The founding father of the Canadian province of Manitoba was later hanged as a traitor to Canada.  Today we celebrate him!  (This diary was fist published on Louis Riel day, 2011).

Today the Canadian province of Manitoba is celebrating its newest statutory holiday: Louis Riel Day.  The holiday was created in February of 2007 during a particularly long and brutal cold snap.  A popular morning radio DJ began a listener petition and sparked what soon became a province-wide outcry for a February statutory holiday.  The government considered the objections of the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce for as long as it takes for piss to freeze in February about 2 seconds before warmly embracing the will of the people.  Now that's democratic government in action.

Follow me after the fold for the strange and tragic story of Louis Riel and his much contested legacy.

For those who don't know the edifying story of Louis Riel (now available in comic book form!), he was a Métis leader who led the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and headed the short-lived métis provisional government that took over the colony as a result.   The rebellion was in response to the planned addition of the Red River colony to the newly created country of Canada - a union undertaken without consulting or obtaining the consent of the mostly Métis local population.

The rebellion was successful and forced the Canadian government to admit the Red River colony to Canada as the province of Manitoba, with guarantees for Catholic and francophone rights within the province, as well as guarantees of land "reserved for the children of the métis."  Louis Riel is therefore regarded as the 'founding father' of the province of Manitoba, a 'father of Canadian Confederation' and an early advocate for aboriginal rights within Canada.

(Nearly all of these rights were (unconstitutionally) taken away within a couple decades, however, as the province was swamped with anglo-Protestant settlers and Orangemen (a buch of British Protestant supremacist thugs).  Only in the last couple of decades have these rights been gradually (and incompletely) restored.    Part of this restoration included the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1985 that all of Manitoba's laws passed since 1890, since they were passed in English only, were unconstitutional  and of no force or effect! There is also currently a case pending before the Supreme Court of Canada regarding these Métis land claims.)

Far from being given any role in the leadership of the new province Riel was forced into exile (in the US) where he went a bit crazy.  It was during this period that he became convinced that he was 'the prophet of the new world' and that he and the Métis people were destined to restore the vitality and power of the Catholic Church in North America and, eventually, the world.  He even believed the Papal See would be one day relocated to western Canada.

After the Métis were screwed out of their promised land in Manitoba and on their way to being forced off the land they had retreated to in Saskatchewan, Riel returned to Canada and led another métis rebellion in 1885.   Although the Métis, under the military command of the great general Gabriel Dumont, had an initial military success against a far larger British force, the rebellion was ultimately defeated and Riel was tried and hanged as a traitor. (Dumont escaped into exile in the US, where he was accepted as a political refugee and later joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.) Riel's hanging was widely interpreted in the francophone province of Quebec as a sign that the Canadian west was not open to Catholic francophone setters.  This caused that province to turn its attention inward and set an unfortunate trajectory for french-english relations in Canada for the following century.

Until a generation ago Riel was widely regarded as a traitor and a villain by most of western Canada's non-francophone and non-métis population.   It is only recently that Riel has been rehabilitated as a mainstream historical hero.   The statue pictured at top, of Riel as the 'dignified statesman,' was erected in 1992 in front of the Manitoba Legislature.   It replaced the statue pictured at left (erected in 1970), which was moved to the grounds of the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface.

Less noble perhaps, and certainly less dignified, but in my opinion a more genuine portrait of the tortured tragic hero that was Louis Riel.

Even today, Louis Riel remains a controversial figure.  This poll from today's Winnipeg Free Press shows that 36% of respondents view Riel as either "a traitor to Confederation" or "a cold blooded murderer."  But the story of Louis Riel's legacy, and his rehabilitation, demonstrates that the stories we tell about our collective past are as much a product of our present as of our past.

Oh, and Happy Family Day to the lucky people of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario who also have a day off today!... and I think there is some sort of holiday going on in America, but who can really keep track of all of their obscure provincial customs anyway?

But just in case:  Happy Huckleberry Finn Presidents' Day!


Originally posted to Canadian Kossacks on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 02:04 PM PST.

Also republished by Invisible People, Street Prophets , History for Kossacks, and Native American Netroots.

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