A discussion with Riel

Along with all the research I have been doing, there are photos and sketches that move me to write. One such photo is the commonly used photo of Louis Riel, leader of the Red River Rebellion. The novel I am currently working on is set at this time in Manitoba’s history. My character, Kristen Bear, has used the talisman from her mother, Michelle, and found herself in the middle of this conflict. She runs into her mother’s acquaintance, Harriet Sinclair, who is now married to Dr. William Cowan. Dr. Cowan was the Governor’s right-hand man. Since Governor MacTavish was not very well at the time, Dr. Cowan was greatly involved in dealing with Riel and trying to resolve the situation to the best of his abilities. This morning, I decided to write the scene where Kristen sees Riel for the first time. It might be edited considerably between now and publication, but thought you might be interested in the first draft, anyway:

Louis Riel, circa 1873 (courtesy Provincial Archives of Manitoba/N-5733).


I glanced across the room. When I saw him, I felt a thrill in the pit of my stomach at seeing the man in the flesh. I recognized him from the countless images I’d seen from history books. After all, we even had a holiday in February named after the man. Louis Riel reminded me of the husband of one of my parents’ friends and I always wondered whether there was a genealogical link to the man or whether they looked similar because they were both Métis.

As he talked with Dr. Cowan, his thick black curls bobbed with every animated gesture. The French in him was evident by the way he waved his hands emphatically as he spoke. His dark eyes sparked with passion at whatever subject he was speaking about. From my vantage point by the stairs, I could not hear their conversation, but I imagined it had something to do with the current upheaval in the settlement. I inched closer, sidestepping a woman in a hooped skirt and a gentleman wearing a dark blue suit with a black satin waistcoat.

“…your men should not detain him,” Dr. Cowan was saying. “I realize there has been some confusion with the takeover of the Company and our current regime here at Red River but that does not give you the right for hostile actions against the man they have sent to replace Governor MacTavish.”

“The Commité does not wish the Governor to be replaced,” Riel said in heavily accented English. “We believe he performs his duties here quite satisfactorily and refuse to acknowledge the Canadian Government’s bid to impose their will without discussion.”

“While I agree there should have been a better way to present their position, I believe the government has only the best interests of the colony at heart.”

“Then why the need to survey lands that have been farmed by us for decades?” Riel countered. “If they wanted to know about ownership, could they not simply have asked us?”

“I am sure that was simply a misunderstanding, sir,” Dr. Cowan said.

Riel’s mouth drew into a thin line beneath his moustache and the dimple in his chin became more pronounced.

“It is obvious you will not listen to reason at this time,” Riel said. “Perhaps we should table this discussion until tomorrow.”

Dr. Cowan nodded. His eyes darted about the room until they rested on me. He smiled and raised his hand, calling me over to him.

“Monsieur Riel, may I present to you Miss Bear, who is visiting with us. She has come a long way, retracing the steps of her mother, who apparently visited the settlement many years ago.”

“It is indeed a pleasure,” Riel said, gallantly taking my hand and pressing his lips to the back of it. “You have the look of Métis about you. Am I correct?”

“You are, sir,” I replied. “My father is Saulteaux and my mother a combination of English, French and Saulteaux.”

“Are you aware of the current state of affairs here?” Riel asked.

“I am,” I replied.

“And what is your opinion?”

“I fear the violence that might occur if things are not resolved in a rational manner,” I said.

I wanted to tell him to back off before someone got killed. I wanted to tell him there were more peaceful solutions than warring against the current government. I wanted to tell him everything that I knew about the rebellion that was brewing, but I couldn’t because it might change the course of history – and not necessarily for the better. Mom had warned me what could happen if I did something to change events in the past. Someone might die that was not supposed to. I did not want to be responsible for that, even though I knew the man before me would be hanged for his actions. The whole thing gave me a splitting headache, so I excused myself and went up to the room that Harriet Senior had prepared for me.