By George Siamandas
On March 4, 1870, Thomas Scott was executed by a Metis firing squad against the walls of Upper Fort Garry. In the late 1860s, the Red River settlement was divided between English Protestants and French Catholics. As the northwest was being transferred to Canada by the Hudson Bay Company, the Metis French were afraid that they would get lost as the English speaking settlers from eastern Canada advanced over the prairie. But before the transfer had been negotiated, the Canadian government had sent out survey teams. This caused great anxiety in the French speaking community, who lacked legal titles to their lands, leading to the uprising led by Louis Riel.
In 1869 Riel took over Ft. Garry and declared themselves the provisional government of Assiniboia. Louis Riel then continued to negotiate Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. Riel was after language guarantees, and the land rights of the Metis who were eventually granted 1.4 million acres. The negotiations were going smoothly enough till Ontario Orangeman Thomas Scott was executed.
Scott is one of those historical enigmas. Some believe he was a martyr while others call him the “skin head” of his day. Scott is described by Lord Dufferin as being of “excitable temper and rough ways. A violent and boisterous man as are often found in the North of Ireland.” In a dispute with a man called Simon Snow who was foreman of the work party, Scott was charged and convicted of assault. Scott became involved with George Schultz who was leading his own anti-Riel rebellion. They were arrested and placed under guard at Fort Garry. He and a bunch of others escaped and planned to capture Riel.
Gathering at Portage La Prairie they made another effort to capture Fort Garry but were caught in a blizzard that is described as having been shoulder high to the very tall 6′ 2″ Scott. They persisted and marched to Winnipeg through the blizzard but were caught once again by Riel’s men. Scott and Charles Boulton who were leading the group were captured on Feb 18 1870 and imprisoned again. Boulton was to be executed but his life was spared.
WHY WAS SCOTT EXECUTED?
Arrested once again, Scott refused to recognize Riel’s provisional government, and displayed a sense of racial superiority and contempt for his Metis half breed captors. Scott quarrelled with his guards and was charged with insubordination and striking the guards. Historians record that Scott was suffering with a severe bout of dysentery during his capture. The angry guards pushed for prosecution. Riel is described as being reluctant to carry out the death sentence. And the shooting of Scott is described as a major blunder on Riel’s part.
Scott who was a tall handsome man is said to have been in love with the same Metis woman called Marie as was Riel. When Scott was shot, the firing squad of 6 failed to kill him as only two of the bullets hit. One of the soldiers put a gun to his head and shot him again. But apparently he was still not dead and was put into a coffin screaming from which he continued to scream for the entire day.
There are a lot of different stories about how his body was disposed of. In some accounts his coffin was found to have been full of rocks. In others all they found in it was a piece of rope. It is thought that Riel had Scott’s body thrown into the river through a hole cut through the ice. It was never found and although a body did wash up on the Assiniboine later that spring it was never identified.
Scott’s execution quickly led to the downfall of Riels’ government. Ontarians were angered by Scott’s execution and the Canadian government sent a force of 1200 British troops and volunteers led by Col Garnet Wolseley. A bounty of $5,000 was put on Riel’s and Lepine’s lives. The Metis looked for amnesty while the Ontario extremists looked for vengeance. Ambroise Lepine was tried and convicted for Scott’s murder and was sentenced to hanging on January 24, 1875. His sentence was commuted to 2 years. They banished Riel for five years, but Riel kept slipping in and out of French communities in southern Manitoba. Eventually he was hung in Regina in 1885 for staging a second rebellion in the territory that would later become Saskatchewan.