Image of Louis Riel in 1998
Morton, Desmond, Canadian Speeches
Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
The myth of Louis Riel -- the hung French-speaking Metis leader of the Riel Rebellion -- as a hero of the West, the Metis, Aboriginal peoples and French Canadians; and that of Tom Scott -- the English-speaking patriot executed by Riel's firing squad -- as a rude troublemaker who deserved what he got -- is not the whole story. Our myths are etched in black and white while historical realities have many colors and shades. Understanding the difference is crucial to understanding and dealing with today's concerns. Lecture delivered at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, February 19, 1998.
These days, large statues proclaim Riel's significance in our Western Canadian heritage. No Manitoban can doubt that Riel was at least a joint father, with George-Etienne Cartier, in that province's Confederation. For French-Canadian nationalists, Riel remains "our brother," and proof of the futility of George-Etienne Cartier's bicultural vision. To Native and Metis leaders, he has been their Che Guevara, though young, more militant Metis would prefer the doughty Gabriel Dumont. For all of us, Riel is a handy artifact, symbolizing problems of reconciliation that are with us yet. Doug Owram, speaking of the Myth of Riel, wrote:
"Those who could forget the necessity of compromise within Canada, as the Canadian government did in 1869 or Riel did in 1885, invite disaster. Riel's "insane" pretensions of founding a new nation along the North Saskatchewan and Macdonald's failure to show mercy after Riel was defeated, led to disasters for both of them."
I grew up with the ghosts of the 1885 Rebellion -- my great-grandfather led the column north to Battleford and a sepia photograph of Poundmaker hung on his wall to remind him of who had really won at Cut Knife Hill. However, I take no sides. History is a limitless source of convenient artifacts for current arguments and no one climbs into that vast attic without a purpose, conscious or unconscious, of finding something useful. I have been there often myself. And given that Canadian history is reputedly dull, characters as exotic as Riel are as a necessary as salt and pepper.
If Papineau or William Lyon Mackenzie had perished in the debacle of their rebellions, they might be competitors. Fate spared them for a crotchety and reactionary old age. Serving symbolic purposes of which Riel was deeply conscious, he was fortunate in his unswerving nemesis, Sir John A. Macdonald. Heroes are well advised to die in their prime.
Note, of course, that Canadian heroes tend to have little good to say for their country. Mackenzie and Papineau would surely have added Upper and Lower Canada to the northern tier of American states. Norman Bethune, a modern hero, found Canada almost as insufferable as Montreal found him. Riel's dream of a theocratic regime on the banks of the South Saskatchewan would have terminated Canada's hope of running a mari usque ad mare. Perhaps I am not neutral after all. Dare I confess a small bias against those who would have robbed me of Canada? Remember the tremendous odds against the Confederation dream -- a tiny population, frail finances, a host of narrower, meaner perspectives, and a highly acquisitive neighbor. Did nobody stand up for Canada?
In 1869, a young Ontarian joined a government survey party. It was sent west before the actual acquisition of Hudson's Bay company land a year later because there was starvation at the Red River and the government thought it might get started early and provide jobs for local people. The young man was a patriot: if Canadians did not go West, it would fall to the Americans, already plotting its acquisition at St. Paul. Others joined for the pay but our surveyor was a man of principle. His boss, Colonel J. Stoughton Dennis, was a strong Tory. He was also a proven coward, who had run away from the Fenians in 1866, leaving his men to be killed or captured. …