National Perspective by David Shribman

In Canada, a Controversial Leader's Complicated Legacy

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Once again, the name of one of North America’s signature freedom fighters -- an enigmatic leader variously described as a pioneer and a madman, a man regarded either as the founding father of Manitoba or a reckless revolutionary, a figure all but unknown below the Canadian border but a flashpoint, still, above it -- echoes across this city and this country.

He was Louis Riel, historic leader of the Metis, inspirational leader of a striving minority, symbol both of Canada’s repression of native peoples and its determination to scratch out a future from a land cursed by cold but animated by a hardy, fearless population.

This week marks the 175th anniversary of his birth -- it is also the 150th anniversary of his Red River Resistance -- and Riel remains so vital a figure in the capital of the province he is credited with founding that he merits two statues, each a magnet for pilgrims: one the traditional portrayal of a far-seeing visionary, the other a haunting sculpture of a man consumed by visions.

The question of who Riel was -- heroic or despotic -- remains alive long after he died, at age 41 in 1885. It has spawned books, movies, songs, an opera, even a televised retrial of a man who led two rebellions against his country and was hanged for treason.

"He was a hero to French Canada and a villain to English Canada," said Rector Chris Adams of Winnipeg’s St. Paul’s College. "To the law he was a fugitive, and for decades the hanging of Riel was a divisive issue that shaped much of the relationship between French and English Canada."

Just as controversial is the question of who were, and are, the Metis for whose rights Riel fought.

Scholars, activists, even Canada’s supreme court, have weighed in on this matter, generally settled by describing the Metis as people with indigenous and French ancestry. Canada’s government is no help, having no policy, as Jean Teillet, the great-grandniece of Riel and an indigenous rights lawyer, put it, "to deal with recent claims of Metis identity by individuals who are seeking to gain certain advantages, such as admission to law school or hunting and fishing privileges."

In his monumental history of Canada, the publisher Conrad Black credits the French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) for encouraging intermarriage between French and Indians, as the indigenous were known in the 17th century, and thus the creation of the Metis, "whom he loved and esteemed with undefined respect."

In recent months, the Fort McKay Metis in northern Alberta’s oil patch declared self-government, in part a response to a Canadian supreme court ruling allowing indigenous people to apply to Ottawa for social benefits and land claims. "We want to be masters of our own destiny," community president Ron Quintal told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Being masters of their own destiny is the ancient desire of the Metis, and the struggle for that mastery is an apt description of Riel’s movement, both doomed (the Metis have fought for recognition and rights for decades) and redeemed (Manitoba stands as Canada’s fifth province, with the rights and prerogatives possessed by all the country’s provinces).

By most accounts, Riel was reacting to the legitimate grievances of the Metis people. The government of John A. Macdonald was not responsive to his pleas. It wanted desperately to complete the country’s transcontinental railway and saw the Metis and their land claims as obstacles.

Today, Riel is venerated by some Canadians for representing grievances against the federal government, while Manitobans see him as their province’s founder.

"We have completely rewritten history and now Louis Riel fits important boxes," said Malcolm Bird, a University of Winnipeg political scientist. "He fought for Metis rights, which were being encroached upon by the Canadian government. But he is also important because he brings indigenous grievances, French Canadian matters and Western alienation into one person."

Middle-class Canadians with indigenous backgrounds were reluctant to admit, let alone boast of, their roots a generation ago. Now it is a matter of great pride. In his first Winnipeg mayoral campaign, Brian Bowman announced he was part of the Metis people.

But decades ago, the legacy of Riel’s hanging was so potent that French Canadian immigration to the prairies diminished considerably. This region was regarded as unfriendly to Canada’s French minority at a time when these open spaces were being settled.

Some in academic circles today regard Riel as mystical, perhaps delusional, a traitor if not exactly psychotic. Others regard him as a tragic hero. But Manitoba in 1992 declared him the official Father of Manitoba, and the legend at his grave is a simple elegy:

"He spoke for the local people. He worked for what was fair and just. The young man stood his ground, facing distant powers who tried to take the land and rights from those less powerful."

By leading a resistance -- some refer to it as a "rebellion" -- and a provisional government, he negotiated to take Manitoba into Canadian Confederation as a province, with French and English as official languages. "I know that through the grace of God I am the founder of Manitoba," he said. He was elected to Parliament in Ottawa three times but wasn’t permitted to be seated.

Miles from the statue that sits on the grounds of Manitoba’s legislature is the second statue, first unveiled in 1970 as part of the province’s centennial. It sat in front of the legislature until the Metis community and lawmakers agreed to replace it with a traditional, though bland, likening. It now stands at the Universite de Saint-Boniface, powerful and perplexing.

"[T]he act of exhibiting Riel as an exposed, tortured man represents something profound about the Metis people," wrote Darren O’Toole, a descendant of the Bois-Brule (Wiisakodewininiwag) of the White Horse Plains in Manitoba who teaches aboriginal law and indigenous legal philosophy at the University of Ottawa. "For it is also we as a people who have been stripped of our dignity -- stripped of our lands, of our homes, of our history, of our culture and sometimes our mental health. And yet the walls that surround Riel’s tortured figure -- the institutional walls of a prison or an asylum -- put the Canadian State on public display. For this is what Canada did to Riel; this is what Canada has done to us as a people. And it must not be forgotten, hidden or denied."

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Lisa Tarry,