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Riel was never premier; it would be wrong to say he was

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2020 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Let’s get one thing straight: Louis Riel was never the premier of Manitoba, much less its first one.

Louis Riel's contribution to Manitoba is indisputable.

Louis Riel's contribution to Manitoba is indisputable.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew introduced a private member’s bill in December that would, if adopted, give the Métis leader the "honorary title" of "first premier of Manitoba." Kinew, along with federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, renewed his call for the designation Monday during Louis Riel Day celebrations.

It’s a nice gesture (although most private members’ bill are not approved by the legislative assembly). It pays respect to a man who, along with his supporters, rose up against the federal government in 1869-70 and demanded rights for the people of Red River prior to Canadian annexation. Riel was the indisputable leader of the French Métis. He also managed — through the use of coercion, from time to time — to convince anglophone Métis and others to join his cause.

Riel’s contribution to Manitoba is indisputable. Through his leadership, vision and tenacity, the people of Red River were able to preserve much of their land holdings, their language and culture and their democratic rights when they entered Confederation. It was under Riel that Manitoba saw its first elected government prior to joining Canada.

But Riel was never the premier. In Canada, premiers are first ministers who sit as members of a legislative assembly. They head the executive arm of a provincial government.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew introduced a private member’s bill in December that would, if adopted, give the Métis leader the honorary title of first premier of Manitoba. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

NDP Leader Wab Kinew introduced a private member’s bill in December that would, if adopted, give the Métis leader the honorary title of first premier of Manitoba. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

That’s not the position Riel had in 1869-70. Riel’s first crack at a quasi-government was the formation of a "national committee" in 1869, made up mostly of francophone Métis. That evolved into the first provisional government, but still lacked representation from anglophone members of the community. Riel was the secretary of the first version of that government, and later president when former president John Bruce stepped down.

Following two large public meetings at Upper Fort Garry in January 1870, a Convention of Forty was formed, made up of 20 French and 20 English representatives. The convention hammered out an updated "bill of rights" to present to Ottawa as a condition of joining Canada. The convention also agreed to create a new provisional government that would include 12 French and 12 English representatives. That was the legislative council that governed for the duration of the Red River Resistance.

But it was not a based on the British parliamentary system, as provincial and federal governments are in Canada. There was no premier in Red River prior to the creation of Manitoba.

There was no premier in Red River prior to the creation of Manitoba.

What existed instead was a legislative council based more on a U.S.-style presidential system, where the executive was separate from the legislative council. The legislative council was elected by the people. The executive was elected by the Convention of Forty, which chose Riel as president.

As president, Riel had a veto over decisions made by the legislative council, which could be overturned by a two-thirds vote of council. In no way did Riel’s position as president resemble that of a provincial premier. No one referred to him as premier at the time. That’s a historical fact.

It’s only now that some people want to rewrite history by passing legislation that would make him the first premier of Manitoba.

There is a section in Kinew’s bill, which would instruct the education system to include Riel’s contributions in the school curriculum (if they don’t already), and that’s worth pursuing. If Kinew wants to further honour Riel, he should add an amendment to the bill that would call on the legislative assembly to commemorate the Red River Resistance through some type of display inside the Legislative Building. Surprisingly, there is no such commemoration in the halls of the legislature.

Former premier Greg Selinger added a portrait of Riel to the premiers’ gallery outside the premier’s office on the second floor. It doesn’t identify him as a premier. And there is a framed 1870 legislative council displayed on the wall on the first floor, along with all other legislative assemblies dating back 150 years. However, there’s no explanatory note and nothing about the events that led to the creation of Manitoba.

Honouring Riel and celebrating his accomplishments is laudable. But we shouldn’t add inaccuracies to the historical record by giving Riel a title he never had.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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