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Canadian Illustrated News:
Images in the news: 1869-1883

The Red River Rebellion, 1870

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April 9, 1870
[ Vol. I, No. 23 ]

[ page ] 358, [ col. 1 ]

The Red River Difficulty
Louis Riel

The confirmation of the news of the execution of Scott at Fort Garry, on the 4th of last month, casts a dark shadow over the prospect of a peaceful settlement of the Red River troubles. Playing at Government when the Hudson's Bay Company was powerless, and when Canada had no authority to step into the Company's place, might have been pardoned, and the courts of law and equity might have been left to deal with the plunderings, confiscations, and false imprisonments perpetrated by Riel and his associates during the winter. When, however, the highest function of executive authority is exercised -- that of consigning a fellow-being to a sudden and ignominious death after a form of trial before a sham of the most arbitrary court known to modern Government -- then, indeed, there is an end to paltering with the perpetrators of the crime. The execution of Scott is a cowardly murder, and was performed in a most barbarous manner. The New Nation, whose account we quote, refrains --perhaps from a sense of shame -- from describing the closing scene; it merely says: "he fell," but does not add that he was laid alive in his coffin and remained there for an hour before death put an end to his sufferings. Other parties from Fort Garry give fuller particulars; but the incidents connected with the melancholy tragedy need not here be dwelt upon.

[ page ] 358 [ col. 2 ]

Scott's "crimes," as set forth in the New Nation, were such as would hardly send a prisoner for twenty-four hours to "the black hope" in any civilized country. He was made a prisoner in December last, and after some weeks, along with several other prisoners, made his escape. When the portage movement took place, Scott was among the Boulton party, forty-five strong, who were captured and committed to the Fort. From this time he was "violent and abusive in his language and actions," and had the unspeakable effrontery to "annoy and insult the guards." He is also said to have threatened Riel's life, and to have stated that he had formerly looked for him with the intention of killing him. Taking all these statements as true; and even were it to be admitted for the sake of argument that Riel had authority to set a court-martial in motion against Scott, his condemnation to death for such offences is an act of outrageous barbarism. The Queen of England, the Emperors of France and Russia, and other crowned heads of Europe, have not only had their lives threatened, but actually been fired at; yet they took not the blood of the criminals. If Scott were to use such threats towards Riel in Canada, though utterly without provocation, all the satisfaction the law would give would be to have the offender bound over for six or twelve months to keep the peace.

But the form of trial was little less extraordinary than its result. The "tribunal of Adjutant General Lepine" conducted the trial in the French language, of which the prisoner was ignorant, and it was only on the 3rd that he was "informed of the sad result," that he was to be shot next day at ten o'clock. Clerical and lay influence, including that of Commissioner Smith, was brought to bear upon Riel to obtain a pardon, or even a reprieve of a few days till the arrival of Bishop Taché; but Riel refused. He, however, granted a reprieve of two hours and "ordered that all the soldiers should be assembled before the execution and that prayers should be offered up for the condemned man." It may be charitable to offer or "order" prayers for the man whom one is about deliberately to murder ; but surely it would be no offence to religion or morality to spare the victim's life and let him work out his own station.

This affair will very much embarrass the carrying out of the conciliatory policy heretofore pursued by the Government and generally approved by the Canadian people. It has already proved that the Commissioners sent to Fort Garry from Ottawa have done little or nothing towards bringing about a settlement; and if it should turn out, as probably it will, that Riel has cunningly detained the deputation appointed at the Convention of the people's representatives, for the purpose of commissioning them as agents on behalf of his government, we do not see how Ministers at Ottawa can receive them. Any act on the part of the Dominion authorities that would bear the construction of a recognition of Riel's government would not only be derogatory to the honour of Canada, but might prove exceedingly embarrassing in carrying out the measures which must ultimately be resorted to for the restoration of the Queen's authority in the North West. The execution of Scott has complicated these matters to a degree that hardly appears on the surface. Many of the things done by the insurgents might have been passed over in spite of their illegality, because of their being comparatively trivial and easily condoned by submission to the Queen's authority when the proclamation annexing the territory to Canada shall come in force. The civil proceedings growing out of personal transactions in the territory during the winter need not have entailed political disabilities; and the peaceful solution for which all hoped would have been quite possible of accomplishment. But Riel will not quit the President's chair for the criminal's cell if he can help it, and the Queen's Government cannot tolerate the killing of her subjects without due form of law, so that there seems nothing for it now but a military expedition in the spring; and the formal union of the Territory with Canada by the Queen's proclamation, followed by such a display of force as will guarantee respect for authority. It is said by those acquainted with the population, that Riel's party is still a minority, but that the others having no means of organization or legally constituted executive officers to lead them, are unwilling to provoke a civil war; and in this they are surely right. The few counter-attempts that have already been made -- just as illegal as Riel's -- have only borne mischievous fruit; and we earnestly hope, in spite of the irritation caused by Scott's execution, that no more will be attempted until somebody with the Queen's commission in his pocket is there to direct it.