by Rosemary Neering
Louis Riel has been described as a "saint, sinner, rebel, hero, prophet, madman and traitor." It is no more clear today than it was during his lifetime which of these labels is closest to the truth.
The Métis leader was educated in Montreal, but an itch for political involvement brought him back to his home in Red River. In 1870 he led a takeover of Fort Garry in protest against the sale of Red River to the Canadian government. The execution of Thomas Scott by Riel's Provisional Government caught Ottawa's attention, and Red River was given provincial status. Despite this political victory, Riel had to leave the country, in fear for his life. Feelings against him ran so high in the East that he had to be smuggled into Parliament even when duly elected by the people of Manitoba.
Riel suffered from mental illness after the 1870 Rebellion and spent some time in an asylum. He exiled himself to a Métis settlement in Montana, where he taught school, until Gabriel Dumont persuaded him to come back to red River in 1884. The 1885 Rebellion against the Ottawa government proved unsuccessful. The Métis forces were soundly defeated by Canadian troops. Riel was captured and accused of treason. His trial and subsequent execution split the country along racial and religious lines. Historian Rosemary Neering's vivid account brings to life the story of Riel's contradictory character, colourful times, and lasting influence.