Manitoba Historical Society
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My Love Affair with Louis Riel: A fateful day back in 1870

by Lillian Gibbons

Winnipeg Tribune, 4 March 1963

March 4, 1870, was a fateful day for this province. Thomas Scott was shot by Louis Riel’s provisional government.

Sir John A. Macdonald allowed Riel to hang 15 years later, dividing the country.

Riel’s grand-nephew, Roger Teillet, Liberal MP for St. Boniface in the last House, at his recent nomination meeting, said : “This is the most important election we’re fighting now since Confederation.” Significantly he had on the platform with him Edgar J. Benson, a Liberal, who held Sir John’s old seat, Kingston, in the last House.

Riel himself ran for Parliament—as a Conservative—and was elected Feb. 14, 1874, in Provencher riding. He polled 195 votes, against Joseph Hamelin’s 69.

He had a ‘touching faith’ Macdonald would keep his word on amnesty for the men of ‘69-70 who kept order at Red River in the interregnum between H.B.C. rule and Manitoba’s joining Confederation.

He had already done the Dominion government a service by stepping aside, in 1872, when he was ready to run in the newly-created Provencher riding. Sir John needed a seat for Sir Georges Etienne Cartier, defeated in Montreal East. Riel was persuaded by Lt.-Gov. Adams G. Archibald and Archbishop A. A. Tache to stand aside. Cartier, leader of the French Conservatives in Quebec, would plead for the French in Manitoba. But he died in London, May 20, 1873, without having said a word.

A by-election was now necessary to fill the Provencher seat. Riel got in, by acclamation.

But the Macdonald government fell on fateful Guy Fawkes day, Nov. 5, 1873. The election “in the lower provinces,” Ontario and Quebec, held Jan. 22, returned “the opposition,” not the “ministerialists.” Manitoba had not yet voted. Valentine’s day was the date set. Louis “n’etait pas present” said the French paper, Le Metis, but he won easily over his opponent, Hamelin. In four out of five polls he was victor—St. Vital, St. Norbert north and south, St. Anne. Only in St. Agathe he missed a majority.

Two days later a letter left Winnipeg for Plattsburg, N.Y. “You probably learned you were elected,” wrote Joseph Royal to Riel.

Parliament met March 26. “The French members will hold a caucus on the Riel question,” wired the Manitoban’s correspondent. With Liberal Ontario offering $5,000 for his head, would he dare take his seat?

By Monday, March 30, “the whole country was thrown into a terrible state of excitement,” The Manitoban reported. “Riel had actually taken the oath and subscribed himself a member of the House of Commons. Ottawa was in a ferment. Telegraph wires sped the news in all directions. Some said it was the best thing that could have occurred. It seemed something like a revolution was imminent. But some members would rather resign their seats than act along with him.

“He is called to take his seat Wednesday (April 1) by 3 o’clock. Large numbers arrived by the morning train. An excited crowd of thousands thronged the vestibule and lobbies. It was near 6 o’clock when Riel was called. Now everyone held his breath. The sergeant at arms went out to bring in Riel.

“But be came back without him,” dramatically ended the report.

The House voted 124 to 68 to expel the member for Provencher. The Quebec MP’s stayed to plead his cause. A young man new to the House, Wilfrid Laurier, was among them.

The Manitoban published an extra, a sheet 6 by 8 inches, May 2: John A. Macdonald denied sending a cheque for $1,000 to Riel at the time of the Cartier election; he denied authorizing Donald A. Smith to pay Riel and Lepine money ; he denied he had promised an amnesty.

But the Liberal Mackenzie government was in office by then.

Riel has no statue on the Legislative grounds, but Cartier has.

Page revised: 10 June 2021

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