Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history
and director of research at Redeemer
University College in Ancaster, Ont. Find more of
these columns at www.faithtoday.ca/HistoryLesson.
Hero or villain? Ever since Louis Riel first appeared on the stage of history, the Métis leader has been
Riel was born in 1844 in a Métis
settlement along the Red River
valley. Today this area is part of
southern Manitoba, but at the time
it belonged to “Rupert’s Land,” a
vast region controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).
In 1869, the newly formed Dominion of Canada purchased the
rights to Rupert’s Land from the
HBC. But a series of blunders on the
part of the Canadian government
provoked resistance from the people
of Red River, who took up arms to
prevent the transfer until they could
be assured of their rights under the
new government. Riel – educated,
eloquent and fiery – played a leading role in this resistance.
While the federal government
did meet many of the resisters’ demands in the Manitoba Act of 1870,
it also dispatched an armed force to
establish its control. Riel fled to the
In 1885 new trouble emerged in
the North West, this time along the
South Saskatchewan River. Once
again, missteps by the federal government had created grievances among
the Métis, Indigenous, and white
settlers. The locals asked Riel to help.
At first he peacefully petitioned the
government, but later he turned to
violence and led an armed uprising
known as the North-West Rebellion.
Unlike the resistance in 1869,
this was understood as an illegal
rebellion against an established
government, and it was crushed by
a Canadian military force. Riel was
captured and put on trial for treason.
This story is well known to students of Canadian history. Many
Canadians are unaware, however, of
another dimension to Riel’s story: his
belief in his special divine mission.
Riel expert Tom Flanagan explains
that Riel had a powerful mystical
experience in 1875 that convinced
that he was the “Prophet of the
New World.” Because he claimed to
be receiving regular revelations
from the Holy Spirit, he thought of
himself as God’s “joyful telephone”
(a new invention at the time).
Among other things, Riel believed
that God wanted him to establish a
new Catholic church for North
America with the bishop of Montreal
as its pope. The Métis, he claimed,
were God’s chosen people and he
was a new King David. He planned
to reinstitute circumcision for
Christians, and even to permit
polygamy and incest.
Those close to Riel thought he was
mentally unhinged, and they committed him to two insane asylums.
But he was again a free man in 1885
when he interpreted events unfolding in the North West as his chance
to fulfill his prophetic mission.
At his trial his lawyers, against
his wishes, tried to get him ac-
quitted on grounds of insanity. But
the Crown argued for his sanity and
his guilt. When he was convicted,
Prime Minister Macdonald refused
to grant him clemency. He was
hanged on November 16, 1885.
Secular historians, of course,
have little choice but to see Riel as
suffering from some form of delusion, but Christians do believe that
God has spoken through prophets.
Could Riel have been one?
There are tests we can apply
when someone claims to have a
special message from God. First,
and most importantly, does the
message fit with God’s written
word, the Bible (Acts 17: 11)? In this
case, not only Evangelicals but also
Catholics would reject many of
Riel’s teachings as unbiblical.
A second test concerns the fruit
produced by the prophet (Matt.
7: 15–16). In this case, sadly, Riel’s
belief in his divine mission led him
to incite a disastrous rebellion that
caused perhaps 150 deaths.
A third test is whether the
prophet’s predictions come to pass
(Deut. 18: 22). Riel predicted not
only the rise of a new Catholic
church in North America, but also
that he, like Jesus, would rise from
the dead on the third day. Events
proved these prophecies to be false.
Whatever the source of Riel’s
visions, then, we can be confident
he was not a genuine prophet.
Even if it is hard to see Riel purely
as a hero, it is even more difficult
to see him purely as a villain. Riel
defended the legitimate rights of the
people of the west—Métis, white,
and Indigenous alike. In the end,
perhaps it is best to think of Riel as
a complex human being, whose very
real virtues and vices played out
across a particularly large stage. /FT
AMOUN T OF MONEY
CANADA PAID, ALONG
WI TH LAND GRAN TS,
TO PURCHASE THE
RIGH TS TO RUPER T’S
LAND FROM THE
God’s “joyful telephone”
The mystical side of Louis Riel