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Louis Riel: Demanding a place of honour

Who was Louis Riel? The Métis leader commanded two rebellions in western Canada and was tried, convicted and hanged for treason in 1885. Until well into the 20th century Riel was regarded as "misguided and impetuous" at best and a psychotic traitor at worst. But in the 1960s Riel's image began to turn around. Today most Canadians, particularly the Métis, have reclaimed him as a heroic patriot, founder of Manitoba and a Father of Confederation.

Jean Allard thinks it's time Queen Victoria shared the spotlight. Her statue sits front and centre at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg, and Allard says Louis Riel deserves a place beside her. Allard, a member of a citizens' committee lobbying for a statue of Riel, says changing attitudes about the "father of Manitoba" mean most Manitobans will accept a monument to Riel. But a CBC reporter is doubtful, asking: "Was he that great a man?" 
• Citizens' requests for a Riel statue at the Manitoba legislature got a boost in 1969. The Louis Riel Society, headed by Manitoba's chief justice, asked for a statue and said Riel should be recognized as a humanitarian founder of Manitoba.
• In its report, the CBC noted that the Manitoba legislature already had statues of Queen Victoria, the explorer La Verendrye, Lord Selkirk, Icelandic explorer Jon Sigurdsson and Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.

• A statue of Riel, sculpted by John Nugent, was erected in Regina in 1968.
• When Manitoba decided to make space for a Riel sculpture at the legislature, one citizen wrote an outraged letter to the Winnipeg Tribune. The letter said it was "with anger, revulsion and sheer disbelief that I read in the newspaper that approval had been given for the erection of a statue of that madman Louis Riel on the grounds of the legislative building."

• In 1970 Manitoba held a public contest to design a Riel statue. The winning entry was a joint effort by sculptor Marcien Lemay and architect Etienne Gaboury.
• The team's proposal consisted of a twisted nude sculpture of Riel wearing a tortured expression, his hands behind his back. This was surrounded by two curved outer walls bearing engraved Riel quotations.

• The sculpture, located on the south side of the legislature facing the Assiniboine River, was unveiled on Dec. 31, 1971. According to a fall 2001 article in Manitoba History, "it garnered a mixed reception from Métis and non-Métis alike."
• The Regina sculpture was similarly regarded; it depicted Riel wearing a robe, but careful observers noted that he, too, was nude.

• After years of complaints from Métis organizations, the Regina statue was removed -- but not destroyed -- in 1991.
• The Manitoba statue received similar treatment in 1994, but not without considerable opposition. Jean Allard, who by then had served as an NDP member of Manitoba's legislative assembly, chained himself to the sculpture in a bid to save it from a planned demolition.

• The statue was removed instead and reinstalled on the grounds of St. Boniface College in Winnipeg.
• In 1996 a new statue of Riel was erected near the same spot as the old one at the Manitoba legislature.
• Though the work of making the new sculpture had been promised to the original artist, Marcien Lemay, the job went instead to Winnipeg artist Miguel Joyal.
• The new sculpture features a more dignified, clothed Riel brandishing a document.

• At 8.74 metres tall, Riel stands taller even than the Golden Boy, the sculpture perched atop the dome of Manitoba's legislature. The sculptor, Joyal, said Métis leaders specifically asked that Riel be taller.
• Another sculpture of Riel -- this one depicting only his neck and head -- can be found in Winnipeg at the St. Boniface Museum.
Medium: Television
Program: The View From Here
Broadcast Date: Dec. 13, 1966
Guest: Jean Allard
Reporter: Per Holting
Duration: 5:17

Last updated: February 28, 2014

Page consulted on February 28, 2014

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