Riel was born in the Red River Colony of what is now Manitoba, the son of a prominent Métis leader and a French Canadian mother. He was educated as a lawyer in Montréal, but he returned to his home at the age of 24, just as Canada was preparing to acquire the vast territory called Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company. Since the Red River Colony was part of Rupert's Land, the Métis people feared that they would lose control of their own homeland.
The Métis are the proud descendants of French Canadian coureurs de bois and voyageurs and native mothers. They were great buffalo hunters of the plains who saw their way of life threatened by the arrival of English-speaking Canadians from the East.
Riel gathered others around him to stop Canadian representatives from entering the settlement. They formed a "provisional government" to negotiate with the Canadian government. Their actions, known as the Red River Rebellion, led to the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870.
Though there was also no bloodshed in the Rebellion, the provisional government did execute one unruly prisoner named Thomas Scott. The heated reaction the execution created in Ontario forced Riel to flee for his safety. He spent years in Québec, New England and in the American Midwest. Though he was twice elected a member of Parliament, he did not dare take his seat in Ottawa.
It was during these confusing years that Riel's religious feelings, which had always been strong, grew to a steadfast conviction that he was sent by God as the prophet of a new North American Catholicism.
In 1884, Riel was teaching school in Montana when some Métis from Saskatchewan asked for his help in their difficulties with the Canadian government. Like the Red River Métis, they feared that their lands would be taken. Riel wrote petitions and letters to Ottawa. Then in 1885 the Métis lost patience and claimed a provisional government of their own. On March 26, about 300 Métis, led by Riel, clashed with about 100 North West Mounted Police and volunteers, touching off the Northwest Rebellion.
The Canadian government responded quickly with a force of 8,000 men. The armies met on May 9, 1885 at Batoche, and by May 12, the overpowered Métis were defeated, and Riel surrendered.