The Manitoba Museum says it’s willing to discuss handing over a prized artifact, Louis Riel’s walking stick, to Métis groups.
But it said repatriation requests are rare and many more collections of artifacts from Indigenous communities are turned over to the museum for safekeeping.
"We basically are a storage facility on behalf of Indigenous collections," said Manitoba Museum CEO Claudette Leclerc. "There are some huge collections we are responsible for taking care of."
The museum was responding to a petition begun in Saskatchewan to repatriate the walking stick of the Métis leader and Manitoba’s founding father.
Petition organizer Jesse Donovan wants Riel’s staff to be housed at the new Métis museum planned for Winnipeg, most likely at the Upper Fort Garry site.
"These are stolen items. They belong to the Métis," said Donovan, a Métis and third-year law student at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, in a telephone interview.
"The United Nations declaration on rights of Indigenous people states clearly that Canada has a responsibility to return artifacts that are culturally important to Indigenous people."
Donovan recently led a similar campaign that saw the repatriation of Riel’s crucifix and other artifacts — Riel’s poetry, knife and articles of clothing — to the Métis National Council. They were being held at the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina.
The Manitoba Museum obtained Riel’s staff from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles of Minto Armoury earlier this year. The Rifles loaned the walking stick to the museum for an exhibit called Legacies of Confederation.
But once the Rifles saw the reach of the museum — it hosts 300,000 visitors per year — and the public response to the walking stick, it decided the museum was a better location than the lesser known Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regimental Museum. The Rifles offered the staff and the Manitoba Museum gladly accepted.
Leclerc said plans for the walking stick go beyond the current temporary exhibit. "We would very much like to ensure that it’s always on permanent display," she said.
Unless it is repatriated, of course. Leclerc said there is a legal process to follow for any repatriation, with the museum acting as a repository for the province.
However, the museum must ensure any article is repatriated to the appropriate regional, national or individual party or parties, and that can be tricky. "We would need to wade through all of that to ensure repatriation is done appropriately," she said.
For example, Donovan is acting individually and not as an executive member of a Métis association. Donovan said Métis organizations may be timid to repatriate the walking stick because they are reliant on government funding for the museum, which will be called the Métis Nation Museum Centre.
However, Donovan’s intention is for the walking stick go to the Métis National Council and ultimately the new museum.
Donovan’s petition had about 160 names as of midday Tuesday at change.org/p/the-repatriate-louis-riel-s-walking-stick
An Manitoba Métis Federation statement issued Tuesday did not address the artifact directly, but said it has been working with the Manitoba Museum and other institutions to obtain pertinent artifacts.
"A number of Métis artifacts have been returned to us recently, which will be on display at the Métis Nation Museum Centre here in Winnipeg. The Métis government looks forward to continuing to work with the Manitoba Museum in returning more artifacts where they belong," it said in its statement.
Leclerc said the museum has had ongoing discussions about artifacts with both the Manitoba Métis Federation, and Friends of Upper Fort Garry, which spent several days going through the museum’s collection.
"The museum has always been very open to repatriation requests and has been for decades," she said.
Leclerc said any donation of an artifact to the Manitoba Museum is made free and clear of any conditions but the museum would likely talk to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles about repatriation of the Riel item as a courtesy.
A walking stick was a fashionable accoutrement for men in the 1880s. Riel’s staff was made of twisting diamond willow, known for its strength.
It was first possessed by the Banbury brothers of Wolseley, Sask. They obtained it as owners of the company contracted to transport Riel from Saskatoon to Regina, where he was tried and hanged for high treason.
The brothers later started a business called Beaver Lumber, a retailer many people will remember. Not wanting to be seen as Riel sympathizers, the brothers gave the staff to friend John Sanders in Stouffville, Ont. It stayed in the family until Sanders’ granddaughter, Electra, married Captain J. Warren Stewart with the Rifles. They donated the walking stick to the Rifles in the 1970s.