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).

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