Remembering Riel

By Smith, Doug | Canadian Dimension, October-November 1994 | Go to article overview

Remembering Riel


Smith, Doug, Canadian Dimension


Recent local controversy over a statue of Louis Riel on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature is a reminder of the ways the present ransacks history in search of a useable past. A statue of a naked, tortured-looking Riel has been hauled away, to be replaced with one that will, in all likelihood, make him look just as boring and constipated as the other statues that dot the grounds. The removal comes at the prompting of local Metis leaders who believe the statue is undignified - they point out, for example, that no other political leader is portrayed in the buff.

It is pleasant to see the government responding so fully to Aboriginal concerns, but I would feel better if they chose to implement the recommendations of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. That would at least be a bit of substantive, rather than shallow, identity politics.

The statue's departure was temporarily delayed when Jean Allard, a Metis and former member of the Schreyer government, chained himself to it, claiming that the representation of Riel was a matter for all Manitobans.

Allard's comments reminded me the various groups which have claimed Riel and the uses they have tried to make of him. For a long time the official Manitoba line on Riel was that he was villain. In the late 1960s when the post office considered putting Riel on a stamp Conservative premier Walter Weir just about had a cat-fit.

Francophones and Catholics were the exception to this - although it was not until the 1960s that the St. Boniface school division named a school for Riel. (Two Winnipeg school divisions had long ago named schools for Garnet Wolseley, the old servant of the Empire who put down the Riel rebellion.)

The Manitoba Archives houses correspondence between Manitoba Premier Douglas Campbell and provincial Communist William Kardash. Kardash was urging the government to put a monument to Riel on the legislative grounds. According to Kardash, Riel "helped to defend the country against the conspiracy of US annexationists." [This, in a way, is as peculiar as David Orchard's recent attempt to turn Riel into the first martyr of Canada's long struggle against the United States. …

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