last because of a medical commission investigating Riel's sanity.

Dr. Jukes of the Mounted Police and Dr. Lavell of Kingston Penitentiary were sure that Riel knew right from wrong. Lavell stated that he'd like to see Riel live if justice could be done. Dr. F.X. Valade of Ottawa believed Riel to be insane and that he could not distinguish right from wrong in religion and political matters.

At 8:30 a.m. on November 16, Riel was hanged at Regina. He had told Father Andre, "Sir John A. Macdonald is now committing me to death for the same reason I com­mitted Scott in 1870 - because it was necessary for the country's good. I was pardoned once for his death, but now I am going to die for it." He was buried in the St. Boniface cemetery across the Red River from Winnipeg.

By today's standards Riel would be termed insane. He was unreliable and unstable regarding religion and politics. But he was eloquent and clever, and could write both Latin and Greek. Once at the asylum he thought he had tele­graphic communications with Napoleon, Bismark, and Pope Pius IX. There were two complaints against the Crown. It pressed the law to the fullest against Riel, but not against the others. Then, too, he did not have every benefit, such as French-speaking jury members or judge. The "Toronto Globe" felt Riel deserved to die, but it was ironic that he was executed by a government that sat still while insurrec­tion was brewing. "La Minerve", a conservative French paper, said it was not Riel, but the Metis, who deserved sympathy. The "Toronto Mail" felt that Macdonald should not be overthrown because of Riel, since the Dominion was not bound up in the fate of anyone political leader or party.

On November 22, a large meeting, mourning Riel, and protesting his death, was held in Montreal. It denounced the "hangman's government" at Ottawa. Riel was viewed as a victim of English oppression and Protestant bigotry. French-Canadian M.P.s knew their constituents resented Riel's execution, and that it had aroused nationalist feel­ings. Honore Merciere seized the opportunity to promote French-Canadian interests. Sir Wilfred Laurier was looking at commercial union with the U.S.A. He was defeated in 1911. Three years later World War I caused all Canadians to reconsider their future.

Many opinions regarding East-West relations were put forth in the 1870s and 1880s. "The people of the North- West object to their country being used as a football by the two political parties with Treasury benches as the goal." "There is a Dixie line around each province, and no news­papers to write for the whole Canadian people." "Be­tween the Cabinet and the West there is a great gulf of mutual ignorance that neither civil service or Parliament is in a position to remedy." "There is more to history than the political doings in Ottawa."

You, the reader, will finish reading this with many opin­ions of your own. It is hoped that you will have been led to examine the many sides of the situation more deeply than you ever have. Hopefully, too, you will have learned at least a little more of the historical background of our West.