Modern-day history: Louis Riel’s legacy redefined


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On the south side of the Manitoba legislature stands Miguel Joyal's statue of Louis Riel, crafted in 1996 to make the father of the province look like a storybook statesman.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/02/2013 (3764 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On the south side of the Manitoba legislature stands Miguel Joyal’s statue of Louis Riel, crafted in 1996 to make the father of the province look like a storybook statesman.

At the backside of St. Boniface College sits the banished, 1970 depiction of a naked Riel, imagined by sculptor Marcien Lemay as an anguished and tortured soul.

Artistic considerations aside, the two depictions of Riel are equally valid, as the Métis leader was both the founder of Manitoba and a flawed and troubled man. Ever since he was hanged in 1885, Canadians have been trying to define and redefine Riel, sometimes in an honest effort to understand his place in history, but often just to fashion him into some sort of ideological weapon.

Controversial statue of Louis Riel by Marcien Lemay and Etienne Gaboury unveiled in December of 1971.
JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Controversial statue of Louis Riel by Marcien Lemay and Etienne Gaboury unveiled in December of 1971.

“When people grasp for symbolism, they pick one aspect of the person and glorify it because it somehow fits their political agenda,” said Calgary historian Tom Flanagan, one of the world’s leading Riel scholars.

More than any other figure in Canadian history, Riel’s image and persona have been used and abused in remarkably diverse ways. In 2003, Canadian academic Albert Raimundo Braz dissected no less than 10 conceptions of Riel as part of The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture, a comparative review of literature stretching back more than a century.

Initially, Riel was both a traitor to Canadian Confederation, a symbol of francophone rights and a Catholic martyr. He was later reimagined as what Braz calls “a pan-American liberator” and a “pawn of shadowy white forces” as well as the prototypical Prairie maverick, a First Nations hero, a misunderstood intellectual and eventually the founder of Manitoba and one of the Fathers of Confederation.

Others have retro-characterized Riel as an libertarian defender of property rights, an anarchic anti-industrialist, a loony spiritualist and even a racist who believed in the supremacy of the Métis nation. There are shreds of truth embedded within these conceptions, but none of them really accounts for the context of what used to be Rupertsland and the North-Western Territory in the 19th century.

“I’ve stopped trying to worry about it,” said Flanagan, a former Stephen Harper adviser who freely acknowledges his own political work. “I don’t kid myself that I can stop appropriating figures from the past, which has nothing to do with understanding the past.

“It may be represented as understanding the past, but it never is. It’s all part of a contemporary discussion.”

Riel has never ceased to be a topic of academic and popular interest in Canada. In Manitoba, however, the 2008 creation of Louis Riel Day has added one more onion layer to what’s now a 128-year-old effort to figure out the Riel deal.

By granting all Manitobans a day off in the name of the province’s founder, Louis Riel has been transformed into the Winnipeg version of Jebediah Springfield, the coonskin-cap-wearing pioneer immortalized by a statesmanlike statue in The Simpsons.

On the occasion of the sixth Louis Riel Day weekend, the Free Press approached three authors of some of the most important contemporary works about Riel to assess his legacy — and what it means to have a day off in his name in February. (Interviews have been edited and condensed.)

Louis Riel statue behind the Legislative Building.
BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Louis Riel statue behind the Legislative Building.

The novelist: Rudy Wiebe

Based in Edmonton, University of Alberta English professor Wiebe, 78, is the author of The Scorched-Wood People, which was first published in 1977 and is widely considered one of the best historical novels about the key events in Riel’s life.

Free Press: How important is it to have a holiday in Louis Riel’s honour?

Rudy Wiebe: We’ve basically told the story of (western settlement) from the perspective of the white man coming. In Manitoba, with Riel and the native chiefs, there was an enormous amount of co-operation and without that co-operation, whites wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, all the way from Lord Selkirk to the founding of Manitoba.

It’s simply our ignorance that has kept this history from us. With Riel, it keeps reviving. Establishing a holiday in memory of him is particularly helpful.

FP: How should we celebrate Louis Riel Day?

Wiebe: I see Riel as a profoundly spiritual man. I think there should be something spiritual. He strongly felt the guidance of the creative power in the world. That should be commemorated, but it doesn’t suit our times very well now.

I see him more as a person kneeling in prayer for guidance, rather than dancing and singing and getting drunk.

FP: I’ve been to a Louis Riel Day party where people dressed up as their favourite Manitoban.

Wiebe: I don’t know what to say about that.

The cartoonist: Chester Brown

Rudy Wiebe
Postmedia Rudy Wiebe

Toronto graphic novelist Brown is the author and illustrator of Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, first published in 2003 and now slated for a 10-year anniversary edition.

FP: Why the continued Canadian interest in Louis Riel?

Chester Brown: It seems like the interest has been there all along. It seems like he is being honoured. It’s a matter of “Is he being honoured enough?”

FP: What led you to create a comic-book serial about Riel’s life?

Brown: Back then, I was an anarchist and I was looking around for some project that would speak to my anti-government perspective. The Riel story was a good one, even though I understand Riel himself wouldn’t define himself as an anarchist.

FP: You’re no longer an anarchist?

Brown: When I was working on the book, I found the story revolved around the question of property rights. I thought I should know more about property rights in general.

FP: Louis Riel led you to lose your religion, so to speak?

Brown: You could say that. Working on the book, my politics grew closer to him.

FP: What do you think about the holiday?

Brown: I’m fine with it.

Chester Brown
CP Chester Brown

The scholar: Tom Flanagan

University of Calgary history professor and former Stephen Harper adviser Flanagan, 70, co-edited the five-volume Collected Writings of Louis Riel and is the author of three other books about Riel.

FP: Can we call Riel Manitoba’s founder?

Tom Flanagan: That’s the historical reality. I would argue the results were unfortunate.

The entry of Manitoba as a miniature postage-stamp province was due to Riel pushing for immediate entry. He wanted all of Rupertsland to be included. That made very little sense from a Canadian point of view, because the only concentration of people was in the Red River Valley.

Manitoba would have joined Confederation at some point, perhaps with more people, more territory and more control over resources. The early entry of Manitoba as a province created a template for never-ending battles over land and resources. I’m not sure all that was necessary.

FP: Any objections to Louis Riel Day?

Flanagan: It makes more sense than Family Day. He is a pivotal figure in Canadian history. He’s probably the most recognizable name in Canadian history. It’s an opportunity to have the occasional re-evaluation, like the conversation we’re having today.

(It’s) OK, as long as some monolithic interpretation is not forced on people.

FP: There are many interpretations of Riel.

Flanagan: History’s too complicated to impose simple moralistic judgments. There are many different perspectives.

Tom Flanagan
Postmedia Tom Flanagan

Preston Manning regards Riel as a proto-Reformer. He sees Riel as standing up for western rights, against Ottawa.

FP: What about Riel, the indigenous leader?

Flanagan: All these things are extremely partial. Yes, he was for the French-Canadian Métis, but his opinions on Indians would not be acceptable (today) if they were widely known. He wanted to solve “the Indian problem” by getting rid of them, through assimilation.

He didn’t see them as his people.

FP: That’s quite the counter-narrative.

Flanagan: We’ve gotten away from the older understanding of Riel as a French, Catholic hero, which is how he was seen in Quebec, to a native hero. There is much less emphasis on his religion, which has dropped off as well.

But there has been an advance, in that a fuller picture of Riel has emerged. I don’t think we have a full understanding of Riel, so there is such a thing as progress in our knowledge of the past.

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