Indigenous

132 years after his execution, many Métis reject exonerating Louis Riel

'We would never allow it,' says Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand

Louis Riel

Some Métis feel that exoneration is not the best way to honour leader Louis Riel. (National Archives of Canada)

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As Canada marks the 132nd anniversary of the execution of Louis Riel, the question of whether he should be exonerated remains a divisive one.

The Métis leader was hanged on Nov. 16, 1885, for his role in the Northwest Rebellion. And while there have been calls to pardon Riel, some Métis feel that's not the best way to honour their leader — including Riel's great-grandniece.

'It will achieve nothing. I prefer to leave history the way that it is.' - Jean Teillet, great-grandniece of Louis Riel

Jean Teillet said exonerating Riel would be equivalent to the government exonerating itself in his death. 

"They're the ones who hanged him," she said.

"You can't give him back his life ... You cannot fix something after you've exacted the worst punishment that we could grant."

Teillet, who is a lawyer at Pape Salter Teillet, where she specializes in Indigenous rights law, says there is "no point."

"It will achieve nothing. I prefer to leave history the way that it is," she said.

"And I agree with [Métis lawyer and educator] Paul Chartrand, who says, 'The hanging of Louis Riel is a stain on the honour of Canada, and I say let the stain remain.'"

'Great contribution' to history

Teillet says any overtures by the government to pardon Riel take the place of any real action for Canada's Métis.

"Whenever the government starts talking about exoneration, usually what that seems to mean is that that's the only thing that they will do for the Métis," said Teillet.

According to Teillet, the conversation around exonerating Riel began after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) failed to include the Métis in its report.

The RCAP was set up in 1991, and five years later produced a 4,000-page document that recommended changes for First Nations and Inuit people.

"They left off the Métis entirely, until all of the leadership started to harangue them," said Teillet.

"And then they came back and all they could say was they would exonerate Louis Riel."

The office of Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly declined to comment about the idea of pardoning Riel.

"Our government recognizes the great contribution Louis Riel made to our history," spokesperson Simon Ross said in an email to CBC News. "The values he defended, including equality and inclusion, are important for our government."

Tell 'the true story'

For the past 30 years, David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), has participated with his family in honouring Riel on November 16.

Chartrand would like for Riel to be recognized not only as the father of the province of Manitoba but also as a Father of Confederation.

"That's the second part," he said.

"The Father of Confederation has not yet been 'officialized' by Canada. That's the unfinished task of the Métis government to pursue that."

But he agrees Riel shouldn't be exonerated.

"We would never allow it," said Chartrand.

"That's been attempted so many times already. Some, in goodwill, believe that's the pathway to correcting history."

Jean Teillet

Lawyer Jean Teillet, Riel's great-grandniece, says she sees no point in exoneration. (Pape Salter Teillet Barristers and Solicitors)

Chartrand said a better way of fixing past wrongs against the Métis nation would be to change the way Métis history is taught in the education system.

"Telling the true story of how the Métis played a significant role in not only the saving of Western Canada, but ensuring that we weren't Americans," said Chartrand.

"We could have been Americans today if it wasn't for Riel and the Métis nation and its leadership."

Outsiders in Canada's history

Russell Fayant, an instructor with the Gabriel Dumont Institute's Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) in Regina, says rebelling was the way to get the government's attention.

"Many Métis people, including myself, are quite proud of the fact that Métis people did that."

He said the community doesn't need the exoneration to have a legitimate stamp placed on Riel or the Métis cause.

"We already have that," he said.

In Canada's history, the Métis people have been outsiders, he said, and he fears what may happen if Riel is exonerated. 

"What we've seen recently, particularly in Quebec, is many Canadians claiming Métis status based on the fact that they have a random Indigenous ancestor," said Fayant.

"I fear that with exoneration is going to come more claiming of Riel [ancestry], not only in Quebec but all parts of Canada."

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