The commemoration of Louis Riel

Andrew Nikiforuk May 20 1985

The commemoration of Louis Riel

Andrew Nikiforuk May 20 1985

The commemoration of Louis Riel

Andrew Nikiforuk

It was a short and shameful little war that lasted only 51 days. It was fought in coulees and on the open prairie at Cutknife Hill, Fish Creek, Frenchman’s Butte and Batoche. It pitted a poorly trained army of 8,000 Canadian soldiers—made up largely of office clerks and university students from Toronto and Winnipeg—against a guerrilla force of 600 Métis and Plains Indians. The North-West Rebellion that ended on May 15, 1885, began as a peaceful protest by half-breed settlers along the South Saskatchewan River who wanted Ottawa to recognize their modest land claims. It ended with about 100 dead, the destruction of the Métis dream of nationhood and the execution of their visionary leader, Louis Riel.

Although the uprising passed almost as fleetingly as a Prairie storm, it left an indelible mark — some Canadians call it a stain on the nation’s character. Historians regard it as a watershed event in Canadian history and a symbol of some of the basic tensions that rule Canadian life, from the struggle for minority rights to the pressure for regional autonomy. Many Canadians also see it as a tragedy that could have been avoided. “In the moral dimension,” wrote George Woodcock in Gabriel Dumont, his biography of Riel’s resourceful guerrilla chief, “it was the destruction of the

distinctive culture of a small number of people to serve the interests of vastly more numerous intruders.”

The rebellion, or “Resistance,” as the Métis prefer to call it, profoundly affected the Métis people. By smashing the uprising and ensuring the westward surge of a white-dominated culture, Ottawa relegated the descendants of Louis Riel to a marginal existence in Canadian society. And in hanging Riel, the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald unwittingly turned the Métis firebrand into one of Canada’s most potent symbols. While Riel later became the romantic subject of plays, songs, films and an opera, his people fell victim to poverty, disease and despair.

The once-proud offspring of French fur traders and Indian women became, literally, a forgotten people.

As descendants of the rebels gather at graveyards and battlesites to commemorate the rebellion’s centenary this year, Métis leaders hope that the anniversary will

focus new attention on their continuing stuggle for land and self-government-goals that have hardly changed since Riel first proclaimed the provisional government of Saskatchewan on March 19, 1885. Largely impoverished and relegated to bleak rural ghettos, the Métis of the Prairie provinces and the Northwest Territories are still fighting to secure land and their rights as a people. Last week, in an action that echoed Riel’s own strateQ gy of a century ago, dele^ gates representing seven 8 Saskatchewan Métis j groups met in Regina to

1 proclaim a “Métis Gov8 ernment of Canada” and 2 press their case for strengthened political Q and cultural rights. Dez dared Bruce Flamont,

the unemployed Regina management consultant who was acclaimed president: “We are founders of Canada. So governments have to recognize our government. If they don’t, they are hypocrites.”

But the Métis will not be alone in commemorating one of the most vivid and fascinating chapters in Canadian history. This summer Parks Canada predicts that as many as 200,000 tourists will visit the battlefield in Batoche National Park to inspect the carefully preserved rifle pits, battle-scarred church and graves of Métis fighters beside the poplar-lined banks of the South Saskatchewan River. In Calgary the Glenbow Museum has opened an exhibition on Métis culture and history which includes fragments of the rope used to hang Louis Riel on Nov. 16,1885, in Regina. Later this year the University of Calgary will publish a .five-volume set of Riel’s voluminous writings and poetry.

Inevitably, the centenary will reawaken old controversies—and provide a focus for new accusations. Later this month

Les Benjamin, New Democratic Party member of Parliament for Regina West, plans to formally ask Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to revoke Riel’s treason conviction—a request that Ottawa has resisted in the past. For his part, University of Manitoba historian Doug N. Sprague, in a book entitled Sir John A. Macdonald and the Métis, which will be published late this year, argues that the Prime Minister of that day, whom he calls “a genius of political manipulation,” actually helped to precipitate the uprising for his own political purposes by failing to act on Métis grievances.

When the Métis took up arms a century ago in what was then a part of the Northwest Territories, they did so in a frontier already ripe for rebellion. Under the leadership of the great Indian chief Big Bear, the Cree had launched a campaign to unite the Plains Indians and force a renegotiation of their treaties with the white man. Faced with starvation and disease on the reserves—their numbers had declined in a single decade to 7,000 from 30,000—the Indians pressed an unresponsive Ottawa for more food, farming assistance and greater autonomy. White farmers and businessmen were also making ominous protests, demanding land reform and representation in Parliament. “No rebellion would have occurred in 1885,” wrote Bob Beal and Rod Macleod in Prairie Fire, a recently published history of the uprising, “if these two groups had not been seriously alienated by a distant and uncaring government.”

The most serious unrest was among the Métis of the Saskatchewan River Valley. Many of these settlers who had been dispossessed of their farms in Manitoba because of broken government promises began pressing for accurate surveys to protect their Saskatchewan land titles. But Ottawa delayed, and, fearful of losing more land to waves of white settlers, the Métis in 1884 summoned a familiar and trusted leader —Louis Riel—from his exile in the the United States to plead their case.

Riel, who led a Métis uprising in what is now Manitoba, was a passionate and intelligent man obsessed by religious fervor, revolutionary ideas and by the plight of his people. In 1870 he had forced Ottawa to define the language, educational and land rights of the Métis

in Manitoba, before fleeing into exile from a punitive military force for ordering the execution of a drifter from Ontario who had tried to overthrow Riel’s provisional government. His years of exile and his wanderings in the United States, where he became an American

citizen, had made Riel’s beliefs more extreme. By 1885 he harbored a grandiose vision of saving the Canadian northwest from domination by Englishspeaking Protestants. Before Riel set out for Saskatchewan, he prophetically told a priest, “Father, I see a gallows on that hill, and I’m swinging from it.”

At first, Riel’s presence reassured the

Métis. But when a list of grievances failed to win a positive response from Ottawa, tempers flared. Riel, preaching rebellion, declared the establishment of a provisional government. Then, on March 26,1885, a group of armed Métis horsemen led by Dumont clashed with a

detachment of North-West Mounted Police at Duck Lake, leaving 12 policemen dead and 11 wounded in 30 minutes of fierce fighting. The rebellion had begun.

Canada’s first and last colonial war was brief. From Ottawa, Macdonald dispatched a militia force under the command of Gen. Frederick Middleton, a veteran of British army campaigns in India. Equipped with field artillery and a Gatling gun, Middleton’s raw recruits first saw action in a skirmish at Fish Creek. Then the Métis withdrew to their stronghold at Batoche.

On May 9, fighting broke out again and raged for four days—until the Métis’ ammunition ran out. When Batoche fell, Dumont fled | and Riel surrendered. I One of the last Métis to ^ die in the fighting was

1 93-year-old Joseph Ouel'i lette. When told to withy draw, Ouellette calmly 2 replied: “Just a minute. I g want to kill another I Englishman.” £ Stories passed from 1 generation to generation

have kept memories of the rebellion very much alive among the Prairie Métis. Today Nederick McDougall, 81, of St. Louis, Sask., whose grandfather served with Riel, feels differently. “There were people who died there who shouldn’t have,” he said. “There are ways of solving things without going through so much misery.”

While there is no argument about what actually happened at Batoche, academics still find ample scope for controversy about the causes of the rebellion. The University of Manitoba’s Sprague claims to have unearthed 700 littleknown letters and memoranda demonstrating that Macdonald provoked the uprising by deliberately ignoring Métis grievances. According to Sprague, Macdonald “knew he couldn’t recognize half-breed land claims because the government had already reserved the land for the railway and colonization companies”—enterprises backed by Macdonald’s political allies in Toronto and Montreal. Moreover, contends Sprague, Macdonald needed a national crisis to coax more funds from a reluctant Parliament for the financially troubled Canadian Pacific Railway. Macdonald, according to Sprague, conveniently “used the crisis of the rebellion to save the railway, to get Indians back on the reserves and to break the resistance of the Métis.”

The immediate consequences of the rebellion were dramatic. Although the Métis controlled and directed the uprising, the full force of the law fell most heavily on the Indians. While one Métis —Riel—was hanged and seven imprisoned in the aftermath of the uprising, eight Indians went to the gallows and 44 to prison. After the rebellion, freeroaming bands were forced onto reserves, and the Cree’s diplomatic movement for reserve reform was crushed. Noted Sprague: “There was a chance at reconciliation between the government and treaty Indians before 1885. But after the rebellion that was soured for three or four generations.”

It has taken just as long for Riel’s own reputation to evolve from that of a demented rebel to a national hero. After the rebellion, Canada’s English-Protestant population saw the messianic Riel as a mere criminal. But writers in French-Catholic Quebec—where his execution alienated the province from the Conservative party for almost a century — regarded him as a fanatical but faithful defender of francophone culture and language. The upsurge of Canadian nationalist sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s helped to bring about a reevaluation of Riel. Western Canadians have come to regard Riel as a champion of Prairie interests, while francophones view him as a defender of language

rights and socialists see in Riel an enemy of imperialism. Riel, wrote historian Douglas Owram in his 1982 essay, The Myth of Louis Riel,“has become a national myth only because he has evolved as a pluralistic symbol.”

But the people Riel sought to defend a century ago have made scant progress in their pursuit of a better life. Like many of their Indian brethren, the 98,000 Métis living in Canada suffer poverty and unemployment in threadbare settlements scattered across the Prairies and the North. According to 1982 federal statistics, Métis males today are eight times more likely to end up in jail than non-Métis, while a 1977 Native Council Canada report showed that only half of the 24,365 Métis surveyed had received a Grade 9 education, compared to threequarters of the general population.

Today, the Métis seeking solutions to their historic grievances employ lawyers instead of guns. In 1980 the Native Council of Canada scored a significant victory by persuading Ottawa and the provinces to recognize the Métis in the Constitution as one of Canada’s three aboriginal peoples. While Métis organizations in Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories are all fighting to gain or maintain title to land and resources, the largest case is in Manitoba, where the Métis have gone before the Court of Queen’s Bench to claim 1.4 million acres of land. The case is based on the terms of the 1870 Manitoba Act, which guaranteed the Métis large tracts of land, most of which was never received. Noted University of Ottawa law professor Joseph Magnet: “These constitutional guarantees were improperly performed or, in the opinion of some, fraudulently performed or not performed at all.”

Despite the pivotal role the NorthWest Rebellion played in the making of the Canadian nation, the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Batoche will be a relatively low-key affair. The Métis-run Batoche Centenary Corp. originally asked Ottawa for $5 million to create a permanent cultural centre at the Batoche but gratefully received only $200,000 to help pay for this summer’s celebrations, beginning with battle site commemorations and a two-week Métis summer festival at Batoche. The relative indifference on the part of official Ottawa, said Paul Chartrand, the descendant of Métis buffalo hunters and head of University of Manitoba’s native studies department, is “not something unusual—it’s something we learn to live with.” Despite that, Yvon Dumont, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, is satisfied that in the long run “the Métis will take their rightful place in the history books, not as a people who rebelled but as a people who stood up for their rights.”