"Practical Results": The Riel Statue Controversy at the Manitoba Legislative Building

Article excerpt

"I hope that after my death my spirit will bring practical results."

   Louis Riel's words as inscribed on the walls surrounding Marcien Lemay's
   and Etienne Gaboury's monument

Canada has been haunted by Riel's spirit for over 130 years. Various historians have sought to illuminate the reasons why this particular spectre appears so frequently in the ideas of Canadians. In "The Myth of Louis Riel," historian Douglas Owram documents a convergence of opinions regarding Riel, arguing that contemporary English-Canadian historians now portray him with the heroic terms that have always been employed by French, Metis, and Aboriginal commentators. (1) Donald Swainson has examined how many popular writers and cultural producers have ensured that Riel's spirit not be allowed any repose, but be put quite deliberately to work: "by the mid-twentieth century ... Riel had become the ultimate Canadian example of the usable in history: he could be looked at in a seemingly infinite number of ways." (2) In G. F. G. Stanley's more flowery terms, "pour chaque Canadien, le veritable visage de Riel est celui dans lequel il se reconnait...." (3) Importantly, it is not always a spectral countenance that contemporary observers are considering. The issue of recognition gains significance in light of the controversy surrounding the two statues of Louis Riel that have stood on the Manitoba Legislative Building grounds. Whether hovering as historical phantasm or incarnated as stone statue, the Riel that people recognize is linked less to his actual historical role than to the needs and desires of the various groups and individuals who seek to animate their struggles through the transcendent spirit of Louis Riel.

The idea of erecting a statue of Louis Riel on the Manitoba Legislative Building grounds seems to have emerged in conjunction with preparations for the celebration of Manitoba's centenary in 1970. Following a public competition, the proposal submitted by Marcien Lemay and Etienne Gaboury was selected. Their monument consisted of an outer shell emblazoned with Riel's name and several quotations from his writings, and a symbolic rendering of Riel in statue form between the walls. Through the juxta-position of the politician and the man, this monument sought to capture the relentless tensions of Riel's life. Unveiled on 31 December 1971, it garnered a mixed reception from Metis and non-Metis people alike.

Over subsequent years, the statue proved a source of controversy. In the late 1980s, a proposed redevelopment of the rear grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building led to a renewed dialogue regarding the statue between the provincial government and the Manitoba Metis Federation. What became a debate over the removal of Lemay's and Gaboury's work appeared resolved when Lemay agreed to the removal on the condition that he be commissioned to sculpt the replacement work. Between 14 and 27 July 1994, a group of individuals led by former MLA Jean Allard camped at Lemay's statue to prevent its removal. Early in the morning of 27 July, the protesters were convinced to leave quietly, and the statue was removed. Nearly a year and a half later, on 30 November 1995, Lemay's statue was rededicated on the grounds of College Universitaire de St. Boniface. Yet Lemay's second rendering would never stand on the legislative grounds. Amid much controversy, Miguel Joyal, a Winnipeg artist, was commissioned to create the new statue. Joyal's less volatile rendering was unveiled on 12 May 1996.

Due to the extensive media coverage accorded these events, it is deceptively simple to sketch their parameters with relative ease and accuracy. Yet between the lines of my brief summary lies a story that is not so easily perceived or expressed -- the story of a community divided around the question of how Louis Riel should be remembered. Over nearly thirty years, diverse groups and individuals have been involved in various ways in the ongoing debate. …