5 things you may not know about Louis Riel from former St. Boniface Museum director

Philippe Mailhot, former director of the St. Boniface Museum, has spent his professional life getting to know Louis Riel and sharing his story. Here are five things about the Métis leader that Mailhot says every Manitoban should know — but might not.

Métis leader Louis Riel was born in 1844 and executed in Regina, Sask., in 1885

Monday is Louis Riel Day, a day historian Philippe Mailhot hopes inspires Manitobans to take a look at the life and impact of the Métis leader. (Chester Brown)

On the third Monday in February, Manitobans celebrate the Métis leader and founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel. Philippe Mailhot, former director of the St. Boniface Museum, has spent his professional life getting to know Riel and sharing his story.

Here are five things about Riel that Mailhot said Manitobans should know — but might not:

1. Louis Riel helped create Manitoba decades before Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. 

When Canada acquired the Northwest Territories from the Hudson Bay Company, the federal government intended to simply purchase it, said Mailhot. At the time, the vast region included what are now Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and most of northern Ontario and Quebec, as well as the three northern Canadian territories.

"They had no plans to create provinces," Mailhot said.

Manitoba was given provincial status in 1870, shortly after the purchase and decades before Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces, thanks directly to the advocacy role played by Louis Riel, said Mailhot. 

2. Louis Riel's father, who was also a Métis organizer, was known as the Miller of the Seine.

Louis Riel (Sr.) tried to set up water mills along the Seine River in St. Boniface, but he never had a great deal of success.  

3. Riel might have become a missionary were it not for his father's early death in 1864.

In Riel's early teenage years, he travelled from Manitoba to Montreal for his education. His intention was to become a Catholic priest, said Mailhot.

"The clergy here was hoping he would return essentially as a native-born missionary and have a career working with the Catholic church in missions and across the northwest," Mailhot said.

Riel's plans changed after his father's death. Riel decided to care for his mother and stay in Manitoba instead of pursuing plans to work for the Roman Catholic Church.

"Had his father lived a bit longer, Louis Riel may well have achieved fame as one of the early missionaries in western Canada," said Mailhot.​

4. Louis Riel refused to be deemed insane during his trial, even when it may have saved his life.

During Riel's trial for treason in 1885, his lawyers tried to depict him as insane, said Mailhot.

Riel had suffered from some mental illness during his lifetime. In 1876 he was admitted to hospital in Montreal after suffering a nervous breakdown. It followed years of stress and life in exile for executing Canadian government employee Thomas Scott for insubordination in 1870, when Riel led a provisional government during the Red River Resistance.

Riel refused to let his views or his supporters fall under the type of questioning that would come if he were found insane, Mailhot said.

"He would rather be executed as a sane person than be described as someone who was insane; that would be an insult to all the people that followed him," he said.

5. Manitoba is still governed by the Manitoba Act, legislation Louis Riel helped create.

One of the principles in the Manitoba Act involves protecting French language in the province. Laws, for example, must be written in both languages.

"Rights for the French-speaking and Catholic populations in Manitoba … dates back to 1870 and the role that Louis Riel played," said Mailhot.