It should be Louis Riel Day in Ontario too

Feb 18th, 2008 | By | Category: Heritage Now

The real “Central Canada” in the year 2008 is arguably best defined as the two provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. Quebec nowadays, even in Montreal, is a world unto itself (and the Quebecois have recently been certified as a nation by no less an authority than the Canadian House of Commons). The real Western Canada starts at Saskatchewan. Both Ontario and Manitoba have almost identical provincial flags, etc, etc.

In this same spirit, it is intriguing that the provincial governments of both Ontario and Manitoba have declared a new public holiday on Monday, February 18, 2008. (Actually Alberta and then Saskatchewan started all this, but set that aside for now.) In Ontario the holiday is going to be boringly known as Family Day. In Manitoba, thanks to some imaginative schoolchildren, it will be called Louis Riel Day. And, believe it or not, there is an excellent case for calling it Louis Riel Day in Ontario too – in honour of one of the truly interesting characters from the Canadian past, who also nicely symbolizes the diverse Canadian future today.

Who was Louis Riel?

The story of Louis Riel is well served on the Internet in 2008. There are, just as examples, quite good short biographies from: the University of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Canadian Confederation series from Library and Archives Canada, and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

Some brief excerpts from the University of Saskatchewan biography may help refresh aging memories. [By way of background, note that Louis Riel’s “people” were the unique “mixed-blood” Indian-European and originally mostly French and Indian or Metis peoples, spawned by the ancient Fur Trade in Canada]:

“Louis Riel, a leader of his people in their resistance against the Canadian government in the Canadian Northwest, is perhaps the most controversial figure in Canadian historiography … He was born in the Red River Settlement (in what is now Manitoba) in 1844. A promising student, he was sent to Montreal to train for the priesthood, but he never graduated … by 1868 Riel was back in the Red River area,” where he “quickly emerged as a leader among the Metis …

“In 1869-1870 he headed a provisional government, which” after some agitation against the new Canadian federal government in Ottawa led to the establishment of “Manitoba as a province and provided some protection for French language rights … Riel’s leadership in the agitation, especially his decision to execute a Canadian named Thomas Scott, enraged anti-Catholic and anti-French sentiment in Ontario. Although chosen for a seat in the House of Commons on three occasions, he was unable to take his seat in the house. In 1875, Riel’s role in the death of Scott resulted in his exile from Canada.”

A decade later, Louis Riel returned to Canada, to play his second and final part in the early history of the confederation of 1867. “In 1884, while teaching in Montana” he “was asked by a delegation from the community of Metis from the south branch of the Saskatchewan river to present their grievances to the Canadian government.” The federal government “ignored Metis concerns. By March of 1885, Métis patience was exhausted and a provisional government was declared … Riel was the undisputed spiritual and political head of the” resulting “short-lived 1885 Rebellion” [of the northwest Metis against the Government of Canada].

The rebellion was defeated by Canadian government forces, hurried west on the new Canadian Pacific Railway. And then: “On May 15, shortly after the fall of Batoche, Riel surrendered to Canadian forces and was taken to Regina to stand trial for treason … He personally rejected attempts by his defence counsel to prove he was not guilty by reason of insanity. On 1 August 1885, a jury of six English-speaking Protestants found Riel guilty but recommended mercy. Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death … He was hanged in Regina on 16 November, 1885. His execution was widely opposed in Quebec and had lasting political ramifications.”

Louis Riel in Ontario and Quebec and Western Canada … then and now …

In an earlier era it was often enough said that Louis Riel was regarded as a traitor to the new Canadian confederation of 1867 in English-speaking Protestant Ontario – and as a martyr in French-speaking Catholic Quebec.

In the old Canadian Northwest that has nowadays become Western Canada there were some parallel attitudes. For the aboriginal, Métis, and French Canadian peoples whom the golden age of the fur trade had brought together in a unique early modern Canadian society, Riel was also a martyr - who died for a better future that was not to be. On the other hand, for many new English-speaking Protestant settlers on a westward-moving family-farm frontier – from Ontario, but equally from the British North American Maritime Provinces, and the adjacent Anglo-American frontier in the United States – Louis Riel was a traitor, who stood for a defeated old Canadian Northwest of the fur trade that was too Catholic, aboriginal, “feudal” and/or economically backward, and half-breed “French and Indian.”

More recently, all these earlier attitudes have been thrown into question. Quebec has become most concerned to secure a francophone majority Canadian regional democracy inside its own provincial borders. For better or worse, Louis Riel’s failure to win a place of consequence for the old French Catholic Canada in the new Canadian West after 1867 is no longer a cause with much resonance on the banks of the lower St. Lawrence River.

Similarly, a generation and more of at least somewhat increased interest in Ontario’s history as a province has highlighted how that province’s 19th century Protestant “Orangemen,” who supported John A. Macdonald’s Conservative federal government in Ottawa and were enraged by Louis Riel’s execution of Thomas Scott, did not vote for the Liberal Ontario provincial governments led by Oliver Mowat, who served as premier of Ontario without interruption from 1872 to 1896. And again at least a few more students of such subjects are now aware that Premier Mowat actually extended French language rights in Ontario schools, and declared in 1885 (the same year as the Northwest or Second Riel Rebellion): “With respect to Roman Catholics , I have endeavoured to show to our mixed community that an earnest, fair-minded Protestant Premier may be true to his Protestantism, and yet be entitled to the confidence of thinking Roman Catholics.”

In Western Canada itself Louis Riel has taken on a new life as a defender of Western regional interests against the depredations of an insensitive central government in Ottawa, and such predatory centralizing economic institutions as the Canadian Pacific Railway. And the Louis Riel who was once seen as a scourge of the Anglo-American frontier in the Red River district, is now almost officially regarded as the “founder of Manitoba.” (Which no doubt helps explain why “a contest at the province’s schools” came up with the name Louis Riel Day for the province’s new statutory holiday in February.)

Louis Riel’s “Métis peoples of Canada” are no longer the half-breed pariahs of an earlier stodgy (and not to say even quite overtly racist) British North America. They are now recognized in Canada’s new Constitution Act 1982. They are acquiring fresh prestige in the early 21st century as precursors of the wide assortment of mixed race peoples with origins around the globe, who play an increasingly important part in the demography of present-day Canada. And Riel’s Red River and Northwest Rebellions of 1869-70 and 1884-85 can be plausibly enough seen as part of a wider historical sequence that includes the Upper and Lower Canadian Rebellions of 1837-38 – and that played important parts in the growth of what the Constitution Act 1982 also calls the “free and democratic society” in Canada today.

Donald Smith’s new book on the man from Ontario who became Louis Riel’s friend …

If all these more recent attitudinal (and historiographical) changes, in various parts of the country, are not enough to convince you that what is now rather anaemically being called Family Day in Ontario ought to be called Louis Riel Day – as it is in Manitoba next door – consider a new book by the Canadian historian Donald B. Smith.

In a now long and quite distinguished career, Professor Smith (who teaches at the University of Calgary) has specialized in studying various depths of cultural diversity in the real Canadian past. His latest book, Honor Jaxon: Prairie Visionary, was released by Coteau Books of Regina this past October. But it ties in with both Manitoba’s Louis Riel Day and Ontario’s Family Day this February 18, 2008 in some intriguing ways. Two February 16 newspaper articles on the subject try to make this clear – one by Donald Smith himself in the Edmonton Journal, and one by the southwestern Ontario journalist Debora Van Brenk in the London Free Press.

Those deeply interested in the subject can consult these two articles themselves, in depth. But the summary that heads up Ms. Van Brenk’s piece more briefly suggests something of what is involved: “He was born into a devout Methodist family, raised in conservative Wingham and educated in the classics in Clinton and Toronto. William Henry Jackson went on to become a champion of Metis rights and personal secretary to Louis Riel during the Rebellion of 1885. But Jackson, who would change his name to Honore Jaxon and become a celebrity in Chicago and New York, has all but vanished from local records.”

Donald Smith’s article in the Edmonton Journal makes the connection with the Manitoba holiday more directly. This “coming Monday, Manitoba will mark the first-ever Louis Riel Day, a new provincial holiday to be observed annually on the third Monday in February. Manitoba’s recognition of its founder, who also led the 1885 resistance in Saskatchewan, brings to mind the fascinating life story of his English Canadian secretary in 1885: William Henry Jackson, later known as Honor Jaxon, [who] died in New York City at the age of 90, on Jan. 10, 1952.”

One point about all this as far as Ontario goes is that Jackson (or Jaxon) was, as Donald Smith explains: “born and raised in Ontario.” He “studied several years at the University of Toronto,” and “then in the early 1880s, followed his family west to Prince Albert [in what is now Saskatchewan] where his father opened a store … Shortly after his arrival the local farmers’ union, formed by Eastern Canadian settlers and local English-speaking Metis, selected young Jackson as their secretary. Vigorously, he attacked Ottawa’s harsh land regulations and its maladministration of the North West.” He “also saw justice in the Metis cause and volunteered to serve as [Louis] Riel’s secretary.”

Another point for Ontario is simply that Louis Riel Day is a much more interesting name for the new February holiday than Family Day. Using this name would atone as well for those late 19th century Ontarians whose outrage at Riel’s treatment of Thomas Scott no doubt did help lead to his sad execution in Regina, in the middle of November 1885.

It would also help celebrate the new mixed-race Metis peoples from all corners of the global village, who are increasingly playing such an important role in Ontario’s evolving demography today.

And in a province that still takes some pride in putting “Canada first” rather than its own narrow provincial interests, it would recognize the serious and even quite deep historical truth that Louis Riel was and is no kind of traitor to the country of his birth. Nowadays he qualifies as one of the founders not just of Manitoba but of Canada at large, in both official languages and with its earliest aboriginal and mixed-race origins, from coast to coast to coast.

Louis Riel Day from coast to coast to coast … ?

In fact, it was the Province of Alberta that started the February “Family Day” as a statutory winter holiday in Canada, in 1990. Then Saskatchewan subsequently joined in.

Now, in 2008, Ontario and Manitoba are joining the party too. But Ontario has stuck with the (too characteristically boring Canadian) name of Family Day. Only Manitoba has come up with a much more interesting nomenclature – that quite arguably has at least as much relevance for Alberta and Saskatchewan as it does for Ontario too.

And then when you really start to think about it, why shouldn’t there be a Louis Riel Day in all 10 provinces and three northern territories? He is again, quite arguably, the kind of bilingual, aboriginal, mixed-race figure from the past whose intrigue and relevance all Canadians – old, new, and whatever – ought to be able to at least vaguely agree on in the early 21st century. And Canada’s most populous province of Ontario could start this movement off, by changing the name of its Family Day to Louis Riel Day next year, in 2009. (Note too that the Ontario government has already more or less officially blessed an earlier local version of Louis Riel Day – viewed as the anniversary of his November 16 execution in 1885.)

Meanwhile, this year I hope I’m not being too bold if, chained to my computer here on the shores of Lake Ontario, with small mountains of snow all around outside, I just say Happy Louis Riel Day anyway, wherever you are and whether you’re actually on holiday or not. Even now this country is far from perfect, as the ghost of Louis Riel would no doubt agree. But it has made some progress since he was hanged in Regina more than 120 years ago. Some further progress still seems in the wind, one way or another. Say whatever else you like, most of us are still quite lucky to live here. And that’s enough reason to celebrate something, even in the Canadian winter.

Randall White is the author of a number of books, including Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada, and Ontario Since 1985.

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