Louis Riel celebrated during Manitoba holiday

It's Louis Riel day in Manitoba and the great niece of the province's founding father is planning to celebrate in her own special way.

Louis Riel Day celebrated in Manitoba

9 years ago
Duration 1:54
With Louis Riel Day a statutory holiday in Manitoba, some are taking time to learn about the Metis leader and founding father.

It's Louis Riel day in Manitoba and the great niece of the province's founding father is planning to celebrate in her own special way.

"Say a little prayer in the morning, think about him all day," said Augustine Abraham, who lives in Winnipeg, where her famous uncle led the Red River resistance from 1869–1870 in a fight to maintain Metis rights.

Riel, who was born in 1844 in the Red River Colony (later to become Winnipeg), remains a controversial figure in Canadian history.

Louis Riel (National Archives of Canada)
Until well into the twentieth century he was regarded as a traitor who instigated civil war. But in the 1960s Riel's image began to turn around and today most Canadians, particularly the Métis, have reclaimed him as a heroic patriot, founder of Manitoba and a Father of Confederation.

The Red River resistance began as a group of Metis, led by Riel, worked to preserve their people's rights and culture as their homeland was becoming increasingly threatened by settlers from eastern Canada.

In October 1869, the group halted the work of a Canadian survey party and Riel declared that any attempt by Canada to assume authority in the region would be opposed unless Ottawa first negotiated terms with the Metis.

A provisional government, with Riel as president, was formed in December. But the execution of Thomas Scott, a member of a group of Ontario settlers opposed to Riel's uprising, led to the provisional government's unravelling.

A famous print shows Louis Riel (centre) surrounded by councillors from the Metis Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. (University of Manitoba)
There were calls for Riel to be hanged and the Ontario government offered a bounty for his capture. Riel fled to the United States, where he lived for many years.

In 1870, when Manitoba entered Confederation, it was the terms created by Riel's provisional government that ultimately helped negotiate the agreement.

While a fugitive, Riel was elected three times to the Canadian House of Commons but never assumed his seat. He returned to Canada to represent Metis grievances with Canada once again, this time in Saskatchewan.

The resistance escalated into a military confrontation known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Riel was captured, tried, convicted and hanged for treason in Regina that same year.

Time for pride

Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been celebrated as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba.

Abraham said Riel would be happy to know a holiday has been named in his honour.

"I supposed he would be touched and he would be happy. But being proud about it — I guess its our turn to do that," she said.

You can learn more about Riel and Manitoba's Metis heritage at St. Boniface Museum on Tache Avenue, not far from Riel's grave on the grounds of the St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery.

Museum director Philippe Mailhot said there is plenty to check out, including experts from the Louis Riel institute, documents from the historical society and the famed Bell of Batoche.

Louis Riel addresses the jury at his 1885 treason trial in Regina. (Library and Archives Canada)
The 20-pound silver church bell was seized in 1885 as spoils of war by Ontario soldiers from the Metis community of Batoche, Sask.during the North-West Rebellion.

It eventually ended up in a Royal Canadian Legion hall in Millbrook, Ont. But in 1991, the bell was taken by a Metis man, Billyjo Delaronde, from Manitoba.

He held on to it until handing it over in 2013 to the Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert, which includes Batoche.

Delaronde, who said he and four other Metis friends took the bell from the legion hall, noted that in 1967 the federal government asked the Millbrook Legion to turn over the bell and return it to Batoche, but the request was refused.

"I believe I repatriated the bell," he said last summer at the Back to Batoche Days festival.

"There was no intention of ever stealing the bell from them, because it was ours."