Louis Riel honoured in Manitoba on anniversary of his 1885 execution

He was hanged as a traitor 136 years ago, but Louis Riel's vision to protect the rights of the Métis people is very much alive today, dignitaries said at a Tuesday ceremony where they placed wreaths to mark the anniversary of his execution.

Riel was tried, convicted and hanged in a public gallows in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885

Wreaths were placed next to a portrait of Louis Riel during Tuesday's commemoration ceremony. (Fernand Detillieux/CBC/Radio-Canada)

He was hanged as a traitor 136 years ago, but Louis Riel's vision to protect the rights of the Métis people is very much alive today, dignitaries said at a Tuesday ceremony where they placed wreaths to mark the anniversary of his execution.

"Today is a day that is both heavy in our hearts and also a day where we can hold up our achievements," said Will Goodon with the Manitoba Métis Federation.

"It's a sombre day because he was murdered. He was executed by our country for standing up for rights of our Métis nation, for standing up for rights of all minorities and for that he wasn't lauded.

"But at the same time, we remember why he stood up for those rights. So I wanted to say … it's also a day of celebration for his dream."

When he was just 25, during the winter of 1869-1870, Riel led an uprising and formed a provisional government in Manitoba that refused to accept annexation with Canada unless a list of rights protecting their land, language and political rights was honoured.

At the time, there were 12,000 people in the postage-stamp-sized province, and 10,000 were Red River Métis. But Riel's list of rights also recognized equality and bilingualism assurances for First Nations, English and French.

But many in eastern Canada called for Riel's head after his government executed an Ontario man, Thomas Scott, who had been threatening Riel and the Métis. Although Riel fled to the United States when Canadian troops arrived, many of the rights he listed in the Manitoba Act were accepted when the province joined Confederation in 1870.

Riel returned to Canada to help the Métis protect their rights in Saskatchewan during the 1885 Northwest Resistance that was eventually defeated by federal troops.

He was tried, convicted and hanged in a public gallows at the Northwest Mounted Police barracks in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885. He was 41.

His body was brought back to the Red River Settlement for burial at the St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery.

Louis Riel (standing centre) addresses the court in Regina, listing the Metis grievances and outlining his vision for a diverse Canada, during his trial in 1885. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Since his death, views of Riel by many non-Métis has softened with calls to pardon or even fully exonerate him.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson on Tuesday called Riel "a passionate defender of Métis people" but also someone who played a key role in creating the nation of Canada as we know it.

"For that, all Canadians owe him a debt of gratitude," she said. "The values that this first government upheld are, in my view, a prime illustration of what it means to be Manitoban — respect for equality, but also respect for our unique histories."

In 2016, Manitoba formally recognized Riel as its father of Confederation and founder of the province, and now has an annual statutory holiday named in his honour.

As well, land acknowledgements recited ahead of many gatherings and other special events in Manitoba pay tribute to First Nations and the treaties and recognize Winnipeg as the homeland of the Métis Nation.

And in September, the Métis flag was raised alongside the flags for Treaty One First Nations and Dakota Nations to fly permanently in front of Winnipeg's city hall.

Louis Riel sits in the middle of the councillors of his provisional government in June 1870. (University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections)

"Whether we are citizens of the Métis Nation, as many of you folks are, or whether we are merely residents of Manitoba today, we all come from Mr. Riel's legacy and we all owe him a fitting tribute," Manitoba Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said at Tuesday's event.

The annual ceremony typically takes place at Riel's graveside but poor weather forced it to be moved to the MMF home office on Henry Avenue.

"Riel's vision was not his alone. It was shared by many and it endures because it speaks to the best in all of us," Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said.

The honours and changes of heart are something Riel foresaw, Goodon noted, reading a quote from the Métis leader: "I am more convinced, everyday that without a single exception, I did right. And I have always believed that, as I have acted honestly, the time will come when the people of Canada will see and acknowledge it."

Looking at the dignitaries at Tuesday's event, Goodon said "I think that is more true today than ever before."

Mayor Brian Bowman coughed away an emotional reaction when he called himself Winnipeg's first Métis mayor, noting how when he was growing up, he wasn't encouraged to talk about that background.

"That's changed, but it hasn't changed enough in our community," he said. "When I think of Louis Riel, the single word that I think of is just pride. He was proud of who he was, and that's what we want for all of our residents."

Bowman said he's happy to look out his window and see the Métis flag but he also sees something else that reminds him "we have work to do."

"I see a statue between the planetarium and the concert hall that pays tribute to the loss of life during the [Red River uprising] with the absence of the Métis," he said.

"I don't want to see it come down, Winnipeggers don't want to see it come down. But there's inclusion of the real story of our history that we can make amends for."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.