CPR Telegraph Ledger - Surrender of the Resistance Forces

Surrender of the Resistance Forces and the Trial of Louis Riel

Louis Riel surrendered on May 15, 1885

Chief Poundmaker surrendered on May 25. Chief Big Bear, after being pursued by Major-General Middleton, surrendered to the North West Mounted Police on July 2. 

Not all Métis and First Nations participated in the Resistance. It was chiefly the Métis centered at Batoche that had fought in the battles. Of the Métis’ provisional government council, most pleaded guilty to treason-felony and received a range of sentences. Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker were both convicted of treason-felony and sentenced to three years in jail. Eight of their followers were hanged at Battleford. These and other sentences remain controversial. Blair Stonechild states that “in retrospect, the trials of the First Nations defendants were strongly biased by the prejudices of the day…”

Louis Riel’s trial, which began on July 20, was peppered with politics and prejudices. Initially he was to be sent to Winnipeg. However, Sir John A. Macdonald and his cabinet realized that a not-guilty verdict would not be positive for their government, and decided to send Riel to Regina instead. There the procedures for trial were different, and more in the government’s favor. The presiding magistrate of the trial was Hugh Richardson, whose home had been burned at the siege of Battleford. Though Métis and French Canadian jurors could have been chosen, in the end members of the jury were all Protestant and Anglophone. Riel had spent time in asylums in the 1870s after a nervous breakdown, and his counsel tried to defend him on the grounds of insanity. Riel didn’t want this, and his final speech was so eloquent that it proved his sanity. He was convicted of high treason, and though the jury asked for clemency and there were several appeals, he was ultimately hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885.

Riel is possibly the most analyzed figure in Canadian history. He is controversial, and interpretations and opinions about him have changed throughout the years. To some he was a rebel, and to some he was a hero, fighting for his people’s rights. Riel’s religious views led some to believe he was a mad man, obsessed with a spiritual mission, though this opinion is now in the minority, and more effort has been made to better understand Riel in the context of his time.

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