Monday, February 15, 2016

Who the Hell is Louis Riel

Happy Louis Riel Day! Louis Riel Day is a holiday in my province, Manitoba, celebrating one of the most famous (and infamous) French Canadians in history. 

I don't know how much you know about Canadian history, but if you've learned a bit, you've probably heard of Louis Riel. I learned about him in Canadian history in high school, but I only remember snippets. I remember something about an execution of a horrible man called Thomas Scott that had something to do with Riel, that Riel was part of the creation of Manitoba as a province, that he was part of the Red River Rebellion which had something to do with the Métis, and that there was a huge weird debate about Riel's sanity after the rebellions he was involved in. And, of course, I remember that he was hanged.

Then last year for my Across Canada Reading Challenge I read Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography by Chester Brown, which is a great visual account of Riel's life and involvement in the Red River Rebellion. Louis Riel was a Métis (an indigenous peoples of mixed race), and spent basically all his life fighting for the rights of Métis people to their own land. This is what the Red River Rebellion was all about - getting the Canadian government to recognize a government made up of Métis and English that would be just and able to look after the interests of the Métis people. There was much back and forth between the Métis people of the Red River and the Canadian government, and it even got to the point of actual battle between the Métis and Indians and the Canadians. Louis Riel was at the head of this fight for Métis rights, and was looked up to as a leader and inspiration for many Métis and French Canadians. He was also super religious, to the point where he kind of made up his own branch of Catholicism (with flavours of Protestantism), and deemed himself Prophet of the New World. The comic strip biography often portrays Riel's religion among the battle for the Métis people as something comedic and out of place. There was one panel where there is a battle going on around him, and Riel is in a trench praying, and it comes across as absurd

At the end of his biography, Chester Brown recommended a book which he said was the best book he's read on Louis Riel, Maggie Siggin's Riel: A Life of Revolution. I was intrigued by this strange, contradictory figure, and it turned out my dad owned a copy of the book, so I thought I would try to read it. 

Maggie Siggins does a superb job of exploring Riel's life and character as a revolutionary and leader of Métis people's rights. Reading this book, I went from having a picture of Riel as a religious lunatic who had some involvement in the rebellions of the Red River area to understanding how Riel's religious zealousness evolved alongside his intense loyalty to his people, the Métis. For his entire life, all he wanted was to provide what was best for the Métis - that their land claims would be recognized, that they would have a government that would recognize and deal with their concerns, and later on when that didn't work, that they would be able to create their own independent nation. 

Unfortunately, none of Louis Riel's grand dreams came to fruition. Reading this book about all of the struggles of the Métis amid the creation of Manitoba as a province, it struck me how relevant all of these issues still are today. Aboriginal people are still fighting against the government over land claims and still are not given equal status and recognition in Canadian society. The themes that exist in the story of Louis Riel and the Métis people, of the government ignoring and resisting the voices of Aboriginal people, still continue today in many ways. 

Maggie Siggins sums up Riel beautifully in the last few sentences of Riel: A Life of Revolution

"He was a complex man full of contradiction and angst, certainly, but what makes Louis Riel so intriguing is that he managed to straddle two cultures, Native and white, and came as close as anyone to envisioning a sympathetic and equitable relationship between the two. That Canadians may someday achieve this vision remains Louis Riel's legacy."

I really hope that Louis Riel's vision of an equitable relationship between Canadian Aboriginal people will be realized, and soon, and I have come to appreciate him for being instrumental in creating this vision.

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