This time out, I want to talk about Louis Riel and the third Monday in February in Manitoba.
• 1885 Rebel Leader: Louis Riel is controversial mainly because of his role in the 1885 Rebellion. He came back from a self-imposed exile in the U.S.A. to lead the Metis in their efforts to gain fair treatment from the government of Canada. The reality is that the government picked a fight with the Metis people in order to force parliament to approve the final funding for the trans-continental railway.
Once the rebellion was over, the government basically met all the Métis demands, making the bloodshed doubly tragic. The rebellion was also used as an excuse to treat First Nations people in Western Canada even more unfairly, in spite of the fact that the vast majority had remained steadfastly loyal to the Crown. When the rebellion was over, Riel was executed, despite numerous pleas for mercy and opinions of qualified individuals who did not feel he was even fit to stand trial given his mental state.
All in all, a dark chapter in Canadian history. After all was said and done, the prime minister wrote to the Governor General and asked him to stop referring to the events as "a rebellion." The Governor General wrote back to the prime minister saying that Macdonald had chosen the label and now he must live with it.
• 1870 Father of Manitoba: Rewind history to 1869. The Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to sell its interests in Rupert’s Land to the government of Canada. The government intended to rule the new land as a territory with an appointed governor. The people living in the area were not consulted in this process. Louis Riel was key in forming a provisional government which aimed to negotiate representative government for the people. In this, he had broad-based popular support.
There was an opposition movement and both sides did use some violence. The provisional government, with Riel as its head, authorized the execution of Thomas Scott, who was a member of the violent opposition. This very much enraged English Canadians. In spite of this, the provisional government successfully negotiated provincial status for Manitoba in 1870. This was all concluded, but the government chose to send the Wolseley Expedition to assert Canadian sovereignty in any case.
Thomas Scott’s killers (Riel was not one of them) were tried for murder. Although elected to the legislative assembly, Riel became a pariah for having authorized the execution on behalf of the provisional government. He drifted until his tragic end in 1885.
• Louis Riel Day: History tells us that Louis Riel was convicted and hung for high treason, but was he really a traitor? He was clearly a rebel at heart: willing to risk his life to struggle for representative democracy and rights. If a government denies fundamental rights to its people, men like Louis Riel come to the fore. If people are treated fairly, there is nothing to rebel against.
A struggle to gain the rights enjoyed by other citizens is not an act of treason unless you intend to overthrow the government. Louis Riel tried to negotiate issues within the framework of Canada for most of his political life. His fate to be remembered as a traitor was sealed more by the desire of the government to have a rebellion in 1885 than by his own actions. There can be little doubt that Manitoba would not have been founded in 1870 at all without the inspiration and leadership of Louis Riel.
It is very fitting that the father of Manitoba has a day named in his honour. I reflect on his legacy every Louis Riel Day and every time I vote in a free election in the province of my birth. For me, the best window into Riel’s vision is his design for the flag of the provisional government: a white ensign with a Union Jack in the upper hoist and emblazoned with a green shamrock and three golden fleur de lys. Not at all disloyal.
In fact, I am sure that Monsieur Riel would very much like our current flag.
» Marc George is a retired soldier who served 25 years in the Canadian Army. He is currently the director of the RCA Museum in Shilo. For those of you familiar with CP Style, we are allowing Marc to utilize some military terminology. His column appears monthly.