Louis Riel was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885. Riel led the Métis agitation at Red River that resulted in Manitoba’s becoming a province in 1871. But he was forced into a lonely fifteen-year exile in the United States. Many Métis moved west from Manitoba to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River to escape encroaching white settlement. In 1884, the Métis at Batoche, alarmed at the sight of land surveyors in their area, sent a delegation to Riel in Montana, asking him to come back to defend their rights against a government that ignored their requests. Riel returned, his agitation led to a short-lived rebellion, and he was captured and tried for treason. His lawyers, despite his protests, pleaded insanity on his behalf. In his speech to the jury, delivered in English, Riel argued passionately that he was sane and had acted on behalf of people who needed his help.
“I found the Indians suffering. I found half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company”
Your Honours, gentlemen of the jury: It would be easy for me today to play insanity, because the circumstances are such as to excite any man, and under the natural excitement of what is taking place today (I cannot speak English very well, but am to do so, because most of those here speak English), under the excitement which my trial causes me would justify me not to appear as usual, but with my mind out of its ordinary condition. I hope with the help of God I will maintain calmness and decorum as suits this honourable court, this honourable jury.
The Northwest my mother
You have seen by the papers in the hands of the Crown that I am naturally inclined to think of God at the beginning of my actions. I wish if I do it you won’t take it as a mark of insanity, that you won’t take it as part of a play of insanity. Oh, my God, help me through Thy grace and the divine influence of Jesus Christ. Oh, my God, bless me, bless this honourable court, bless this honourable jury, bless my good lawyers who have come seven hundred leagues to try to save my life, bless also the lawyers for the Crown, because they have done, I am sure, what they thought their duty. They have shown me fairness which at first I did not expect from them. Oh, my God, bless all those who are around me through the grace and influence of Jesus Christ our Savior. Change the curiosity of those who are paying attention to me, change that curiosity into sympathy with me.
The day of my birth I was helpless and my mother took care of me although she was not able to do it alone; there was someone to help her to take care of me and I lived. Today, although a man I am as helpless before this court, in the Dominion of Canada and in this world, as I was helpless on the knees of my mother the day of my birth. The Northwest is also my mother; it is my mother country and although my mother country is sick and confirmed in a certain way, there are some from Lower Canada who came to help her to take care of me during her sickness and I am sure that my mother country will not kill me more than my mother did forty years ago when I came into the world, because a mother is always a mother, and even if I have my faults, if she can see I am true, she will be full of love for me.
When I came into the Northwest in July, the 1st of July 1884, I found the Indians suffering. I found the half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day. Although a half-breed, and having no pretension to help the whites, I also paid attention to them. I saw they were deprived of responsible government, I saw that they were deprived of their public liberties. I remembered that half-breed meant white and Indian and while I paid attention to the suffering Indians and the half-breeds I remembered that the greatest part of my heart and blood was white and I have directed my attention to help the Indians, help the half-breeds and to help the whites to the best of my ability. We have made petitions, I have made petitions with others to the Canadian government asking to relieve the condition of this country.
We have taken time; we have tried to unite all classes, even may speak, all parties. Those who have been in close communication with me know I have suffered, that I have waited for months to bring some of the people of the Saskatchewan to an understanding of certain important points in our petition to the Canadian government and I have done my duty . . .
The agitation in the Northwest Territories would have been constitutional, and would certainly be constitutional today if, in my opinion, we had not been attacked. Perhaps the Crown has not been able to find out the particulars, that we were attacked, but as we were on the scene it was easy to understand. When we sent petitions to the government, they used to answer us by sending police, and when the rumours were increasing every day that Riel had been shot here or there, or that Riel was going to be shot by such and such a man, the police would not pay any attention to it. I am glad that I have mentioned the police, because of the testimony that has been given in the box during the examination of many of the witnesses. If I had been allowed to put questions to the witnesses, I would have asked them when it was I said a single word against a single policeman or a single officer . . .
As to religion, what is my belief? What is my insanity about that? My insanity, Your Honours, gentlemen of the jury, is that I wish to leave Rome aside, inasmuch as it is the cause of division between Catholics and Protestants. I did not wish to force my views, because in Batoche to the half-breeds that followed me I used the word, carte blanche. If I have any influence in the new world it is to help in that way and even if it takes two hundred years to become practical, then after my death that will bring out practical results, and then my children’s children will shake hands with the Protestants of the new world in a friendly manner. I do not wish these evils which exist in Europe to be continued, as much as I can influence it, among the half-breeds. I do not wish that to be repeated in America. That work is not the work of some days or some years, it is the work of hundreds of years.
My condition is helpless, so helpless that my good lawyers, and they have done it by conviction—Mr. Fitzpatrick in his beautiful speech has proved he believed I was insane—my condition seems to be so helpless that they have recourse to try and prove insanity to try and save me in that way. If I am insane, of course I don’t know it, it is a property of insanity to be unable to know it . . .
You have given me your attention, Your Honours; you have given me your attention, gentlemen of the jury, and this great audience. I see that if I go any further on that point I will lose the favour you have granted me up to this time, and as I am aiming all the time at practical results, I will stop here, master of myself, through the help of God. I have only a few more words to say, Your Honours. Gentlemen of the jury, my reputation, my liberty, my life, are at your discretion. So confident am I, that I have not the slightest anxiety, not even the slightest doubt, as to your verdict . . .
The only things I would like to call your attention to before you retire to deliberate are: first, that the House of Commons, Senate, and ministers of the Dominion, and who make laws for this land and govern it, are no representation whatever of the people of the Northwest.
Second, that the Northwest Council generated by the federal government has the great defect of its parent.
Third, the number of members elected for the council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative government at all . . .
If you take the plea of the defence that I am not responsible for my acts, acquit me completely since I have been quarrelling with an insane and irresponsible government. If you pronounce in favour of the Crown, which contends that I am responsible, acquit me all the same. You are perfectly justified in declaring that having my reason and sound mind.
I have acted reasonably and in self-defence, while the government, my accuser, being irresponsible, and consequently insane, cannot but have acted wrong, and if high treason there is it must be on its side and not on my part.
HIS HONOUR: Are you done?
RIEL: Not yet, if you have the kindness to permit me your attention for a while.
HIS HONOUR: Well, proceed . . .
RIEL: I thank Your Honour for the favour you have granted me in speaking; I thank you for the attention you have given me, gentlemen of the jury, and I thank those who have had the kindness to encourage my imperfect way of speaking the English language by your good attention. I put my speech under the protection of my God, my Saviour, He is the only one who can make it effective. It is possible it should become effective, as it is proposed to good men, to good people, and to good ladies also.
Riel’s execution caused a political and racial firestorm, creating a fault line in the new Dominion that was to persist for decades. Quebec was enraged, while in Ontario the press and Protestant organizations were just as insistent that Riel had been a traitor and deserved his fate. In recent decades Riel has largely been acknowledged as a heroic, if flawed, leader.
Source: Riel’s complete speech can be found in Desmond Morton, The Queen vs Louis Riel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), pp: 311-325.
More information: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Louis Riel.
Further reading: Maggie Siggins, Riel: A Life of Revolution (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 1994.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His latest book is Speeches That Changed Canada, and in it he treats Louis Riel’s speech to the jury in detail.