Was Louis Riel insane? - Macleans.ca

Was Louis Riel insane?

Though the Metis leader didn’t agree, madness seemed the best defence against charges of high treason


O.B. Buell/CP/ National Archives of Canada/CP

When Joseph Boyden read a National Post op-ed in July entitled “Louis Riel Deserves No Pardon,” the author of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the latest in Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series, fired off a letter (it was never published) to the newspaper about what he says were “untrue and blatantly false” statements in the piece.

One of those falsehoods, says the Giller Prize-winning author of Through Black Spruce, is that Riel—Metis leader and father of Manitoba—tried to take land from the Indians and put it in the hands of his people. “Riel is one who very much believed in inclusion,” says Boyden, a regular contributor to Maclean’s. “He knew that the northwest was big enough for all the races living there.” In fact, the writer feels that Riel’s forward-thinking notions about a cohesive society should define his legacy: “He was one of the first to push for inclusion.”

Boyden is less resolute about another topic of the Post’s op-ed: Riel’s alleged insanity. Boyden thinks he was “somewhere between” sanity and madness. “One day he’d feel in control, the next day he was questioning himself down to his core,” he says. “This fragility mixed with absolute hubris is what’s so interesting about Riel, and part of why many people say he was crazy.”


The trial of Louis Riel for high treason opens on the morning of July 28, 1885. Six male jury members are seated. The Crown then outlines its evidence against Louis, including his breaking with the priests of Saskatchewan and his offer to return to Montana if he was given a large sum of money from the federal government. The Crown then declares, “I think you will be satisfied before this case is over that it is not a matter brought about by any wrongs so much as a matter brought about by the personal ambition and vanity of the man on trial.”

Not a matter brought about by any wrongs? Louis thinks. The Metis have been wronged countless times by the government and by greedy land-grabbers. It is completely based on wrongs! As for personal ambition and vanity, Louis knows that his ambition is for his people and that God disdains vanity. The Crown doesn’t know him at all. Louis looks around this tiny courtroom, no more than 50 feet by 20 and filled with reporters and the fancily dressed wives of the Crown prosecutors and General Middleton and the judge. No, these people don’t know him at all, and they are a world away from the hardscrabble life of the children of the Prairies. His stomach must sink at this thought. He will not be given a fair trial. It is impossible.

The Crown’s first witness is John Willoughby, a Saskatoon doctor who’d purportedly talked to Riel at the outset of the rebellion. During cross-examination, Louis listens as his lawyers question Willoughby about what had been discussed. Mainly, it seems they’d talked about Louis’s idea to divide up the vast lands of the North-West, not just among the Metis but among different groups of immigrants who were arriving weekly to settle and farm. The defence makes it sound as if Louis’s idea that there is enough land for everyone isn’t a sane one. When one of Louis’s lawyers asks Willoughby if this seemed like a very rational proposition, the witness replies quickly, “It did not.” But it is! What exactly is the defence up to? They’ve kept their strategy quiet. Louis suddenly feels worried.

Witnesses for the Crown continue to line up, each piling on more and more damaging evidence. Again and again in cross-examination, Louis watches in growing horror as his lawyers push the witnesses to discuss what will surely be viewed as his oddities, including frequent mood swings and eating cooked blood for his health. While the Crown tries to make Louis appear cold and calculating, his own lawyers are clearly building the argument that Louis is sick mentally. He now sees where this is leading: they will argue that he is insane, and therefore not guilty as charged. But if successful, the rest of Canada and the world may think that the Metis cause is just as insane. Louis ponders this as the day wears on, realizing with each attack against his sanity that he cannot allow this to happen, for it will destroy his people, and his dream.

On the second day of the trial, the Crown continues to argue that Louis acted in a cold and calculating manner, actively and sanely fomenting rebellion among a group of poor half-breeds, manipulating them with his devilish ideas. Louis watches with deep sadness when his cousin, Charles Nolin, takes the stand against him. Charles, who supported a Metis uprising in the beginning, has turned against his own blood and people, supplying key knowledge of the intricacies of the rebellion. But Louis, rather than feeling anger, feels only sadness for the spineless man.

Louis does get angry, though, when his defence team begins questioning Charles about Louis’s sanity. Charles admits that Louis believes he can prophesy the future based on how his body’s organs react to his commands, and that he becomes uncontrollably excited and angry whenever he hears the word “police.” This questioning must stop! Louis is not insane! He must set things straight. Louis stands up and begins speaking to the judge. “If there is any way, by legal procedure, that I should be allowed to say a word, I wish you would allow me before this witness leaves the box.” The judge responds by telling Louis that he must bring this up with his own counsel, but Louis continues. “Do you allow me to speak? I have some observation to make before the court.”

Louis’s lawyers are mortified. Charles Fitzpatrick tells him that this is not the proper time. Pointing to Louis, he says, “He must not be allowed to interfere,” and the judge points out that Louis has the right to counsel but also the right to defend himself.

Filled with emotion, Louis speaks again. “Your Honour, this case comes to be extraordinary, and while the Crown, with the great talents they have at their service, are trying to show I am guilty—of course it is their duty—my counsellors are trying—my good friends and lawyers who have been sent here by friends whom I respect—are trying to show that I am insane.”

Once again the judge orders Louis to be quiet. Fitzpatrick, sensing he’s losing control not just of the case but of his client, again asks the judge to forbid Louis from interrupting.
After a few minutes’ recess for the defence to pull itself together, Louis makes the decision to keep his counsel. What other choice does he have? His English isn’t good enough to defend himself, and there is so much to say, so much to explain, that it would take him months of preparation. It is better to keep this counsel than to be left alone.

For the rest of the day the Crown piles on the damaging evidence: a letter Louis wrote to Poundmaker, begging him to join the rebellion; witnesses who recall seeing Louis, crucifix in hand, exhorting the half-breeds to carry on the killing of policemen. By the end of the second day when the Crown rests its case, Louis has been painted as a calculating instigator and mastermind.

On the morning of July 30, the defence opens by calling on Father Alexis André, the priest who, above all, considers Louis a heretic and a madman. Expecting to hear the priest denigrate him, Louis is instead surprised to hear André explain how for years, petition after petition, the Metis begged the federal government to treat them with justice and fairness, to settle their title for the land upon which they’d lived and settled, and how year after year, the government ignored the half-breeds. Louis is excited to see that André has made it clear that the government is also to blame for the violence that erupted. But just as quickly, Louis is dismayed once more when the priest speaks to Louis’s mental state, calling him a “fool,” “not in control of himself,” and “not responsible.”

Other witnesses contend that Louis is a madman. A member of his own Exovedate, Philippe Garnot, admits, “I thought the man was crazy,” especially when it came to his rather bizarre prayers. Father Fourmand, who follows, talks more about Louis’s religious oddities and his grave mood swings.

The fourth witness, Dr. François-Elzéar Roy, a part owner of the asylum in Quebec City where Louis spent 19 months, testifies that he suffers from what the doctor labels megalomania. The next witness is Dr. Daniel Clark, another psychiatrist, this one from Toronto. He has arrived as a substitute for a doctor who treated Louis but wasn’t able to come. Dr. Clark spoke with Louis three times over the course of two days, and his limited knowledge of the half-breed and his temperament does little good for anyone.

In less than one full day, the defence rests its case. The Crown calls its rebuttal witnesses and steadily builds its case through the rest of the third day and into the fourth. A doctor who runs an asylum in Hamilton, Ont., argues that Louis is indeed sane, as do Capt. Young and Gen. Middleton, who speak to Louis’s intelligence.

Day four ends with Fitzpatrick giving a two-hour address that spills over into the fifth day. The crux of his argument is what Louis and Gabriel had been saying all along: that the Government of Canada “had wholly failed in its duty toward these North-West Territories.” He also maintains his stand that Louis is not sane, ending his talk by pleading to the jury, “I know that you shall not weave the cord that shall hang him and hang him high in the face of all the world, a poor confirmed lunatic—a victim, gentlemen, of oppression or the victim of fanaticism.” With that, he rests his case.

From Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont by Joseph
Boyden. Copyright © Joseph Boyden, 2009. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).


Was Louis Riel insane?

  1. So McLean's isn't happy with all the vitriol pouring from the ROC on corruption in Quebec. It wants more Quebec and franco bashing. Come on gang, shoot!

    Bande de rednecks, vous n'avez pas honte de salir la mémoire de cet homme?

  2. by the same brush john a macdonald the first prime minster was a raging alcoholic….take that i am sure we would luv to read about just another drunken little piggie from days gone by!

  3. A fascinating Story from our History. From the sounds of what I read above, Riel's Lawyers were not far off the mark with their defense, but probably for the wrong reason. Judging from his mood swings, angry outbursts etc., he may well of had some mental health issues. But because of the way it was presented and probably exaggerated for the sake of his defense, we will never know for sure. But I would think that what ever his mental state was, his execution was a fait accompli. As far as the Federal Government at the time was concerned, they probably needed to make an example of Riel for fear of further uprisings. And Riel "needed" to be guilty in order to exonerate themselves from any and all guilt associated with the treatment of the Metis. But regardless of The Governments motives and his Lawyer's defense, Riel sounds to have been a very forward thinking man. The idea that there was more than enough land for everyone of all races to live together was far ahead of it's time and so incredibly democratic and egalitarian. I think our Federal Government today could learn a lot from Louis.

    • Imagine all the common mental illnesses we know of now that passed as pure insanity back then. Example: Frederick Chopin was diagnosed with tuberculosis then but there's a new theory that it could have been cystic fibrosis.

      Mood swings could be something as treatable as bi-polar disease.

      • Absolutely, Bi-polar was my first thought as well. And yes, today, it is quite treatable. Back then, had he not been executed, I would imagine Riel would have spent the remainder of his life in a louse infested cell. If he wasn't insane before, he would have been by the end of his days.

        As you said, it's interesting to note how many historical figures were afflicted with one malady or another that would have been so treatable today. Vincent Van Gogh also springs to mind. A brilliant artist who suffered through his entire life with what many now consider b–polar disease. In the end, it resulted in his taking his own life.

        But I have to wonder, if Riel could have presented as more "lucid", would he have been taken as seriously? Would he have been as driven? Would he and the Metis people have had a better ending?

        • I think a useful case study would be to compare Riel's leadership to that of Metis leaders between 1870 and 1885. I suspect that under a leader like Gabriel Dumont you would have eventually gotten a peaceful settlement. Before Riel returned, there was a broad coalition of Metis AND settlers with serious concerns. Riel's rhetoric alienated the former, and he only waited till a month after Ottawa responded to his petition (offering a commission on grievances) to commence fighting.

          On the other hand, if there was rebellion without Riel, it would have gone much worse for the Canadian troops. The key to Canadian success was their ability to transport large number of troops and supplies by train. Dumont wanted to blow up the train tracks, but Riel refused. An attack on rail lines would have probably delayed the movement of troops long enough that the Metis could have established strong defences. Heavier military assets like artillery would have posed a challenge, and many more Canadian troops would have died from disease or inclement weather.

          • Thank you so much for the informed response. You are obviously quite up on the details of the story, much more so than I. You must be a history buff.

            But it's interesting to look at the possibilities of alternate histories-"what would have happened if…" Like what if the Nazis had continued to bomb airfields instead of shifting to bombing urban Centers during the Battle of Brittan? What if the Carthaginians has defeated the Romans at Zama, or if the South were victorious at Gettysburg. How different would things look today? If, as you said, it had been Dumont in charge and not Riel, what would the outcome have been? Would our prairie provinces look any different today?

            From what you were saying, it appears that the Metis cause was hindered more than it was helped by Louis Riel. I somehow don't think this is the popular perception of Riel.

  4. Thanks for posting this excerpt – I've been patiently waiting for this book to come out for some time now (also can't wait for John Ralston Saul's take on Baldwin and Lafontaine). The Extraordinary Canadians series is fantastic.

    As for the matter at hand, I never thought Riel's history with mental illness was in question. He was twice committed to mental asylums and in his later years became convinced that the Metis were the lost tribe of Israel and he was their messianic leader. This doesn't take anything away from his legacy, but why not show the man in the fullness of his character?

    Riel is easily my favourite figure in Canadian history – in my French Immersion class we were taught he was a national hero, the kids in english-language history down the hall learned that he was a criminal, and that Thomas Scott was an innocent government employee :)

    • I guess you're right. No other Canadian figure represents the dichotomy that is Canada as well as him.

    • Thomas Scott was murdered by a madman. Louis Riel is fascinating – no doubt, but he is also a traitor, a murderer, a lunatic and a very poor leader of the metis & Indians who put their trust in him.

      • Cdn_Patriot, Louis may have been mad but he was no murderer, the execution was legal and just.The West wasn't Canada yet. Maybe you are a believer in British "divine right" and non-British be damned, and that her spawn – Ottawa – was the inheritor of that? The only way you could call him a traitor is if you hold the self – interest of Ontario's "Canada" , as greater than the just interests of the people of the West, but for that you would need to diminish the humanity and dignity of the west's Indian and Metis people.
        Which makes you a f**king orangeman bigot.

        • Nice language,Randy. I'm neither an Orangeman nor a bigot – which is more than you can claim. But I do hold the rather odd belief that even an Orangeman doesn't deserve to be murdered by a jumped up self appointed committee of thugs solely for the reason that he didn't recognize their authority. No I'm sorry to burst your bubble but Riel was most definitely a murderer. His murder was not just and was most certainly illegal. It was also dumb, thoughtless and cruel – in keeping with just about everything Riel ever did.

          What is British divine right? I've never heard of such a thing. Perhaps you're referring to the divine right of kings which is an historical concept although one that has absolutely no relevance here. In your ignorance, perhaps you're unaware that the British crown was actually a reasonably reliable ally for the non British – compare the behaviour of the Americans with the Brits in North America.

          I can't follow the thread of your babble about Ontario and the West, so I'll just say that Riel was a disastrous leader of the poor Metis and Indians (I have great sympathy for them both), and he didn't really give a damn about them compared to his deluded religious mania.

          • Hey Ontario_Patriot, listen-up and always remember, my bigoted orangeman friend, that just because you don't have card carrying status doesn't mean you don't have a valid vocation. With your obvious aptitude, I'm sure they'll accept you, as long as your white and not Catholic.
            Ah yes, dumb, thoughtless and cruel, and don't forget "inclusive", a hundred and twenty years before the CBC got on to it. Maybe you didn't know that at Red River Louis reached out the immigrants, Canadians, French and – choke -the English and received a mandate from all of them, save a handful of – wait for it – orangeman.

            "British divine right", is a sarcastic use of that historical concept of which you speak but applied to British racialist, classist dogmas and attitude. But you knew that. I'm accusing you of being a bigot, not stupid.

            You have great sympathy for my people? Yeah bulls**t, right until one of them stands up against a powerful foreign occupier – Canada – bent on stealing his people's individual private property as well as their homeland then you call him a traitor?

            It isn't Canada just because John A says so, unless of coarse you believe that the Catholic Metis, Indians and scattered others of the West did not deserve to have their rights recognized. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here and assuming your familiarity with the history, which leaves no other option other than – –your a bigot.
            Yeah, third sentence is a little weak, but I think the forth sentence is really quite good.

          • Hey Ottawa_Boy, you sound like a fairly hard-core Canada-can-do-no-wrong type, so, maybe you can appreciate this observation and comment: I've noticed that the same "divine right" dynamic of Ottawa's treatment of the people of Red River in 1869 never actually saw an end. It just kept growing and expanding West, until it got stopped at Tofino.
            If Steven gets his majority this time around we're counting on him to make right this and many other wrongs, otherwise Vive l'Ouest libre!

  5. This trial was a sad sad moment in Canadian history ,makes me sick in the stomach . They used Gatlin gun on children and elderly people in Batoche. Middleton sucks big time his face should be printed in yellow in every history manual.

    • So, following your logic, shouldn't Riel, or at least Big Bear, be demonized for the Frog Lake massacre?

      Of course it is pretty clear that you are not employing logic. Whether or not Middleton's conduct in the rebellion was appropriate has no bearing on whether or not Riel was guilty of treason. Atrocities committed during the rebellion cannot be used to justify the rebellion, since they happened after conflict was initiated.

      Certainly, if Middleton had opened fire on civilians for no reason, that would have been a deplorable act. However, the situation was very different than you suggest. Metis forces fired at Canadian troops from buildings, including a church, that contained civilians (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Batoche/html/resources/proof_battle_of_batoche.php). When a building is used as a military base, it becomes a military target. Moral culpability lies with those who put civilians in harms way.

  6. I have no idea whether Riel was a good guy or not…but I do know one thing, it will be impossible to tell as you can't trust anything the Canadian media reports any longer as virtually everything is tainted with political bias and once the politically correct crowd decides to re-write history it all becomes fantasy. Sad but very, very true.

    • Its worse than that because the media merely reflects attitudes held by a broad swathe of the population. High school history classes are aimed more at generating white guilt than in good history scholarship. Certainly it goes both ways – at one point the media put forth a story that was offensive towards natives and the Metis, while the education system attempted to purge natives of their culture (and although the present debate is imperfect, it is much preferable to the old one).

      I think the key is to look beyond media reports, and instead to look at academic debates, primary sources and the facts on the ground. While this is a tall order for people, it is a necessary one. Almost every time I look deeper at positions that are portrayed as scholarly consensus or received wisdom by the media, further investigation tells a different story.

  7. So based on your arguments above regarding culpability and when is a rebellion "legitimate" and when is it treasonous. I take pause to think about native activism in the last 20 years or so in Canada. I think you would probably agree that most Native activism of late is with regard to land claims and perceived breaches of treaties. Lets start with the Oka Crisis in 1990. This dispute was over a golf course expanding onto Mohawk land. Now I don't really know to what extent peaceful means were used to avoid a conflict in the first place, but once that police officer was shot, I would think that all bets would have been off. To me, that conflict then became a rebellion. The presence of the Mohawk Warrior society and weapons I think was more than enough justification for the armed forces to be called out. But unlike the Riel rebellion, cooler heads seemed to have won out. But you also mentioned above about the culpability of armed combatants that put innocents in harms way. Women and children were quite freely roaming around behind the Native barricade at Oka. Had the police or armed forces opened fire, I think we both know what the result would have been…

    Fast forward to today. I'm thinking about the three year old Native occupation of that subdivision in Caledonia Ontario. Again, I don't know the preliminary steps, but if a resolution were simple, there would not still be a Native occupation of that land. Again the possibility of armed conflict was ever present. I don't know if guns were ever confirmed behind the native barricade, but if the Warrior society is present, one has to wonder. And again, women and children roam freely behind the barricade. Could this be construed as rebellion? Regardless of it's legitimacy, could this be considered an act of treason or an act of civil disobedience, one group of people standing up for it's rights? I know that argument has led to many a fist fight in the town of Caledonia. And I have to wonder, if Pierre Trudeau were still Prime Minister, how would he have dealt with the crisis. Would he have handled it the same way as the October Crisis, putting to rest all such forms of activism in the future? Or would he be more conciliatory, not viewing the protest as a national crisis?

    • Not all extra-legal uses of force constitute treason/rebellion. To be guilty of treason or high treason you have to:
      -try to kill the Queen
      -make war on Canada
      -aid those who make war on Canada
      -give up state secrets
      -seek to overthrow the government with arms
      -conspiracy to commit high treason

      Neither the perpetrators of the Oka crisis or the Caledonia dispute are guilty of either of any of the above although they probably could be tried on much smaller charges. They certainly weren't attempting to overthrow the Canadian state – rather, you had a protest (in the case of Oka) turned violent. I would even suggest that convicting the FLQ for treason would have been a stretch, perhaps this is why the government didn't do it.

      I think strong examples of people guilty of treason might include Kanao Inouye (a Japanese-Canadian who fought for the Japanese army and killed 8 Canadian POW's), William Lyon Mackenzie or Louis-Joseph Papineau (both of whom were granted amnesty).

  8. And even organizing armed insurrection against the Government, did MacKenzie not re-enter into Canadian Politics after he was granted amnesty?

  9. Shoes you what happens when you let a drunk foreigner (MacDonald) in charge of the government. Promises of aid and treaty provisions go unfulfilled and a crisis is allowed to build until violence breaks out.

    • Racist idiot. The Scots did as much as any other peoples to create Canada. MacDonald was a terrific leader. One of his better accomplishments was beating the traitor & murderer, Louis Riel – 2 / 2!

  10. Yup. It's pretty clear – Riel was absolutely nuts! We already know that he was a piss poor leader who betrayed the trust of the poor metis & Indians whom he led, and that he was a traitor & a murderer. Nice legacy.

    • hey loser, Metis are indians. Did you even take history you ignoramus?

  11. Great post. But I would add that the murder of Thomas Scott was indeed – murder!

  12. He was well hung. He should have been hung many years before for the judicial murder of Thomas Scott.

    • man, you are a racist asshole and should never EVER call yourself a Canadian patriot. Louis Riel was one of the best and most historic leaders, there’s even a day named after him. You think you’re better than him? did you lead a bunch of Metis or french Canadians towards freedom? do you have a day named after you? Obviously not, I mean I don’t see “Pompous douche faced asshole day” anywhere on my calender. Now shut up and learn your place. You kind of people make me sick, you’re just scum.

  13. You guys crazy, ?????? Riel was one of the most inspiring leaders. In every battle he lead with the metis, he fought with pride for the Red River Settlement. And he was well trusted by the Indians as well. (P.S you might be thinking of George Bush ) By
    Anonymous =)

  14. It’s sad. I believe Riel could have come up with an argument containing the truth and not pleading guilty if only he had not stayed with his lawyer. He was an aspiring leader and cared a great deal about his people.

  15. bakala!!!!! and what