For my independent investigation, my inquiry questions was “To what extent was Thomas Scott’s execution fair compared to the values of 1870? I chose this question to research because Louis Riel was such an influential person and had a huge impact on our country. He was the founder of Manitoba, and a leader for the Metis people. He was one of the first people to start spreading the idea of
equality and having the indigenous people thought of as equal to non-indigenous people. He did a lot of great things for our country, which is why some consider him a hero. However, he also did some not so great things which is why many consider him a villain. Louis Riel’s impacts on Canada are what make this event a historically significant one, and are why I chose this question. The execution of Thomas Scott is what has kept me from believing that Louis Riel is a true hero, but this research may give me some more insight into the situation.
To begin this process, I did some research, and got an idea of how Thomas Scott’s execution played out. This is a summary of what I found:
In 1870, John Christian Schultz and his men planned to attack Fort Garry, so Louis Riel took 45 of his men prisoner. Schultz escaped, and other prisoners were released in February 1870. Later this month, Schultz’s men got together to attack again, and once again were taken prisoner in Fort Garry. One of these men was Thomas
Scott. He was a rude prisoner, insulted Riel’s men, and said that if he ever got free, he would shoot Riel. Because of this, Scott appointed a military tribunal to try Thomas Scott for treason. He was accused of defying the authority of the Provisional Government, fighting with guards, and slandering the name of Louis Riel. This tribunal showed Thomas Scott to be guilty, and he was executed by a firing squad in the courtyard of Fort Garry on March 4th, 1870. He was not the only one sentenced to death for treason, but he was the only one that they actually executed.
Scott’s trial was held by Ambroise Lepine. They charged him of having “taken up arms against the provisional government” and having “struck one of the guards”. Riel was one of the three witnesses against Scott, and the prosecutor of the trial. Thomas
Scott was not allowed any witnesses on his behalf, and he was sentenced to death. Most of the trial was in French and Scott couldn’t understand this language so he may not have even known what was going on. Some even say that Scott didn’t know what he was accused of, he was just told he was a “very bad man and must die”. He was executed by a firing squad of six intoxicated Metis, and a group of around 100 spectators. The part of his death that was particularly inhumane was that multiple reports have said that he didn’t die right away from the shots, due to the poor aim of the intoxicated firing squad.
After this execution, whether it be determined ‘fair’ or not, Louis Riel was now branded as a murderer. There were many people that protested Thomas Scott’s death, even in the crowd at the execution itself. Nowadays, there is still a lot of controversy as to whether Thomas Scott’s death was fair to the values of the time. Some people say that Scott was only ‘murdered’ to show the power of a provisional government, and some say that Scott committed treason and within the rules of the time, death was an acceptable fate. Some also say that Riel saved lives by killing Scott because he could have been a danger and stood up to the government.
To find an answer to my inquiry question, I also did some research into the rules around execution at the time so that I could assess whether the execution of Thomas Scott was ‘fair’ at the time. Here is what I found:
Before Confederation, many offences were punishable by death (including being found disguised in a forest), and execution was something that happened often, and in front of a large crowd. However, after Confederation, before Louis Riel executed Thomas
Scott, the number of offences that you could punish by execution were brought down to three: murder, rape, and treason (and Thomas Scott did commit treason). The location of the execution must also be within the confines of the prison instead of publicly (this is a rule that Riel did not follow). Capital punishment was not completely abolished until 1976, which means that Louis Riel was still roughly following the rules of the time when he executed Thomas Scott. However, if the execution of Thomas Scott was considered to be murder, then that means that Louis Riel should be executed according to the laws at that time.
This brings me to the answer I came up with to my question, which is that Riel’s actions did roughly follow the laws of 1870, but they were still ethically questionable for that time. Thomas Scott did commit treason, so Riel did have the right to execute him. He also did get a trial, although it might not have been one of the fairest trials. There are only secondary sources that state the more detailed facts of the trial, so these details may not be correct, but most sources state that Thomas Scott was not allowed witnesses on his behalf, and therefore he did not have a chance of coming out of this trial as innocent. As well as this, there were other prisoners that had committed the same sort of crimes as Thomas Scott had, but none of them were executed, which may have contributed to the protesters at his execution. Louis Riel clearly broke the law of having executions held within the confines of the prison, as the execution had a crowd of 100 people viewing it. As well as this, if Thomas Scott was to be executed, he deserved to get a sober firing squad that would end his suffering quickly, and he did not get this, which contributes to Louis Riel being morally wrong, but not technically breaking laws. This research has allowed me to look further into why there is controversy as to whether Louis Riel should be viewed as a hero or as a villain. I still have not reached a conclusion as to which I believe. If Louis Riel had executed Thomas Scott in this day and age, then he would definitely be considered a murderer and a villain, but everything changes when you consider the values of the 1870s.
This research also allowed me to see how different laws and values are now in Canada compared to how they were in the 1870s. Back then, execution was considered a normal thing for people to witness, and before confederation it happened even more often, for things as simple as stealing a turnip. Luckily, this violence in our country has been stopped, and the last two executions to happen in Canada were in 1962. I can’t imagine living in a time where the values were similar to the way they were when Louis Riel was alive, but I’m sure the people in that time thought that those rules were for the best.
I still don’t have a definite answer for my inquiry question, but I have learned a lot more about the execution of Thomas Scott, and I still believe that this inquiry project was a success.