TOPICS OF THE WEEK - 13 AUGUST 1885

It is deplorable that the domain of public justice should be invaded by faction, and that the decision of the question whether a man shall or shall not suffer the extreme penalty of the law should be allowed in any measure to depend not upon the legality or righteousness of the sentence, but upon the rival interests of political parties. For this, however, we all looked in the case of Riel. To fix on the Head of the Government the responsibility for a determination by which loss of votes may be incurred is naturally the first object of the Opposition. On the Head of the Government, beyond doubt, the responsibility rests. We are to be governed in accordance with the well-known principles of the British Constitution, and no principle of the British Constitution can be better known or more thoroughly established than that which prescribes that the prerogative of mercy be exercised like the other prerogatives under the advice of Ministers of the Crown. The Lepine case, in which the Governor-General personally exercised the prerogative for the purpose of cutting an extricable knot, was followed by an assertion and recognition of the general rule, and was itself so exceptional in its circumstances that it would be almost as reasonable to cite, by way of precedent, the personal order given at a desperate crisis by George III. to the troops to act in the Lord George riots. The Governor-General is out of the question, and he will no doubt be wise enough to preserve his constitutional position. On the other hand, what is the extent of the Minister's responsibility? The law which has pronounced the doom of treason is above the Executive; unless the Minister can assign a special cause for interfering with it he is bound to take its course; and he is no more responsible for the course which it takes than is any private citizen. That the punishment in the particular case is capital makes no difference whatever in the principle which regulates the Minister’s duty. In the present instance what cause for interference can be assigned? The judge evidently was satisfied with the verdict. For the recommendation by the jury to mercy no reason was given, and it was probably nothing more than an expression of the common unwillingness of jurymen to take a man’s blood upon their heads. If it had any more specific meaning, it must be taken to have had reference to the defence and to have implied a doubt in the minds of the jury whether the prisoner was perfectly sane. But, as we have said before, it is preposterous to pretend that Riel was not answerable for his actions. Supposing that he was really the victim of religious hallucinations, and that his assumptions of a prophetic character was self-delusion, not imposture, is every religious maniac -- are the believers in Katie King, the ‘’Dancing Rainbows’’ of the Salvation Army, the visionaries who rave about the Millennium and the Second Advent -- to receive a charter of license to cut our throats or get up murderous rebellions on the ground of their insanity? Extenuating circumstances the presiding judge evidently considered that were none, while the instigation of Indian revolt, which always entails Indian massacre, was as strong a circumstance of aggravation as it would have been possible to devise. Could Riel have been tried for the murder of the two priests not a voice would have been raised in his favour. Yet he was morally more guilty of the murder of the two priests than the ignorant and embruted savages by whose hands they were butchered and mutilated. As to the fairness of the trial no reasonable doubt can be entertained; to put Half-breeds on a jury which was to try the leader of a Half-breed rebellion would have been evidently fatuous and tantamount to a total denial of justice to the country at large and to all whose kinsmen have perished in the insurrection. That the jury by which the verdict was pronounced was not prejudiced against the prisoner seems to be shown by the recommendation to mercy. It lies not in the mouth of the Government, at all events, by which the mode of trial was determined, to say that the proceeding was unfair. There can be but one motive for arresting the course of justice, and if that motive is suffered to prevail it will be manifest that Confederation means French ascendancy.


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