'Felt like somebody cut my heart,' Métis Federation president says after Louis Riel's gravesite vandalized

The Winnipeg gravesite of Louis Riel has been vandalized, with scratches dug into the stone marker across an image of the historic Métis leader's face.

Winnipeg Police Service says major crimes unit is investigating the incident

Louis Riel's gravesite was vandalized on Monday afternoon. (Chantallya Louis/Radio-Canada)

The Winnipeg gravesite of Louis Riel has been vandalized, with scratches dug into the stone marker across an image of the historic Métis leader's face.

"It felt like somebody cut my heart. I could just feel my anger rising in my body," David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation said about when he found out about the damage.

"For anybody to do that to the Father of Manitoba, I think all Manitobans should be outraged."

The insulting vandalism to the gravesite, which is at  St. Boniface Cathedral, is made worse by the fact it comes just days before the anniversary of Riel's birth on Oct. 22, 1844, Chartrand said in an interview with CBC.

Riel and his legacy are of vital importance to the history of the Métis nation. His grave is "a site of many pilgrimages by our citizens and others who wish to honour his contributions to Canada's confederation," Chartrand said.

Scratches have also been dragged across Riel's name on another side of the gravesite obelisk. (Radio-Canada)

Riel led the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, which led to the creation of the province of Manitoba.

In 1885, he led the Northwest Resistance for the Métis in Saskatchewan but was captured. He was tried, convicted and hanged in a public gallows in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885, at age 41.

Riel's body was returned to Winnipeg for burial at the St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery.

The gravesite vandalism was first reported on Facebook by William Caithness, who said he was walking near the St. Boniface cemetery Monday afternoon on his way to The Forks, across the river, when he saw a man scraping at the stone.

Scratches were also dragged across Riel's name on another side of the obelisk.

Louis Riel's gravesite is in St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery. (Radio-Canada)

In his post, Caithness said he ran over, telling the man to stop and saying he was calling the police. The man cursed at him then ran off, Caithness wrote.

Chartrand said the Métis Federation has filed a police report and wants the person responsible found.

"We have to make sure we find him. He's not going to get away," he said. "I don't care what it costs us, we're going to find this guy and we're going to have him charged."

A spokesperson with the Winnipeg Police Service said its major crimes unit is investigating the matter but no charges have been laid.

Vigilantism, mental health concerns

In an interview with CBC on Thursday, Caithness said before he began his walk to The Forks he had been at the gym, where he talked with a health-care worker about addictions and substance use disorder.

That conversation came to mind when he witnessed the man vandalizing the gravesite, Caithness said. It appeared the man might have been under the influence of some type of substance, said Caithness, who expressed concern for the man's well-being.

"This guy, what he was doing was really wrong. I was pretty angry … [but] I don't think he's racist. He's obviously a person that needs help," Caithness said.

He lives in St. Boniface with his wife, and says that on his regular walks, he often sees people who are in need of help — but aren't getting it.

"If somebody's sick, they need help. And this stuff makes me and my wife really angry, because these are human beings."

Chartrand said since the man's photo has been posted on social media, vigilante action is a genuine concern, because members of the Métis community are outraged.

"They feel vengeance in their hearts — the hurt, the damage to the father of Manitoba, our hero, [they] will feel the vibration of our people with anger," he said.

"This gentleman, he better be careful if people see him — they might just retaliate. So clearly that is something we have to be cautious about, in case this individual has mental issues.

"Whatever the cause is, we'd love to know the answer to 'why in the hell would he attack Louis Riel?'"

Chartrand said the federation will pay "whatever it costs" for the grave marker to be repaired.

Asked about any concerns about vigilantism or the mental state of the man, a Winnipeg police spokesperson said it would be premature to speculate on the reason for the damage at this point.


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.

With files from Jenn Allen