Hero and Martyr, Rebel and Patriot: Manipulating the Meaning of Louis Riel

Louis Riel (centre) and associates

The following article is by Adam Barker. He is settler Canadian currently living in Occupied Coast Salish territory. He works on issues of identity andpower in politics and social organizing. This article appeared in New Socialist # 65. As usual the posting of it does not imply an endorsement of either the New Socialist Group or Adam Barker. It posted to provoke discussion on this Louis Riel Day.

Louis Riel Jr., the “founding father” of the province of Manitoba, an iconic figure to the Métis, and a symbol of francophone nationalism, was never in control of his own legacy. Riel defied the conventions of his day by refusing to contribute to burgeoning Canadian nationalism. He would not be part of astate that defined itself by oppressing those deemed undesirable and rewarding those who conformed. Riel embraced his indigenous ethnicity and his peoples’ unique language and heritages. He demanded respect and autonomy to the point of leading two short-lived rebellions against the state.

yet Riel’s legacy was never his own to make. Instead, his words and actions have been twisted and reinterpreted to justify Canadian imperial aggression and domination, both before and long after Riel’s death. In his day, Louis Riel was considered everything from a criminal to a madman, despite the very different perceptions of him held by the Québécois, the Cree and other indigenous peoples, and especially by the Métis of the Red River Valley. And, as time has passed and Canada has become a bastion of expansive liberalism, Riel’s image has been “rehabilitated” to that of a hero – but a state-sanctioned hero. This flies in the face of his significance to those outside of the Canadian Anglo-white majority.

The story of the two open conflicts between the Métis and indigenous nations of the eastern plains, and the authorities of the young Canadian state, are a well-known staple of the Canadian narrative. They even warrant a Heritage Moment TV clip. Riel, a charismatic figure and exceptional motivator and organizer, came of age in a time when large numbers of people in the north of Turtle Island lived under the official authority of the Hudson Bay Company’s protogovernment of Rupert’s Land, later to be the North West Territories. At the time, Riel’s people, the Métis, were a social and cultural mix of a number of indigenous peoples, including Cree and Anishiinabeg, as well as French and Scottish-descent Europeans. They spoke – and still speak – their own language, and formed self-governing communities of traders, guides, farmers, hunters and crafts people on the “frontier” – what would later become Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Métis, as a growing social and political force in the unstable frontier, were almost destined to rub up against the new Canadian government under its first Prime Minister, the hard-drinking, hard nosed, Anglo-supremacist, John A. Macdonald.

Of course, every child learns about “the Red River Rebellion” in school, usually tied to the story of the creation of the heroic North West Mounted Police – the forerunner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – and the first paramilitary force deployed to the North West Territories. Few, though, understand the context of the conflict. The text books do not cover the rampant anti-Métis and anti-mixed blood sentiment of the second half of the 1800s [Bloggers Note: because this stuff does not exist today, in all of white Canada, Franco- and Anglo-phone?]. Few know that, long before he became the leader of a rebellion, a Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed prophet, Louis Riel was denied a marriage because the parents of his bride-to-be objected to her marrying a Métis. Just as few know that the man who would become the rebel leader was an intelligent and accomplished student, a former law clerk and an independent minded man who wrote poetry as he worked his way from Quebec to Chicago to St. Paul and, eventually, home to the Red River.

Perhaps most importantly, few know that it was not Riel and Métis who sparked the conflicts between the Métis and Canada. It was the Canadian state policy of frontier expansion which steered many settlers to the Red River, encouraging white, anglophone, Protestant settlers to flood the Métis camps and villages. These invaders were motivated by eastern authorities, anxious to gain a foothold that would justify the transfer of authority for Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the new Canadian state. It was this act of colonization – and an act of war, if the Métis had been considered a nation on par with Western nations – that sparked the famous Red River Rebellion. Riel was thus thrust to centre-stage in Canadian politics and history, culminating in his exile to America and the farce of his repeated elections to a Parliamentary seat that he could scarcely occupy.

Many things can be said of Riel in the final analysis. He suffered from mental illnesses, including depression, following the Red River Rebellion which forced him to flee to New York. He became increasingly influenced by Catholic Church officials, specifically those in Quebec who had vocally supported this French-speaking man against the ambitions of “English” men from upper Canada [Bloggers Note: Riel was, unfortunately, far from the only or the first indigenous leader to be mislead and betrayed by these white French speaking men of the cloth, as the history of the Mohawk of Quebec shows]. He spent years composing theological texts and coming to believe that he was a divinely-ordained leader of the Métis. But all of this must be a foot note to Riel’s role in the petty power-play of the young Canadian state which led, ultimately, to Riel’s return from exile to rejoin the Métis – pushed westward, now, into Saskatchewan – to present their grievances to the government.

Macdonald denied ever seeing the missive presented by Riel, and this marginalization influenced the Métis and their indigenous allies to rise against Canada a second time, even knowing that the odds of success were more remote than during the Red River conflict. While the failure of the North West Rebellion and the subsequent hanging of Riel are also a well-known narrative, it is important to remember why this happened: because Riel, and by extension the Métis, simply had no place in Canada’s ambitious plans. This assault on an entire people, genocide by contemporary standards, stands in stark contrast to the image of Riel presented by the governmentnow: a “father of Confederation” and national hero.

Riel, denied a voice because of his heritage, language, religion and homeland, would likely object to this treatment. Of course, as much as times have changed, one thing has not: mainstream Canada retains the power to define “others.” Riel, a symbol of so many differentthings to so many different peoples, remains a commodity to betraded in the politics of a quietly racist state


Posted on February 20, 2012, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles, National Liberation, Radical History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Interesting article, but the focus solely on Riel in the rebellion also plays into a very clean and state-sanctioned narrative. The popular histories, rather than the critical histories, do not mention Gabriel Dumont, the Metis revolutionary who I would argue was more important to the rebellion than Riel who in some ways was more of figurehead. Dumont was a militant and strategist who actually understood what it meant to carry out a form of ppw in his social context. The fact that Dumont actually led the military aspect of the rebellion, and failed to push it further because Riel blocked some of his key tactical decisions (i.e. Riel’s refusal to permit Dumont’s strategy of attacking train lines to disrupt supply and prevent the enemy’s military movements) at very vital points –– hoping to negotiate because he falsely believed the settler-state would treat him as an equal ambassador –– and this actually contributed to the failure of the rebellion. Point being, Dumont is a much more contentious figure, and more of an on-the-ground revolutionary, because he understood that you couldn’t negotiate with the state and needed to push the rebellion to a higher stage. Who knows? Maybe if he had succeeded in pushing the revolution forward, and Riel did not block Dumont’s tactics, we’d have a different state. (Fans of “Fire on the Mountain” start writing your revolutionary alt-histories now!)

  2. Hey JMP

    I agree totally. One thing I think the article also failed to go into serious detail on was how the Catholic faith of the Franco-Metis (notice that the article fails to mention at all the existence of the Anglo-Metis) was used as a weapon against them in both rebellions. Of course the white Canadian state, which historically has partially defined itself through Christianity, would not mention this, but I found it interesting that this article barely mentions it.

    Howard Adams covers quite well in Prison of Grass, how the Metis’ Catholic clergy actively betrayed the people who trusted them as men of God.

    Also, this article only talks of the manipulation of Riel by the Anglo-settler nationalists, but I think an equally valid point that has to be made is the manipulation of him by the Québécois Franco-settler nationalists as well, who would remake Riel not as a Native patriot, but as a Francophone one. In fact, I think this article implicitly endorses that view of Riel, as it makes mention at more than one point of Riel fighting against Anglo white supremacists. This isn’t surprising though coming from the New Socialist Group (my ex-affiliation) as like virtually the entire Canadian left (with the exception of the PCR-RCP) they support the idea of an oppressed Québécois nation with the right to self-determination on stolen Indian land.

  3. Yeah, Howard Adams’ is the best on this score. You’re right about the absence of a discussion Franco-settler relations, and I think the reasons for this are exactly what you say about the NS’s ideology. It also might explain the refusal to mention anything about the clergy… Rugged Quebecois catholics have tried to cast Riel as a “Catholic hero” just as much as they have cast him, as you say, as a Francophone here, and abstract him from any mention of indigenous struggle. They overplay his whole “prophet from God” thing and see him as some kind of Catholic mystic––which, I admit, Riel’s own beliefs lend themselves to this interpretation (which is again, why I find it is so convenient to ignore Dumont).

    Have you ever read Chester Gordon’s Riel graphic novel? I haven’t, though I’ve always meant to, because I’m worried it will be the “francophone hero crazy prophet of God reformer” approach and will annoy me to no end. But if you’ve read it and approve, I’d like to know!

  4. Again agreed.

    I think making Riel out to be someone who struggled against “Anglo” supremacy serves both aspects of the Québécois settler project – differentiating both his language and his religion from the English language (Anglo language) and Anglicanism/Protestantism (Anglo religion). In fact, the article does specifically describe Riel and Co’s main settler adversaries as “white, anglophone, Protestant settlers.”

    This of course glosses over the fact that the Catholic Francophone Métis are just that precisely because of previous waves of Catholic Francophone colonial penetration of central-western Canada.

    What this does is implicitly say that only Anglo-Protestant settlerism was/is truly bad, and that at the very least Franco-Catholic settlerism was/is a neutral phenomena, and at worst was/is mutually beneficial.

    It all goes back I think to what you and I have discussed before about the myth of a historically oppressed Francophone nation. In particular it smacks of the part of the myth that would have us believe that the Franco-Settlers were mostly unwanted lumpen types from France who came here not as the English did (or Spanish and Portuguese in other parts of the continent) for conquest and resource extraction in the name of God, King and Country, but because France didn’t want them, and that subsequently Indians and Franco-Settlers existed in a mutually beneficial utopia before the arrival of the Anglos and the conquest of the Francophone nation.

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