OPERA IN A MINUTE
Over a 15-year period, the charismatic Métis leader Louis Riel is inspired by visions to lead two revolts to protect the lands, rights and religion of his people in present-day 19th-century Manitoba. He falls afoul of powerful players in the Canadian government and is ultimately executed.
In 1867, Canada was born from a union of Ontario and Quebec with the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In the same year, the Hudson’s Bay Company, holding administrative power in the mid-west under British charter, changed hands—and the new owners proved as anxious to sell the territory to Canada as Canada was to acquire it. Consequently, in 1869 the new Canadian parliament passed legislation for the future government of Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory, to take effect when ratified by Britain.
In this transaction the settlers already in the area—British, French, Irish, Métis, and others—were not consulted, and were to receive no recompense for their land. The proposed legislation set up a Crown Colony in which settlers would have no rights of citizenship—a prospect which deeply concerned those of French origin. When the Canadian government sent out surveyors to mark off the land even before the transfer of authority, and the Hudson’s Bay Company administration faltered, the alarmed Red River settlers set up their own provisional government, owning allegiance to the Queen alone, in hopes of negotiating better terms before joining Canada.
While recognizing this step as legal under the Law of Nations, the Canadian government in Ottawa proceeded to appoint a governor, William McDougall, and dispatched him via Minnesota to await, just south of the border, the expected proclamation from the Queen. The anti-French, anti-Catholic McDougall grew impatient; and, in November 1869, he tried to enter the territory with a forged proclamation.
It is at this point that the action of the opera begins..
Scene i: At the U.S.-Canadian border, south of Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), 1869
McDougall and his retinue are stopped by a band of Métis. Thomas Scott, a violently fanatic Orangeman scout, attacks the Métis and is arrested.
Scene ii: Fort Garry, Red River Headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company
The Fort has been taken over by Riel’s provisional government. He prays for divine guidance and frees Scott, against the advice of Lépine and his band of Métis.
Scene iii: The Prime Minister’s Office, Ottawa
Sir John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier and Donald Smith receive Bishop Taché. Macdonald assures him of an amnesty for his people but also sends Smith west with promises to the Métis.
Scene iv: The House of Julie Riel
Riel is completing the Manitoba constitution for Taché to take back to Ottawa. Later, alone, Riel recalls the psalm of David and envisions himself as David’s reincarnation, called by God to lead his people.
Scene i: The Prime Minister’s Office, Ottawa
Taché bargains with Macdonald and Cartier. They agree on terms for Manitoba entering the Confederation. Macdonald assures Taché the delayed amnesty will come, but later tells Cartier it is “a hot potato we must toss to Britain—there’s an election coming up!”
Scene ii: Fort Garry
Scott is tried for treason and condemned to death. Riel says “I cannot let one foolish man stand in the way of a whole nation.”
Scene iii: Fort Garry, the day of Scott’s execution
As Riel tells his mother and sister, “It is God himself who guides my hand,” the Métis shoot Scott outside in the courtyard.
Scene iv: A railway depot in Toronto
Schultz and Mair arouse a crowd by producing the rope with which Scott was supposed to have been bound.
Scene v: The Prime Minister’s Office, Ottawa
Macdonald’s cabinet is split: was Scott’s execution a legal act or murder? Colonel Wolseley advises marching on Fort Garry. Cartier warns that Quebec will rise if they do. Macdonald suggest that the army go to keep the peace until the new Governor Archibald arrives with the amnesty and Riel resigns as promised. Taché goes to assure Riel all is well.
Scene vi: The courtyard, Fort Garry
Riel’s followers are mollified by the promised amnesty. Smith reads a proclamation from Wolseley stating his mission is peaceful, but scouts report he plans to arrest and hang Riel. Riel accuses Taché of betraying him to Ottawa, then, on Smith’s advice, decides to flee. Wolseley takes over the town.
Scene i: Riel’s house in Sun River, Montana, 1880
Riel, in exile, is a school teacher with a Métis wife and infant son. When a deputation arrives from Saskatchewan, Riel agrees to return to Canada, an avowed revolutionist.
Scene ii: The Prime Minister’s Office, Ottawa
The aging Macdonald again calls up Taché who agrees to instruct his French Catholics in the west that “whoever takes up arms will be refused the sacrament.” Macdonald assures Taché the police will be restricted to peacekeeping action. But he instructs General Middleton to mobilize the army to march on 24 hours’ notice.
Scene iii: Church in Frog Lake, Saskatchewan, 1885
Father André’s mass is interrupted by Wandering Spirit, a Cree war chief, who says his people are on the warpath. Riel arrives, accuses the priest of selling out to the enemies and commandeers the church. He arrests André, says he will administer the sacraments himself, and tells of a mystical dream. The people believe him to be a prophet.
Scene iv: The courtroom in Regina
The Métis have been defeated by Middleton at Batoche and Riel is on trial for high treason. Friends in Quebec have sent lawyers to prove him insane. The Crown aims to prove him sane and guilty.
Scene v: Riel’s cell
Riel thinks even God has forsaken him but a visit from his mother renews his courage.
Scene vi: The Courtroom, Regina
Riel eloquently pleads that he should be acquitted if insane. If sane, he says, “Acquit me all the same. I acted… against a government gone mad.” The Crown lawyer Britton Bath Osler declines to address the jury on the grounds that Riel is sane and has made his case for him.
Scene vii: A street in Ottawa and a square in Regina
Taché and Lemieux plead with Macdonald for a reprieve for Riel, while in Regina Riel is calm in the face of death. Macdonald’s reply echoes the words of Riel after Scott’s trial: “I cannot let one foolish man stand in the way of a whole nation.”