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Métis celebrate Louis Riel's birthday

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Most Canadians know of the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel but few would know when he was born.

That's just wrong, say Canadian Métis, who are forging ahead to have Riel's birthdate, Oct. 22, 1844, recognized instead of his execution date.

"It's a very symbolic day for the Métis in Canada," Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand said Thursday.

"This obviously is a great man and I'm looking forward to celebrating his birthday," the organization's leader said.

Métis resistance started when Louis Riel put his foot on a survey chain federal surveyors used to mark out land lots for sale. That led to negotiations for Manitoba's entry into Confederation in 1870.

Chartrand said the Métis believe the die was cast the instant Riel put his foot down on the surveyor's chain.

The Métis chronicle runs counter to the historical view it was the Métis' execution of Orangeman Thomas Scott in the Red River Valley that led to Riel's execution, even though it would be another 15 years until his hanging.

In between, Riel was elected to the House of Commons three times but denied his seat, he was exiled to Montana, committed to an insane asylum as delusional and recruited to lead the Métis in Saskatchewan, which ended in the Battle of Batoche.

"He lost his entire family and everything he owned and treasured. At the end, this country tried in vain to project him as a traitor," Chartrand said.

The MMF isn't planning any public events, aside from asking the public to recognize Riel's birthdate as more important than the Nov. 16, 1885 execution.

In the last two decades, Riel's image as a traitor has been steadily peeled away, starting with a 1992 statement from the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney that called for recognition of Riel as a founder of Manitoba.

Louis Riel Day is an official holiday in Manitoba, celebrated on the third Monday in February.

In 2010, Manitoba's NDP government unveiled a permanent display of historical documents and photographs that pays tribute to the role of the Métis throughout Manitoba's history.

"A lot has changed. There's a holiday named after him, so you start looking at all of those transitions from traitor to enemy to all these negative connotations that were used against him are now completely reversed," Chartrand said.

On Dec. 13, a billion-dollar Métis land claim will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada. Métis have waited more than a century to get their claims, Chartrand said.

"This must be a special time for him," Chartrand said, speaking of Riel as if he were still a vital presence, regardless of his death. "In our culture, we truly believe that though they pass on, they look down upon us. I'm sure he must be beaming with pride that his little Métis nation is doing what he said, 'It will rise in 100 years.' "

Top court set

to hear land claim

THE Manitoba Métis Federation wants billions in compensation for 1.4 million acres of land first claimed by Louis Riel, much of which is along the Red River in Winnipeg.

The claim was rejected by the Court of Queen's Bench in 2007. The Manitoba Court of appeal upheld the decision, which the MMF has appealed to the Supreme Court. That hearing begins Dec. 13.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2011 B5

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