Louis Riel: Traitor Or Hero?

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Aristotleded24
Louis Riel: Traitor Or Hero?

So since we just had Louis Riel Day here in Manitoba, this little article got me thinking. By the time I was in high school, the viewpoint of Riel as a hero to the Metis people was on the rise and being presented. Currently, here in Manitoba he is very well respected as a key historical figure in the province. Remember that the name for the holiday itself came from school students when the Manitoba government invited submissions to name the new holiday.

So I've essentnially been living in a bubble, and for the most part, the viewpoint of Riel as an important player in Manitoba history isn't really questioned here. Is that the consensus in other places? Is he still viewed as a traitor by some in other parts of the country? I'd be interested to hear thoughts on this.

Misfit Misfit's picture

The highway between Regina and Saskatoon and up to Prince Albert is called the Louis Riel Trail in his honour. He is seen as a hero in Saskatchewan as well.

epaulo13 epaulo13's picture

..don't much like the word hero. but my grandmother once told me that my great grandfather (a farmer) fought/supported along side louis riel for a time. gotta respect that. 

Ken Burch

I think he's pretty much seen as a traitor by the Anglo-Canadian Protestant right and far right.  The Ontario Orange Order probably hates him more than anybody who was in the Revolt of 1837 OR the Easter Rising.  As a symbol of Indigenous resistance, he is most likely despised by anybody who wants the damn pipelines.

kropotkin1951

Louis Reil is a fascinating historical figure. The student union pub at the Universtiy of Saskachewan in Saskatoon is called Louis.

I read a great novel this year called; Song of Batoche by Maia Caron. It is a "fictional" retelling of the Battle of Batoche by a Metis writer who spent years researching the events that the Canadian government now "officially" calls the Northwest Resistance. That was a reconciliation thing a decade or so ago but any online search will show in normal usage Canadian sites call it the NorthWest Rebellion. So much for Candians investing in reconciliation.

The one thing all historians agree on is that a police officer fired the first shot that started the shooting war. My brother-in law is Metis and his paternal ancestors fought at Batoche and his maternal ones fought with the Canadians.

voice of the damned

Is he still viewed as a traitor by some in other parts of the country?

In 1970s Alberta, I was told by my Grade 3 teacher(who liked to spout off to her captive audience about whatever was irking her on a given day) that Riel was a traitor(or some such), an opinion confirmed later that week by my conservative anglophone father, who called him a "troublemaker". But this was contradicted by my mother, who hails from Manitoba and said he was "a good guy". Though I doubt she knew much more about him than that most everyone else in Manitoba regards him as a hero.

I also remember some of the right-wing western separatists in the early 80s talking him up as a hero, presumbaly because he fought against central Canadian domination.

And there is now a school in Calgary named after him, I'm assuming because of his role in Metis history, not whatever cache he enjoyed among the separatist crowd.

Overall, though, you'd probably have to go pretty far back to find a time when large numbers of Albertans had strong opinions either way about Louis Riel.  

 

voice of the damned

Ken Burch wrote:

 As a symbol of Indigenous resistance, he is most likely despised by anybody who wants the damn pipelines.

 

I doubt that the historical memory of most people who complain about the lack of pipelines would go back far enough for them to "despise" Louis Riel. Maybe if you sat them down and explained who he was and what he did, and made an explicit connection to what was going on with Transmountain and Coastal Gas, they might agree that he was a bastard, but even then, he still wouldn't play a prominent role in their demonology.

voice of the damned

To give you an idea of how admiration for Riel(such as it is) can cross ideological lines in the west, David Kilgour, a right-wing Tory and later Liberal MP from Alberta, had a pro-Riel chapter in his 1988 book on western Canadian alienation...

The transformation of the founder of Manitoba from a regional agitator and national traitor to a major Western Canadian hero in our popular mind has taken much of a century. For a long while, Canadian historians because of partisanship or for other reasons ignored the details of his life. Even the Makers of Canada collection of biographies published in 1905-1908 did not include him. Today, as the Winnipeg historian J.M. Bumsted points out, "he is the only major Canadian whose papers have been collected and published with the full panoply of scholarly apparatus developed for figures like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams...." To Canada’s Native people, Riel has come to symbolize their aspiration for a fuller share in our national life, "What Canadians do not understand is that Louis Riel is a Father of Canadian Confederation.... He intuitively sensed the future for Canada and wanted to guarantee a place for Métis people in that future. The fact that he was betrayed and martyred for his efforts only guarantees the fact that today he is hailed by his people as a freedom fighter of the highest order...," says Louis Bruyere. This sketch will make a case that Riel’s statues should stand not only near the legislature buildings in Winnipeg and Regina, as they now do, but in prominent places in all four western and northern capitals, and in Ottawa itself.

Assuming that Kilgour in his old-age has any opinion on the building of pipelines, I'd wager it was a positive one.

https://tinyurl.com/ugq9bf3

 

 

 

NorthReport

Batoche is a wonderful place to visit - every Canadian would benefit from a visit there.

Misfit Misfit's picture

kropotkin1951 wrote:

Louis Reil is a fascinating historical figure. The student union pub at the Universtiy of Saskachewan in Saskatoon is called Louis.


 

Yes. And the main entrance to the campus and kiosk area at that building where Louis' pub is located is called "Place Riel" and is said with French pronounciation.

I will likely be exposing my ignorance. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan. We covered the Riel Resistances in our grades 6 and 12 Social Studies classes. They were referred to as the Riel Rebellions. We were taught in both grades that the French and the Metis had established settlements along the Red River that were being threatened and not acknowledged by the Canadian government. Then, after the first uprising, the French and Métis resettled at Batoche. The same thing happened again.

In both cases, the Canadian government were portrayed at school as villains and that the French and the Métis had no other recourse but to fight for their legitimate right to exist and to be there.

Secondly, the Riel Resistances were celebrated as rightful rebellions. We learned in school that there were four rebellions in our history: one in Quebec, one in Toronto, and the two out west. The rebellions in Ontario and Quebec were small and the one in Toronto was portrayed as being quite embarrassing. The Riel Rebellions were seen as being really cool and very legitimate gun slinging American style standoffs.

I do know that when Canadian and American armies lost battles with First Nations forces that they were referred to as massacres. I did not know that the term Rebellion has strong negative connotations as well.

I would will stress that the Métis and the French were seen as the protagonists and that the Canadian government was seen as the unreasonable villain. Louis Riel was also portrayed as being crazy which detracted from his role as the leader. Gabriel Dumont was portrayed as the more effective assistant to Riel. I'd like to know if this mentally unstable side to Louis Riel was true or if it was used as a tool to delegitimizate his cause.

 

Pondering

In Quebec, even way back in 60s history books, he was the good guy.

voice of the damned

Misfit wrote:

I will likely be exposing my ignorance. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan. We covered the Riel Resistances in our grades 6 and 12 Social Studies classes. They were referred to as the Riel Rebellions. We were taught in both grades that the French and the Metis had established settlements along the Red River that were being threatened and not acknowledged by the Canadian government. Then, after the first uprising, the French and Métis resettled at Batoche. The same thing happened again.

In both cases, the Canadian government were portrayed at school as villains and that the French and the Métis had no other recourse but to fight for their legitimate right to exist and to be there.

In my Alberta junior-high social studies class, we also had a section on the Metis, complete with its own textbook. I believe the interpretation presented was more-or-less the same as you describe, ie. the Metis were treated unjustl;y, specifically in relation to the building of the railroad. I doubt this had much impact on the thinking of the students either way, after they'd regurgitated it for the exam.

As for Riel's sanity or lack thereof, one thing I've somettimes heard mentioned are his religious views, apparently wanting to establish some sort of western-hemisphere Vatican on the prairie, which always came off souding kind of kooky. I also recall an interview on local Edmonton TV with a PoliSci prof, who said that Riel's worldview was so "right-wing", he didn't understand how anyone in the modern era could see him as relevant. (Of course, by contemporary standards, MacDonald and his Orangemen weren't exactly progressive either.)

One thing I've also heard is that Riel took a colonialist attitude toward other First Nations people, and thought the Metis had the right to lord it over them. I've never confirmed this, though if Riel was as devoutly Catholic as he is described, it's not too far-fetched to think he would have taken a dim view of anyone practicing "pagan" faiths.

kropotkin1951

The novel, Song of Batoche deals extensively with his mental health and its effects on the community. The park at Batoche is suberb but anyone in the area should make a point of going to the Duck Lake museum, it is small but very well done. Hell while your add it go to Wanuskewin as well.

https://wanuskewin.com/

Left Turn Left Turn's picture

Pondering wrote:
In Quebec, even way back in 60s history books, he was the good guy.

Louis Riel and his fellow Métis were regarded as heros in Quebec at the time, because they were half-Queébecois. The Conservatives had won a large majority of the seats in Quebec in 1867, but after John A. Macdonald's Conservative government expelled the Métis from their Red River settlements, the Liberals won a narrow majority of the seats in Quebec in 1872.

The 1885 crushing of the Métis settlement at Batoche and the hanging of Riel and the other Métis leaders -- Again at the behest of John A. Macdonald's Conservatives -- solidified Québecois hatred of the Conservatives. Since then, the Conservatives have only won a majority of the seats in Quebec in 1958, 1984, and 1988.

voice of the damned

Left Turn wrote:

The 1885 crushing of the Métis settlement at Batoche and the hanging of Riel and the other Métis leaders -- Again at the behest of John A. Macdonald's Conservatives -- solidified Québecois hatred of the Conservatives. Since then, the Conservatives have only won a majority of the seats in Quebec in 1958, 1984, and 1988.

I think it's safe to say, though, that Quebec's hatred of the Conservatives had dissipated enough by 1958 for them to give a majority of their seats to the Conservatives, and that after those seats were lost to other parties in the next election, Quebec did not go back to hating the Conservatives specifically over the hanging of Riel.

Though, obviously, in a time-line where Riel doesn't get hung, the Conservatives could possibly have maintained a stronger permanent base in the province that would have allowed them to win a few more majorities than they have in real life.