Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 02/16/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
In a perfectly Manitoba-centric world, the lead-up to Louis Riel Day would be like the weeks before Halloween or Christmas, when a non-stop barrage of commercials, movies and music make it impossible to be unaware of the impending holiday.
In this idealized existence, every Manitoban would have no choice but to celebrate the provincial holiday by virtue of the omnipresence of Riel Day branding on our streets and in our shopping malls.
In reality, the six-year-old holiday is still too new to permeate our culture to saturation levels. But awareness of Louis Riel is on the rise.
Whether you believe the man with the moustache is the founder of Manitoba, a misguided megalomaniac, the ultimate prairie maverick or all of the above, you're more likely than ever to encounter not just Louis Riel, the symbol of resistance or rebellion, but Louis Riel, the made-in-Manitoba brand.
In honour of Louis Riel Weekend, here's how you can consume the commodity that is Louis Riel, in the form of fashion, literature, music and simple activities that celebrate the man, the hero -- and the brand.
In 2006, Winnipeg graphic designer Brendon Ehinger slapped Louis Riel's visage on a T-shirt emblazoned with "Keepin' It Riel," a play on the decades-old hip-hop slogan. Ehinger initially didn't intend to sell his creation, but soon found he had no choice.
"Every time I wore it, people would say, 'You have to make me one of those shirts,' says Ehinger, who has gone on to sell more than 2,000. They retail for $20 at keepinitreal.ca and may also be found at the St. Boniface Museum and the Festival du Voyageur store.
Other variations on the theme can be found at Sew Dandee, designer Andee Penner's shop in Osborne Village. She sells T-shirts, aprons, dish towels, buttons and magnets bearing her own The Riel Deal design -- Riel inside an outline of Manitoba -- as well as the ever-popular, über-Manitoban image of Riel sucking on a Slurpee, a creation of designer Dan Phelps. Sew Dandee's Riel shirts sell for $36.
While a voracious reader could spend years poring over all the words penned about Manitoba's founder, there are definitive works.
Alberta author Rudy Wiebe's 1977 masterpiece The Scorched-Wood People, arguably the finest historical novel about Riel, covers the key 16-year period from 1869 to 1886, which encompasses the Red River Resistance and the North-West Rebellion. Instead of simply retelling the tale, Wiebe ensures the reader is presented with the idea of a flawed leader who nonetheless did not deserve his fate.
"He was hanged improperly. I always thought there was something profoundly wrong with that sentence," the 84-year-old author said from Edmonton last week.
More accessible but no less rigorous in its depiction of history is Toronto graphic novelist Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, originally serialized and later released in 2003 as a single hardcover book. Brown covers the same period as Wiebe but employs more of a flat, documentarian tone -- which is amazing, considering the lurid potential of the graphic-novel medium.
At the behest of his publisher, Brown is working on a 10-year anniversary edition of the Louis Riel book.
"I'm struck by the more extreme emotional reactions to it," he says from Toronto, noting some readers who obviously know how the story ends still cry when they get to page where Riel is hanged.
Anyone with the time and energy to delve deeper into Riel's life can explore the work of University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, the former Stephen Harper adviser who spent a huge portion of his academic career on Manitoba's founder. Flanagan co-edited the five-volume Collected Writings of Louis Riel in 1985 and wrote Metis Lands In Manitoba, Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered and Louis "David" Riel: Prophet of the New World.
Over the years, dozens of Canadian songwriters have written odes to Louis Riel, often in the form of folk songs. Prairie singer-songwriters Connie Kaldor (Maria's Place-Batoche), James Keelaghan (Red River Rising) and Rick Neufeld (Louis Riel) have all taken a stab at immortalizing the man in song, while former Winnipegger Bob Wiseman's brilliant second solo album, 1991's Presented By Lake Michigan Soda, included Gabriel Dumont Blues, a paean to Riel's crafty general at Batoche. Good luck finding this album today.
Just as hard to locate but far, far weirder is Louis Riel, a seven-inch single recorded in 1992 by British garage-rock band Thee Headcoats. The song is little more than a reworked version of Louie Louie, with singer Billy Childish amending the chorus to "Louie Riel, oh man -- you're gonna hang."
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum lies Louis Riel, an opera composed by the late Torontonian Harry Somers as a centennial-year commission. After an initial Canadian Opera Company production in 1967, it has since been revived in 1975 and 2005.
In 1979, CBC Television aired a $2.7-million Louis Riel miniseries, which starred Raymond Cloutier in the title role and included the late Maury Chaykin of Less Than Kind fame among the supporting cast. Nobody seems to remember it.
The time is right for a new version, ideally on the big screen. And it's fun to consider who would play Riel.
Christian Bale is intense enough for the role and wears a moustache really well. But the man is British. Winnipegger Adam Beach has a more culturally appropriate background, but may be too pretty to portray a man who sported lambchop sideburns. Daniel Day-Lewis just did the mutton-chop thing as Abraham Lincoln, but he too is way too English.
But given the nature of Manitoban film production, we'd probably be lucky to have Kevin McDonald in the role. Just imagine a Regina courtroom speech delivered in McDonald's trademark squeak.
Living in Winnipeg, it's easy to bring Louis Riel to life by making a day trip out of a Riel-themed sightseeing tour.
Start at Riel House National Historic Site (330 River Rd. in St. Vital), which is closed during the winter but still affords a look-see at where Riel grew up. Upper Fort Garry Gate (100 Main St.) is the last remaining piece of the home of the Riel-led provincial government, while the grounds of the St. Boniface Cathedral (190 Avenue de la Cathedrale) hold Riel's remains. Riel's coffin, moccasins and tuque are on display at nearby St. Boniface Museum (494 Tache Ave.), which is normally closed on winter Saturdays but open today from noon to 4 p.m., thanks to Festival du Voyageur.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 E1
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