Trial of Louis Riel

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Riel speaks at his trial

The trial of Louis Riel is arguably the most famous trial in the history of Canada[according to whom?]. In 1885, Louis Riel had been a leader of a resistance movement by the Métis and First Nations people of western Canada against the Government of Canada in what is now the modern province of Saskatchewan. Known as the North-West Rebellion, this resistance was suppressed by the Canadian military, which led to Riel's surrender and trial for treason. The trial, which took place in July 1885 and lasted only five days, resulted in a guilty verdict. He was also given a choice to plead guilty or insanity. Riel was subsequently executed by hanging, an outcome which has had a lasting impact on relations between the Francophone and Anglophone Canadians.


Copy of Warrant To Apprehend Riel and Lépine, issued in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Riel was indicted by Judge Hugh Richardson on six counts of treason on July 20. Riel's counsel immediately challenged the court's jurisdiction, but these motions were denied. Riel then pleaded not guilty to all charges. Riel's lawyers argued for a delay for the defence to obtain witnesses. It was granted and the trial began on July 28, 1885. Of the 36 people receiving jury duty summons, only one spoke French – and he was unable to attend. Moreover, the only Roman Catholic (an Irishman) in the jury pool was challenged by the prosecution for not being of British stock and excluded. In the event, Riel was tried before a jury of six composed entirely of English and Scottish Protestants, all from the area immediately surrounding Regina. The jurors were Francis Cosgrave – foreman – Whitewood, Edwin J. Brooks of Indian Head, Henry J. Painter of Broadview, Walter Merryfield of Whitewood, Peel Deane of Broadview and Edwin Eratt of Moose Jaw. Thus, despite the fact that French Canadian and Métis jurors could have been secured from among the population of the territories, Riel was tried by a jury composed entirely of English-speaking Protestants.[1]

Crown counsel comprised some of the most accomplished lawyers in Canada: Christopher Robinson, Britton Bath Osler, George Burbidge, David Lynch Scott, and Thomas Chase-Casgrain. Chase-Casgrain was the lone French-Canadian in the prosecution. They called nine witnesses for the prosecution, General Frederick Middleton, Dr. John Henry Charles Willoughby, Thomas McKay, George Ness, George Kerr, John W. Astley, Thomas E. Jackson, Dr. A. Jukes, and Riel's cousin Charles Nolin. The cross-examination of the defence attempted to prove his mental instability and render a not guilty plea by reason of insanity, but to little success.

The defence was led by Charles Fitzpatrick, a notable lawyer from Quebec who subsequently became Chief Justice of Canada. The defence had their turn on July 30. They produced five witnesses, Dr. François Roy of the Beauport Asylum, Dr. Daniel Clark of Toronto Lunatic Asylum, Riel's secretary for a short time, Phillipe Garnot and priests Alexis André and Vital Fourmond, all who gave evidence of Riel's insanity, but were far from sympathetic or supportive. The defence's case only lasted one day.

Jury of six of Louis Riel's trial

Riel delivered two lengthy speeches during his trial, defending his own actions and affirming the rights of the Métis people. He rejected his lawyer's attempt to argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity, asserting,

"Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having."

Riel defended his use of religious themes, but insisted that all his political actions were aimed at practical results. He denounced the Government of Canada for its complete lack of regard for the peoples and interests of the West. "Although the Province of Ontario is great", he said, "it is not as great as the North-West."

Nonetheless, Riel barely maintained his decorum and proclaimed that he hoped to be one day recognized as a force of good for the whole country. He said:

"I am glad that the Crown has proved that I am the leader of the Metis in the NorthWest. I will perhaps be one day acknowledged as more than a leader of the Metis, and if so I hope I will also have the opportunity to be acknowledged as a leader of good in this great country."[2]

On July 31, after only half an hour of deliberation, the jury found him guilty of treason but recommended mercy. Nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death, with the date of his execution set for September 18, 1885. The execution took place November 16, 1885, at what is now the RCMP training academy, near the modern-day RCMP Heritage Centre.[3] "We tried Riel for treason," one juror later said, "and he was hanged for the murder of Scott." [4]


Legal appeals[edit]

Court house during the trial

The defence appealed the conviction. The first appeal lay to the Court of Queen's Bench for Manitoba (at that time the appellate court for the North-West Territories), which denied the appeal.[5] The defence applied for leave to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain (at that time the highest court of appeal for the British Empire). The Judicial Committee denied leave to appeal.[6]

Political appeals[edit]

There were also numerous political appeals to the federal government for clemency. Prime Minister Macdonald was flooded with letters and petitions from sympathetic Québécois, who saw in Riel the French Catholic minority being oppressed by English Protestants. Macdonald refused to intervene to commute the sentence because of political pressure, and stated that Riel would hang "...though every dog in Quebec shall bark in his favour."[citation needed]


According to critics, the outcome of the trial was due to the underhanded conduct of the government and to the obvious rift between the lawyers and the accused. Throughout the trial Riel's lawyers ignored his advice and refused his requests (including the request to cross-examine the witnesses himself), and they threatened to abandon him halfway through the procedure.[7] Riel insisted that had the witnesses been properly cross-examined, it would have been established that his men had been attacked first. "Happily they were when they appeared and showed their teeth to devour," he said. "All I was ready. That is what is called my crime of high treason, and for which they hold me to-day."[citation needed]


In the spring of 2008, Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport Minister Christine Tell proclaimed in Duck Lake, that "the 125th commemoration, in 2010, of the 1885 Northwest Rebellion is an excellent opportunity to tell the story of the prairie Métis and First Nations peoples' struggle with Government forces and how it has shaped Canada today."[8]


  1. ^ default. "Louis Riel". Canadian government. Retrieved 2015-12-20.
  2. ^ default. "Final Statement of Louis Riel at his trial in Regina, 1885". Archived from the original on 2010-07-22. Retrieved 2010-03-28.
  3. ^ "Photos: Vigil held for Louis Riel on spot where he was hanged". Leader-Post. Postmedia Network. 2010-11-16. Retrieved 2014-10-07.
  4. ^ George F.G. Stanley, Louis Riel: Patriot or Rebel? (1979) p 23
  5. ^ The Queen v. Riel, September 9, 1885.
  6. ^ Riel v The Queen, [1885] UKPC 37 (22 October 1885).
  7. ^ Thomas. "A Judicial Murder."
  8. ^ "Tourism agencies to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Northwest Resistance/Rebellion". Home/About Government/News Releases/June 2008. Government of Saskatchewan. June 7, 2008. Archived from the original on October 21, 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-20.

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]