Tomorrow is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. Last summer I continued my interest in Louis Riel by visiting Batoche, SK where his dream of a Metis homeland was vanquished for the second and final time. I also visited his family home in St.Vital, MB, and his final burial place beside the cathedral in St. Boniface, MB near the museum which displayed some Riel memorabilia and statues. These visits were educational and even emotional experiences.
I also read Riel: A Life of Revolution by Maggie Siggins, a sympathetic yet well-researched and detailed biography of his entire life. 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. The opening paragraphs of a chapter in the middle of the book capture the turning point in his life.
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 [A picture of our present Cabinet is a good visual example] but the pallor of living conditions in First Nations communities and the current attitude toward refugees of some Conservative leadership hopefuls reminds us that we still have a long way to go.
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.