________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV . . . . August 31, 2007


Louis Riel: Firebrand. (The Quest Library, 31).

Sharon Stewart.
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2007.
194 pp., pbk., $17.95.
ISBN 978-1-894852-26-5.

Subject Headings:
Riel, Louis, 1844-1885.
Riel Rebellion, 1885.
Red River Rebellion, 1869-1870.
Métis-Prairie Provinces-Biography.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

**** /4



And the year 1884 began badly. In January, Riel learned that [his sister] Sara had died, and his sorrow plunged him into deep depression. In April and May, he had fearful dreams and heard the voice of God say he would spend thirty years in purgatory. Yet at other times, he felt strangely exhilarated. “The jug of my spirit has come uncorked,” he wrote. He took it as a sign that his true mission was beginning at last and began writing down prayers and meditations. Then he received letters from the Saskatchewan territory. The Métis there were hoping for his help. They were going to send a delegation to him.

Louis Riel was born in 1844 in the Red River Settlement and grew up in a very devout Catholic, Métis household where activism was mentored by his father. A keen student, Louis found favour with a Bishop who arranged for him and two other boys to continue their secondary studies in Montreal with the hope that all would become priests. The Collège de Montréal provided Riel with a good education, but the death of his father and his family’s need for his support, together with his discovery of romantic love, convinced him to abandon his studies toward the priesthood. He tried to study law, but the breakup of his romantic engagement marked the end of his seven year stay in Quebec.

     Riel worked for a couple of years in Minnesota and Dakota before returning to his family near the Red River. The arrival of survey crews in 1869 rightly sparked fears of an influx of Anglo-Protestant settlers from Canada among the Métis and the English settlers in Red River who feared that their lands would be lost if the Canadian government that was rumoured to have purchased the North-West from the Hudson Bay Company failed to recognize their claims. With his high level of education and family history of advocacy for the Métis, Louis Riel became a natural leader in the Red River Rebellion. Events took a bad turn when Thomas Scott, an anti-Catholic supporter of the Canadian forces, was court-martialed by Riel’s associates and executed. The passage of the Manitoba Act in May 1870 guaranteed land for the Métis and promised title to Métis for the land that they already settled, but agitation by Protestants in Ontario against the rebels and Riel in particular made an amnesty for those involved in the execution of Scott impossible. Riel found himself exiled from Canada and again living in the U.S. Life as a wanderer was a recurring theme in his life. Apparent failure of the government to fulfill its promises in the Manitoba Act fueled distrust and inspired Riel to support Gabriel Dumont and the Métis of Saskatchewan in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. His role in that Rebellion led to his execution for high treason.      

Sharon Stewart’s biography of the Métis leader who was declared by the Canadian House of Commons in 1992 to be one of the founders of Manitoba is an excellent contribution to “The Quest Library.” She carefully weaves phrases from the English translation of Louis Riel’s own writings into her engaging narrative and even uses some of his poetry to illustrate his thoughts and feelings. Drawing upon a broad selection of Riel scholarship published in English, Stewart portrays Riel in a favourable light as a spiritual man and dedicated activist intent on helping protect Métis rights to land and government. She treats sensitively Riel’s hospitalization in a Montreal asylum following his spiritual visions and self-declared prophecy that he was called to found a Catholic, Apostolic and Vital Church of the Shining Mountains. As Stewart notes and as Rhonda Bailey documents in her outstanding “Chronology,” while Riel’s prophetic vision was denounced by local priests as heretical and fanatical, and his lawyers wanted to plead insanity during his trial for treason, many other nineteenth century visionaries went on to form new religions or new Christian sects, including Joseph Smith (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), Madame Blavatsky and others (Theosophical Society), William Booth (Salvation Army) and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses).

     Eighteen black and white portraits and illustrations are appropriate. The index, chronology and bibliography are all well done. A map of the western settlements that figured prominently in Riel’s life would be useful. Louis Riel captures a sense of change and also forebodes the growing rift between Quebec which supported Riel and Ontario where opposition ran high. Sadly, unresolved land claims with Native and Métis people remain a fixture of Canada today.

Highly Recommended.

Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and collection liaison for English, history and Caribbean studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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