RIEL, LOUIS, farmer, miller, and Métis leader; b. July 1817 at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.), eldest son of Jean-Baptiste Riel, dit L’Irlande, a voyageur, and Marguerite Boucher, a Franco-Chipewyan Métisse; d. 21 Jan. 1864 at Saint-Boniface (Man.).
In 1822 the Riel family returned to Lower Canada from the west, and Louis was baptized at Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville, Que.) on 23 September. He attended a local school and learned the trade of carding wool. When he was 21, in 1838, he returned to the northwest in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company. That date, and the appearance of a flag called the “Papineau standard” among the Métis as mentioned by Alexander Ross* in The Red River settlement, cause one to wonder whether the elder Riel had had any part in the rebellion of 1837. Like his famous son, he was to become the champion of French and Métis rights in the northwest. For several years Louis was stationed at Rainy River. In 1842 he returned to Lower Canada and entered the noviciate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Saint-Hilaire (Mont-Saint-Hilaire), but after a short while withdrew for lack of a sense of vocation. In the summer of 1843 he returned to the northwest and settled in the Red River colony.
Louis Riel’s river lot in Saint-Boniface was near that of voyageur Jean-Baptiste Lagemodière and his wife, Marie-Anne Gaboury*. On 21 Jan. 1844 Riel married their daughter Julie, after a painful hesitation on her part between the attraction of a religious vocation and her duty to her parents, who favoured the match. Julie Riel’s intense religious spirit was to have a great influence on her eldest son, Louis*, born in October 1844, one of 11 children.
That son was to be influenced also by his father’s career. Louis Riel Sr early became a man of note in the French Canadian and Métis society of Red River, and showed sympathy with the free traders in furs who were challenging the monopoly of the HBC. This monopoly was tested in May 1849 in the trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer*, charged by the HBC with illicit trading; Riel emerged with the Reverend George-Antoine Bellecourt* as the adviser and leader of the Métis in support of Sayer. The jury returned a verdict of guilty but recommended mercy, and Sayer was freed. Riel promptly asserted that the outcome of the verdict was tantamount to a surrender of the monopoly, and his assertion was at once taken up by the Métis. The trade was indeed to be free thereafter. Riel also took up strongly the cause of representation of the Métis on the Council of Assiniboia and the use of French as well as English in the courts of Assiniboia. Success in these endeavours made him the leader of the French community in the 1850s.
Riel had also become a man of business. He worked for the establishment of a fulling mill in Saint-Boniface, and in 1847 opened a small mill on his farm with the support of chief factor John Ballenden*. But Riel had little success with his fulling mill. It is said he later attempted, with some success, to open and operate a carding and grist mill, hence his title of “miller of the Seine.” In 1857 he ambitiously went to Montreal to buy machinery for a textile mill, but after his return with the equipment the venture failed.
In 1864 Riel died, mourned by his people as well as his family and not least by his son Louis, then at college in Montreal. If the elder Riel had failed as a businessman, he had created for his son a tradition of leadership which would alter the history of the northwest.
Archives paroissiales, Sainte-Geneviève-de-Berthier (Berthierville, Qué.), Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 23 sept. 1822. HBRS, XIX (Rich and Johnson). Tassé, Les Canadiens de l’Ouest, II, 353–79. A. S. Morton, History of the Canadian west, 805, 810, 816, 858, 880. Ross, Red River Settlement (1957), 239–40. Stanley, Louis Riel.