'Honour a great man': Louis Riel's legacy gets its due

As Manitobans once again celebrate the annual statutory holiday named in Louis Riel's honour, many suggest different ways to honour his legacy — some in favour of exonerating him, others against, and still others proposing new ways to gain more national recognition for the man recently named the first leader of Manitoba.

Community leaders have different ideas about the best way to commemorate resistance leader's legacy

Louis Riel was 41 when he was hanged in Regina in 1885 for high treason. Many now consider him a hero, who should be recognized as a Father of Confederation. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

Louis Riel has a complicated legacy, convicted as a traitor to the country but now often seen as a Métis hero. 

As Manitobans celebrate their annual statutory holiday named in his honour, many are suggesting different ways to honour Riel's legacy — some in favour of exonerating him, others against, and still others proposing new ways to gain more national recognition for the man recently named the first leader of Manitoba

Born in St. Boniface, Man., Riel sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands were progressively encroached due to Canada's push toward settlement of the West. He led two resistance movements — the Red River Rebellion in Manitoba in 1869-1870 and the Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885.

Resistance leader

The Red River Rebellion followed the establishment of a provisional government by Riel and his followers.

Ottawa sent a military expedition to enforce federal authority following Riel's execution of Thomas Scott, a member of a pro-Canadian faction who had resisted the provisional government and threatened to kill Riel.

Riel fled to the United States before the Canadian troops arrived, but when Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870, the act incorporated some of the terms that he originally laid out.

Riel's exile ended in 1884 when Métis in Saskatchewan called on him to help protect their rights. The resistance turned into a military operation once again as Canadian troops descended on the area.

Riel was 41 when he was hanged in Regina in 1885 for high treason.

Louis Riel addresses the jury at his trial for treason in Regina. (Library and Archives Canada)

In the 130-plus years and generations of Canadians since then, Riel's national reputation as a traitor has slowly been replaced by his image as a folk hero, a protector of minority rights and culture.

"He was a defender of the fundamental values that Canadians hold dear, including equality and social justice. All Canadians, whether they are Métis or not, can be proud of what Louis Riel accomplished," Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said in November.

'Murdered by Canada'

"Riel was definitely murdered by Canada, there's not a question about it," said Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand. "He was innocent. He was fighting for the Métis people … I think there would be no doubt today."

Chartrand's chosen way to honour him would be to erect a statue of Riel on Parliament Hill with the other Fathers of Confederation.

"If you truly want to honour a great man, he is the father of Manitoba without doubt, then let's make him a Father of Confederation," said Chartrand. 

Métis groups once called on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to pardon Riel. 

Guy Savoie, a Riel relative and elder with the Union National Metisse St. Joseph du Manitoba, said that's not enough. He wants to see Riel exonerated, which means to be absolved from any wrongdoing.

"If you go for a pardon, there's still an assumption of guilt," he said. "So exoneration is the only thing that is left. Let him take his place in the history of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Canada."

But Clement Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, argues against exonerating or pardoning Riel. "The discussion has gone beyond pardon, now the term being used is exoneration, but the Métis nation is on record currently that we do not favour a pardon or an exoneration, because we don't believe Louis Riel did anything wrong." 

He wants to revisit the question of what to do in 2020 — the 150th anniversary of Riel negotiating Manitoba's entry into Confederation. 

Rename Langevin Block, MP says

A Manitoba MP would like to see Ottawa rename the Langevin Block, which was originally named for one of the people who introduced the residential school system in Canada. 

Call it the Louis Riel Block instead, which would be a fitting way to honour Riel and address reconciliation, said Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who represents Winnipeg Centre.

He also noted Riel himself was elected — then re-elected — as an MP but never sat in the House. 

"What would he prefer, would he prefer an apology or would he prefer us dealing with something concrete, that would help future generations?" Ouellette said.

"I think he would say, 'Please do something to help people today.'"

With files from Karen Pauls, Stephanie Skenderis