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Myths about Riel hide the man

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Louis Riel is known primarily through two historical events. The first is the 1870 formation of the Provisional Government of Manitoba and entry into Canadian Confederation.

The second is leading the Red River Resistance of 1885, one of the most significant armed conflicts between indigenous peoples and Canadian forces in history.

The story of Riel is most often framed in two ways: the inspirational and courageous "Founder of Manitoba" or the revolutionary freedom fighter tragically executed for his beliefs.

We know these well. Go ahead, mention Riel. Inevitably, words such as "hero," "statesman," "madman," "traitor" and "Father of Confederation" are used.

Riel is Superman. Riel is a monster. Riel is a victim.

I visited a high school where students were arguing that Riel is a tragic hero, as in Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. I liked the topic, but the comparison between a real-life human being and one-dimensional characters made me wonder.

But this is the way it's been, virtually since his death. The Riel we hear about obscures the fact that he was a complex person with dreams, imperfections and intricacies. The myths hide the man.

So this Louis Riel Day, keep it really Riel. Take some lesser-known parts of his life and consider how they enrich the story of one of Manitoba's legendary leaders.

For instance, Riel was almost Canada's first Métis priest. After years in the Red River settlement, he was sent to college in Montreal by his mother, who wished she was a nun.

While there, his father died. Then Riel scandalously tried to marry a Montreal woman named Marie Julie Guernon -- an engagement broken off by her parents. Four months before his ordination as a priest, Riel dropped out of school, worked as a law clerk and eventually returned home.

If he had finished his training, married Guernon or had not become disillusioned with his job, he might have stayed in Montreal and perhaps remained out of Manitoba's history.

Much has been made of Riel's meteoric political rise as a Métis, but less about his place in Métis history.

As today, the Métis of the 19th century were not a homogeneous group. From the nameless individuals who created a path for him, to others who did not share an exuberance for his positions, we know just about Riel, not the Métis.

Ever hear about Pierre Delorme and Jean Baptiste Wilkie, the Métis on the Council of Assiniboia who challenged Riel? As my colleague, Emma LaRocque, says: "Riel overshadows his own people."

In this vein, it's often forgotten that Riel's primary influences were the strong women who surrounded him. I've already mentioned his mother. There are others, particularly Métis women such as his sister, Sara.

There's a reason Riel considered the Métis nation a woman, death a seductress, and a pregnant Métis woman visited him in his final days.

Riel loved language. It's known he was a gifted poet, but the political documents he helped craft are literary masterpieces. Read the Declaration of the People of Rupert's Land and the North West. It rivals the United States Declaration of Independence. Every Manitoban should read it.

In fact, Riel's love of words endures. Mulling over the name of the new territory in an 1870 letter, he mused that it might be called "Assiniboia," "North West," or "Manitoba."

Assiniboia referred too much to the council of the same name, controlled by the Hudson's Bay Co. North West fit the best, in Riel's opinion, but as he wrote: "Fancy delights in that of 'Manitoba.' "

Others agreed. It still raises a question though: Would "Friendly North West" look good on licence plates?

Riel was not only a leader, but a widely known celebrity. For instance, check out this description in a June 1883 news article:

"He has a straight, large, prominent, well-shaped nose, and most expressive mouth. He has extraordinary self-possession, but when relating some stirring fact or exciting reminiscence, his eyes danced and glistened in a manner that riveted attention."

Before Trudeaumania, there was Rielmania.

There are other interesting discussion starters about the man. He became an American -- and a Republican -- during his southern exile. Returning to Canada, members of the clergy warned him about mixing religion and politics. There are parallels in the present.

Finally, there is Riel's unbridled optimism, his hope, belief in the arts and artists, his love of the land and children. He was deeply realistic but seemed to always look to the future and see beauty and possibility.

Even in his final poems, written in jail, he couldn't deny it. "Let us have peaceful hearts!" he wrote, "and the Infinite will open."

The best we can do is to give him the same.


Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is a faculty member in the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba and the co-editor of Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water. His middle name is Riel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2012 A16

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