Louis Riel and the Oblates


Louis Riel’s tomb in front of St. Boniface Cathedral

Métis leader Louis Riel is a controversial figure in Canadian history.  Leader of the Red River and North-West Rebellions, he was executed for treason in 1885.  We stumbled upon his grave site while walking from Winnipeg to St. Boniface over the Red River bridge.  I wanted to learn more about him and his connection to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

First, a little about the Oblates in Manitoba.  In June 1844, the Bishop of the North-West, Normand Provencher requested the help of the Oblates in evangelizing the Red River Colony (modern day St. Boniface).  After 26 years of his trying, there was little to show.  Most of the diocesan priests who came to the Red River mission soon returned to Quebec and the comforts of home.  The Bishop wanted a religious order to establish itself locally to bring stability and progress to the mission of french Roman Catholics, Métis (French speaking mixed race of white European, Canadian and native descent) and the local Indian bands.

Initially somewhat hesitant, the Oblate Superior in Canada Fr. Guigues, was over ruled by St. Eugene de Mazenod the founder of the Order, who authorized sending Fr. Pierre Aubert and Brother Alexandre Taché to Red River in 1845.  From 1845 to 1861, 20 Oblate priests, 8 brothers, and 2 secular priests who became Oblates were sent to the Red River missions. Brother Taché went on to be ordained and appointed the Bishop of St. Boniface in 1853.  The Oblates in their missionary zeal went out to help found Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta thanks to their tireless missionary efforts.

Louis Riel was born in 1844 in the Red River Settlement.  His father, Louis Riel Sr., who was of Franco-Ojibwa Métis descent, had gained prominence in this community by organizing a group that challenged the Hudson Bay Company’s historical trade monopoly.  Louis Sr. had enrolled briefly in an Oblate novitiate but withdrew.  The Riels were noted for their devout Catholicism and strong family ties.

Young Louis was educated by the Oblates in St. Boniface.  In 1858, Bishop Taché, OMI arranged for Louis to study in the Sulpician Order`s seminary in Montreal.  Louis was known as a good student but one who suffered from unpredictable moodiness.  Withdrawing from his religious studies in 1865, he spent time in Montreal, Chicago and St. Paul, MN before returning to St. Boniface in 1868.  He soon became sympathetic to the Métis cause for independence.  Both Canada and the U.S. were threatening annexation and there was no guarantee of language, cultural, property and political rights.

The Métis Provisional Government

After forming a group who used force to interrupt a Canadian land survey of their community, Louis was elected President of the Métis Provisional Government in 1869.  After making good progress in negotiations with Ottawa, the execution by Riel of a local English speaking Fort Garry citizen, Thomas Scott for insubordination, drew the ire of Ottawa and the Protestant elite of Ontario.

The negotiated agreement enshrined the Métis demands and a list of rights which eventually formed the basis for the Manitoba Act of 12 May 1870 that formally admitted Manitoba into the Canadian confederation. However, the negotiators could not secure a general amnesty for the provisional government.  A Canadian military expedition was dispatched to St. Boniface as an “errand of peace”.  However, when Louis learned that they intended to lynch him, he fled to St. Joseph`s Mission in the Dakota territory of the U.S..

Louis returned to Canada after things cooled down and was elected as an Independent to Parliament in 1873.  He was expelled and not permitted to take his seat until PM Alexandre MacKenzie secured an amnesty for him.  While in exile, he spent his time with Oblate priests in Plattsburg, NY.  It was then that he started suffering some megalomania, a narcissistic personailty disorder.  He then spent time in an asylum in Quebec.  He would pray for hours while standing, wrote many religious articles and started calling himself Louis “David” Riel, prophet of the new world.

After spending time in Montana and having a family he moved to Saskatchewan.  A break with the church followed and he was barred from receiving the sacraments due to his increasing erratic behaviour.  However, in 1884 he was to become the political and spiritual leader of the Métis Provisional Government of Saskatchewan.  Known as the North-West Rebellion, the Métis and native forces led by Métis Gabriel Dumont were defeated at Batoche, SK in May 1885.  A disheveled Riel also  surrendered.  He was tried and found guilty of treason in Regina.  He was executed by hanging on November 16, 1885 after reconciling with the Catholic Church.  He had rejected his lawyer`s advice to plead not guilty do to insanity.  The jurors were all white protestants.

Riel is now regarded by some as a heroic freedom fighter who stood up for his people in the face of racist bigotry, and those who question his sanity still view him as an essentially honourable figure. His conviction was revoked by Parliament and he is regarded as a hero in Manitoba.  Riel nevertheless presents an enigma. It is possible that Riel was both a murderer and a hero.

In the moment, I find Riel`s connection to the Oblates fascinating as they came to his spiritual rescue on several occasions in his life.  I did not realize the extent of Riel`s religious activities and writings.  He is indeed an enigma – a Canadian political figure who, greatly influenced by his Faith, stood up for the rights of the downtrodden Métis and native people against the prevailing racist and discriminatory attitudes of his times.  That he mixed religion with politics and used force brought about his temporary downfall.  I am glad he has been vindicated.  The pattern of his life and later resurection is eerily Christ like. What about you?

“Tortured” Louis Riel statue in St. Boniface.


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2 responses to “Louis Riel and the Oblates

  1. David – this was really interesting and I learned a lot. I did not know of the Oblate connection. Thanks.


  2. Yes it’s possible the Oblate witness of ministering to the poor and abandoned had some influence on the course of his life. Google found the connection. Thanks for your comment.


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