Possessing all Louis Riel artifacts would help Métis own their story: law student

It's been said that 'to the victor goes the spoils.' Well, that rings hollow to Métis law student Jesse Donovan.

'To the victor goes the spoils' rings 'hollow' in age of reconciliation: Jesse Donovan

Jesse Donovan says it's important for Métis people to have Métis items so that they can tell their story in their own way. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

You know the old saying: to the victor goes the spoils.

Well, that's no longer going to cut it for Jesse Donovan — not in the current age of reconciliation.

Donovan, a third-year University of Saskatchewan Métis law student, is advocating for the return of all items that once belonged to or are historically associated with Métis leader Louis Riel.

Donovan joined CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition this week to elaborate on his cause. He mentioned artifacts, including Louis Riel's possessions, which he says were stolen during the Red River resistance. 

Q: Are there some artifacts in particular that you know about somewhere and you'd like to find?

A: There have been reports of Louis Riel's handcuffs, a lock of his hair. Another item that we've been advocating for the return of is his walking stick which is now held by the Manitoba Museum.

Q: The RCMP have recently agreed to return some items they had in their collection. What was your reaction to that?

A: It's a great step forward. The RCMP [agreed to return] Louis Riel's crucifix, his knife, his book of poetry. These items are still held by the RCMP but they will be returned to the Métis in 2018 when the Métis Heritage Centre will be constructed in Winnipeg.

Q: Does the RCMP have more?

A: It has more general Métis items: some beaded artwork, some clothing and moccasins as well. So, those I believe should be returned along with Louis Riel's artifacts.

Q: Would you want items like Riel's noose? 

A: It's a question that the Métis community has to consider. And there are quite a few horrific items out there such as the noose that killed Louis Riel and the handcuffs used to restrain him.  

Louis Riel stepped forward as a leader of the Red River resistance in 1869-70.

I think it's important for us to have these items so that we can tell our story in our own way. If the RCMP or any Canadian institution continues to own these items, then the story is told of the Métis as a conquered people rather than a living, breathing nation seeking self-determination.

Q: What do you say to those who would argue that the resistance of 1885, regardless of what we call it, was essentially a small [war], but a war, and to the victor goes the spoils?

A: It's an argument that rings hollow in an era of reconciliation. Canada would be in violation of international law if it holds on to these artifacts and it would be in breach of its own promises to reconcile with the Métis.

Q: If people out there are in charge of an artifact or have an artifact that belong to Riel or Gabriel Dumont, for that matter, any of the Métis leaders of the time, what would you say to them to convince them that those items should be returned to the Métis people?

A: I would say that they immediately and proactively need to identify the items that may have been stolen from the Métis and they need to get in touch with the Métis people immediately. The possessions of these items won't be kept in the dark. We will find who owns them and we will advocate for their return. So I recommend, solve the issue before it becomes a fierce debate.

Q: If somebody just happens to be in possession of one of these artifacts, what should they do?

A: They should contact the Manitoba Métis Federation. The MMF will be in charge of the Métis Heritage Center. They can organize a safe storage space for these items until the museum is built.

With files from CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition