Louis Riel

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

One of Canada’s best known historic heroes has taken quite a shellacking lately. John A. Macdonald’s statue was removed from a place of prominence in Victoria by order of its city council, and there have been calls elsewhere for buildings that honour his memory to be renamed. Even the city that once gloried in the fact that John A was one of their own – Kingston – appears ready to toss him over the side. His crime – in the view of these demanding history renovators – is that he thought like a man of his time (and had a few personal faults in the bargain).

These history re-makers are harsh judges. It might be a useful exercise to see how some of our other historical heroes stand up when judged by these–puritanical standards. Why not start with one of Manitoba’s best known heroes – Louis Riel. An odd modernistic statue and a more conventional one of Riel are displayed in prominent places in Winnipeg. And, we have a Louis Riel Day commemorated every February. But was he really a hero?

If those now judging John A. so harshly were given free rein on judging Louis Riel, how would he do?  Likely, not so well. Some of Riel’s ideas were unusual – to say the least. He thought he was a prophet from God given a mission that included moving the Vatican to Canada with his friend, the local bishop, to become the Pope, among many other bizarre examples. He believed he could prophesy the future by ‘listening’ to his internal organs, and had a habit of tearing off his clothes and roaring like a bull. He also ate cooked blood.

Riel was an extremely odd man. In fact, he was once committed to a mental hospital. But if you could overlook the fact that he was often quite loopy, at least he was a tolerant, open-minded man. Or was he? Actually, no.

He planned to take land from the Indians for his Metis people. He believed that the Metis had a superior place in the pantheon of peoples. He was prepared to have those who didn’t accept his authority killed. Yet, he also did things that were considered noble at the time, but now denigrated. For instance he taught at an Indian Residential School while in Montana. (His sister taught at an Indian Residential School in Canada, and insisted – as was the practice at the time – that the students speak only English.)

If Louis Riel was to be judged by the people now judging John A. MacDonald, likely he would not stand up well at all. But Louis Riel actually did some important things, and for them, he deserves his place in history. He had warts – just like MacDonald- but give the man his due. Let’s not tear down his statues because his 19th century views are outdated and he had personal flaws. Acknowledge the flaws, but celebrate the fact he is important to us. As are John A. MacDonald and our other historical heroes.

Other historically important Manitobans are important despite their flaws. None was perfect. All of them thought like people of their time. Nellie McClung, critical to the advancement of women’s rights, issued anti-Semitic ramblings and advocated forced sterilization for poor immigrant girls considered “subnormal”. Another creature of her time, flawed but still entitled to her place in history.

Chief Peguis’s statue has occupied the same spot in Kildonan Park for many years. Was the man perfect? He came from a tribe that took slaves. He had many wives, all of whom he treated miserably by today’s standards. His tribe was in constant warfare with rival tribes, particularly the Sioux. They took captives, and they did not do well at all. By today’s standards Peguis would be judged a misogynistic, warmongering racist. But again, he did some very important things for his people, and for all of us. If not for his help, the early settlers to this unforgiving cold land might not have made it through their first Manitoba winter. For that, he is entitled to his place of honour in that lovely park.

fJohn A. and other notables of his generation are entitled to better treatment than what is being accorded to them by today‘s gangs of myopic minor politicians. Those who judge yesterday’s people by the standards of today – and by standards that demand perfection – will find no one to honour.