MMF Message from the President – Feb.11, 2008
It has been said that history is written by those who hang heroes. Unfortunately this is very often true. For many years Louis Riel was wrongly considered a traitor by many Canadians and he was a hero to very few outside the Metis community and those in Quebec. The Metis ourselves became known as the Forgotten People.
Fortunately this biased interpretation of our history is now changing. This coming week the Metis along with our fellow Manitoba Citizens are about to celebrate Louis Riel’s life and achievements during the new statutory holiday Louis Riel Day.In 1869, in its expansion westward, Canada attempted to take Rupert’s Land and the Northwest without negotiating an agreement with the Metis. While still in his twenties, Louis Riel led the resistance to the transfer. Subsequently he was elected President of the Provisional Government and drafted the Bill of Rights leading to the 1870 founding of Manitoba.
Afterwards he was elected to Parliament three times but was prevented each time from taking his seat in Ottawa while being sought by soldiers, assassins and bounty hunters. Living in exile in Montana, he was asked to help the Metis in Northern Saskatchewan. After the 1885 Battle of Batoche, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald promised Riel “shall hang, though every dog in Quebec shall bark in his favour.”
True to Macdonald’s words, our Metis leader was executed. It was for Riel’s principled beliefs that he died. Following the Battle of Batoche he could have escaped to the United States, but he stayed, offered himself up for arrest, and went to trial to reveal to the world the injustices committed against the Metis.
Riel should have had a jury of his peers. If he had been tried in Manitoba, then a part of Canada, he would have been tried under Canadian law and he would have surely had Metis jurors on a full twelve-person jury. On the other hand, in Regina under territorial law, he was tried by a hand-picked six-person jury completely Anglo Saxon, Protestant, and English-speaking.
In Manitoba, he would also have had independent Judge. Instead, in the Northwest Territories, he faced a stipendiary magistrate who was also a political and legal advisor to the government of Canada. Clearly the Macdonald government manipulated the court and took every step necessary to ensure a guilty verdict.
It was a kangaroo court and show trial. The trial was not an independent quest for justice. MacDonald had orchestrated the deadly outcome. It was a cold and calculated act of vengeance and, as I have always maintained, a judicially-sanctioned assassination.
His death had an immediate and lasting effect on Metis and Quebec nationalism. Afterwards, Macdonald was burned in effigy in Montreal. There were mass protest rallies, denunciations, and a realigning of Canadian politics affecting governments for over a hundred years.
In the 1800’s German poet and philosopher Heinrich Heine said “one should forgive one’s enemies, but not before they are hanged.” Riel was treacherously hanged without mercy, and although there is nothing Riel did that needs to be forgiven, Canadians are now recognizing the great gifts Riel gave us.
Students are now being taught an unbiased view of history. They know Louis Riel struggled tirelessly to protect minority rights and defend the freedoms of language and religion. His dream was a multicultural and multiethnic province. Riel is truly a great Canadian. Manitoba is truly a great province. But his work is incomplete. Together we will continue to build on his legacy.
I offer my prayers for our Elders and others who are sick or in poor health and cannot attend the Louis Riel Day celebrations. I also offer my condolences to our families who have experienced the recent loss of a loved one. Believe in Yourself – Believe in Metis – Believe in Manitoba.