Manitoba·Point of View

'Hero,' 'traitor' or 'it's complicated?' When it comes to Louis Riel, labels matter

One hundred and fifty years ago this year, Louis Riel took one small step for the Métis and created one giant, complicated leap for his legacy. Since then, his story has not stopped evolving — and neither have the labels we’ve assigned to him.

'I left school with the belief that Riel was the bad guy.… I was wrong,' says Kirsten Neil

A still from a CBC Manitoba video exploring the way Louis Riel has historically been depicted. The way we talk about our history — and its important figures — matters, says Kirsten Neil. (Jamie Hopkins/CBC Graphics)

Quick! What's the first thought that comes to mind when you see the name Louis Riel?

  • Hero.
  • Traitor.
  • All of the above.
  • It's complicated.

One hundred and fifty years ago this year, Louis Riel took one small step for the Métis and created one giant, complicated leap for his legacy. Since then, his story has not stopped evolving and the labels we've put on him haven't either.

For 14-year-old me, my answer to the Riel question would have definitely been "traitor," because that's how his story was taught to me in school.

Louis Riel's great-great-niece reflects on how he's been viewed:

The debate continues to rage ... but Riel isn't alone among world leaders with complicated legacies. 1:55

It kind of went, "Riel was a resister who started an uprising against the transfer of Red River Settlement lands to the Canadian government, which led to Thomas Scott's execution and yadda, yadda, yadda, he was a traitor."

At that time (the late '80s), there were very few points made in favour of the man. I left school with the belief Riel was the bad guy.

Was he, though?

My perception of Riel was first challenged when I found myself outside the Manitoba Legislative Building and there he was, all 16 feet, 8½ inches of him, standing proud in front of the Assiniboine River with a defiant look upon his bronze face, holding up a paper in a fiercely powerful way, with the government at his back.

A completely badass statue — and also an in-your-face statement that maybe what I thought about him was wrong. Maybe my Grade 9 social studies class got it wrong.

Yup. I was wrong. And they got it wrong.

The way Riel's story was taught to students in the past came largely from the viewpoint of English settlers. (Jamie Hopkins/CBC Graphics)

My classmates received only one side of the story. Our history came from one source and one source only — English settlers. There was never another side depicted, another point of view brought up. What we were told was fact. "Now let's move on to the next subject."

Cut to today.

A different history

This past fall, my teenage stepson's history teacher started his first lesson on how Canada's history is not a flag-waving "we are nice, we are here to save you," colonial timeline.

Instead, his teacher hammered home some hard truths about the dark chapters in our country's history. Is it weird to say I was proud to hear that?

But I still find whenever Riel's name comes up, the word "controversial" is not too far behind, especially in written form.

Why? Was he that controversial? More controversial than a president owning hundreds of slaves, a wartime leader who is accused of starving India or a beloved activist who exploited young women?

Those men are just as controversial as Riel, possibly more so.

Other historical figures like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill are often called 'heroes' — even though they have their own 'complicated' histories. (Duk Han Lee/CBC Graphics)

So, what's the difference? Why are those historical icons not consistently presented to us as controversial?

To me, it seems the struggle to remove the "villain" label is just as hard as labeling those iconic "heroes" as controversial.

And that's why the way we tell history matters. No matter where we get our historical facts, someone had to write them down first. And that someone brought their own biases to the tale, whether consciously or unconsciously.

It's important to look at history through a range of viewpoints, says Kirsten Neil. (Jamie Hopkins/CBC Graphics)

This has led me to make a personal pledge to seek out a variety of source material; to be skeptical about who is doing the telling. It's just as important to know who's interpreting our history as it is to know about the historical figures themselves.

I also need to ensure that I look at those who shape our world as humans first, and not rush to check off the "hero" or "villain" box.

What are your thoughts on the man, the myth, the legend?

Has it evolved as his legacy has? Or not?

Is he your hero? A traitor?

Or maybe just another imperfect leader?

The CBC's Kirsten Neil with Ginette Abraham, the great,-great-niece of Louis Riel. It's important to look at historical figures as humans first, says Neil. (Kirsten Neil/CBC)

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Kirsten Neil

Senior communications officer

Kirsten Neil is a senior communications officer for CBC Manitoba. She is an experienced content strategist, writer and digital marketer. Email: kirsten.neil@cbc.ca