Louis Riel in the Twenty-first Century
David Doyle ~ Honoré Jaxon II
Recognition of the unceded Salish Territory.
It is a great honour to speak with you today as you embark on your historic journey. Way back in ancient Greece Aristotle spoke of the necessity of liberty and self determination to understand what it means to be truly human and alive. As human beings we all have the right and the need to determine our future within our community.
As you gather together building your nation, reclaiming your Métis hereditary rights, you are following a long tradition in Métis culture. From the time of the buffalo hunt the Métis have met in council establishing their own laws and economic organization. In the 1840s, a revolutionary era in Europe and Latin America, the Métis met in a National Committee to deal with their exploiter the Hudson’s Bay Company. Jean Louis Riel successfully led the Métis in the struggle for free trade (L’Commerce est Libre!) and in 1869-70 his son, Louis Riel, after the Hudson’s Bay Company had ceased to govern the territory and before Canada acquired jurisdiction over it, established a provisional government and met in council with the Red River Conventions establishing a List of Rights that led to the formation of the province of Manitoba respecting aboriginal, language, land and religious rights. As with Louis Riel’s Red River Conventions leading to the establishment of the Province of Manitoba back in 1870 you are not only strengthening the Métis nation but Canada itself. Canada is a nation of nations and with the growth and strength of one comes strength for the whole. I salute BCMF and President Henry for following in the footsteps of Louis Riel, the father of the Métis nation, the principal architect of the province of Manitoba, Canada’s Aboriginal father of Confederation and the prophet of the New World.
Canada’s Sesquicentennial (150 years)
2017 is Canada’s Sesquicentennial – 150 years since the initial confederation of four British colonies. The legacy of 150 years is the Canada of today. Under section 91 of the CONSTITUTION ACT, 1867, following the British Parliamentary system with a prime minister and parliament consisting of an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate, a chamber of sober second thought, Métis and Indigenous Canadians have endured Canadian “peace, order and good government” since Confederation. With the establishment of the Dominion of Canada this “confederation” aggressively expanded across the continent.
It was Canada’s illegal attempt at expansion into the Northwest that lead to the Red River Insurrection of 1869-70. By the 1880s the people living in the Northwest Territories had once again become increasingly concerned about the lack of respect by the Government of Canada for their rights. In 1884 they called on Louis Riel to return to Canada to assist them in negotiating once more with the Government of Canada in respect of their land claims and the very survival of the Métis people. All of the petitions sent by the Métis to the Government of Canada requesting a redress of the people’s grievances and the recognition of their rights were ignored. The Government of Canada responded by sending troops against the Métis at Batoche where the Métis, under the leadership of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, defended their homes. Various First Nations joined the Métis in the defense of their lives, families, rights and territories. Subsequently, Louis Riel was wrongfully tried, convicted and, on November 16, 1885, executed for high treason by the Government of Canada. Over the years since Riel’s execution historians have gathered key evidence proving Riel’s trial and execution were “fitted-up” by Prime Minister Macdonald and members of his Cabinet.
Louis Riel in Canadian History
Throughout the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century Louis Riel was characterized as an “ogre” a “villain” and a “traitor” in official Canadian history. I need not remind you that in this 21st century the dinosaurs are still attempting to portray Louis Riel as a traitor, murder and madman. One such attempt back in 2010 was a pamphlet put out by Peter Goldring, a Conservative M.P. from Edmonton, Alberta, called the Truth About Louis Riel in which he makes a host of claims condemning Louis Riel. This M.P.’s use of his parliamentary newsletter to denounce Riel was quickly turned on its head when Métis historians George and Terry Goulet methodically cut through the M.P.s assertions that Riel’s trial was fair and that Riel was hanged for his crimes of “murder and high treason.” Riel wasn’t a murderer and the capital crime of “High Treason” was bogus, based upon a fourteenth century English law imported into the Northwest Territories—but not Canada. The Goulet’s also submitted parliamentary evidence (Reference Hansard 1886, p. 122) that John A. Macdonald submitted “cooked-up documents” to his Cabinet to ensure Riel would hang. With the general outrage at Goldring’s blatant nineteenth century politics Prime Minister Stephen Harper was forced to distance his government from such outright bigotry.
There was also the vile article published in the Legion Magazine this past year reviving the old claim that Riel was “mad.” Written by an old colonial historian it was thoroughly refuted by BC Métis Federation President Keith Henry. As a result the Legion Magazine put restitution in place recognizing Métis Veterans and published George and Terry Goulet’s beautiful article on Louis Riel and his role in Canadian history and politics in the next issue of the Legion Magazine.
Louis Riel Internationally
Over the past three years I have had the opportunity to introduce Louis Riel to audiences internationally. This includes peoples from the Latin American countries, but also Asia and Africa and the United States. They invariably comment on the similarity between Louis Riel and their revolutionary heroes in their struggles against colonialism. This became particularly evident to me in my travels to Cuba where José Martí, a contemporary of Riel, is recognized as a national hero and the father of the Cuban nation.
José Martí is deeply loved not only in Cuba but across Latin America, and much of the world. He is seen as a significant literary figure of the stature of Dickens or Shakespeare. He is also seen as the father of independence, a man who spent his life in the struggle against Spanish colonialism and United States domination of Latin America. A poet and a martyr he gave his life in the armed struggle to create an independent Cuba as Riel gave his for the Métis.
I also have some very exciting news in regard to Louis Riel’s reputation internationally. We now have evidence of Louis Riel being recognized as one of the “Liberators” in the second-wave of the international anti-colonial struggles in the New World. Just months after Riel’s conviction and execution for treason in 1885, a poet in Brazil by the name of Mathias Carvalho’s wrote a three-part monograph, Poemes Americanus 1: Louis Riel revolving around Louis Riel:
Riel appeared from their midst
With the bright clarity of a whirlwind,
The air of the free entered his breast,
He felt red courage in his blood.
Louis Riel Deserves Better Treatment
Moving beyond the narrow perspectives of the past, where Riel and the struggles of the Métis were seen as a “primitive response to the onset of civilization” or “English vs. French” or “West vs. East” it can now be argued that Riel’s struggles were part of a pan-hemispheric response to nineteenth century colonialism and imperialism that was not only political, social, and economic, but also fundamentally religious. Yet, here in Canada, at home, the so-called debate continues although in March of 1992 the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada unanimously adopted resolutions recognizing the various and significant contributions of Louis Riel to Canada and to the Métis people and, in particular, recognized his unique and historic role as a founder of Manitoba. In May of 1992 the legislative Assembly of Manitoba passed a resolution unanimously recognizing “the unique and historic role of Louis Riel as a founder of Manitoba and his contribution in the development of the Canadian Confederation.” In 1997 the Liberal Government in its Gathering Strength Aboriginal Initiative promised to look into “Louis Riel’s proper place in Canadian History.” This initiative faded as the political winds shifted and a series of minority Conservative took power.
Although the prime minister apologized for the abuse of First Nations children at government and church run residential schools in 2008, and finally recognized the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010 there has been no move to recognize Louis Riel’s proper place in Canadian history. In fact the government is appealing both the Manitoba Métis Land Decision (2013) where the Supreme Court ruled that after one-hundred and forty years the federal government has failed to fulfill its obligations to Canada’s Métis people regarding land grants promised in the Manitoba Act of 1870. The government is also appealing the court’s recognition of the Métis as Indians under the Constitution Act of 1867 in the “Daniel’s Decision.” It is to be noted as well that the late Métis leader Harry Daniels and others sought a ruling on the Crown’s “fiduciary duty” to Métis and non-status Indians, asking the court to agree that Métis and non-status Indians “have the right to be consulted and negotiated with, in good faith, by the federal government on a collective basis through representatives of their choice, respecting all their rights, interests and needs as Aboriginal peoples.” This the court denied. The ruling did however state that fiduciary responsibility will flow automatically now that the status of the groups in question has been clarified. This too the government rejected.
My work is to see Louis Riel exonerated, deemed innocent of the charge of high treason. That means the Parliament of Canada recognizes the legitimacy of his resistance and the stain of “traitor” is removed from the good name of Louis Riel. Secondly in the interest of reconciliation I wish to see Louis Riel recognized as Canada’s Aboriginal Father of Confederation. As well I wish to see November 16 recognized as Louis Riel Day across Canada (except Manitoba that celebrates Louis Riel Day in February) and a statue of Riel placed prominently on Parliament Hill.
There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts, Private Member’s Bills, to have Riel “pardoned” by the Canadian Parliament. I need to tell you there is even more opposition to seeing Louis Riel “exonerated.” This question has become a bit of a “hot potato” in that there are those who do not wish to see Riel “legitimized” for a variety of reasons. There are Métis organizations dependant on government finances who do not wish to jeopardize Conservative financial support, there are also Métis nationalist who do not recognize Canada and declare Riel Métis, but not Canadian. There are also those forces that see Riel’s exoneration as political expediency, getting the federal government “off the hook.” Also there remain those who maintain long-term prejudices and still see Riel and the Métis as a threat to “their” Canada First. One of the key issues in the struggle for exoneration is the great deal of confusion mongering as to the difference between a “Pardon” and “Exoneration.” Pardon assumes guilt. Exoneration is the action of officially absolving someone from blame – recognizing their innocence.
Although Canada’s Prime Minister considers that “Canada also has no history of colonialism” these illegal acts against Louis Riel and the Métis people are Canada’s legacy of colonialism. As Canadians we bear the awesome responsibility to review and re-develop our history – starting with Louis Riel. Consistent with history and justice the conviction of Louis Riel for high treason need be reversed and his historic role formally recognized and commemorated.
An Inquiry into the Career of Louis Riel
The question remains as to how this is to be done? At his trial, having been found guilty of high treason Louis Riel requested a Commission of Inquiry into the Career of Louis Riel be convened by the “proper authorities.” He asked that his whole career be assessed and not just the last part of it. He asked:
Had Riel been a rebel in 1869?
Was Riel a murderer of Thomas Scott?
Had Riel plundered the Hudson’s Bay Company stores?
Was Riel a fugitive from justice in the House of Commons in 1874?
Had Riel been guilty of more than self-defence in 1885?
The Trial of Louis Riel – 2013
The struggle to have Louis Riel exonerated is a just struggle. Knowledge is the key. In this regard the BC Métis Federation has just announced that it is sponsoring the play The Trial of Louis Riel. A Canadian classic, the play is in its forty-seventh year of production. Produced by the award-wining RielCo. Productions of Saskatchewan it is a re-creation of Canada’s most famous trial.
Authentic in dialogue, costume and setting the play provides audiences with an opportunity to see and hear the proceedings in that little Regina court back in 1885; watch the stipendiary magistrate presiding, see Crown and defence counsel colluding and contending and hear witness’ testimony. After listening to Riel’s final impassioned plea for justice (missing his request for an Enquiry) audiences are left to consider many of the same questions lawyers and historians have been asking for the past 128 years: Was Riel’s trial fair? Was Louis Riel a martyr or a traitor? Was Riel incredibly intelligent and shrewd or was he insane?
A Gala Reception and Performance will be held on Friday, November 15, 2013, at the Columbia Theatre in New Westminster with doors open at 6:00 pm and Curtain at 7:30 pm, as well as a “Students” performance at 1:00 pm on November 15 and a “Louis Riel Day” performance at 1:00 pm on November 16, 2013. It is as Riel said: My people will sleep for a hundred years, but when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.
Long live Louis Riel
David Doyle ~ Honoré Jaxon
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