Reflections on truth, myth and history in lead-up to Louis Riel Day

On this Louis Riel weekend, take some time to reflect on your experience in Red River, Riel, and the quest for truth and what role you might play to make our city and province a just and progressive community.

Desmond Morton, arguably Canada's greatest and most prolific historian, recently Skyped into my Grade 11 Canadian History class. We use his book A Short History of Canada as our text and we invited him to join our learning community as part of our guest lecturer series on "What is History?"

We have spoken to several historians over the past few months and chatted with them about the philosophy of history and methodology.

We were pretty excited to invite Morton back to Red River to talk about his craft and how we might improve our own practice and inquiry.
Sir John A. MacDonald was "the father of confederation, the architect of Canada, the guy who pushed for the treaties our forefathers signed and oh yes he also hung Louis Riel, starved our people on to reserves and pushed for the railway that changed the west forever," says Doug Cuthand (Library and Archives Canada)
After the Battle of Cutknife Hill in 1885, warriors and leaders were rounded up and sent to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. "Again it was MacDonald’s urging that all the “rebels” — both Indian and Métis — be harshly dealt with," says Doug Cuthand. (National Archives of Canada, Ottawa.)

During our conversation, the idea of myth came up. We asked him of the value of myth within history in light of celebrations of the War of 1812, John A. Macdonald, and the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences.

Why does our federal government want people to think that Canada, which did not exist in 1812, won a war that nobody won?

Morton posited, as he does so eloquently, that myth only serves one purpose: that is someone's deliberate and self-serving interest. History, however, seeks the truth about the past and the present — even if this truth is unattainable, unfavourable or outright ugly.

Louis Riel Day

Thursday, Feb 12 marked the anniversary of the first meeting of the Council of Assiniboia.

In 1836, under the direction of the Hudson Bay Company's George Simpson, a quasi-democratic council was created to attempt to govern the strange land around Red River. This council then led to the Riel-led provisional government in 1869, followed by the Convention of 40 and the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, and then the creation of Manitoba on the terms of these democratic bodies.
According to Phil Mailhot, of the St. Boniface Museum, this is the only picture that exists of Louis Riel's trial. (St. Boniface Museum)

I bring this example up as we approach the celebration of Louis Riel Day. On Monday, we may wish to reflect not on the myth of Riel (or misinformation), but on the astonishingly short few months which transformed Red River politically and ushered in Canada, settlers, the demise of the buffalo, dubious treaties, and ignored sections of the Manitoba Act itself.

Many of us might not be too aware of the history of Riel and impact he had on Red River, Manitoba, and Canada. For many of us, the myth of Riel, that of a tragic hero who was hanged for something in Regina who is somehow the father of Manitoba, is what this weekend might represent.

Seek out the truth

But I would argue that in order to solve some of the issues facing our city, province, and country, we need to seek out the truth.

Following Manitoba entering Confederation under the terms of the inhabitants of Red River, Canada chased the Métis out, ignoring any land rights noted in Section 31 of the Act and ignoring pledges of amnesty.

Following the removal of the Métis, the numbered treaties were signed, the Indian Act reigned supreme (as it does now), and settlers from out east and overseas began to dominate the prairies.

There is nothing mythical about this history.

But this history does shed some light on Red River in 2015, despite what inflammatory articles in Maclean's might suggest. We have an opportunity, as we did in 1869, to create inclusive communities focused on the public good.

It appears that we now have the political will to surmount some astonishing odds. We have an opportunity to break down class, ethnicity, language, and culture to ensure that everyone in our community has the necessities of life and a voice.

On this Louis Riel weekend, take some time to reflect on your experience in Red River, Riel, and the quest for truth and what role you might play to make our city and province a just and progressive community. This is the doing of history.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg.


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