It's kind of an analog way of going viral.
—Brendon Ehinger, graphic designer
If ever an image was quintessentially Manitoban, you can find it in the window of a cozy little store on Osborne - Louis Riel is sucking on a Slurpee.
That image, designed by local artist Dan Phelps, is one of the top T-shirt sellers at Andee Penner's colourful handmade-goods shop, Sew Dandee. She stocks other merchandise featuring Riel too, there are T-shirts, washcloths, and baby onesies. "It's all tongue-in-cheek obviously, and there's a lot of humour in the store," Penner says. "So I think that really helps the clientele that I appreciate that stuff."
An assortment of coloured shirts featuring Riel's image (keepinitriel.ca)
Appreciate, they do. Even after years of stocking the Riel merch, images of the Métis leader are still wildly popular at Sew Dandee. People scoop them up to send to friends and family who have moved away, a little piece of Manitoba history to carry with them in the big wide world; Riel items, Penner says, are popular with customers of all ages.
This is Riel as "father of Manitoba," this is Riel branded as symbol of provincial pride. This is Riel's legacy fully restored, no longer a traitor but - as the tag-line on some T-shirts says - "The Riel Deal". "I do really like the idea that evolution has happened," Penner says. "It's really interesting to me to have so many different perspectives from people coming through, and voicing their opinion on it."
Louis Riel in a file photo, circa 1876. (CP/Manitoba Archives)
Riel has always triggered those fiercely divergent perspectives, he is, Donald Swainson once wrote, a man who "could be looked at in a seemingly infinite number of ways." For much of the 20th century, colonial conversations dismissed him as a traitor, while the Métis tended his stories with care. In Métis communities in Manitoba, elders still pass on stories of grandparents who walked or fought with Riel. This history isn't so far distant that the human connection is no longer felt.
So who now owns Louis Riel?
In the handful of photographs that survive of the man, he is nobody's mascot. His eyes are firm and focused just out of frame. As he ages in the photos, the lines around his mouth deepen, pulled into furrows that speak of serious convictions. We forget how young he was. We forget he was only 41 years old when he was hanged.
The first statue of Riel erected in Manitoba, Etienne Gaboury and Marcien Lemay's Tortured
, shows Riel caught in a nightmare. For 23 years its twisted naked limbs writhed in silence on the Legislative grounds, often vandalized and frequently protested. In 1994, after years of advocacy by the Manitoba Métis Federation and others who objected to what they felt was a demeaning pose, the statue was moved to the grounds of College Universitaire de Saint-Boniface.
Tortured by architect Étienne Gaboury and sculptor Marcien Lemay stood on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature for 23 years. (Wikipedia)
In its place, the province commissioned a more digestible Riel, perched on the south lawn of the Legislature and looking across the Assiniboine River. This statue is simply Riel as statesman: his fist is clenched and his waistcoat lightly folded at the buttons. Seen head-on, the statue's gaze is fierce; but from below, where kids on skateboards lean against his podium on sticky summer days, he almost looks to be smiling.
Well, he does have a provincial holiday named after him now.
These are not exactly the things that Winnipeg graphic designer Brendon Ehinger was thinking in the summer of 2006, when he quietly created the T-shirt that sparked the Louis Riel trend. Rather, Ehinger was musing on the incredible ubiquity of Irish artist John Fitzpatrick's 1968 monochrome portrait of Che Guevara at the time, an image that established Guevara's legacy - if not, often, the complexity of his life - in billions of minds.
"I was thinking about what kind of local reference would make sense," Ehinger says. "And Louis Riel was the obvious solution... From my standpoint, it was a design thing. I wanted to create something that's going to have that kind of impact and be relevant in Manitoba."
On a whim, Ehinger printed a T-shirt of Riel's face, echoing the stark contrast of the Guevara portrait. The first time he wore it out in public, he came home with a dozen phone numbers from people who wanted to buy one just like it. He also got an email from CRUMBS comedian Lee White, who came up with a tag-line to add to future shirts, "Keepin' It Riel."
This hot pink T-shirt is only available at Festival du Voyageur (keepinitriel.ca)
The shirts proved such a hit that Ehinger began selling a limited line at Ragpickers, Urban Bakery and Music Trader. They flew off the racks. Whatever the kids had or hadn't learned about Louis Riel, they felt a familiarity in his face. Just like our very own Guevara, the image alone carried power.
"I think when people bring figures like Louis Riel into popular culture, in a medium that younger people can relate to in that way, it really builds it up to where it's like, 'yeah, I want to learn more about this,'" Ehinger says. "It's kind of an analog way of going viral."
Still, Ehinger was cautious about taking the shirts too far, about capitalizing too much. At the time, he was exploring his own extended family's Métis history, and that question - who owns Riel? - danced in his mind. "I'm thinking, 'I've got something here that I could capitalize on, but I feel like I shouldn't capitalize on it,'" he says.
"I knew that people were very passionate about Riel, and I was doing this thing for fun. It kind of turned into a provincial pride kind of thing, but it wasn't my intention to make a huge statement, other than that Manitoba has a revolutionary in our history."
Today, Ehinger still keeps his production of the T-shirts relatively low, to a couple hundred a year. He still can't quite believe that wearing Riel took off the way it did, or that it started such a conversation: on history, and how time shapes how we remember the things we can never forget.
"I feel pretty proud of it," he says. "Although, it's been pointed out to me that if I wanted to get technical, I should have done a Gabriel Dumont T-shirt."