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Louis Riel Day and what it means

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Most of Canada today is celebrating Family Day, or if you live in Manitoba Louis Riel day. Now for the average Manitoban who doesn't know too much about this man, it seems logical enough. One of the largest figures in Canadian History, and what's more Manitoban than a Metis, right?

I remember the first Louis Riel I had a Canadian History professor who bristled every time someone mentioned it because, he said, "I just know too much about him I think." There is a lovely article on CBC this morning called Rethinking Louis Riel Day, and though I haven't checked yet, if previous years are anything to go by the editorials of my local newspaper and the Winnipeg Free Press will be filled with people arguing over whether or not this madman deserves his own day or not.

For those who aren't really sure of the story, Louis Riel was a Metis from the Red River Valley which is today the area in and around Winnipeg. A whole society descended from European fur traders and aboriginals from the area. They hunted the buffalo and farmed, and were an amalgamation of both the European and the Native world. There were other people in the area of course, fur traders, missionaries and the such, but the Metis really were the main group in the area.

For years the Metis had lived in this area which was a part of Prince Rupert's Land and belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company, but in 1869 the Federal Government, headed by Sir John A. Macdonald bought Prince Rupert's Land from the HBC. No one bothered to mention it to the people living there let alone consult them. While BC was offered a railway and full provincial status when they joined just a few years later, the Red River Valley, which actually had a larger population, just one set up in the wilderness, just found itself suddenly a Canadian Territory. Well the Metis were unhappy when they heard this, but Louis Riel, 25 at the time, realised there was a problem.

Louis Riel had originally gone to upper Canada to study theology, and being a Catholic, a very real problem arose for him when he fell in love. So he dropped out of seminary school and went to law school. Though he didn't finish there either, he did know enough to know that the Federal Government did not have the legal authority over the Red River Valley. The land had to be transferred to England before it could be transferred to Canada, but the government had sent in surveyors and a governor before the transfer was complete and therefore had no authority over the land. The Metis turned the governor back, seized upper Fort Garry, elected a provisional government, which included French and English delegates along with Metis and said they would not join Canada unless their demands were met.

Since no one else had legal authority over the land at this time, this government was completely legitimate. The Canadian Government sent in a delegation to negotiate. In fact things were going very well until Thomas Scott. Thomas Scott was an Orangeman and recent immigrant to the area. He was arrested among a group of men for trying to overthrow Riel's government. He was loud and rude and all sorts of unpleasant things, and in the end he was executed. This was the beginning of the end for Riel.

From the moment of Scott's death everything changed. McDonald agreed to the demands of the Metis, and created the parcel stamp province of Manitoba, but Louis Riel was charged with murder and a military expedition was set out to Manitoba to create order. Riel himself had slipped away a few hours before the expedition arrived, but that didn't stop them from reeking havoc. One young man was almost beaten to death, another chased into the river where he drowned.

Though he was a fugitive he was still a popular leader among the people of Manitoba, and even though he was a fugitive, and couldn't sit in the house of commons, he was still elected every year as their MP. Though he still managed to go to Ottawa, take his oath to the Queen and sign the guest book. The house had him formally expelled when they found out, but he was just reelected in the by-election. Finally in 1875 the Federal Government offered Louis Riel a full pardon on the condition that he remain in exile for five years. Riel agreed.

During his exile Riel began to have visions. He had a nervous breakdown and checked himself into a Montreal insane asylum under an assumed name, and spent three years there.

In 1884 the Metis were doing far worse than they had been, the buffalo were gone, and many of them had been cheated out of their land grants. Similarly the Blackfoot, the Cree and the Dakota-Sioux were on the brink of starvation, thanks to a federal government program that tried to make them agrarian, but had cut off their supplies when they realized how expensive it would be. Gabrielle Dumont, a Metis hunter, went down to the United States to ask Riel to lead them the way he did for Manitoba. They found him, a naturalized Canadians Citizen teaching in a mission school in Montana.

Riel went back, and sent a petition to John A Macdonald, asking for Saskatchewan the same things he'd asked for Manitoba. Macdonald stalled, Riel set up a provisional government in Batoche. But things were different now, Saskatchewan firmly belonged to Canada, the North West Mounted Police had been established, and with the railway, instead of the three months it originally took to send down a military expedition Macdonald could do it in less than a week.

The Blackfoot remained neutral, but the Dakota-Sioux, the Cree and the Assinaboines joined the Metis in an uprising, though their attacks were sporadic and worked independently. Since this is already turning out to be much longer than I expected I'll spare you the details, the Metis were eventually forced to retreat and Riel surrendered himself to the Canadian Army.

Despite being urged to plead insanity by his lawyer, Riel adamantly refused, and in the summer of 1885 he was convicted of treason and he was hung that November. For the sake of space I've downplayed Riel's more eccentric religious ideas. But it's worth mentioning that a lot of historians think that he had scitzophrenia or some other sort of mental illness. He believed he was a prophet of God, and wanted to reform the Catholic church.

So was Riel a revolutionary or a madman? To some of the people of Manitoba he was a murderer and a traitor with delusions of grandeur, but to others he is the founder of Manitoba, and is a symbol for all the minorities who have ever been oppressed in this country, he has especially become a symbol of French oppression, Aboriginal rights and Western Alienation. The Bloc Quebecois championed him in the house of commons in 1996, and in 1969 Pierre Trudeau unveiled a statue of him in Regina where he said "We must never forget that, in the long run, a democracy is judged by the way the majority treats the minority. Louis Riel's battle is not done yet."

Notes: This is my first post to this community, so I hope this is all alright. A lot of this is from memory, so if you notice any inaccuracies, please let me know. Sorry it's so long, I didn't mean for it to be. I hope I didn't bore anybody. And finally I'm not sure what x-posting rules are, but this is also posted on my journal. Cheers!
Current Location:
Current Mood:
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Current Music:
One Last Final Push - They Shoot Horses Don't They?
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[User Picture]
On February 16th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC), saruryujin commented:
I appreciated this post and I've learned something.
Greetings from Europe.
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On February 16th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC), smiley_cow replied:
Re: hi
I'm glad you liked it, thank you very much :)

Hello back from Southern Manitoba.
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On February 16th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC), hohaiyee commented:
re: madman
Louis Riel wasn't mad the first time, when he fought for Manitoba, I think he went mad during his exile in US. His biggest impact on Canada occurred while he was still sane, hence, a Louis Riel Day would not be a day for a Mad Man, anymore than a John A. Macdonald day would be a day for a Drunk, though I still enjoy toasting to his memory on his birthday with some form of alcohol.
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On February 16th, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC), smiley_cow replied:
Re: madman
Yeah, thinking back, I do seem to remember hearing somewhere that the visions started when he was in exile. I wish I could remember the source, though it might be one of my History profs.

That's a fair argument. Louis Riel is the father of Manitoba, and his presence is still felt here. I was actually listening to Radio-Canada earlier today and they were talking to some people from Saint Boniface, a francophone area in Winnipeg, and they were talking about how the French Canadian community there is alive and well thanks to those original demands his provisional government made.

I guess what people don't think is right is honouring such a controversial figure, even if he did some good things, he's still a traitor and a madmen and all that. Thomas Scott comes up quite often as well, "I can't believe we're honouring a murderer, grumble grumble" and the such.

I tried not to show any bias in the above post, but I think I'm probably on side with Louis Riel day. Whether he did bad things or not, he's still our founding father. Besides, it's just so Manitoban in a province which can be really lacking sometimes culturally. Besides, he's human. George Washington was a slave owner and the Americans still have a day for him, and Andrew Jackson is responsible for the trail of tears yet he's still on the American ten dollar bill. Thinking he was a prophet of God seems tame comparatively speaking. :)
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On February 16th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC), hohaiyee replied:
How was Riel even a 'traitor'?
Was Louis Riel a British subject who rebelled? If so, then America is a land of traitors!

Louis Riel was a Metis, and they lived in the land that Britain grant to Hudson Bay even though it wasn't Britain's right to grant, before Confederation came along. Riel was even pro-Confederation, but he wanted for his people, to have the right to enter Confederation on their own terms, much like how the other parties have a right to.

Louis Riel was a Metis, and he was loyal to the Metis cause to the end, even after he went mad, he refuse to plead insanity (because that would have invalided his cause in the eyes of those days). There is nothing traitorous about him.

Old Tomorrow was pretty controversial too, the CPR scandal (though I think it has oft been misrepresented to make him look worse), but he's still celebrated because he had a good essential hand in making our nation.

Louis Riel was actually elected several times, but Parliament refused to recognize him...
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On February 16th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC), smiley_cow replied:
Re: How was Riel even a 'traitor'?
I think he was technically a British subject when he rebelled, since the place of his birth was now a Canadian province, but I'd have to check up on the actual laws at the time. Also, I'm good with calling America a land of traitors :P

Louis Riel gets criticized a fair bit, but I'm with you that the majority of it's unfounded. Even the Thomas Scott incident, it wasn't Riel who killed him personally, he's just guilty of not stopping it. It's a subtle distinction, but we need to be fair.

I think Macdonald is the same way in a lot of ways as well. People criticize him for the CRP scandal and the drinking, but they often forget that if it hadn't been for him there's a good chance we'd all be speaking American right now. And I know the Bloc was criticizing the Canadian government as recently as the nineties for executing Macdonald, but really what choice did he have. Even Riel defended Macdonald for not giving him a second pardon, comparing it to his own government feeling it was right to execute Scott. The man had led a rebellion against Canada, and even in the Upper Canada rebellion they had executed a lot of the leaders. So it wasn't as though there was some sort of double standard going on there either.

If you look in the records, Louis Riel's name is in the parliament guest book. :)
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On April 23rd, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC), pyroclasticgrub replied:
Re: How was Riel even a 'traitor'?
If you look in the records, Louis Riel's name is in the parliament guest book. :)

Cool, eh? ;)
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On February 18th, 2009 04:25 am (UTC), pyroclasticgrub replied:
Not to detract from the main point of the post but...
Besides, it's just so Manitoban in a province which can be really lacking sometimes culturally

As another southern Manitoban, I'm not sure what you mean by this. Do you mean that we lack cultural diversity, or that we lack the opera house notion of culture, meaning the institutions (such as the WSO, the RWB, APTN, Folkfest, or the MTC/PTE, not to mention the vastly irritating but important francophone cultural organizations and venues) that other cities may have in greater quantities?

I'm just curious. I'm not offended, but I think that statement should be clarified a bit. And as an anthropology student, I'm always interested in other peoples' notions of what it means to have or lack culture.

Edited at 2009-02-18 04:29 am (UTC)
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On February 18th, 2009 05:16 am (UTC), smiley_cow replied:
Re: Not to detract from the main point of the post but...
I see what you mean, sorry I should have been more clear. There are certainly cultures in Manitoba, many that are unique to this area of the world, such as the Metis, or the the francophone community here. I have a friend who's Dakota-Sioux, and they still definitely have a very vibrant culture. We also have Mennonite and Hudderite colonies here who certainly have a culture all their own, and I know people of Ukrainian decent or Icelandic decent, etcetera who still retain parts of their cultures. But for me, as an anglophone Manitoban with at least nine different ancestries, all European, I often don't feel as though I specifically belong to any real culture here in Manitoba.

I guess what I was trying to say is, even though there are many cultures in Manitoba, Manitoba itself seems to be a little lacking, especially if you live outside of Winnipeg, since that's where most of Manitoba's media is, and where it all tends to focus. Not to say there isn't any sort of overreaching Manitoban culture, it's just that sometimes you have to look for it, or at least that's how it feels to me.

It may very well just be the area I'm living in (Westman Area, the Southwest corner of the province) is disconnected from the rest of the province, but I know way too many people who don't even know who Gary Doer is, and my brother was telling me the other day how he had to tell someone at his high school who Louis Riel was, but I generally feel out of touch with the province.

And I guess what I meant by that statement was that having Louis Riel Day instead of Family Day, and naming it after a major historical figure from Manitoba made me feel Manitoban, which is something I feel very often.

Anyways, that was a much more longwinded answer than I meant to give, and I hope that made sense and I don't sound like I'm completely off my rocker. Feel free to correct me if I am, I promise I won't get too offended. :P

Also I strongly approve of your icon, Winnipeg Folk Fest is made of win!

Edited at 2009-02-18 05:17 am (UTC)
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On April 11th, 2011 07:10 am (UTC), xaqecrew commented:
Love your site man keep up the good work

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On April 12th, 2011 06:03 pm (UTC), xaqecrew commented:
Great post! I wish you could follow up on this topic!

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