#365 Indigenous: Louis Riel doesn’t need exoneration. Canada does.
For some of the country, February 21 is Family Day – offering a much needed long-weekend for folks in the middle of the darkest winter.
But for Manitobans – and for Indigenous peoples everywhere – Feb 21 is Louis Riel Day.
Some might say that the “Father of Manitoba,” as he is known, is a hero. Yet for decades Riel was vilified as a rebel and a traitor, who was convicted and hanged for high treason.
While Canadian governments through the years have proposed exonerating Riel, it’s an offer usually unaccompanied by any other kind of reconciliation. Métis lawyer and Riel’s great-grandniece Jean Teillet puts it bluntly: “Riel doesn’t need exoneration. Canada does.”
So: enjoy Family Day. Play in the snow, or if you are on the west coast, revel in the first signs of spring. But in order for our dysfunctional family — that is this country — to heal, let’s also take a moment to remember and uplift the leader of the Red River resistance. Instead of throwing our weight behind a showy ‘pardon’ for the great man, let’s instead review the progress that Métis people have made in fulfilling Riel’s dream of Métis taking their rightful place within Canada.
First: Who are the Métis exactly?
According to Métis podcaster Chelsey Vowel, “The Métis are a post-contact Indigenous people with roots in the historic Red River community.” Following colonization, European men, originally mostly French, intermarried with First Nations women. Says Vowel, “These marriages were encouraged by fur trading companies because they provided kinship links to First Nations on whom the Europeans so desperately relied, at first for survival, and then for economic prosperity.”
Families in the Red River settlement in modern Manitoba eventually formed their own communities that were culturally distinct from European and First Nations people. Later, the history, language, and culture that arose in the Red River spread out as Métis founded other communities.
Who gets to claim Métis identity today? See below for modern-day legal decisions on the subject, and please check out Chelsey Vowel’s amazingly comprehensive and fascinating blog, apihtawikosisan.com.
What was the Red River Resistance?
Until 1869, lands including Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nunavut, Ontario and Quebec — known as ‘Rupert’s Land’— were owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. During the formation of Canada, as the company prepared to sell the territory to Canada, Métis residents of the Red River Settlement began to organize against what they feared would be cultural erasure following the encroachment of settlers.
Together with the newly formed Métis National Committee, Louis Riel helped organize blockades to resist land surveying and to lay out the terms for settlement that would allow for protection of Métis culture, status and lands. The driving force behind what became the Red River Resistance, Riel formed a provisional government with a goal to join a Canadian confederation that would respect Métis status, provide French schools for Métis children and allow them to practice their Catholic religion. While pushing back against Orangemen Protestants who refused to acknowledge the authority of the Métis-led government, Riel authorized the trial and execution of Thomas Scott.
Through his negotiations with the Canadian government, Riel played an integral role in bringing the new province of Manitoba into Confederation in 1870. Soon, though, under pressure from Ontarians who were outraged at the execution of Scott, the Canadian militia launched the Wolseley Expedition to crush what they now considered the ‘rebellious’ Métis government. Fearing prosecution, Riel fled to the United States, from where he was elected to the Canadian Parliament three times — though, as an exile, he never took his seat.
A francophone, a Catholic, and an Indigenous man, Riel was caught up in Canada’s most fundamental identity crisis: would the new country be French or English? Protestant or Catholic? And: how would this newly forming nation deal with what it still considered “the Indian problem”?
Following the Red River Rebellion, many Métis people moved from Manitoba to the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan. When surveyors once again began dividing the land without consulting Métis farmers and hunters, Riel returned to Canada to lead the failed North West Rebellion. That year, he was tried and convicted for high treason and executed.
Without Riel’s insistence on the protection of their rights and culture, the assimilation project underway in 1880’s Canada could have swept away Métis rights entirely. Many scholars argue that Riel’s important legacy also includes pushing back against American interests that could have resulted in western provinces becoming part of the United States’ expansionist ‘manifest destiny’.
Pardon? No thanks.
In 2020, Canada was seriously considering pardoning Louis Riel – just in time for the 135th anniversary of his killing. But Métis leaders are resisting the drive.
“The Métis Nation has always rejected moves to exonerate Riel,” says Jean Teillet. “You can’t give him back his life… You cannot fix something after you’ve exacted the worst punishment that we could grant. It will achieve nothing. I prefer to leave history the way that it is.”
Métis leaders like Teillet see efforts by the Canadian government to pardon Riel as a smokescreen behind which they are hiding a reluctance to take real action to extend rights to Métis people. Métis peoples have struggled for decades to to have their right to self-government recognized and respected; recent legal cases — the Daniels and Powley decisions — have helped define what the conditions are for claiming Métis identity.
These cases have brought a resurgence of attention for Métis rights, with questions about what Canada’s obligations are to consult and accommodate them. In the same way the Sparrow case began with fishing rights and expanded to encompass self-governance rights, the Powley decision could also set the stage for an expansion of Métis sovereignty. Waving a wand and exonerating Riel is not going to solve those thorny issues: and in their refusal to accept the colonizer’s posthumous salvation, his rebellious descendants’ Red River blood continues to run strong.