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.