FATHER NOEL JOSEPH RITCHOT
St Norbert's Man for all Seasons & Riel's Right Hand Man
by George Siamandas
Ritchot the parish priest for St Norbert and a Metis leader who arrived at St. Boniface on June 7 1862. Born in 1825 in Quebec and the son of a farmer, Ritchot was initially reluctant to come to Red River because he could speak only French. Other priests had seen being placed in St Boniface as a kind of demotion. Ritchot arrived just in time as the previous priest perished within days of his arrival. A large man with a full beard, Ritchot was considered one of the strongest men in Red River.
ST NORBERT BEFORE RITCHOT ARRIVED
The 1860s were tough years for Ritchot's parishioners. Most were nomads following the buffalo and they were simply not interested in becoming farmers. With floods, grasshopper plagues, poor harvests the farming option was not encouraging during the decline of the buffalo hunt during the 1860s. There was serious poverty amongst the Metis during the 1860s and Ritchot was front and centre in mounting a relief effort.
The 1860s were also seeing the development of the west for settlement and the worry about Metis land rights as survey parties pushed west and as speculators started to move in the late 1860s. This led to the Red River Rebellion in which Ritchot was an active part. And after the rebellion had been quelled Ritchot became the lead negotiator on behalf of Riel's cause.
RIEL'S CHIEF NEGOTIATOR
He was one of three delegates dispatched to try to find a solution to the Riel business. He and Black were imprisoned for two weeks in Ottawa. He held out for recognition as an official delegate of the new government and actually got a hearing with the prime minister McDonald on April 26 1870. He fought hard for Metis land rights as part of Manitoba's entry into confederation. In effect he was Riel's negotiator in Ottawa. For example he battled the prime minister for land rights obtaining 1.4 million acres after being offered 200,000. His negotiations resulted in the postage stamp province of Manitoba, so called because it was very small of what it is today. He also won French language rights as part of the Manitoba Bill.
HOW DID HE DIFFER FROM THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CLERGY?
Ritchot believed in immersing himself in people's daily lives and needs; political things. Hence his intimate involvement in the uprising. After 1870 the French population of St Norbert declined sharply from about 1,211 in the 1870 census to 446 original settlers in 1881. Half the population moved away. Ritchot spent his time buying land and trying to find new settlers for replacements. In time he became a major land owner in St Norbert with about 50 properties. Ritchot became a kind of community foundation or community banker. Over time he became a wealthy property owner leaving an estate of $50,000 upon his death in 1905. By WW1 the value of his holdings increased 10 times, and his money was used to develop many community institutions in St Norbert such as a church, an orphanage, the Trappiste monastery. Ritchot lies buried in St Norbert the only place he worked. The St Norbert parish ran to the US border when it was established in 1857. Ritchot helped populate many of the communities south along the Red River such as St Agathe.