In November 1885, Louis Riel — leader of the Métis people and a founder of Manitoba — was hanged after taking part in an armed uprising and being found guilty of treason in what was then known as the North-West Territories. Riel had gone to the North-West Territories at the behest of the Métis people of modern-day Alberta and Saskatchewan to assist in asserting their rights against the encroaching government of then-prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald.
Riel’s legacy does not rest solely in being a founder of Manitoba or historic leader of the Métis people — where his legacy stands is in the necessity of resisting governments that do not represent their people. He should be regarded as a symbol of the radical left in the Prairies, a reminder that it is morally right to rebel — not synonymous with the establishment in Manitoba or Canadian unity as Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister attempted to claim in an op-ed published in the Globe and Mail last November.
With the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Manitoba’s joining Confederation there has been debate around whether or not to include Riel and the Red River Rebellion, which directly led to the founding of the province. The educational resources on the website of the organization responsible for the celebrations, Manitoba 150, makes little reference to Riel or to the rebellion he led in the educational materials offered to teachers and students — which almost comes as a relief. However, almost comedically, these materials — developed by the WE Charity — offer education on nutrition instead.
When it comes to historical figures that led significant movements that challenged the status quo, there is a tendency — famously noted by first leader of the former Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin — of the ruling classes to canonize these figures albeit stripped from their context. They are divorced from their most radical ideas — sanitized, so to speak — and are instead turned into symbols of unity.
To some extent, this has happened with Riel. This is clear in the contrast between what Riel himself said in his final statement at his trial — a statement where he blasted the Canadian government for its abysmal treatment of the Métis people — and the way that Pallister has tried to present him.
A salient example of this same phenomenon can be seen in the way the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has been handled — he is lionized as a pacifist liberal and is sometimes employed as a symbol of the possible unity between black and white America — oftentimes as a battering ram against black activism like the Black Lives Matter movement that is perceived by conservatives as overly violent and divisive. This is despite the fact that King supported people in self defense, himself owning several firearms.
In regard to Riel’s inclusion in the Manitoba 150 celebrations, it’s clear that he absolutely should be included — however, with the qualification that he be remembered as more than a two-dimensional figure that played a central role in Manitoba’s founding.
I am almost glad that he has not been included thus far, because there is nothing preventing the sanitized, “Canadian unity” Riel from being presented, rather than the radically democratic Riel and his significance to oppressed peoples across the country.
If what the Manitoba government is attempting to have is a de-politicized celebration of the founding of the only province born out of rebellion, let them have it in all its glorious contradictoriness. Grassroots organizations can pick up where the province leaves off and force politicization, creating the appropriate space for the proper discussion of Riel and his legacy of rebellion — much like the “Fuck the 150th” campaign that was carried out across Canada ahead of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
So yes, include Riel in the Manitoba 150 celebrations — but include him as the three-dimensional character he was, not a sad caricature of his true self.
A hero of the people such as Riel should be remembered by the people, not merely a figure given back to them, sanitized for the status quo.
He should serve as a juxtaposition to the absurdity that so far has been the Manitoba 150 celebration.
He should be presented against frivolous fireworks and snowmobile displays amidst an ongoing crisis borne out of conservative austerity, not alongside them.