132 years ago today Louis Riel was murdered by the Canadian government in Regina, SK. Louis Riel continues to be a controversial figure more than a hundred years after he lived and died; after all, it was only 25 years ago that he was finally acknowledged as the founder of Manitoba. I believe that the inclusion of all three prairie provinces in confederation can be attributed in part to his vision and work. Riel’s work dealt with a number of issues we continue to struggle with in Canada: western alienation, the rights of indigenous peoples, differences between French and English culture and language, and the mixing of politics and religion. I see him as a young visionary ahead of his time whose final years were marked by controversy and tragedy. A few paragraphs of a Maggie Siggins biography capture the turning point in Riel’s life when he went into exile.

Life might have been different for Louis Riel. With an unconditional amnesty he would have taken his place among the ruling elite of Red River. He likely would have increased the family’s land holdings and taken advantage, like everyone else, of the imminent boom in Winnipeg. He would have been a source of pride to his mother and looked after the education of his siblings, seeing that his sisters married well and his brothers got decent jobs. He might have married the “pious and holy” mate he was looking for, and produced children who continued his life’s work, much as he had done his father’s. His political career likely would have thrived; with his natural aptitude, a stint as a member of Parliament might have turned into a Cabinet position. Given his passionate concern for his own people, he could have served as Premier of Manitoba and then—who knows?—he might have tried for the highest office in the land.

But he was exiled. It wasn’t just that he would miss his family, or that he would remain poverty-stricken, reduced to living off hand-outs. More, he well understood that a unique accomplishment in North America—the establishment of a society in which the Native peoples could have some say and maybe even prosper—had been crushed. And the interlopers… who cared only about the fortunes to be made in Red River and nothing for its traditions, now had their revenge and were laughing out loud. If, over the next few years, Riel suffered great emotional exhaustion and turmoil, what else could have been expected?

Riel’s vision of a multi-cultural society is still alive, and the failures of the Canadian government to fully embrace it still haunt us today. We no longer execute “renegade” leaders like we did Riel and we do enjoy a multi-cultural society to some extent, but the pallor of living conditions in most First Nations communities and the ongoing inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women remind us that we still have a long way to go.

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