Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/2/2015 (2539 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You've walked past it dozens of times, on your way to the ballet or to the Manitoba Museum -- the tall column with the pointy-hatted soldier on top.
Our daily familiarity with the Main Street monument, tucked between the planetarium dome and the Centennial Concert Hall, has shrouded its history. Few Winnipeggers will know it honours the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and their role in defeating Louis Riel and the Métis during the Northwest Rebellion in 1885.
It's one of two known monuments in Winnipeg to the volunteers who put down the rebellion. The other is in the grave yard at St. John's Cathedral in the North End, where seven of the "little black devils" are buried. There are even more monuments to the forgotten soldiers in Eastern Canada, and some of those have been controversial.
Winnipeg historian Matthew McRae, as part of his PhD thesis, has been cataloguing those monuments and studying how Canada's memory of the Riel Rebellion has changed. Free Press reporter Mary Agnes Welch sat down with him to talk about how we remember the rebellion.
FP: The first thing I should say is, full disclosure, you and I are friends. And that's how I know about the surprising history of the monument on Main Street, the tall column with the soldier on top. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
A: I've asked a lot of Manitobans, in informal surveys, what they thought it was for and I've had so many different answers. The only people who knew were members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles because it's dedicated to them and their first military action, which wasn't the Boer War or the First World War or the Second World War. It was the 1885 Riel Rebellion or the Northwest Rebellion, as it was called back then. This monument went up very quickly, through local subscription. But it was put in front of (the old) city hall, so, although it wasn't funded by the government, it was endorsed by government. Until after the First World War, it was the city's No. 1 war monument. It was actually moved twice. It was moved across the street when the new city hall was built and then shifted again with the construction of the Centennial Centre.
FP: So this is one of a significant handful of monuments across Canada to soldiers who fought in the Northwest Rebellion. Tell me a bit about some of those other monuments.
A: The soldiers were nearly all Canadian and nearly all volunteers. These units were mustered all the way from Halifax to Alberta, over 5,000 soldiers in total. So there were about 5,000 veterans of this campaign. They were honoured in a lot of different cities. There were monuments put up to soldiers in Ottawa, in Winnipeg, there's another monument to a horse regiment in Russell, Man. There's a monument in Port Hope, Ont. There's a monument, of course, in Toronto that's still, to this day, in Queen's Park. And there's one in St. Catharines.
FP: Why have we forgotten about these memorials and also about the soldiers who fought against the Métis? When did we start forgetting about them and why?
A: It's my opinion that we really start to forget about them as they begin to pass away. Most people would think this was a flash in the pan, but really up until the Second World War, they were remembered quite well. Even in the 1950s, the last surviving bugle boy from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles addressed the troops in their parade square and was given a ceremonial coffee mug. It was only after they passed away, which the last of them did in the 1950s, that we start to see public opinion shift. And then in the 1960s, with the growth of the counterculture and the idea that being a revolutionary isn't quite so bad, and the rise of Louis Riel, the soldiers don't become villains, they just kind of disappear.
FP: There is tension around how much we should honour and memorialize the soldiers who put down the rebellion. That was apparently an issue in St. Catharines with their memorial. Tell me a bit about that.
A: In 2009, the statue commemorating Alex Watson, who was a native son of St. Catharines who died in the rebellion, did become the centre of controversy because the city's culture department suggested maybe it was time to move or even destroy the monument because, and I'm quoting here, "it could be perceived as a symbol of animosity toward past First Nations of Canada." There was kind of an outcry to keep the statue when that happened, and even the representatives of the Niagara Region Metis Council disagreed with the suggestion that it needed to be moved or destroyed. Other monuments have seen this kind of thing, too, where either there's been a debate over whether they should continue to exist or there's been some kind of change in their meaning, almost. In Queen's Park in Toronto, there's a monument to the Toronto soldiers who fought, and the Métis National Council actually commemorated Louis Riel Day in 2011 by gathering there and laying a wreath in memory of Riel. Which would probably have a lot of the veterans turning over in their grave.
FP: So, should we rethink our memorial on Main Street? It's just a couple blocks from the Manitoba Métis Federation headquarters. I wonder if even Métis people realize that's what the tall column statue is for?
A: I think a healthy society is always rethinking its past and asking question about it, but I don't think a healthy society should forget its past. I'm personally of the opinion that the monument is part of our history, that it does speak to a sentiment that did exist. Do I think we should start commemorating loudly the great achievement, like they did when it was first put up? I'm not sure that's a good idea at all. But I think a discussion about the statue and its meaning could speak to issues that exist in the city now.
FP: If we've kind of forgotten the soldiers who fought against Riel, have we also forgotten the Métis soldiers who fought in the Northwest Rebellion? Are there any monuments to them? What do we know about them?
A: Very little, to be honest. The Gabriel Dumont Institute in Saskatchewan has put together a list of the Métis soldiers from the rebellion. But they have largely been forgotten. I haven't found any monuments dedicated to the Métis who fought or the First Nations who fought. This is something I'm hoping to investigate further and find out how they've been remembered by the Métis and by Canadians.
(This interview was slightly edited for clarity.)