Every anniversary of Louis Riel’s death seems to give rise to a plethora of commentary on his role in Canadian history as well as celebrations of his deeds and the Métis’ contribution to Manitoba. This year, the 125th anniversary of his hanging on November 16 in Regina for treason, is no different.
In the House of Commons, Winnipeg MP Pat Martin on November 16 tabled a private member’s bill for the government to “set the history books straight and reverse the conviction of Louis Riel for high treason and instead recognize him and commemorate his role as the founder of the province of Manitoba, a Father of Confederation and a champion of the Métis people.”
Premier Greg Selinger on November 16 unveiled a permanent display of historical documents and photographs that pay tribute to the central role of the Métis in the political and social history of Manitoba, according to a government press release. Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson also announced a new Métis policy, which he said was intended to address persistent disparities between Métis and non-Métis Manitobans.
“Given that 2010 is recognized across the homeland as Year of the Métis,” said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, “It is very timely that we made this announcement. I am very pleased by the province’s forward-thinking approach in establishing a Métis policy ... This historic government-to-government relationship will ensure that the Métis of Manitoba will be a full partner in future socio-economic opportunities and provide much needed direction for future decision-making.”
Among the documents unveiled at the special ceremony was the sessional journal of the legislative assembly of Assiniboia, which is termed the “missing link” between the Comité National des Métis and Convention of Forty, or Riel’s provisional government during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, and the legislative assembly of Manitoba which first met on March 15, 1871.
It’s an important journal since it shows the elected Assiniboia assembly, composed of 28 English-speaking members and French-speaking members (21 were Métis), ratified the Manitoba Act in June 1870. The act was passed by the Canadian Parliament in May and came into effect on July 15, 1870, the day Manitoba became the newest province in the Canadian Confederation. As well, the assembly endorsed the three delegates Riel sent to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.
What is also important about the 24-member assembly is that it was a democratic institution meant to represent all groups then residing in the Red River Settlement. The only group which did not participate in the assembly was the Canadian Party, which was primarily composed of recent settlers from Ontario who were avowed enemies of Riel and the Métis. The Canadian Party was led by John Christian Schulz, whose followers openly opposed the authority of Riel and the governments the Métis leader subsequently created to oversee the affairs of the settlement. Their interference caused Riel to order the arrest of any Canadian Party member his Métis militia could lay their hands on, including Schultz.
While Schultz escaped his imprisonment to stir up Ontarians against the alleged rebellion led by the “murderer” Riel, the Métis leader released the captives with the exception of Thomas Scott, who was executed after a court marshall in the tribunal style of the annual Métis buffalo hunt. It was the one ill-conceived act that marred Riel’s leadership in Manitoba. If not for the execution of the ill-tempered Protestant Orangeman Scott, there would be no argument against Riel’s recognition as the “Founder of Manitoba,” a title he still justly deserves, although it has only been officially recognized in more recent years. Even his role as the leader of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 cannot detract from this fact. It was Riel’s insistence that forced Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to create a new province in Western Canada in 1870. Unfortunately, this accomplishment was quickly suppressed when the troops led by Wolseley entered Red River in August 1870. In the aftermath of their arrival, the Canadian Party usurped Riel’s accomplishment, revising history to their undeserved advantage.
Despite Schultz’s and the Canadian Party’s assertions, the Canadian government had no authority over Manitoba, a fact that was recognized by the British Colonial Office and made plain to the Canadian government, who jumped the gun by appointing a lieutenant-governor prior to the transfer of the Hudson Bay Company territory that had been purchased on Ottawa’s behalf by the British government. In fact, the land transfer to Canada did not occur until June 23, 1870, three weeks after the Manitoba Act was given royal assent on May 12.
Technically, HBC Governor William McTavish aided by his appointed Council of Assiniboia was in charge of the Red River River Settlement until the official transfer, but McTavish had already abdicated all authority, allowing Riel and his provisional government to take the lead in the settlement well before Macdonald could impose his government’s will upon the lands traditionally inhabited by the Métis.
“Of course, I don’t mean to say my conduct was perfect on all occasions,” Riel told a Winnipeg Daily Sun reporter when he slipped into Manitoba from the U.S. in 1883, “because every man is liable to make trifling mistakes, but had I the same thing to go through again, I would do exactly the same. If the people of Canada only knew the grounds on which we acted and the circumstances under which we were, they would be most forward in acknowledging that I was right in the course I took. And I have always believed that as I have acted honestly, the time will come when the people of Canada will see and acknowledge it.”
Riel’s words to the reporter are only slightly prophetic, as many in Canada now recognize his role in the creation of Manitoba. But there are still quite a few who regard him solely as a traitor. That is the complication of Riel in Canadian history. He can be regarded as a hero for some of his actions, and for other actions a rebel who deserved his fate. It all depends upon the perspective of who is making the judgement that enables one role or the other to be adopted as the historical “truth.”
The final words should go to the writer of the June 29, Sun article, who said Riel’s presence in 1883 at St. Vital created “not a ripple of excitement ... And yet Riel was a most important man in the history of this new country.”