The case of Louis Riel, convicted and executed for high treason, has excited unusual attention and interest, not merely in the Dominion of Canada but beyond its limits. Here it has been made the subject of party, religious, and national feeling and discussion; and elsewhere it has been regarded by some as a case in which, for the first time in this generation, what is assumed to have been a political crime only has been punished with death.
The opponents of the Government have asserted that the rebellion was provoked, if not justified, by their maladministration of the affairs of the North-West Territories, and inattention to the just claims of the half-breeds.
With this question, which has been made one of party politics, it is not thought becoming to deal here.
Upon such a charge, when made in a constitutional manner, the Government will be responsible to the representatives of the people, and before them they will be prepared to meet and disprove it.
Appeals to the animosities of race have been made in one of the Provinces with momentary success. Should these prevail, the future of the country must suffer. Parliament will not meet for some time, and in the interval, unless some action is taken to remove these animosities, they will gain ground, and it will become more difficult to dispel belief in the grounds which are used to provoke them.
It is thought right, therefore, that the true facts of the case, and the considerations which have influenced the Government, should be known, so that those who desire to judge of their conduct impartially, may have the information which is essential for that purpose.
It has been asserted that the trial was an unfair one, and before a tribunal not legally constituted; that the crime being one of rebellion and inspired by political motives, the sentence, according to modern custom and sentiment, should not have been carried out; and that the prisoner's state of mind was such as to relieve him from responsibility for his acts.
After the most anxious consideration of each one of these grounds the Government have felt it impossible to give effect to any of them, and have deemed it their duty to let the law take its course.
I am now desired, in a matter of such grave importance and responsibility, to place on record the considerations which have impelled them to this conclusion:
1. As to the jurisdiction of the court and the fairness of the trial.
It should be sufficient to say that the legality of the tribunal by which he was tried has been affirmed by the Privy Council, the highest court in the Empire, and has seemed to them so clear that the eminent counsel who represented the prisoner could not advance arguments against it, which were thought even to require an answer.
It has been said that a jury composed of six only, and the absence of a grand jury, are features so inconsistent with the rights of British subjects that the prisoner had still ground of complaint; but, as was pointed out in the Privy Council, the same crime may be tried elsewhere in the British Empire, notably in India, without any jury, either grand or petty, and this mode of trial has been sanctioned by the Imperial Parliament.
It is to be observed also, that the offence was tried in the country in which it was committed, under the law as it then existed and had existed for years, and that this is a course of which no offender can fairly complain, while it is a right to which every criminal is entitled.
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