The Story of a Hybrid Rebel: Louis Riel's Challenge to the Young Canadian State


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This essay examines the politics of Louis Riel, who led two rebellions against Canadian westward expansion, the Red River Rebellion in 1869 and North-West Rebellion in 1885. These rebellions were, in great part, defined by the political concerns of the indigenous people residing in the areas now referred to as Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In the end, the English-dominated Canadian government executed Riel in November 1885, over the protests of French Canada. The figure of Riel provides a complex and valuable perspective on Canada’s founding period, because his actions and identity placed him in the middle of the relationship between English and French Canada in particular, and between indigenous and non-indigenous people in general. I argue that we can only fully grasp the politics Louis Riel represents by appreciating him as a hybrid rebel, a man whose actions and views challenge and transcend the boundaries of any singular identity or political allegiance. From the symbolic significance of his identity as a hybrid rebel, I draw out two important implications for Canadian politics, especially regarding indigenous people’s politics. First, the overriding political objective sought by Riel in both rebellions was the achievement of what I call ‘hybrid sovereignty,’ which incorporated indigenous and non-indigenous interests and people in a claim for a ‘new nation’s’ self-government as a partner in Canadian confederation. Second, to fully understand Canadian politics one must grasp the triangular relationship among English, French and indigenous people, and the Riel-led rebellions further defined the angles of this triangularity. I demonstrate these two points by tracing the history of the two rebellions engaged by Louis Riel, focusing on the rebels’ grievances and proposals as well as the responses of the two Euro-majorities to these events. Finally, I examine the circumstances and political debates around Riel’s ultimate demise via state execution.


History | Public Policy

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