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Louis Riel – Did He Have a Fair Trial?


French Canadians/ Aboriginals

Division/Grade Level

Division III or IV
Grades 7-12

Time Frame

two 45-minute classes

Lesson Overview

This lesson examines the trial of Louis Riel in 1885. The students will use a variety of resources to formulate an opinion about the fairness of Riel’s trial. Students will work in small groups, examining primary sources from the Peel collection. After the groups have examined the material, they will participate in a panel discussion of what they have learned. It is assumed that students will have a basic understanding of this period in Canadian history.


Students will use primary source materials to examine the trial of Louis Riel and formulate an opinion as to the fairness of this trial.


Students will:

  1. recognize agreement or contradiction when comparing information;
  2. recognize fact versus opinion in historical documents;
  3. understand the importance of Louis Riel in Canadian history and the continuing debate about his trial and execution.


Students will:

  1. demonstrate the ability to work cooperatively with others;
  2. listen and observe with a purpose;
  3. form an opinion based on information presented.


Students will:

  1. respect for someone else’s viewpoint or opinion;
  2. demonstrate an interest in history;
  3. demonstrate an appreciation for the way in which knowledge of the past helps us understand the present.

Curricular Connections

Social Studies
Language Arts

New Vocabulary

The Crown
politically correct

Peel Prairie Portal Resource Materials

Other Resource Materials

Developing the Lesson

Introduction or Opening Activity

Begin class with a brief discussion of a trial in a Canadian courtroom. Focus on the following points:

  • In most cases the accused may elect whether or not to have a trial by jury.
  • The jury is selected by the lawyers of the accused and the Crown.
  • The jury is composed of “peers."
  • The Judge is appointed by the government, not elected.
  • The Judge expected to be impartial.
  • The accused is innocent until proven guilty.

Purpose of the Lesson

Students should recognize that the trial and execution of Louis Riel remains a contentious part of Canadian history. There is still a great deal of debate on whether or not Louis Riel was given a fair trial. The class will have the opportunity to examine some documents written in the 1880s and discuss whether or not they perceive the trial to have been fair.

Presentation of New Material

The teacher should facilitate a quick review of those events which led up to the charge of treason against Louis Riel on July 6, 1885. Briefly discuss the idea of insanity. Explain that this became an issue during the trial. Explain why insanity would be a significant factor in the trial.

Check for Understanding

Review with students what primary sources are, and the importance of examining them when formulating opinions about past events.

Independent Practice

Organize the students into small groups of 4 –5. It is suggested that each group have at least one student who has strong reading comprehension skills.

Assign each group a different URL, OR provide each with a different set of Peel materials which have been downloaded and reproduced from the Peel site. Because there will not be enough material, some groups may have the same resource, but it is fair to assume that each group will be able to extract slightly different information from the reading.

Have the group examine the materials, taking notes on the retrieval organizer provided. They will need to discuss, interpret, and analyze in order to facilitate comprehension. Encourage the discussion of “what exactly does this mean? What do you think he is trying to say?” Have the students consider whether the information is FACT or OPINION.

Ultimately, the students should be prepared to present this document in a panel discussion. At this point, the opinion of the student/group is not being sought – just the opinion of the author.

Closing Activity

Organize a panel discussion. Place a number of chairs at the front of the classroom in a semi-circle configuration facing the rest of the students. The individual groups should select one member who will take a seat at the front to present the information their group has gathered. The teacher should explain to the panel members that they are not making a speech or reading a report, but rather are discussing whether or not the trial of Louis Riel was fair. They may refer to the notes that their group took while doing the research.

One of the students may take on the role of moderator, or the teacher may assume that role. Those students who are not members of the panel should listen carefully and complete the chart entitled The Trial of Louis Riel.

After each member of the panel has had an opportunity to discuss the trial, the members of the audience should pose questions to individual panel members.


Have the students write a paragraph, supported with points gathered in the panel discussion. The topic could be: "Do you believe that Louis Riel had a fair trial? Why or why not?" Students should be encouraged to differentiate between fact and opinion as they write their paragraphs.

Follow-Up Activities

A strong group of students may wish to role play an interview between a newspaper reporter and Louis Riel.

By E.A. Keith and S.J. Whyte