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The Father of Manitoba

The Greatest Manitobans #4 Louis Riel

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In 1885, he was reviled as an insane traitor, a half-breed who deserved to hang.

The Ottawa Free Press said he "opened the gates of rapine and murder and for that offense deserved the severest penalty possible." The Globe and Mail called him a traitor-agitator and called news of his capture "glorious."

More than 100 years later, Louis Riel's got a bridge, a February holiday, a school division and a hotel named after him.

The shorthand description of him nowadays is "the Father of Manitoba," the romantic hero who led us into Confederation, no longer the madman murderer.

"It just shows that's how much it's changed," said Joseph Riel, Louis Riel's great-grand nephew. "As a child, it wasn't like we sat around the table and talked much about the story because it was all negative in the books. Having the name Riel, my grandfather and even my father would take it a little from the English kids. For my dad, who was born in Riel House, there were very few silver linings. In my case, there are institutions named after him and monuments and holidays. There are so many things he did to be proud of."

Riel is arguably Canada's most confounding historical giant, and there may be no other whose popular image has undergone such a radical rehabilitation. There are huge gaps in the historical record of him, especially his many sojourns in the United States, and the religious, racial and economic forces at work during the province's creation are among the most nuanced and difficult to understand. Riel and his times defy history's tendency to simplify pivotal events into black or white, good guys versus bad guys.

And he was on the vanguard of all the issues with which we still grapple today -- aboriginal land and cultural rights, the west's struggle with Ontario's WASP-ish establishment, French-language protection, anti-Americanism, even the stigma of mental illness.

Riel was born in 1844, the oldest child of Louis Riel Sr. and Julie Lagimodière, whose mother was a Gaboury, all monikers familiar to modern-day Manitobans that gave Riel an excellent pedigree.

At a young age, Riel was sent to Montreal to study for the priesthood, but went to work instead as a law clerk. In 1868, just a year before the rebellion broke out, Riel returned to the Red River Settlement, a community of long, skinny lots that stretched along the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

Riel returned to a Red River Settlement much changed by an influx of Protestant Anglophones from Ontario. And the settlement was gripped by fears and rumours the Canadian government was about to take wholesale control of the area from the Hudson's Bay Company without properly consulting or accommodating the Métis majority, who believed their lands, leased long-term from the HBC, were their birthright.

The Red River Resistance erupted in the fall of 1869 when Métis farmers stopped surveyors sent from Ottawa to begin marking out new townships on what was not yet Canadian territory.

By Canadian standards, things happened remarkably quickly after that. Riel's Métis militants turned back a Canadian government party at the United States border, seized Fort Garry, created a Bill of Rights, formed a provisional government and imprisoned pro-Canadian Anglos -- all before Christmas.

Riel, because he was educated and was a fine orator, became the rebellion's spokesman and moral centre, articulating better than anyone the Métis struggle for basic land and language rights. He was also somewhat reclusive and sombre and deeply religious, his support among the powerful priests in the Red River Settlement lending him legitimacy.

But in March 1870, Riel committed what historian George Stanley called his one contemptible act in a rebellion that had been almost bloodless: the firing-squad execution of Thomas Scott for counter-insurgency. Scott's death fanned the flames of racial and religious passion, according to Stanley's 1937 book, Birth of Western Canada, one of the first attempts at a more balanced take on Riel.

Those flames would engulf Riel 15 years later when Riel's nemesis, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, gave in to Ontario voters baying for blood and allowed Riel to hang.

But first Macdonald agreed to pretty much every Métis demand and passed the Manitoba Act that brought the province into Confederation -- and kept it out of the hands of the Americans, who'd been eyeing it -- on May 12, 1870.

But, with arrival of Gen. Wolseley's troops in Manitoba, there began a cat-and-mouse game between Riel and Ottawa that lasted for years. For much of the next 14 murky years, Riel lived an itinerant life in exile in the United States as the question of his amnesty or arrest underscored much of the power struggle between Quebec and Ontario back home. Riel was elected three times to Parliament, sneaking into Ottawa to formally sign the register, risking arrest. It was also through that time that Riel's religious fanaticism and his belief in his self-appointed status as the divinely chosen leader of the Métis emerged, along with mental instability that plagued him and his reputation forever.

"When they say he was crazy, what he had was a nervous breakdown," said Joseph Riel. "If you led your people at the age of 25, and went into exile and had a price put on your head and left your family and had to make decisions with huge implications for your people... He was human, that was the whole point."

In 1884, while living in Montana, Riel was lured back to Canada by Gabriel Dumont, one of the leaders of the Métis in Saskatchewan.

The Northwest Rebellion -- this one more violent and ultimately unsuccessful -- began early in 1885 and ended with the Métis defeat at the Battle of Batoche, which Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe one called one of the pivotal events in Canadian history, akin to America's Gettysburg.

From there, Riel was arrested and tried for treason in Regina in a five-day court case that made daily headlines in the New York Times. A jury of English and Scottish Protestants found him guilty, despite Riel's elegant defences of his innocence, his sanity and the rights of the Métis people.

On Nov. 16, 1885, Riel was hanged. He's the only Canadian ever tried for high treason, according to Manitoba's premier historian J.M. Bumsted,

Outside of Quebec and the Métis diaspora, it took a solid 50 years for Canadians to begin the slow process of reconsidering Riel, and real progress wasn't made until the 1970s, when Manitoba celebrated its centenary with a controversial statue of a tortured Riel that in itself forced debate about the rebel's legacy.

Not long after, Saskatchewan laid claim to Riel with a sizable celebration to mark the anniversary of his death. In 1992, Tory cabinet minister Joe Clark championed a resolution in Parliament recognizing Riel as the founder of Manitoba, and by then school curricula had begun offering a more nuanced version of Métis history. In fact, it was 11 different Manitoba schools that nominated Riel as the namesake of the province's new February holiday.

Meanwhile, Riel's famous headshot with the flowing hair and the long moustache adorns hip T-shirts with the words "Keepin' it Riel," and a highly acclaimed comic-book version of Riel's life by Chester Brown has helped restore his folk-hero cachet.

"Sometimes it takes a century for the real truth to unfold," said Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand. "It's taken us over a century to get to where we are, but I think we're richer for it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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