In the early afternoon of March 4, 1870, Thomas Scott was executed at Upper Fort Garry, in present-day Winnipeg, fulfilling a sentence delivered the previous day during a hearing conducted by members of the Métis provisional government in Red River. The act had nationwide consequences, provoking a bloodthirsty reaction in Ontario and ultimately proving disastrous for one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history: Louis Riel.
An Irish immigrant who settled first in Ontario and joined the ultra-Protestant Orange Order, Scott headed to Red River in 1869 and worked as a labourer. He fell in with the Canadian party, a group of English Canadians that demanded that the Red River Colony, then governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, be annexed to the new dominion. Under the leadership of Amherstburg native John Christian Schultz, the group had ties to the emerging Canada First movement, which had formed in the late 1860s to promote a xenophobic British Protestant form of Canadian nationalism. The Canadian party led a series of unsuccessful raids against the provisional government formed by French Catholic Métis people concerned about the protection of their land, language, and religion. While Schultz and other leaders, such as Charles Mair, escaped back to Ontario, Scott was jailed several times.
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While Scott’s champions depicted him as a quiet, inoffensive man devoted to his faith, most later accounts portray a violent, loudmouthed bigot. One of his fellow Canadian prisoners later recalled that Scott was so obnoxious when taunting the Métis guards that the other inmates wished he could be removed from the holding facility. While previous death sentences handed out to others had always been reversed, it appears either that Scott had tested everyone’s patience once too often or that he was killed to maintain order and to demonstrate that the provisional government was a serious entity.
After the first reports of Scott’s death failed to cause mass public outrage back east, members of Canada First and their allies decided to manufacture some. As delegates of the provisional government were set to come east to negotiate the future of Red River, timing was critical. A campaign to turn Thomas Scott into an upstanding young Protestant martyr murdered by half-breed French Catholics began.
Friendly newspapers pursued this agenda. The April 4, 1870, edition of Toronto’s Daily Telegraph was printed with thick black bars around every column as a memorial to Scott. An editorial declared that “we record his name among those of the patriots who have given up their lives nobly and bravely.” Scott’s reputed last words (“This is a cold-blooded murder!”) turned into a rallying cry. As for the execution, it was “a horrible butchery — a damnable deed — which stamps indelible infamy on the monsters who committed it, and places them even below the level of the savages of the western plains.” The paper demanded that the federal government immediately send in the military to destroy the provisional government and bring “the ringleaders to the rope.”
Toronto mayor Samuel Bickerton Harman called a public meeting for April 7, supposedly in response to a “ratepayer petition” created when it was learned that Schultz, Mair, and several allies were headed to the city. The rally was original planned for St. Lawrence Hall, but when the crowd swelled to between 5,000 and 10,000 people, the event was quickly moved to an area outside that era’s city hall (now encased within St. Lawrence Market). Harman compared those who agitated against the Métis to those who had fought in the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Numerous speakers — including headliners Schultz and Mair — condemned the situation out west. Attendees passed three resolutions that they intended to send to the federal government: the sacrifices of Canadians against “the usurpation of power by the murderer Riel” must be recognized; decisive action was required to put down the rebellion; and negotiating with any representatives of the provisional government would be “gross injustice” and “humiliating to our national honour.” Canada First leader George Taylor Denison III was cheered when he told the crowd that Riel “had no rights of his own that could be respected, though he had a right to a rope round his neck.”
Over the following weeks, “indignation meetings” were held in towns and villages across Ontario. Most followed the same script: a public petition for the meeting, an opening statement expressing the community’s deep sympathies with loyal residents of Red River, and a series of resolutions to be delivered to Ottawa condemning Scott’s execution, the federal government’s inaction, and the humiliation of upstanding British subjects. Whenever he appeared at these meetings, Schultz amped up the outrage using props, such as a piece of rope he claimed had bound Scott’s wrists. Local Orange lodges issued similar resolutions, with added anti-Catholic commentary.
Some condemned the thirst for blood. The Canadian Illustrated News observed that, while not showing public anger at the meetings would have indicated apathy, “to go beyond these points, by threatening the perpetration of equally lawless aggression, ought to find no favour in the eyes of well-disposed, law-abiding citizens.”
When the provisional-government delegates reached Ottawa in mid-April, Father Nöel-Joseph Ritchot and Alfred Scott (no relation to Thomas) found that members of Canada First had taken out a warrant for their arrest. After the first warrant failed, Denison assembled another one, only to see it dismissed by an Ottawa judge on April 23. With that distraction out of the way, negotiations began with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and defence minister Georges-Étienne Cartier: a few weeks later, they resulted in the passage of the Manitoba Act, which, created Canada’s fifth province. (Denison went on to serve as Toronto’s police magistrate for half a century).
Later that year, a military expedition — which Orangemen had been urged to join — went to Red River, and members of the provisional government, including Riel, fled into exile. Schultz pressed for damages against his property losses, demanding a Senate seat as part of his compensation (he didn’t get it until 1882). Over the next few years, members of Canada First and the Orange Lodge, and their allies, continued to demand justice for Scott’s execution. Macdonald’s Conservative government had to balance retaining the votes of those screaming for revenge in Ontario with those of Quebec voters sympathetic to the Métis. It sat on the fence, letting the possibility of amnesty for Métis leaders twist in the wind. Under pressure from Orangemen, in 1872, the Ontario government announced a $5,000 reward for Scott’s executioners. The official notice indicated that “no effectual steps have been taken to bring the murderers … to justice.”
Scott’s execution hindered Riel’s attempts to sit as an MP in Ottawa. Over the course of 1873 and 1874, he was elected as MP for the Manitoba riding of Provencher three times (twice via acclamation). In order to take his seat, Riel had to sign a parliamentary roll — but doing so would have consequences, as, by this time, a warrant had been issued for his arrest. Following the 1874 federal election, he took a chance. On the afternoon of March 30, 1874, accompanied by a pair of Quebec MPs, Riel entered the Parliament buildings and signed his name.
Ottawa was abuzz. Would Riel show up for that evening’s parliamentary session? The public galleries were packed. Lady Dufferin, the governor general’s wife, brought her dinner party to see whether there would be any fireworks. The Ottawa Citizen reported that “a body of French Canadians marched from Hull with the avowed intention of defending Riel under any circumstances.” The military was prepared to act if any trouble occurred. But Riel disappointed onlookers: he didn’t make an appearance — although local newspapers suggested that he might have sat disguised in the galleries.
On April 1, Conservative MP and future prime minister Mackenzie Bowell, an Orange grand master, introduced a motion to expel Riel from his seat. He was seconded by John Schultz, then an independent Liberal MP from Manitoba. After several days of debate, members voted 124-68 in favour of booting out Riel. (Among those who defended Riel’s right to sit was a rookie Liberal MP from Quebec. Some of those who heard Wilfrid Laurier speak thought he had a promising future.)
Ambroise Lépine, who had presided over Scott’s trial, was arrested for his murder in September 1873 and convicted a little more than a year later. The jury, equally divided between anglophones and francophones, issued a guilty verdict but asked for mercy; the judge, though, was in a hanging mood. After an uproar among French-Canadian politicians, the issue was turned over to Lord Dufferin, who commuted the sentence to two years and a loss of civil rights. When an amnesty was finally granted to the Métis in 1875, Riel and Lépine, along with one other adviser, were exempted. Riel accepted an offer of a five-year banishment from Canada. Lépine rejected exile, served his sentence, and regained his rights shortly before his death in 1923.
Scott’s execution dogged Riel to the end, playing a part in the prosecution that led to his own execution following the North-West Rebellion, in 1885. His death split Canadian politics, spelling the end of the federal Conservatives in Quebec and in francophone communities until the 1950s.
“Louis Riel is one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history,” the Dictionary of Canadian Biography observes. “To the Métis he is a hero, an eloquent spokesman for their aspirations. In the Canadian west in 1885 the majority of the settlers regarded him as a villain; today he is seen there as the founder of those movements which have protested central Canadian political and economic power. French Canadians have always thought him a victim of Ontario religious and racial bigotry, and by no means deserving of the death penalty. Biographers and historians over the years since Riel’s death have been influenced by one or other of these attitudes. He remains a mysterious figure in death as in life.”
Sources: The Life of Louis Riel by Peter Charlebois (Toronto: NC Press,1975); Riel: A Life of Revolution by Maggie Siggins (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994); The North-West Is Our Mother by Jean Teillet (Toronto: Patrick Crean Editions, 2019); the June-July 1995 edition of The Beaver; the April 16, 1870, edition of Canadian Illustrated News; the April 7, 1870, edition of the Daily Leader; the April 4, 1870, and April 6, 1870, editions of the Daily Telegraph; the March 9, 1872, edition of the Ontario Gazette, and the March 31, 1874, edition of the Ottawa Citizen.