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Name has meaning
Sep 28, 2007

As a break from the rigors of a Manitoba winter, a new provincial holiday on the third Monday in February is long overdue. 

As Labour and Immigration Minister Nancy Allan said, “A holiday in February between New Year’s and Good Friday will give us time to spend with family and friends.” 

The fact that the new provincial holiday will be named after Louis Riel is also welcomed, although the date has no real significance in the life of the “Founder of Manitoba.”

Riel’s name was forwarded to the provincial government by 11 of 114 schools that took the time to become involved in the selection process. The winning name was selected by the MB4 Youth Council and forwarded to the provincial government.

According to Allan, the names submitted had to be relevant to Manitoba and reference citizenship, history, culture, the arts, sport or a significant individual.

In Riel’s case, he was definitely a significant individual in Manitoba history; outmanoeuv-ring the strong forces aligned against the aspirations of the majority of people living in the Red River Settlement during the years 1869 and 1870.

Riel’s footprint in Manitoba history literally started when he stepped on a surveyor’s chain at the farm of fellow Métis Andre Nault, telling the surveyors sent from the East to plot out the land that, “You go no further.”

The land-surveying set into motion  strained relations between the Métis and Ottawa; initially personified by federally-appointed lieutenant-governor William McDougall who was prevented from entering the settlement by armed Métis. The amazing thing is the so-called Red River Rebellion need not have happened. (It is more apt to call it the Red River Resistance, since there was no real authority  to rebel against — the limbo the settlement was thrown into by the proposed transfer of the land to Canada insured that a power vacuum existed.) 

All Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald should have done was keep the inhabitants of the settlement informed about Canada’s efforts with the help of the Colonial Office in Great Britain to negotiate the sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s vast landholdings in Western Canada. Instead, the prime minister made mistake after mistake, including prematurely sending the surveyors west — Canada had not taken over possession of the land at the time; officially the land transfer didn’t occur until months later in June 1870 — leaving the Métis with little choice but to protect their rights.

From the steps of St. Boniface Cathedral in August 1869, Riel declared that surveying the settlement’s land was a threat to its very existence, and with the support of Father Noël-Joseph Ritchot, the Comité national (National Committee of the Métis) was formed. 

History is filled with many “ifs,” such as  what “if” Macdonald had been more patient and took the Metis and Red River residents into his confidence, assuring them that their land rights would be protected and they would still enjoy the full rights of British citizens of Canada.

But the foolish actions of Macdonald and his government threw the nation and settlement into a confusing uproar of differing conflicts raging between individuals, groups and governments which included Hudson’s Bay Company Governor William McTavish and his  Council of Assiniboia, the Dominion government in Ottawa  and the Colonial Office in Great Britain. 

“This is the most thorny business I have ever had to deal with, thanks to the imbecility of almost everyone who has hitherto meddled with it,” said frustrated Canadian Governor-General Lord Dufferin.

The most  conspicuous result of Ottawa’s mistakes was emboldening of the so-called Canadian Party in the settlement which challenged the authority of Riel and the provisional government to negotiate terms for the settlement’s entry into the Canadian Confederation. In comic-opera fashion, recently-arrived armed immigrants from Ontario marched about the countryside naming themselves the true representatives of the settlement, although their support was scant and they were more  nuisance than  solution. Their interference eventually led to Riel making his one big mistake — the execution of Thomas Scott, a rabble-rousing Orangeman. It was the execution of Scott that allowed the self-proclaimed “refugees” from “murderer” Riel to convince Eastern Canadians that “tyranny” was overtaking the settlement that had to be put down by force. 

Up until Scott’s execution on March 4, 1870, there had been every reason to believe the settlement wasn’t nearing a peaceful accommodation with Canada that protected the rights of English-speaking and French-speaking residents Riel had been advocating. To this end, Riel ensured delegates from each  English-speaking and French-speaking district of Red River selected the three men (eventually John Black, Alfred Scott and Abbé Richot) sent to Ottawa  to begin negotiations.

Riel may have felt he had accomplished his purpose in establishing the conditions for the settlement’s entry into Confederation, but at the same time as the three delegates were in Ottawa helping to establish Canada’s fifth province, the prime minister was plotting to send British regulars and Canadian militia west under the command of Col. Garnet Wolesley. Facing hostile voters at home, Macdonald resorted to a political manoeuvre in order to placate Protestants in Ontario, who cried out for revenge for the execution of Scott. In fact, the Ontario government posted a $5,000 reward for the capture of Riel with the express purpose of seeing him hanged for his role in Scott’s death.

When the troops arrived at Red River in August 1870, Riel realized the danger he was in and fled Upper Fort Garry. From that time on, he was a fugitive from hostile Ontarians bent on revenge and the civil authorities in the new province of Manitoba he had been instrumental in creating. His absence allowed the Canadian Party to rewrite history, usurping his role. As a result, Riel had been treated with great hostility until historians in the mid-20th-century — especially nationally-renowned Manitoba historian W.L. Morton — began to reveal the truth.

Yet, Riel remains an enigma; loathed by some and revered by others. The fact that he was hanged for treason on November 16, 1885, in Regina after the failed Northwest Rebellion still lingers in the minds of those who refuse to believe he could have been so instrumental in bringing Manitoba into Confederation. What hopefully arises out of naming the new holiday after Riel is a greater appreciation of his role in Manitoba history.