The election was called in the midst of our annual trip to Manitoba—and probably in the midst of the vacation travels of many Canadians. We chose to travel the Yellowhead Highway through Jasper, Edmonton, and Saskatoon on our way to Winnipeg. I read a few books about Louis Riel to transport my mind to pivotal events that happened in the Saskatchewan and Red River valleys near this route. Not only were they an engaging read, they refreshed my perspective on the place of the Prairie Provinces within confederation. These events are also related to what I believe is the most important issue in the upcoming election.
I agree with Rex Murphy, when he stated in his CBC opinion piece on June 4, 2015 that the most important issue of the election is how the prospective government will act on the report of the TRC. The apology by PM Harper in 2008 was good and necessary but it is only a beginning. We need to continue to understand the truth about what happened in our history and continue to work at reconciliation between our gracious hosts and subsequent settlers.
The background to the Riel saga was the mass killing of the bison on the plains in order to systematically and intentionally eliminate the indigenous people who relied on the bison for their livelihood. This should be named for what it was—genocide. Although the Museum of Human Rights which we visited in Winnipeg acknowledges the contributions of indigenous people in Canada and lists genocides that have occurred around the world, it neglects to name the genocide of indigenous people that happened on our own soil in the 19th century.
Louis Riel was not only the founder of Manitoba—as finally acknowledged in 1992—but he could also be said to be the father of Saskatchewan and Alberta as well. At his best, he represented the interests not only of the Metis and indigenous people but the French in all of Canada and all settlers on the western prairies and forests [ironically, “Rupert’s Land” was given to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the king of England and sold to the Canadian government by the HBC with seemingly little thought of the residents of the land]. At his worst, Riel was tortured by a combination of mental illness and religious delusion later in his life but the man was a true visionary who saw modern day Canada before it was. He saw Indigenous Peoples, Metis, British, French, and other settlers sharing the land together in mutual peace and goodwill. For his resistance of English Canadian domination he was hanged a week after the last spike was nailed on the Canadian Pacific Railway in November, 1885. In fact, these events are tied together: The push for the completion of the railway was so that troops could be sent west to put down the “rebellion.”
(A sad reality that Mennonites will have to deal with is that we benefitted from land giveaways by the Canadian government in the Red River Valley shortly after the Metis resistance in 1869-70 and again after the resistance in 1884-85 on the land between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. Were we given land so as to be a “buffer” between desired settlers and undesired native peoples similar to the Ukraine a few centuries earlier?)
The putting down of the resistance movements led by Louis Riel accompanies the oppressive residential school policies initiated by the Canadian government that finally ended only in 1996. This chapter is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] most directly dealt with. We need to speak the truth and name the residential school policy as cultural genocide. What will our leaders have to say about this in the election campaign? As a Christian who values truth and reconciliation, the way I vote will be influenced by the responses on this issue.