The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief COLLINS, Joseph Edmund

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COLLINS, Joseph Edmund. The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief - Toronto, 1970.




  • What aspects should be considered when choosing insanity as a defense?
  • May a government be considered insane due to its morally reproachable actions?
  • What is the impact that legal, social and cultural perceptions have in the determination of guilt and responsibility?
  • How can the popular, ethnical and socio-cultural opinions expressed through a verdict come to terms with the legal construction through precedents followed by Common Law countries, in the light of the Colonial Independence Wars?



  • “Riel argued that his actions in the resistance, far from being treasonous, were a reasoned and legitimate political response to government inaction, one that would have remained “constitutional” and thus legal, if the Dominion had not reacted with aggression.”
  • Riel’s eagerness to refute his lawyers’ use of the insanity defence in the trial, although at first glance more explicitly personal, also carried with it an important political meaning. Riel strenuously refused the “blot resting upon my reputation” that he saw symbolized by the defence.”
  • “In this formulation, being responsible for one’s acts is premised on an idealized knowledge of what the act signifies within a discourse that presumes law to be socially normative and that meaningfully equates a specific knowledge of the law with an apparently innate and moral sense of what is “wrong.”.”
  • “ Arguing the former as a defence against Riel’s culpability for his actions in the North-West Resistance, his lawyers rooted their argument in racialized assumptions about Riel’s Métis heritage that implicitly suggested that the “mysticism” of his “untutored” Indigenous forebears predisposed him to a simplicity that could veer into instability.”
  • “The legalized conception of personal responsibility articulated in the M’Naghten Rules, as a hermeneutics that formalizes a potential divorce between the commission of an act and culpability for that act, forms a significant aspect of how responsibility is known and understood by cultures shaped by the common law tradition.”
  • “As interest in Riel’s mental state (and, indeed, the outcry over the M’Naghten decision) indicates, the legal terms of insanity were the subject of considerable popular scrutiny in the nineteenth century, and a public discussion existed in which law’s privileged understandings of responsibility and culpability were interrogated by other socio-cultural discourses.”



For Benjamin Authers “‘An Insane and Irresponsible Government’: Governance and Responsibility in Louis Riel’s Trial Speech and John Mackie’s The Rising of the Red Man.” In Riel’s Defence: Perspectives on his Speeches. Ed. Hans V. Hansen. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014. 224-246

Benjamin Authers

Assistant Professor of Law

University of Canberra, Australia

Edition: Rita Tineo

Translation: Jimena Reides



Louis Riel’s defence speech was his first sustained opportunity to address the court at his 1885 trial for high treason.[1] During the speech, Riel argued for the legitimacy of the North-West Resistance by pointing to Ottawa’s mismanagement of the North-West Territories, highlighting its failure to respond to the suffering of Indigenous and Métis inhabitants or to grant European settlers “responsible government” and “public liberties.”[2] Riel argued that his actions in the resistance, far from being treasonous, were a reasoned and legitimate political response to government inaction, one that would have remained “constitutional,”[3] and thus legal, if the Dominion had not reacted with aggression.[4]

Riel’s eagerness to refute his lawyers’ use of the insanity defence in the trial, although at first glance more explicitly personal, also carried with it an important political meaning. Riel strenuously refused the “blot resting upon my reputation”[5] that he saw symbolized by the defence. Instead, he argued that his actions were justified given the Dominion government’s treatment of the territories. Indeed, in resisting the Dominion, Riel argued that it was he who acted “reasonably and in self-defence.”[6] Ottawa, on the other hand, “being irresponsible, and consequently insane, cannot but have acted wrong.”[7]

This article examines the language of responsibility and insanity deployed in Louis Riel’s “case” and considers how representations of Riel’s mental state came to illustrate disparate forms of “responsibility knowledge.”[8] Ideas about responsibility circulate in markedly different ways in texts by and about Riel. In the characterization put forward by his defence lawyers, Riel is legally insane. He is incapable of knowing the quality of his otherwise treasonous acts and thus cannot be held responsible for them. This position, rebutted by the Crown and ultimately rejected by the jury, constitutes one of the most persistent representations of Riel, a legalized formulation whose connotations permeate (as many such legally inflected concepts do) the broader culture. Contemporaneous literary works like Ralph Connor’s Patrol of the Sundance Trail[9] and Joseph Edmund Collins’s The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief[10] speak both to this legal understanding of culpability and to the complex ideological framework that it evokes and helps to constitute. Although such novels do not engage directly with the legal question of whether Riel should have been declared not guilty by reason of insanity in his trial, their discussions of Riel’s mental state and culpability owe much to the law’s conceptions of responsibility, even as they nuance and challenge those conceptions. Connor’s and Collins’s novels demonize Riel as both crazed and criminal, a characterization of responsibility made even more emphatically in John Mackie’s representation of Riel in The Rising of the Red Man: A Romance of the Louis Riel Rebellion.[11] In Mackie’s text, it becomes apparent that ideas of deviance and criminality define the Métis leader, framing him as an impostor who is at once irrational and culpable. Legalized terms such as “criminality” and “imposture” shape Mackie’s representation of Riel, but they are only one of many discourses to do so.

Riel’s self-representation in his defence speech also extrapolates the legal meaning of “insanity” and “responsibility.” For Riel, his actions during the North-West Resistance were those of a rational man acting in response to an “irresponsible, and consequently insane” government. Creating an analogy between the legal defence of insanity and an idea of unresponsive, irresponsible government Riel not only exerts some control over his own depiction but also offers a political critique of the Dominion’s administration of the North-West Territories. Each of these texts relies in different ways on ideas of insanity and responsibility, and each demonstrates how potent and overdetermined the concept of responsibility is in discussions of Louis Riel and the 1885 resistance. Their respective representations also indicate how the figure of Riel himself speaks to legalized, but also more broadly cultural, manifestations of responsibility circulating in anglophone culture in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Much interesting work has been done since the late nineteenth century on the question of Riel’s mental state and whether he should have been held legally culpable for his actions in the resistance. Although I am cognizant of the importance of this issue to the historical record and to the questions of law and justice that the defence’s failure raises, this article supplements, rather than directly contributing to, these discussions, looking to depictions of Riel’s responsibility rather than asking whether the man himself should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity at trial.

Responsibility and Riel

In his 2010 biography Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Métis writer Joseph Boyden notes that Riel’s lawyers had a small number of possible options available to them in formulating his defence. Faced with the capital offence of high treason, the lawyers argued that the charge should be reduced to the less serious crime of treason-felony, while also asserting that the “rebellion was justified and a product of acute and continued federal mishandling and even criminal ignorance of Métis petitions for land claim review.”[12] “Most useful” and “obvious” to them, however, was the defence of insanity.[13] Riel’s confinement in asylums in the 1870s, the apparently bizarre nature of his writings, and the religious mania that appeared to drive his actions — including his claim to be a “prophet of the new world”[14] — all seemed to support the defence. At the very least, being found insane would spare Riel’s life.

Following Riel’s defence speech and the closing statements of the defence and prosecution, Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Richardson, the stipendiary magistrate presiding over Riel’s trial, set out the following test for the jury: “To establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that at the time he committed the act, the party accused was labouring under such defective reasoning from a diseased mind as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was committing, or that if he did know it, that he did not know that he was doing wrong. That I propound to you as the law.”[15] Richardson’s directions restate for the jury the M’Naghten Rules, a series of criteria for determining legal responsibility established in the aftermath of the 1843 English trial of Daniel M’Naghten. Having believed for a number of years that he was being persecuted by the British Tories, M’Naghten killed Edmund Drummond, private secretary to then prime minister Sir Robert Peel, while believing Drummond to be Peel. The verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity that the jury subsequently passed down generated considerable public disquiet, including critique from Queen Victoria. In a private letter to Peel, the queen articulated what has proven to be a persistent anxiety about legal insanity: that an offender might escape punishment when “everybody is morally convinced that … [he or she was] perfectly conscious and aware of what they did.”[16]

Appearing before the House of Lords to clarify the state of the law following M’Naghten, the judges of the Central Criminal Court responded to a series of questions posed by the Lords. In a majority “decision,” they asserted the general rule that an accused suffering from a mental defect is to be found not guilty unless “he knew at the time of committing such crime that he was acting contrary to law.”[17] This knowledge did not, they argued, need to be a specific knowledge of the formal law. Rather, it must be proved by the defence that “the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”[18] In this formulation, being responsible for one’s acts is premised on an idealized knowledge of what the act signifies within a discourse that presumes law to be socially normative and that meaningfully equates a specific knowledge of the law with an apparently innate and moral sense of what is “wrong.”[19] Legal responsibility depends on the accused being able to recognize the “nature and quality” of their actions as contrary to law. Knowledge about the right and wrong of specific acts thus becomes the central question of legal responsibility; this knowledge determines whether a defect in reason, caused by a mental illness, means that an accused is not competent to be considered liable for the consequences (punishment) of an otherwise criminal deed.

As framed in Daniel M’Naghten’s Case and restated by Justice Richardson in The Queen v. Louis Riel, the insanity defence served as the primary legal formulation for negotiating an individual’s responsibility in cases of mental impairment.[20] In Riel’s trial, his lawyers offered the jury the following choice: “either this man is the lunatic that we his counsel have tried to make him, or he is an entirely sane man in the full possession of all his mental faculties, and was responsible in the eyes of God and man for everything that he has done.”[21] Arguing the former as a defence against Riel’s culpability for his actions in the North-West Resistance, his lawyers rooted their argument in racialized assumptions about Riel’s Métis heritage that implicitly suggested that the “mysticism” of his “untutored” Indigenous forebears predisposed him to a simplicity that could veer into instability.[22] More overtly, the defence argued that because of his involvement in the Red River Uprising of 1869-70, Riel had developed a “disease of the mind known as megalomania … an extraordinary love of power and extraordinary development of ambition,” where the sufferer may act “under the insane delusion that he is either a great poet or a god or a king or that he is in direct communication with the Holy Ghost.”[23] Riel’s actions were not, the defence asserted, rational: he would not, for example, have surrendered himself to General Frederick Middleton if he had not been acting in the unreasonable belief that God was protecting him from harm.[24] Offering an alternative characterization to the “deep, designing, cunning rascal that he is represented to be”[25] by the prosecution, the defence’s interpretation asserted that he was “entirely insane and irresponsible for his acts”[26] and thus incapable of assuming legal responsibility for his role in the North-West Resistance. Riel was unable to rationally understand the quality and consequence of his actions and had acted subject to the terms of his delusions, including his megalomanic belief that there could be “no opposition of his objects.”[27] Given the evidence proffered in support of this by the defence, Charles Fitzpatrick, one of Riel’s lawyers, appealed to the jury in his closing statement to uphold the “principles of English liberty [that] have always found a safe resting place in the hearts of English jurors.”[28] Riel, “a poor confirmed lunatic,”[29] should be protected by the fairness of English justice, exemplified in the insanity defence, even though the man himself, “an alien in race and an alien in religion”[30] — and an alien because of his “foreign,” unbalanced mental state — might otherwise be impossible to sympathize with.

The legalized conception of personal responsibility articulated in the M’Naghten Rules, as a hermeneutics that formalizes a potential divorce between the commission of an act and culpability for that act, forms a significant aspect of how responsibility is known and understood by cultures shaped by the common law tradition. Yet, although legal concepts like abrogated responsibility due to mental impairment are deeply influential of the broader social context, law does not define such ideas exclusively. I want now to move from the specifics of Riel’s trial to a consideration of how these legalized conceptions of his sanity and responsibility were understood outside of the courtroom. Juridical determinations frequently have connotations beyond those of individual cases, with judicial findings and legislative acts, as well as legal tests, rules, and procedures, impacting the society of which they are a part. Law’s aesthetics influence how the culture at large apprehends a situation, defining it “in a certain way and encourag[ing] us all to look at it likewise.”[31]

As interest in Riel’s mental state[32] (and, indeed, the outcry over the M’Naghten decision) indicates, the legal terms of insanity were the subject of considerable popular scrutiny in the nineteenth century, and a public discussion existed in which law’s privileged understandings of responsibility and culpability were interrogated by other socio-cultural discourses. Ideas about responsibility, as Kimberley White has argued in relation to early-twentieth-century murder trials in Canada, are constantly being “produced, ordered, and contested,”[33] even within individual cases. This complex production of meaning is, White argues, “an intensely cultural process” that brings “together a cross-section of ideas, institutions, and individuals with the common goal of trying to make sense of, and determine just responses to, acts of murder.”[34] Looking beyond “the official verdict in each case,” White finds that “the law was anything but fixed on the subject of responsibility” and that “legal outcomes were not simply the result of a measured application of legal rules.”[35] Rather, seemingly extralegal ideas of responsibility and insanity shape legal reasoning in a reciprocal manner. Although law constitutes a particularly influential conception of responsibility, it is but one aspect of the multiple and often conflicting body of “responsibility knowledge” that White argues is at work in determinations of the nature of culpable behaviour.

White’s conception of responsibility knowledge as a cumulative and contested discourse presents a useful way of thinking about how ideas of treason and national belonging, mental health, politics, and law all cohere in representations of Louis Riel. One such genre of representation, Riel’s depiction in literature, presents a multitude of distinct portrayals that span the past century and a half. As it is beyond the scope of this article to effectively survey all of these representations,[36] my primary focus will be on John Mackie’s Rising of the Red Man, one example taken from a corpus of novels published between 1885 and 1914 that engage, like the trial, in a discussion of Riel’s mental state, political action, and responsibility.

The description of Louis Riel as a manipulative “fanatic and rebellion maker”[37] illustrates how the legal characterization of Riel’s responsibility belies an intersecting cultural investment in his capacity. As Albert Braz and Wolfgang Klooss have both noted, the representation of Louis Riel in Canadian literature has been marked by a “tremendous fluidity,”[38] a shifting series of depictions that frequently say more about how Riel (and the Métis more generally) has been “exploited ideologically by the antagonistic forces that determined the fate of the young Dominion” than about Riel’s “individual, psychological or social dimensions.”[39] Understanding the cultural work to which the figure of Riel has been put in literary texts is consequently often “less about him than about their authors and their specific social activity.”[40]

In the decades immediately following the North-West Resistance, a flurry of novels by Canadian and British writers sought to represent its causes and consequences. Joseph Edmund Collins’s The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief (1885), a hurriedly written quasi-fictional account of Riel’s life authored concurrently with the Saskatchewan campaign,[41] acknowledges Métis grievances, deems the Dominion “criminally remiss”[42] in its treatment of the Métis, and finds that their hatred of the government is “not altogether undeserved.”[43] Ralph Connor’s later Patrol of the Sundance Trail (1914), a sequel to his Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police (1912),[44] also evinces sympathy for Indigenous and Métis people in the North-West, depicting the hero explaining to his wife that much of the land they stood on was ceded “under persuasion”[45] and noting through an authoritative North-West Mounted Police superintendent that the Métis “have real grievances.”[46] Yet, as with many authors of the period, compassion for the Métis “rarely extended to their leader.”[47] For Connor, Riel is a “hair-brained four-flusher” and blood-thirsty agitator,[48] a “traitor … liar and a coward”[49] who, despite his apparent ineptitude, egoism, and untrustworthiness, “possesses a wonderful power over the half-breeds.”[50] His great transgression is inciting the Plains Indians against the government, an act that will not only disrupt the progress of settlement but also, ultimately, bring ruin upon the Indians themselves when they are confronted with British might.[51] Collins’s Riel is still more despicable. He is bestial, even monstrous, a “heartless Rebel ruffian” “insensible to every human impulse”[52] who seeks to seduce the Métis girl Marie before casting “her off among the worthless and degraded ones of her sex.”[53] The Métis’s choice of leader ultimately mediates any claims their plight might have to the sympathies of the novels’ (presumably white, anglophone) readers.

However, although Collins in particular suggests that Riel is immoral and irrational, he does not also argue that the Métis leader’s irrationality is sufficient to deny his responsibility for his actions. Acknowledging that his representation of Riel might appear “absolutely illogical, and unreasonable,”[54] the narrator of Collins’s text describes the novel as a completely faithful depiction of “the unstaid, unreasoning character of Riel, and [of] how far passion and impulse will carry him away from sound understanding.”[55] For Collins, this capacity to be carried “away from sound understanding” does not serve as a denial of responsibility. Riel’s irrationality never exculpates his guilt. Instead, Collins’s ultimate judgment is that Riel and his allies must be captured and executed as “menace[s] to public peace,” lest they “be given the opportunity again of covering the land with blood.”[56] Such representations of Riel depict the Métis leader both as responsible in the sense that he should be punished for his actions in the North-West Resistance (and for the other crimes and misdeeds assigned to him) and as a menace whose ideas and actions put him outside the purview of appropriate behaviour. This conception of responsibility knowledge, framed differently from that envisioned in the insanity defence, conceives of irrationality and criminality as potentially concurrent and of mental incapacity, in Riel’s case at least, as being of an insufficient degree to constitute a moral defence.

In a similar fashion, British novelist John Mackie’s Rising of the Red Man: A Romance of the Louis Riel Rebellion (1902) makes much of Riel’s purported barbarism and irrationality, while also stopping short of suggesting that this might release Riel from responsibility for his actions. Mackie, author of a number of adventure novels written between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and published in Britain, Canada, and the United States, was a former officer of the North-West Mounted Police who also worked in Australia and served in the Boer War.[57] His novels often stress their own veracity, with Mackie positing on one occasion that he had “gleaned from real life and nature a knowledge of men and things which stands me in better stead than any flight of the imagination.”[58] This aura of presumed truth pervades Mackie’s writing and would have been a familiar promise to readers of his earlier works. Such a promise might also have imbued Mackie’s representation of Riel with particular authority for his readers and spoken to still-fresh memories and prejudices about the resistance.[59] Riel drifts in and out of The Rising of the Red Man, ostensibly replaced in the reader’s interest by the spirited, beautiful heroine, Dorothy, and by the brave North-West Mounted Police hero, Sergeant Pasmore. Despite Riel’s frequent absences from the text, however, Mackie’s novel remains a depiction of “the Louis Riel Rebellion,” an attribution that underscores who, for the author, is culpable for the 1885 insurrection and the bloodshed it brings.

The Rising of the Red Man opens with a prologue depicting “Louis David Riel, fanatic and rebellion-maker … addressing a great general meeting of the half-breeds and Indians near Batoche.”[60] In what Braz describes as an “exposé”[61] of Riel, Mackie represents the Métis leader both as an irrational fanatic — the reader never gets a clear sense of why Riel would seek to rebel other than because of his own wickedness and religious unorthodoxy — and as a duplicitous villain who is manipulating the superstition of his audience. To gain support, the “knavish fanatic”[62] has planned for this meeting to coincide with a solar eclipse that he will interpret as evidence of the Manitou’s support for his schemes. Having known about the eclipse because “had not the almanac told him and all the world — with the exception of the ignorant half-breeds and Indians whom he was addressing,”[63] Riel persuades his audience to join him through both this show of supernatural approval and more mundane “prognostications concerning that happy coming era in which unlimited food, tobacco and fire-water would make merry the hearts of all.”[64] As Mackie’s narrator wryly asserts, “being an educated man there was a good deal of method in his madness,”[65] a representation that emphasizes Riel’s capacity to know his actions (and therefore, in concordance with legal discourse, to be responsible for them), while asserting the simultaneous existence of some form of “madness.”

Mackie’s depiction of Riel here is of a charlatan who succeeds in fomenting rebellion largely because his audience is unsophisticated, superstitious, and gullible. There is no suggestion either that his Aboriginal listeners might have legitimate complaints (indeed, the only reason given for any of them being there is a reference to “Poundmaker and his Stonies, who were always spoiling for trouble”)[66] or that Riel himself has any policy beyond vague and “pleasant prognostications”[67] and “hanky-panky.”[68] Indeed, Mackie closes his prologue by asserting that “never perhaps in the history of impostors from Mahomet to the Mahdi had an almanac proved so useful,”[69] dismissing political grievances by equating Riel with those whom Mackie deems false prophets. In doing so, Mackie also gestures to the suspicion, articulated by Queen Victoria in her letter to Peel, that culpability might be masked by the appearance of insanity. Such an anxiety was a persistent presence in the British context in which Mackie wrote: as Roger Smith notes, although some viewed the insanity plea as progress, there was also a sense that “the success of the plea correlated with a spread of unpunished violence.”[70] Riel, characterized by his defence counsel as insane, is here represented by Mackie both as “mad” to an ill-defined degree and as an impostor, an “arrant fraud,”[71] who is the latest in a line of foreign (i.e., not British) pretenders to both religious and political authority. Mackie determines Riel to be both illegitimate because of madness (and thus incapable of valid political action) and an impostor, sufficiently cognizant of his actions to be acting with intent and knowledge. Casting Riel as a fraud delegitimizes his politics as effectively as a finding of insanity.

Riel reappears in the novel a few chapters after the prologue, capturing Dorothy as she tries to make her way to the fort at Battleford. When Dorothy is first brought to him, Riel fails to notice her. Instead, “he was so carried away by the exuberance of his own eloquence … that he … kept on in a state of rapt ecstasy. His semi-mystical oration was a weird jumble of religion and lawlessness, devout exhortation, riot, plunder, prayer, and pillage.”[72] Mackie’s alliterative account of Riel’s ramblings reaffirms Riel’s incoherence for the reader, his religious extremism signifying the illegitimacy of his, and thus the resistance’s, transgression. Despite the buffoonish quality of his speech, Mackie’s Riel constitutes a real threat to the British social order in the Canadian North-West. Not appearing to be “the dangerous, religious fanatic that he was in reality,”[73] Riel has a physical presence that belies his actual, dangerous meaning, although here, more than in the prologue, his apparently unconscious “oration” suggests irrationality rather than cunning imposture. Duplicity, whether intentional or not, thus becomes central to Mackie’s contingent and inconsistent characterization of Riel and to his shifting articulation of Riel’s responsibility. Because Riel is never legitimate in Mackie’s formulation — he perpetually appears to be something that he is not, always an impostor of some form — he is deserving of punishment for his actions. Thus Mackie finds no reason to reconcile Riel’s apparently sincere ramblings with his earlier duplicity or to characterize him as other than a villain. The author is uninterested in either explaining or exculpating the state of mind of a man he describes as plotting to have white settlers “utterly exterminated” so that his Aboriginal “elect might possess the land undisturbed.”[74] Rather, Mackie bluntly condemns Riel, pre-empting his inevitable punishment in a vision of “the great beams of the gallows-tree looming up blackly.”[75] Avoiding the M’Naghten binary, Mackie instead develops a conception of responsibility in his novel wherein madness and culpability coexist in such a way that the legitimacy of Riel’s punishment for both is unquestioned. Rising of the Red Man consequently elides any questioning of guilt through a discourse of insanity — or, indeed, of political legitimacy — in favour of the self-evident assertion of culpable villainy by the novelist.


Self and State in Riel’s Defence Speech

Mackie’s representation of Riel resists the binarized conception of mental states privileged in the M’Naghten defence to assert a differently articulated form of responsibility knowledge. But even as The Rising of the Red Man elides the law’s privileged test in favour of an alternative, nonexculpatory conception of irrationality, the novel still gestures to juridical discourse in its reiteration of cultural anxieties about the misuse of the insanity defence and a belief in the “gallows-tree” as an appropriate, legalized punishment for Riel. The law provides an important, if implicit, discursive frame in the novel, inviting readers to engage with Mackie’s notion of responsibility alongside its legal forms.

Riel himself resists the denial of responsibility signified by legalized insanity in his defence speech, although to very different ends than Mackie does. From the beginning of the speech, Riel acknowledges that insanity offers a ready explanation for his actions and that “it would be easy for me to-day to play insanity, because the circumstances are such as to excite any man.”[76] However, he then immediately rejects this characterization, calling on God to help him “maintain calmness and decorum as suits this honorable court, this honorable jury.”[77] Fitting the norms expected by the court allows Riel to represent himself and his actions as rational. And it is necessary that he be seen as rational if he is then to have the North-West Resistance, and his involvement in it, judged as a legitimate and meaningful way of responding to the Dominion’s treatment of the North-West Territories. Mackie’s novel emphasizes Riel’s responsibility regardless of his mental state; in his defence speech, Riel rejects the insanity plea because it cannot coexist with legitimate political action.

What does an assertion of insanity, with its subsequent refutation of responsibility for one’s actions, mean for an individual claiming political agency? A determination of legal insanity constitutes a denial of personal capacity, a paternal act that is also a delegitimizing one. As Smith notes, “to describe an intentional act assigns responsibility to the individual. It also reinforces a society in which values are located within an individual’s mental attributes. The guilty verdict concerns an occasion on which these values should have received expression but did not.”[78] Alternatively, legal determinations of insanity speak to the limits of individual responsibility and self-governance as legal and political categories. In “the absence of a state of mind capable of ‘knowing,’” a defendant is “no longer definable as a person” in the eyes of both the law and the society whose norms law enforces precisely because that defendant is no longer capable of having responsibility assigned to him or her.[79] In asserting that their client was insane, and thus not culpable for his acts in the North-West Resistance, Riel’s lawyers were certainly aware of what the defence meant for public perceptions of their client. As Fitzpatrick stated in his summation of the defence case, “if he is a lunatic, we, in the exercise of a sound discretion, have done right to endeavour to prove it. If he is a sane man, what humiliation have we passed upon that man, we his counsel endeavoring, despite his orders, despite his desire, despite his instructions, to make him out a fool.”[80] Such an articulation acknowledges the degrading social meaning given to mental illness, the “humiliation” presupposed by rendering the defendant “no longer definable as a person” in important ways.[81]

John Gardner asserts similarly that as self-respecting individuals we want to be able to give rational explanations for our behaviour, to take responsibility for it. “Being responsible for one’s own wrongs is a distinctly human capacity and one that is central to all distinctively human lives,” Gardner argues. “It is the capacity that makes self-respect possible, for self-respect is the attitude of one who can sincerely say, of anything she did wrong, that she was justified in doing it, or, failing that, excused.”[82] In making a defence of insanity, then, “one does not explain oneself as a rational being. One explains oneself away as a rational being. One casts oneself in the role of object rather than subject; one explains oneself (including one’s reasons) in terms of facts that are not reasons, or are not figuring in one’s explanation as reasons.”[83] Such a defence does nothing to authorize one’s actions. Rather, it delegitimates them. As Annalise Acorn notes, “by claiming non-responsibility on grounds of mental illness, one excludes oneself from full membership in the moral community of rational and accountable human beings. Conceding mental illness concedes an inability fully to participate in human life.”[84]

Riel attempted to assert control over how his mental state was represented throughout his trial in order to counter this discursive removal from “full membership in the moral community of rational and accountable human beings.” Seeking to put questions to Charles Nolin in order to refute Nolin’s claims of Riel’s erratic behaviour, Riel stated, “I cannot abandon my dignity. Here I have to defend myself against the accusation of high treason, or I have to consent to the animal life of an asylum. I don’t care much about animal life if I am not allowed to carry with it the moral existence of an intellectual being.”[85] This assertion underscores Riel’s awareness of the consequences of the insanity plea, with its intertwined personal and political connotations. Insanity means that Riel loses his “dignity,” his capacity to represent himself as having a “moral existence” as an “intellectual being.” An “animal life,” for Riel, is precisely one without claim to human capacity and intellectual and moral being. Moreover, a finding of insanity would also cast the legitimacy of his role in the North-West Resistance in doubt. Because the legal test is concerned with the accused’s mental state at the time of committing the act, a finding of insanity would mean Riel was incompetent at the time of the uprising. Thus his justifications for resistance come under doubt and potentially lose their legitimacy. As Boyden’s Riel recognizes, if the insanity defence had been successful, “the rest of Canada and the world may think,” as a consequence, “that the Métis cause is just as insane.”[86] Defending himself against the insanity defence was, for Riel, a necessary political move, as “he knew he had to be judged lucid if he were to have political legitimacy.”[87]

Asserting that if he is found guilty and sentenced to death, he will have the “satisfaction,” as he terms it, not to be “reputed by all men as insane, as a lunatic,” Riel acknowledges that the nature of his responsibility is in this case a very public question.[88] To be considered insane, he argues, is to be a political impostor, a “blot” on his reputation that renders him politically illegitimate.[89] After the court’s finding of guilt, Riel acknowledges that at least he is reattributed with agency: “up to this moment I have been considered by a certain party as insane, by another party as a criminal … I suppose that after having been condemned, I will cease to be called a fool, and for me, it is a great advantage … If I have a mission … I cannot fulfil my mission as long as I am looked upon as an insane being.”[90] Here, like Gardner and Acorn, Riel notes the disparity between being represented as insane and being considered fully, competently human. If he is considered an “insane being,” Riel argues, he cannot legitimately pursue a mission on behalf of the North-West Territories. Countering this characterization necessitates that Riel represent himself as knowing the “nature and quality” of his actions and that he reassert them (and so himself) as politically legitimate and rational. As Daniel Clarke notes, “Riel’s great aim, even at the trial, was to falsify the charge of insanity, and to show by his words his mental capacity to be a leader of men.”[91] Clearing his personal reputation and reinscribing his responsibility for his actions were necessary aims for Riel to achieve if his politics were to be vindicated. They also formed the basis for his subsequent argument that it was Ottawa, not him, that lacked responsibility in its actions in the North-West.

Arguing that the Dominion failed to provide the people of the North-West Territories with adequate political representation[92] and that the North-West Council had reiterated “the great defect of its parent,” Riel notes that the people of the North-West sent “petition after petition” to the federal government about the state of their affairs.[93] “So irresponsible is that Government to the North-West,” however, that “besides doing nothing to satisfy the people of this great land, it has even hardly been able to answer once or to give a single response. That fact would indicate an absolute lack of responsibility, and therefore insanity coupled with paralysis.”[94] Unlike his own responsible responsiveness to the needs of the territories — Riel later notes, “although I am simply a guest of this country … I worked to better the condition of the people of the Saskatchewan at the risk of my life”[95] –- the “Ministers of an insane and irresponsible Government”[96] replied to these petitions first with silence and then with aggression. Such an idea of irresponsibility, based on a model of politics that foregrounds responsiveness to constituents’ needs as the criterion for good governance, analogizes the legal terms of the insanity defence to emphasize the incapacity of Canadian administration of the territories.

Riel then turns to imperial British political and legal norms in order to further assert the illegitimacy of institutional governance in the North-West Territories: “British civilization which rules to-day the world, and the British constitution has defined such government as this is which rules the North-West Territories as irresponsible government, which plainly means that there is no responsibility, and by all the science which has been shown here yesterday you are compelled to admit if there is no responsibility, it is insane.”[97] Characterizing the government’s actions as “insane,” Riel refers back to his lawyers’ representation of him, rearticulating and redeploying the term as a critique of what he determines to be irresponsible government in the North-West. Riel’s understanding of responsibility is here informed by the politico-legal norms of British civilization and constitutional standards, a concept informed by “fair-play” in the courts[98] and by the self-evident values of “good sense,”[99] as well as by the ostensible objectivity of science. Appealing to these ideals, Riel is able not only to point to the Dominion government’s failure to adhere to “British civilization” but also to cast himself, because he has been responsible, in the government’s place. Collapsing the responsibility denied by the insanity defence with the idea of responsible government — government that is responsible to the people, as Riel has argued himself to be[100] — Riel analogizes and reinterprets the concept of responsibility so as to exculpate himself of the “blot” of insanity and to argue that this blot should instead mark the Dominion. Rather than align himself with Canadian governance, Riel appeals to a superior, British conception of civilization and constitutionalism given virtue by its imperial pre-eminence (it “rules today the world”). Such an ideal is set at odds with Canadian administration in the territories (“irresponsible government”) and is instead aligned with Riel’s self-representation of his own actions, through which he has attempted “to help the Indians, to help the half-breeds and to help the whites to the best of my ability.”[101] By pathologizing the actions of an “insane and irresponsible Government,”[102] Riel can represent his own actions as appropriate, responsible, and sane, whereas the North-West is administered by a government that has shirked its responsibilities.

In this analogy lies the complex heart of Riel’s invocation and reinterpretation of responsibility as the key concept of both self-governance and political governance, a responsibility knowledge that slips discursively both between responsiveness to constituents and those forms of responsible behaviour that the insanity defence denies and between a lack of responsibility and irresponsibility. For Riel, such slippage can be read through the idea of legal insanity, but the form of responsible behaviour by which he is seeking to justify his actions cannot be delimited by this idea:

If you take the plea of the defence that I am not responsible for my acts, acquit me completely since I have been quarrelling with an insane and irresponsible Government. If you pronounce in favour of the Crown, which contends that I am responsible, acquit me all the same. You are perfectly justified in declaring that having my reason and sound mind, I have acted reasonably and in self-defence, while the Government, my accuser, being irresponsible, and consequently insane, cannot but have acted wrong, and if high treason there is, it must be on its side and not on my part.[103]

Having already established that the Dominion government is irresponsible because in failing to represent its constituents properly, it has not met British standards of civilization — and thus has failed to be responsible to and for the North-West Territories — Riel can then assert a dual defence to the charges against him, both of which present the North-West Resistance as in some fashion legitimate. On the one hand, if the jury finds Riel to be without legal capacity, and thus not responsible for his actions, he should be acquitted. Responding to the insanity defence’s connection between mental illness and irresponsibility, Riel asserts that any insanity on his part occurs in the face of a similar “disease” in the figurative mind of the government. Riel consequently finds that even if he is determined to be legally insane, since the government remains similarly incompetent, such a finding does not necessarily undermine the aims of the resistance.

In the alternative, if he is found to be sane, Riel posits that he should, nevertheless, still be acquitted. Because his actions in defiance of a government that “cannot but have acted wrong” are necessarily justifiable, Riel has acted in self-defence of both the people of the North-West and himself. Riel argues that he responded reasonably to an institution that had so failed to perform its function that it had, seemingly paradoxically, itself committed an act of insanity and high treason. Structured around a slippage between ideas of the state’s responsibility for its actions and its responsibility to its constituents, Riel’s concept of government locates irresponsibility in a failure to act in the interests of a people. To carry Riel’s analogy further, such a failure warrants an intervention, a supplanting of the government’s inability to act for its citizens with a new, responsible institution, a shift of value and power that would then reinforce norms of British civilization and constitutional law. So, although Riel does not fully account for the knowledge-based terms of the M’Naghten defence, the language of insanity that he evokes is a powerful tool in his articulation of the political legitimacy of the North-West Resistance. It enables Riel to depict his actions not only as sane but also as a responsible answer to neglect, as well as to suggest that in his self-representation, we might find a new, and sane, model for governance in the North-West Territories.

Louis Riel’s rearticulation of the insanity defence, then, carries with it an analysis of the interrelations between personal and political responsibility, a conception of responsibility knowledge that not only underscores the pervasive cultural presence of legalized conceptions of insanity and culpability but also refigures them in a more politically effective manner. Referencing conceptions of idealized British civilization and constitutional law as standards that the Dominion has failed to meet in its treatment of the North-West Territories, Riel invokes the empire in his own actions, justifying the resistance and his role in it as upholding an imperial standard that Canada has otherwise failed to maintain. Thus the North-West Resistance, in symbolizing the territories’ aspirations to exemplify the values of the empire, comes to stand for an idealized form of responsibility and for the possibility of “a single postimperial global formation.”[104] Arguing through a conception of insanity that mirrors the multifaceted public understanding of the concept as at once medical, legal, moral, and political, Riel articulates the government’s actions as insane and thus requiring a response; analogizing them to personal actions, he finds that they cannot be the acts of a valid political actor. He also, simultaneously, argues that the government failed to promulgate appropriate British conceptions of law and civilization. The Dominion would seem to be both without responsibility and irresponsible: whether by negligence or misdeed, it has failed by its actions and through its inactions to fulfil the very task that it exists to fulfil, that of caring for and representing the inhabitants of the North-West Territories. Riel, in seeking to act where the government has not, comes to embody responsible governance in both of these senses. He has undertaken a mission to help (to be responsible to and for) the Métis, Indigenous, and European settlers in the territories, and in pursuing his mission as a responsible political actor, he has proven himself sane and legitimate, whereas the government has not.

In his self-representation in his defence speech, Louis Riel articulates a form of responsibility knowledge that invokes the terms of the legal defence of insanity, and he seeks to rearticulate these terms through a linking of constitutional politics and personal governance. Consequently, the speech engages with some of the formulations of responsibility circulating around Riel in both legal and literary texts, including the speaking for Riel that his lawyers must necessarily do if they are to employ insanity in his defence and the complicated, even legally contradictory, conception of Riel’s personal, moral, and political responsibility that we see in The Rising of the Red Man. The capacity for responsibility is at the heart of all these texts, and that they serve such significantly different ideological functions is indicative of the work that the disparate forms of responsibility knowledge performed in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Canadian and British law and literature. Moreover, such texts reiterate Braz and Klooss’s assertions that depictions (including, I would argue, self-depictions) of Louis Riel have always been overdetermined with meaning. Texts like The Rising of the Red Man and Louis Riel’s defence speech serve to emphasize the potent interdisciplinary role that ideas of responsibility play, and continue to play, in representations of Riel as a political symbol and as an individual with a significant cultural afterlife.


[1] Riel gave two substantial speeches at the trial: one between his lawyers’ closing arguments and before the jury’s deliberations and one after he was found guilty. I refer to the former speech as his “defence speech” throughout this article.

[2] Desmond Morton, ed., The Queen v Louis Riel: Canada’s Greatest State Trial (hereafter Q v LR) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), 312.

[3] Ibid., 317.

[4] Ibid., 324.

[5] Ibid., 316.

[6] Ibid., 324.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kimberley White, Negotiating Responsibility: Law, Murder, and States of Mind (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 10.

[9] Ralph Connor, The Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1914).

[10] Joseph Edmund Collins, The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief (1885; reprint, Toronto: Coles, 1970).

[11] John Mackie, The Rising of the Red Man: A Romance of the Louis Riel Rebellion (London: Jarrold, 1902).

[12] Joseph Boyden, Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont (Toronto: Penguin, 2010), 140.

[13] Ibid., 141.

[14] Ibid. See Riel’s self-assertion of this in his defence speech (Q v LR, 322).

[15] Q v LR, 348.

[16] Cited in Donald West and Alexander Walk, Daniel McNaughton: His Trial and the Aftermath (Ashford: Gaskell Books, 1977), 10. Victoria had already been the subject of three assassination attempts at this point in her reign, including one by Edward Oxford, who was subsequently declared insane. See “Queen Victoria,” in Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, ed. Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, database (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), (accessed 19 October 2013).

[17] Daniel M’Naghten’s Case, 10 Clark and Finnelly 200 (1843), 209.

[18] Ibid., 210.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The M’Naghten test has been amended over time in Canada. For example, the 1892 Canadian Criminal Code modified the law from a test of knowledge to one of “appreciating” the nature of one’s actions, “a change generally thought to make it easier to invoke the defence of insanity.” See Thomas Flanagan, Louis ‘David’ Riel: ‘Prophet of the New World,’ 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 175.

[21] Q v LR, 294.

[22] Ibid., 295.

[23] Ibid., 296.

[24] Ibid., 309.

[25] Ibid., 299.

[26] Ibid., 295.

[27] Ibid., 301.

[28] Ibid., 311.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 310.

[31] Desmond Manderson, Songs without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 27. Consider, for example, that common law motifs of the trial, with its staging of witnessing, examining, cross-examining, and a final declaration of truth, are accepted ideals of justice and fairness. In a different way, “artistic merit” is conceptually relevant to both literary studies and law, while also giving meaning to the political concept of freedom of expression. For more on this idea, see Manderson, Songs without Music; and Benjamin Authers, “Truth in the Telling: Procedure, Testimony, and the Work of Improvisation in Legal Narrative,” Critical Studies in Improvisation 6, no. 1 (2010): n.p.

[32] See, among other examples, Daniel Clarke, A Psycho-Medical History of Louis Riel (1887; reprint, Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions, 1982).

[33] White, Negotiating, 9.

[34] Ibid., 11.

[35] Ibid., 9.

[36] For a comprehensive examination of literary representations of Riel, see Albert Braz, The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).

[37] Mackie, Rising, 9.

[38] Braz, False Traitor, 3.

[39] Wolfgang Klooss, “Stereotyping in Canadian Literature: The Métis in Anglo- and Francophone Writing,” in Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture, ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland, 131-74 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1992), 171.

[40] Braz, False Traitor, 3.

[41] Ibid., 45.

[42] Collins, Story, 136; see also 176.

[43] Ibid., 8.

[44] Ralph Connor, Corporal Cameron of the North West Mounted Police (Toronto: Westminster, 1912).

[45] Connor, Patrol, 33.

[46] Ibid., 23.

[47] Braz, False Traitor, 67. Anne Mercier and Violet Watt’s The Red House by the Rockies: A Tale of Riel’s Rebellion (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1896) stands as a notable exception to this general rule.

[48] Connor, Patrol, 180, 192-3.

[49] Ibid., 205.

[50] Ibid., 24. Connor is similarly dismissive of “the ignoble part played by the vain and empty-headed Riel” in the Red River Uprising, which he terms “the fantastic and futile rebellion of 1870” (206).

[51] Ibid., 206.

[52] Collins, Story, 96.

[53] Ibid., 68.

[54] Ibid., 86.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid., 175.

[57] Mackie’s service records, along with an obituary detailing his life, have been digitized as a part of the North-West Mounted Police Collection at Library and Archives Canada. Search John Mackie, in “North West Mounted Police (NWMP) — Personnel Records, 1873-1904,” (accessed 2 October 2013).

[58] John Mackie, “Preface,” in The Heart of the Prairie (London: Nisbet, 1899), n.p.

[59] Collins’s Story of Louis Riel was presumed by many to be factual. In response to this misconception, Collins included a note in his subsequent novel, Annette the Métis Spy: A Heroine of the N.W. Rebellion (Toronto: Rose, 1886), at 142-3, confirming that despite the “story [being] printed again and again as truth,” “there is no historic truth in” it.

[60] Mackie, Rising, 9.

[61] Braz, False Traitor, 56.

[62] Ibid., 11.

[63] Mackie, Rising, 10.

[64] Ibid., 12.

[65] Ibid., 10.

[66] Ibid., 9.

[67] Ibid., 10.

[68] Ibid., 12.

[69] Ibid., 13. Collins, Story, 49, makes a similar comparison: “M. Riel, like Mohammed, El Mahdi, and other great patrons of race and religion, is strong of will; but he is weaker than a shorn Samson when a lovely woman chooses to essay a conquest.”

[70] Roger Smith, Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), 6.

[71] Mackie, Rising, 13.

[72] Ibid., 61.

[73] Ibid., 60.

[74] Ibid., 61.

[75] Ibid., 149.

[76] Q v LR, 311.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Smith, Medicine, 172.

[79] Ibid., 11.

[80] Q v LR, 294.

[81] Notably, this includes the denial of liberty that psychiatric incarceration constitutes, as well as other legal and administrative incapacities.

[82] John Gardner, Offences and Defences: Selected Essays in the Philosophy of Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 276. Gardner underscores the importance of this by arguing that the legal form of the trial is predicated on allowing us to give rational account of ourselves (188-9).

[83] John Gardner, “Hart and Feinberg on Responsibility,” in The Legacy of H.L.A. Hart: Legal, Political, and Moral Philosophy, ed. Matthew H. Kramer et al., 121-40 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 123.

[84] Annalise Acorn, “Responsibility, Self-respect and the Ethics of Self-pathologization,” in Rethinking Criminal Law Theory, ed. François Tanguay-Renaud and James Stripopolous, 141-60 (Oxford: Hart, 2011), 141-2.

[85] Q v LR, 211-12.

[86] Boyden, Louis Riel, 147.

[87] Braz, False Traitor, 152. The representation of Riel as insane, and the political delegitimizing that it entails, continues to be a source of contention. As Desmond Morton notes, “Later generations of Indians and Métis have found it insulting to be told that their ancestors accepted the leadership of a lunatic.” See Desmond Morton, “Introduction,” in Q v LR, vii-xxxv, at xvi.

[88] Q v LR, 316.

[89] Compare Mackie’s description of Riel as an impostor in The Rising of the Red Man. Riel would also invoke the term at the end of his second trial speech, where he calls for a commission to address his sanity so that he might not be seen as an “impostor” but rather as a legitimate political actor.

[90] Q v LR, 350-1.

[91] Clarke, Psycho-Medical History, 13. Clarke was medical superintendent at the Toronto Insane Asylum and provided expert testimony about Riel’s insanity for the defence at the trial. He went on to publish A Psycho-Medical History of Louis Riel, in which he also argued that Riel was insane.

[92] Q v LR, 312.

[93] Ibid., 323.

[94] Ibid., 323-4.

[95] Ibid., 324.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Ibid., 323.

[98] Ibid., 315.

[99] Ibid., 323.

[100] See, for example, ibid., 324.

[101] Ibid., 312.

[102] Ibid., 324.

[103] Ibid.

[104] Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univerity Press, 2007), 10. See also Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856-1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), ch. 6. A similar gesture toward the perceived values of the British Empire can be seen in Fitzpatrick’s invocation of the “principles of English liberty,” referenced above.