Listen...about a man called Riel

Jean-Baptiste Riel, voyageur for the North West Company from the lands of Quebec. Marguerite Boucher, a young Chipewayan Metisse from the lands of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Join now together in wedlock as decreed in the laws of the north this year 1815.

Jean-Baptise came to this north country in service of the North West Company in 1798. Travels and time led him to Ile-a-la-Crosse. There, marriage with Marguerite settled him. Children issued forth into this world from that union. Their names could now survive death. A son was born, Louis Riel.

In 1822, when Louis was only five, he travelled with his parents to his father's homeland of Quebec. Manhood reached him as years escaped. The birthland - the great spread of lands called to Louis, and he obeyed. To the Red River. A young man now, he found himself a wife, a white woman, Julie Lagimodiere. They married at Red River in 1844. From this marriage, children joined the living world.

Louis Riel the "miller of the Seine", became father to a son in the first year of his marriage. This son was christianed "Louis Riel" Junior. Two more births followed which did not see the children live. In 1849, a sister for Little Louis was born, Sara. MOre came to be, Marie, Octavie, Eulalie, Joseph, Henriette and then the youngest, Alexandra, was born in 1863.

Louis "pere" was active in trying to better the world around himself for his growing family and his fellow Metis brothers. In the year 1849 he lead the young Metis men to confront the Hudson's Bay Company's harsh monopoly on trade, during the trial of one of their people - Mr. Sayer. Success saw the armed band march off with a freed Sayer and promises of trade reform.

Louis "pere" sent Louis Junior to Montreal. An education would help him become able to help other Metis, other "bois-brules". In 1866, Louis Junior returned to the Red River. He coulds speak English now as well as the French language and Plains Cree. Whether or not his grandmother, Marguerite, had taught him Chipewayan, remains unknown. The Red River had changed. Now, there was a new name, Winnipeg.

In 1869, Louis Riel Jr., in an attempt to gain political advantage and possible provincial status for his birthland, led his Metis followers into the buildings of the Hudson's Bay Company. They assumed the powers of a provisional government. All went well with Louis as president until the death of a white man. Then, in anger, the army from Ontario marched to revenge on these brash half-breeds. In order to prevent wholesale bloodshed, Louis took the advice of Bishop Tache and left for exile.

HIs sister, Sara, had joined the ranks of the church in 1866 when she became a new member of the Grey Nuns, The Sisters of Charity. She was the first Metis to enter the order. In 1871 during the month of June, Sara chose to savour exile to the remote frontier, to her ancestral home of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Perhaps this self-imposed exile somehow would erase the exile forced on her brother, Louis.

The journey was long and difficult. Many days disappeared into the mist. Mosquitoes and mud and an ever-persistent rain made the path a torture to Sara and her fellow travellers. Over two months and still no end. Then one day upon reaching the banks of the Beaver River, they were met by two Metis hunters who had been sent to guide them to the end of their journey. Sara writes in her journal:

"We found out that they had been sent by the reverent Father Legeard from Ile-a-la-Crosse; - that everyone was waiting for us at the mission. Our men secured bark and dried it. Then they took the skins that covered the wagons, soaked them and chose the best one to make a canoe. The journey ended with a quiet evening of thanksgiving prayers for their safe arrival on August 25th, 1871. No more did the country seem so wild, so lonely> Here was a home."

A new year passed and brought memories of the Red River and family to young Sister Sara. Hours were spent in her duties at the mission. Summer came and went. In late November 1872, tragedy struck this young woman. Her lungs hemorrhaged while teaching some children singing. Death hovered over Sister Sara. The Last Sacrament was given to her and Sara seemed almost happy at approaching death. However, her pastor, Father Legeard, sought to have his patron saint intercede and affect a cure on this young woman. Prayers and a promise to the saint created a miracle. At the very moment Sara rose from her death-bed a cured person. She dressed and went to Chapel, then prayed. Life then started anew with Sara resuming her mission duties to the fullest. Sara writes of the miracle to her mother:

"Beloved Mama, how glad you would have been to se your child rise up from the dead. The good Lord has been generous...Let us requite love with his Love for our family, for having chosen me as his first Metis missionary."

That night of the miracle, Sara adopted the name of her benefactress and was called from that time, Sister Marguerite Marie.

Throughout the long years that came to pass, Louis and Sister Marguerite Marie continued to write of their trials and jubilations. Sister Marguerite Marie often talked of her wish that Louis would take to the priesthood. Then in April of 1881, Louis married Marguerite Monet, a young Metis girl. The news of this marriage reached Ile-a-la-Crosse and his missionary sister. Sister Marguerite Marie's hopes for his eventual priesthood were shattered. Her letters at this time tell of her deteriorating health and her premonition of approaching death. Then on the 27th of December 1883, she died.

Sara's legacy to the history of Ile-a-la-Crosse is bountiful. Her letters make many references to local people, the art of survival, the seasons, the trade and life within the mission. But beyond even this, her writings show an immense love for the Indian and Metis peoples of the northland.

Nor does Louis' name cease to be important to the people of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Two years later, as returned leader of teh Metis peoples, Louis Riel and his followers began to war with the suffocating presence of the "Wite" ma. Batoche, Duck Lake, Frog Lake, Fort Pitt and Carlton were scenes of battle - all of them victories for the Metis and Indian peoples. The fever spread. At Green Lake unrest grew daily. Fearing the imminent attack, the post factor hid the arms and ammunition on the banks of the Beaver River. As noted by the chief factor in Prince Albert:

"We have at Green Lake, the complete outfits for the District of Athabaska and McKenzie River, there are in this outfit over two hundred stand of arms, and a very large amount of gunpowder, ball, and shot, as well as fixed ammunition, together with a large quantity of provisions. If these goods are taken by rebels it will very much add to their resources, as well as give them free access by the Beaver River to Ile-a-la-Crosse.

With the hiding of the stores, the company personnel attempted to abandon the post. Immediately the rebel Indians and Metis appeared and forced the opening of the post and plundered the remaining goods. The traders and the other white people then fled with their bateaux, up the Beaver River until they reached the safety of Ile-a-la-Crosse.

News of the Green Lake raid sent a fire of worry throughout the settlement. Would this Riel come to Ile-a-la-Crosse and seek revenge for her sister's death ? Fearing the worst, the mission staff loaded their patients onto boats and sailed up the lake to a small island off Patuanak. Perhaps they would escape the wrath of this "madman". The temper of the Indian people continued to erupt in the country. Waterhen was the scene of the uprising and $40,000 worth of goods were stolen. But Louis did not come. Victories do not count if there be only one loss. Riel and his Metis Nation died - they died at the hangman's noose in the fall of 1885.

The above was taken from a book on the Ile-a-la-Crosse Bicentennial in 1976. Much of the historical text was written by clergy in their journals and which was used in the book. That is why the last part of the writing does not look favourably at the Metis cause. Nevertheless, Louis has been a hero in Ile-a-la-Crosse, and will always continue to be so.

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Copyright Michael J. Durocher, 1997