Louis Riel and his legacy in our nation’s history are well-documented, if not a bit fragmented.
The narrative surrounding Riel, who was hanged for treason on Nov. 16, 1885 in Regina, Sask., has evolved over the years.
To some, he was the treasonous outlaw who led not one but two uprisings against the Canadian government of Sir John A. Macdonald.
To others, the devout Catholic and former seminarian who would later break from the Church while in exile in Montana — from where he was elected three times to the House of Commons, though his exile prevented him from taking his seat — was the murderous megalomaniac “prophet” with delusions of grandeur who lost his way as his mental and moral capacities declined.
Yet to Canada’s Métis people, he remains an important, and heroic, figure. It may not have always been that way, but a new — or perhaps renewed — pride in Métis heritage and Riel is rising among the people who descended from the interracial mixing of the first European settlers and those who were already here.
The Regina Riel Métis Council in the Saskatchewan capital has played a large role in commemorating the memory of the man known as one of the founders of Manitoba who became the political leader fighting for the rights of the Metis people on the Canadian Prairies in the late 1800s.
The council hosts an annual vigil on Nov. 16 to mark the life and death of Riel at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Depot Division, where Riel was jailed in his final days before being sent to the gallows.
“It came out of necessity,” said Doug Jarvis of the Regina Riel Métis Council in explaining why the vigil has been an annual event for the last 11 years.
Riel is a folk hero to francophones, Catholic nationalists, the indigenous rights movement, but most importantly to the Métis people. It wasn’t always that way. Jarvis said many Métis did not flaunt their ethnicity.
“The people that are Métis here that could hide, hid. A lot of pale Métis did not want to be associated just because of the negative connotation with being (Indigenous),” said Jarvis.
“I think what’s happened is we’ve decided that’s enough of that. We’re going to celebrate this man who fought not only for our rights but for the rights of settlers who came out here, too.”
The vigil begins with a gathering at Optimist Park about a kilometre from Depot Division, the RCMP’s training grounds for all its officers. Participants are encouraged to wear their finest Metis clothing, including capotes and sashes, and then proceed to the site where Riel was hanged, near the RCMP chapel.
From there, prayers are said and the vigil continues in the chapel where discussion focuses on what Riel meant to the Métis people. Afterwards, the celebrations continue at the Indigenous Christian Fellowship building where traditional Métis foods are shared.
The RCMP and the council have forged a close relationship through the vigil over the past few years. Capt. Jean Morisset, chaplaincy co-ordinator at Depot Division, said it is in a spirit of reconciliation that the force welcomes the Métis each year, despite some lingering tensions.
“To say that there is not some remaining heartache, to say it doesn’t exist, would be foolish on our part,” said Morisset, a Pentecostal minister. “Of course there have been some hard feelings that have been ongoing since 1885. That said… I see taking place a healing and reconciliation.”
The RCMP, Morisset said, has actually taken reconciliation to heart even before the federal government’s promotion of healing since the Truth and Reconciliation report’s findings.
“I believe the message of Louis Riel himself was not of separation, not of destruction, but to come together as a nation and provide a better tomorrow,” said Morisset.
Jarvis said the RCMP have been wonderful partners, yet there remains much work to do in reconciling with Canadians as a whole.
“Structurally, there still is tension,” said Jarvis. “Not as bad as it would have been 25 years ago, but there is still tension. That’s just the legacy of colonization.”
What Jarvis would like to remember most about Riel is that he was just a regular human being, warts and all, “like you and me.”
A few years back Jarvis was in the archives in St. Boniface, Man., and came upon a scholar researching Riel. He was going through letters Riel had written, including one from Nov. 15, 1885, the day before he died.
“You read the letters and you realize here’s a man who is writing home to his mom and his wife and the people in his life back home who he fought for and the words in it were just so humbling because he was just a guy like you and me. He tried to effect change in a positive way. It didn’t work out but it still can. I think that’s the message people need.”