French: "Quand je partis ma chere Henriette, Tu n'avais pas encore quinze ans." The singer (Riel?) left home before Henrietta was fifteen. With the fighting over, he has come home
Tradition attributes this song to Louis Riel himself. Whether this is true we cannot tell, but the song fits the facts of Riel's life, and Riel is known to have written poetry.
Riel was born in 1844 to a Metis (French-Indian cross-breed) family. In the late 1860s, the new Dominion of Canada began to organize the Red River region. This organization would have broken up the farms and deprived the Metis of their livelihood.
When their protests failed, Riel led a group of Metis to organize a "Republic of the North-West," and set conditions for joining Canada. Unfortunately, Riel made the mistake of executing a man by the name of Thomas Scott. The government sent a force of 1200 men to clear up the situation. In August 1870, Riel fled to the United States and the rebellion ended.
Ironically, the Canadian government granted most of the rights Riel had demanded to the inhabitants of the hastily-reorganized Manitoba district.
Riel was back in Canada by 1871, and earned the informal thanks of the government for helping repel a Fenian raid. But when he was elected to parliament in 1873 and 1874, he was not permitted to take his seat; from 1874 to 1879 he was under formal sentence of banishment. Riel spent the time teaching school in Montana, and for a while was confined to a mental hospital.
In July 1883 Riel returned to Manitoba to attend the wedding of his sister. But in 1884, at the request of the Metis of Saskatchewan (now being pushed out of that province as they had been pushed from Manitoba fifteen years earlier), he organized a second rebellion.
Although the Canadian army had trouble catching up with the Metis and their Indian allies, General Middleton fought skirmishes on April 24 and May 2, then defeated Riel at Batoche on May 12, 1885 when the entrenched Metis ran out of ammunition. After a trial which had something of the air of a circus (his attorneys claimed insanity; Riel himself said -- with some truth -- that he had only been responding to political necessity), Riel was hanged late in that year.
John MacDonald (1815-1891), the Canadian Premier, heard many appeals to commute Riel's sentence, but decided that Riel had to hang to keep Ontario happy. Quebec, however, was outraged, and some historians believe that the decline of the Conservative Party in Canada (until then the dominant political force) dates from Riel's hanging.
For songs about the second rebellion, see "Pork, Beans and Hard Tack," "The Toronto Volunteers," and "Between the Forks and Carleton." There is a second song allegedly by Riel, also dating from this late period, indexed as "Chanson de Louis Riel (Riel's Song II)."
Riel's career was poignant enough that it still inspires songs. Rather better than this, to my mind, is Bill Gallaher's "The Last Battle," recorded by Gordon Bok on "In the Kind Land." - RBW