Louis Riel Day In November: What Can We Learn?

November 16 is Louis Riel Day for Métis across Canada; it’s a national remembrance that is different from the Louis Riel Day held in Manitoba in February. November 16 was chosen because, on this day in 1885, Louis Riel was executed for leading the Northwest Resistance in defence of Métis rights.1 Ceremonies are held each year to honour his memory and legacy, and there’s much we can learn from these commemorations – especially in how the history of our nation is taught.

The Story of Louis Riel

Louis Riel is considered the “Father of Manitoba,” but it’s his legacy as a defender of the Métis way of life that established him as a hero and icon.2 Riel was the leader of the Provisional Government of the Red River Settlement, negotiating with the government of Canada to establish Manitoba as a Province in 1870 out from under the corporate rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company. His rebelliousness was focused on preserving the culture and rights of Métis peoples and their homelands in the Northwest as these lands progressively shrunk under colonial expansion.

The Métis were under almost constant attack from the Canadian Party, a group of anti-French, anti-Catholic, anti-Indigenous English Canadians that demanded that the Red River Colony, which was then governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, be annexed to the fledgling country of Canada. One member, Thomas Scott, was a member of a party that attacked Upper Fort Garry. After the attack, Scott was captured by the Red River Colony, and after causing trouble and trying to escape multiple times, the provisional government – led by Louis Riel – executed him on March 4, 1870.

Despite anti-Rebellion propaganda and pictures that make it into school textbooks, there’s no concrete evidence that Riel personally executed Scott. Regardless, the order led to outcries through English-speaking Canada, especially in Thomas Scott’s home province of Ontario. It culminated with the Wolseley expedition, a military force sent by Prime Minister Macdonald under the pretence of protecting “Canada” from American annexation – they ended up taking Fort Garry and extinguishing the Red River Rebellion.

In the years that followed, Riel was turned into a traitor, thanks in no small part to the $5000 bounty put on his head by the Premier of Ontario3; he found asylum in Dakota Country, Quebec, then Montana, even as he was elected multiple times to the House of Commons (he never was able to take his seat). He returned to the Prairies after an invitation to lead a Métis rebellion in Saskatchewan that is known as the North-West Rebellion. His action failed, and Riel was tried by an all-white, all-Protestant jury and hung for treason by the Canadian government on November 16, 1885.

In the years since the Red River and North-West Rebellions, Riel’s position has softened from a treasonous individual into a folk or anti-hero. A ceremony is held every year at the Provincial Legislature at Queen’s Park; the Legislature is where the price was put on Louis Riel’s head, and a monument to the Northwest Rebellion recognizes the soldiers who fought against the Métis. This memorial to heroism was not given to Métis people across Canada – they were called traitors and many generations after had to hide their Métis culture and heritage.4

Louis Riel has never stopped being a hero to Métis across the country, though. To counter decades of disparaging narratives about Riel, the Red River Rebellion, and the North-West Rebellion, Métis citizens, chartered Community Councils, and communities across the country, including the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO), hold events on November 16. These celebrate Métis culture, recognize the many contributions of the Métis to Canada, and to highlight the struggles that Métis have faced and continue to face in the many years since the Red River Rebellion.


Learning From Louis Riel Day: The Contributions Of Métis And Indigenous People

Although Louis Riel Day commemorates a tragic part of Canada’s history, Métis communities use it to commemorate their culture and the progress they have made in the face of social and governmental pressure to hide it. They see these celebrations as a continuance of Riel’s dream, where the Métis taking their rightful place within Confederation. This is because, while his political ambitions on behalf of a Métis nation separate from Canada failed, his fight for cultural preservation did not.

Riel helped negotiate Manitoba into Confederation in a way that protected the minority language rights of the province. His vision of a Canada, if the Métis Nation were to join it, was one that secured Métis rights.5 This holiday, while unofficial (outside Manitoba in February, which coincides with Family Day in Ontario), is one way Canada’s Indigenous, Inuit, and Métis population is changing the narrative of history away from the colonial interpretation and towards one that celebrates achievements made in recognizing their culture.

This way, all Canadians can recognize the diverse voices behind their progress and accept the contributions of the Métis Nation as a step towards reconciliation.6

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