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Louis Riel in 1876 | photo: Hall and Lowe photographers

Louis Riel in 1876 | photo: Hall and Lowe photographers

Ideas

a day for Louis Riel

by Marianne Cerilli | February 15, 2008

“This holiday gives recognition to a great man who was once portrayed as a traitor and today is rightfully acclaimed as a leader of the Métis Nation, a founder of Manitoba."

— David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation

“Louis Riel once reflected on the rights of the small. ‘The great or small,’ he said, ‘these rights must be the same for everyone.’”

— Alasdair Graham, in the Senate | February 5, 2004

On February 18, 2008, Manitoba will celebrate its first Louis Riel Day. While several other provinces take time off for Family Day, Manitoba will focus on one of the most controversial Canadian history-makers, who was hanged for treason on November 16, 1885, in connection with the death of Orangeman Thomas Scott.

The new statutory holiday is particularly significant for Manitoba’s Métis, Aboriginal people, and Francophone population. However, all believers in human rights and the importance of community voice can feel proud of recognizing Louis Riel Day.

The way that the day came to be would make its namesake proud.

Initially, when talk of a new winter holiday began, the provincial government said it would be too costly for business. The opposition parties then argued for it, and media and call-in shows expanded the debate. A resolution to the ruling New Democratic Party’s convention pushed the government to embrace the notion of a new provincial holiday.

In April, 2007, it launched a community process to name the day. It was a democratic move that turned back to Manitobans the act of naming a new holiday through a school contest.

Eleven schools recommended Louis Riel Day – a hands-down winner over Family Day, Children’s Day, Heritage Day, Nellie McClung or Duff Roblin Day. Their choice is a victory for minority groups, as well as for the Manitoba school curriculum – as a result of it, the cover of a social studies teachers’ guide has a photo of a Riel statue. The guide itself emphasizes Aboriginal history, including the 1982 Canadian Charter recognition of three Aboriginal groups – Indians, Inuit and Métis.

While other provinces have chosen a bland approach when naming their new day off, Manitobans celebrate their multicultural roots. The day also dares to take a stand, just as Louis Riel changed the course of Canadian history by taking a stand. He asserted the rights of Canadian French-speaking people – for the Métis and Catholic minorities of the west – in the face of the white Protestant English and Orangemen from Ontario.

The actions of Riel lead to the Manitoba Act, our first provisional government (1869-70), and ensured that – at least unofficially – Manitoba is a bilingual province.

Historian Colin Mackie – the heritage program manager for the Festival du Voyageur – explained that, when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to Canada, Métis landholders had land taken right out from under them. They had been in the Winnipeg area for two generations. The Red River Rebellion soon followed.

On the other hand, “if it had been ten years later when the railway was established, a lot more of western Canada may have become part of the U.S.”

(Don’t know anything about Rupert’s Land, or why it is important to what Canada is now? Close your eyes while thinking of northern Québec, Ontario north of the Laurentian watershed, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and portions of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. That was Rupert’s Land.)

What Canada would have been like without Riel’s Red River Rebellion can be debated. However, his effort to secure the rights of Métis, French and other minorities continues today. The spirit of Riel is alive in Manitoba, and is symbolized in both the selection of Louis Riel Day and what it represents for many Manitobans who still work for equality, inclusion and a strong political voice.

With Winnipeg’s Métis population the province’s fastest growing, the naming of the province’s new winter holiday could be a sign of things to come.

The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) is taking a land claim in Winnipeg to the Supreme Court of Canada. There are lessons in Riel’s story about support for self-determination and coming to terms with the impacts of colonialism. Just as the perception of Riel has changed with time, the status of all Aboriginal peoples must.

The story of Riel Day reinforces that human rights go hand-in-hand with democracy, and that when the people lead, the leaders will follow.

The MMF and Festivale du Voyageur will celebrate Riel Day in period clothes. The list of rights asserted by Riel will be read at a ceremony. There will also be Machif language and Métis sash-making workshops, stories and lectures.

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