Louis Riel has been called "the John Brown of the half-breeds" for three reasons: 1) He believed he was divinely guided to use force for the sake of justice; 2) he was hanged for treason; and 3) he represents, to many different people, a martyr, a traitor, a saint, or a criminal. The opera begins in Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) in 1869. Riel, 25 years old, is defending the rights of the Métis, descendants of French settlers and Indian women, against the westward expansion of the Ontario government. There is some talk of creating an independent nation. As leader of the Métis and head of their Provisional Government, Riel has the Orangeman Thomas Scott executed, on the grounds that one man may not stand in the way of a whole government. The opera follows Riel to Montana, chronicles his return to Canada to help his people again, shows the final defeat of the Métis in battle, and portrays his trial and death in 1885. Ironically, the charge Riel made against Thomas is the charge used against him, 25 years later, as he is sentenced to death.
Opera Canada, Fall 1985; The New York Times, Raymond Ericson, 9-25-67.