What’s in a name? Thomas Scott and the curious case of the forgotten memorial

Matthew McRae

An image of a large grey stone building, built in a classical style.

The Thomas Scott Memorial Orange Hall in Winnipeg, 2019, about a year before its demolition. Photo by author.

The City of Winnipeg recently tore down the Thomas Scott Memorial Orange Hall, located in the city’s historic Exchange District. News coverage about the demolition has focused a lot on the loss of architectural heritage. This is important, but it’s only one part of the story. There’s also the story of who the building is named after: Thomas Scott.

A polarizing figure

At the height of the Red River Resistance, Thomas Scott was executed by firing squad on the orders of Louis Riel’s Métis-led provisional government. During the Resistance, Scott participated in two failed attempts to overthrow Riel’s provisional government. In response, on 18 February 1870, the provisional government imprisoned Scott—along with 47 other men—in their headquarters at Upper Fort Garry. Then, two weeks later, on 4 March 1870, Scott died in front of a Métis firing squad. In the wake of his death, two opposing narratives formed around him. One held that Scott was a villain; his execution was a justified act carried out after a fair trial. The other maintained that Scott was a hero; he had been murdered by rebels who had neither cause nor the authority to execute anyone.

In the beginning, the narrative of “Scott the Villain” had very few supporters outside of the Red River Métis community. The narrative of “Scott the Hero” was almost universally accepted in English Canada, especially among Protestant Canadians. Thirty years after his death, the Hall was built in Winnipeg to commemorate the Canadian hero, Scott.

Scott the Hero

When it was first built, the Hall was a big deal. It was erected by a local chapter of the Orange Order, a Protestant political and fraternal organization of which Scott was a member. It was intended to emphasize the nobility of Scott and his cause. The cornerstone was laid in July 1900. The Orangemen even struck a medal to commemorate the occasion.

Two sides of a medal. One side is engraved with an image of a building and the words “Thomas Scott Memorial Hall”, the other with the image of a man on a horse and the words “Men.Y.Scott, Murdered at Fort Garry, 4 March, 1870.”

The Two sides of the Thomas Scott Memorial Orange Hall Medal. Archives of Manitoba, [12 July, 1900] MG16, C6/19.

On one side, the medal displays an image of the building and the name of the new hall. On the inverse, it is engraved with an image of William of Orange on horseback at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. The namesake of the Orange Order, he is surrounded by the following words: “Men.Y.Scott, Murdered at Fort Garry, 4 March, 1870.” The medal simultaneously declared Scott’s death a murder while associating Scott with the Orange Order’s greatest hero—William of Orange.

But bigger praise was yet to come.

The grand opening of the Memorial Hall in 1903 was quite the event. It involved Winnipeg’s business and political elite as well as at least one prominent national representative: Orange Order Grand Master T.S. Sproule. A Member of Parliament, and later Speaker of the House of Commons, came all the way from Ottawa to dedicate the building. The press reported that Sproule “considered it the crowning honour of his life that he had been given an opportunity to dedicate this hall to the memory of the hero who lost his life defending freedom and order.” Sproule further declared, to an audience that included Winnipeg’s mayor and city councillors, that “The name of Thomas Scott would ever remain, and the actions of these who erected this hall would be appreciated by Orangemen all over Canada.”[1]

Demolition by neglect

Despite Sproule’s confident declaration, the name of Scott was not to remain. Almost exactly 150 years after Scott’s death—and 120 years after construction on the Hall began—the building was demolished. But the original, symbolic meaning of the structure had already been lost in the public imagination.

The narrative of “Scott the Canadian Hero,” much like the hall, experienced a demolition by neglect. This process accelerated during the 1960s and 1970s, as more and more English-Canadians began to express sympathy for Louis Riel and the late nineteenth-century Métis cause.

In 1970, a statue of Riel was dedicated at Manitoba’s legislature. It celebrated Riel as the founder of the province. With its dedication, Scott’s status as a hero was now usurped by the very man who had ordered his execution.

Nine years later, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made the big-budget film, Riel, focusing on the Red River and Northwest Resistances. Here, Riel was the unquestioned hero of the story. Scott was portrayed as cartoonishly evil. The film even has Scott attempting to assassinate Riel, a historical anachronism that serves to emphasize just how dastardly this version of Scott is. That, in 1979, the CBC felt English-Canadian audiences would enjoy a film with a villainous Scott says a whole lot about the collapse of Scott’s heroic narrative.

In that sense, the demolition of the Hall echoes an earlier demise of Scott’s heroic narrative. This is a memorial to someone that we no longer wish to memorialize and to a cause that we now recognize as wrong.

Is this, therefore, the end of Scott’s public commemoration? Not quite. There is one monument where Scott’s memory still exists. Strangely enough, it is a monument that commemorates a Métis martyr.

Elzéar Goulet Public Park

Elzéar Goulet was a member of Louis Riel’s provisional government and part of the tribunal that voted to execute Scott. In September 1870, Goulet was chased into the Red River by a group of Canadians—including soldiers—who were trying to arrest him for the murder of Scott. Goulet tried to swim to safety, but his pursuers threw rocks at him. One struck Goulet on the head, causing him to lose consciousness and drown.

For over a century, there was no memorial to Goulet. Then, in 2009, the City of Winnipeg created Elzéar Goulet Public Park. A monument to Goulet was built inside the Park. With its low wall, it is designed to resemble the undulating waves of the Red River where Goulet drowned. In many ways, the monument acts as a direct challenge to the martyrdom of Scott. He is referenced in a large quotation that is inscribed in both French and English on the monument:

Scott’s death ‘is kept fresh in memory for the advantage of a noisy element, while thousands never heard a word of [Goulet’s death], yet both of these deeds left a dark stain in [Manitoba’s] history.’

– Joseph Tennant, member of Wolseley’s Red River Expeditionary Force.[2]

An image of a curving stone wall. The height of the wall goes up and down like a wave. Along the top of the wall is an inscription in both French and English. Embedded in the wall are three large plaques inscribed with text.

Part of the monument at Elzéar Goulet Park. Photo by the author.

The choice to quote a Canadian soldier is significant—particularly a soldier from Wolseley’s Red River Expeditionary Force. The Expeditionary Force arrived at the Red River Settlement in August of 1870. Officially, it was sent to keep the peace, but instead many of the soldiers terrorized the local Métis population. The Canadian troops involved in Goulet’s death were part of the Red River Expeditionary Force. The inclusion of a soldier’s quote reminds monument viewers of the role that Canada and Canadian soldiers played in Goulet’s demise, which emphasizes the injustice of this event.

One could argue, however, that there is something else going on here. It is possible to interpret the 2009 memorial as a bridge between the English-Canadian memory and Métis collective memory of the Red River Resistance. By mentioning Scott so pointedly in a monument dedicated not to him but to a Métis martyr, there is an acknowledgement that Scott’s death is also a dark stain on Canadian history. The quote also recognizes Scott’s and Goulet’s deaths as two sides on the same coin of injustice. In Goulet’s monument, both sides of the conflict acknowledge each other’s sorrow and sense of loss. This is perhaps the only public monument to the Red River Resistance where a door is opened, however slightly, to reveal some possibility of reconciliation.

Of course, this is only one interpretation of a monument dedicated not to Scott, but to a Métis victim of Canadian violence. But, with the loss of the Hall, it becomes one of the few places left in Manitoba where a physical representation of Scott and his complicated legacy can be seen.

Matthew McRae is the Curator of History at the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation in Charlottetown, PEI. Previously, he worked as a Curator and Digital Content Creator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Matthew’s PhD dissertation focused on the 1869-70 and 1885 Resistances, Memory and Commemoration.

[1] “The Scott Memorial. Orangemen honor the memory of Riel’s victim.” June 15, 1903, unknown paper, Queen’s Own Rifles 1860-1950, Red River Expedition 1870, MU2599, Bruce Harmon Collection, Archives of Ontario.

[2] Square brackets original to monument.

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