Pat Martin’s Bill C-417, An Act respecting Louis Riel .. another way of helping Canada lean forward

Nov 17th, 2010 | By Randall White | Category: Heritage Now

Yesterday marked the 125th anniversary of the hanging of the Canadian Métis leader, Louis Riel,  shortly after 8:15 AM, local time, in what is now Regina, Saskatchewan. The preceding summer he had been tried for treason to the then 18-year-old Dominion of Canada, for his role in the so-called North West Rebellion of 1885. And he had been convicted by “a jury of six composed entirely of English and Scottish Protestants, all from the area immediately surrounding Regina.”

Yesterday as well sympathizers in Regina from the year 2010 “marked the 125th anniversary of Louis Riel’s death …  with a vigil at the spot where the Métis leader was hanged.”

“La compagnie de La Vérendrye members outside St Boniface Cathedral during event to honour Louis Riel Tuesday,” November 16, 2010. PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA.

Meanwhile, back in the federal capital city of the Canada that has now outgrown the quasi-colonial term “Dominion,” Manitoba NDP MP Pat Martin, in “a news conference staged to coincide with the anniversary of Riel’s hanging … demanded Prime Minister Stephen Harper exonerate Riel, [and] recognize him as a father of Manitoba and a champion of the Métis people. ‘Louis Riel was a hero, not a traitor,’ Martin said.” And “history has since been corrected to note Riel wasn’t leading a rebellion against Canada but defending the Métis against an impending attack … ‘Surely this is a case of justice and mercy denied,’ Martin said of Riel … He stressed he doesn’t want Riel pardoned, he wants his conviction overturned and the government to acknowledge he was not guilty.”

The comments section of the CBC website report on yesterday’s Regina vigil certainly shows that Louis Riel remains something of a controversial figure in Canadian history.

Regina court house where Louis Riel was tried for treason, July 1885.

This counterweights website, however, is already on record as a supporter of other recent impulses “to honour the historic Métis leader who did so much to pioneer Canadian diversity today (and who suffered too much for his trouble in his own time).” See, eg: “Happy Louis Riel Day 2010 .. that’s what it should be called everywhere in Canada, coast to coast to coast” ; and “It should be Louis Riel Day in Ontario too.”

So (as the counterweights editors have quietly told me they all agree) it is only logical to offer strong support from this quarter for Manitoba MP Pat Martin’s exoneration proposal, as officially laid out “in his private member’s bill, An Act Respecting Louis Riel.”

* * * *

“Louis Riel is regarded as a folk hero by many for his defence of Métis rights and culture.” National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press.

It is certainly the case that Louis Riel was something of an eccentric individual — as were others in “the Canadian rebellion tradition” that goes all the way back to Pontiac, War Chief of the Ottawa (and still others, some might argue, taking up space in Parliament in Ottawa today?).

Yet for better or worse the Métis leader has come to stand for several key themes in the deeper past of our increasingly more interesting country. And these themes are proving more important in the early 21st century than they may have seemed in the late 19th century era of our first prime minister John A. Macdonald — known for such musty declarations as “Ready, eye, ready” (to stand on guard for the now fallen British empire, etc) and “a British subject I was born, etc, etc.” (We are no longer British subjects in Canada: we are Canadian citizens — a concept unknown in John A. Macdonald’s Dominion.)

To start with, Riel reminds us that “Canada” itself is an aboriginal word, and the country’s real  modern history begins with its aboriginal peoples. Then there is the always potent — and always crucial — French Canadian fact, then and now.

The jury of six English and Scottish Protestants who convicted Riel, July 1885.

And then there is the increasingly important Métis heritage. Louis Riel was a person with a mixed-race or multiracial background (in his case “French and Indian,” as an earlier generation said), as are more and more Canadians today (in an increasingly dazzling array of still more exotic mixtures). He was also a Catholic — in a country that now has more Catholics than Protestants, or Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Deists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, etc, etc. He stands for Canadian cultural and religious diversity, in his own and our own time.

As the final icing on the contemporary Canadian cake, so to speak, he is also, as urged in a Globe and Mail article yesterday by the Vancouver-based lawyer and great-grandniece of Louis Riel himself, Jean Teillet, “now claimed to be the first voice of western alienation.”

As Ms. Teillet has aptly noted as well: “What Riel did in the late 1800s was to unite all those themes into his person. No other individual in our history has done that.”  As best as I can make out, that is exactly why we ought to be exonerating his memory in the 21st century, as Manitoba MP Pat Martin proposes. (The purpose of his Bill C-417, An Act respecting Louis Riel, is to “reverse the conviction of Louis Riel for high treason and to formally recognize and  commemorate his role in the advancement of Canadian Confederation.”)

Métis and First Nations prisoners following the North West Rebellion, August 1885. (Some constables of the North West Mounted Police, wearing their then characteristic white helmets can also been seen in the background.)

Ms. Teillet herself argues that: “We should not contemplate a pardon as a way to serve the politically correct purposes of this day.” But many of the purposes involved (draining the poison from “western alienation” eg?) are not really what most people mean by “politically correct.”  And as Mr. Martin himself has stressed: “he doesn’t want Riel pardoned, he wants his conviction overturned and the government to acknowledge he was not guilty.”

My own view is simply put, in the language of the 1960s when I was as young as I wish I still were now: Right on, Pat Martin, right on. As best as I can make out, at any rate, nothing but good can come from his proposed Bill C-417. And you do not have to be, it seems to me, what Ms. Teillet dismisses as  “a great fan of the search for a shared national narrative” to simply agree that, say whatever else you like, Louis Riel did help pioneer Canadian diversity today — and suffered too much for his trouble in his own time.

Randall White is the author of a number of books, including: Fur Trade to Free Trade: Putting the Canada-US Trade Agreement in Historical Perspective; Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada ; Global spin: Probing the globalization debate : where in the world are we going? ; and Is Canada Trapped in a Time Warp?: Political Symbols in the Age of the Internet.

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  1. This is great stuff, thanks!

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