Happy Louis Riel Day!
In Manitoba, the third Monday in February is a holiday called Louis Riel Day. On Thursday, February 6, 2014 I had the chance to sit down with Philippe Mailhot, PhD., director of Le Musée Saint-Boniface Museum (MSBM) here in Winnipeg, so he could tell us more about Louis Riel Day and its connections to human rights.
Let’s start with the basics. Who was Louis Riel?
Louis Riel was a Métis born in the Red River settlement (now Winnipeg and environs) in 1844. In 1869, there was a great deal of concern from many locals - particularly the Métis - about the impending takeover of this territory by the government of Canada. Riel organized the local resistance that eventually expanded to include not just the Métis but most of the other settlers. They formed a provisional government which ultimately forced Canada to negotiate with them. The result of those negotiations was that instead of being a territory controlled by Ottawa, the Red River settlement entered Canada as a province with its own legislature and voting rights – the province of Manitoba, created in 1870.
Unfortunately, a lot of promises made to the Métis were not kept, so many of them moved further west to Saskatchewan. Many Canadians were also angry with Riel for resisting federal authority and the province of Ontario even put a $5,000 bounty on his head. Ultimately, he left Canada for the United States, but in 1884 he returned to what is now Saskatchewan to organize a second resistance for Métis trying to get their land rights recognized by the Canadian government. This led to an armed resistance, and Riel’s Métis government was defeated at the Battle of Batoche in 1885. Riel surrendered, was tried for treason by the Canadian government and executed on the 16th of November 1885. Over the years, a greater acceptance and understanding of Métis and Aboriginal issues has softened the attitude towards Louis Riel. Many people, both French and English, now regard him as something of a national hero.
Why does Manitoba have a day commemorating him?
The province of Manitoba decided they were going to look at having a February holiday, but they wanted to have a theme for it. A committee asked a number of schools to send in ideas and suggestions, and a number of schools suggested the theme should be Louis Riel Day. February 2008 saw the first Louis Riel Day here in Manitoba.
Does Louis Riel Day have a connection to human rights?
The way we look at it here at the MSBM is that Louis Riel Day is more than a day off – it’s an opportunity for people to learn the story of Louis Riel, the Métis, and Manitoba. Within the Louis Riel story there is discussion of Aboriginal rights, Rights for the Métis and of course French-language rights, so it’s a great opportunity to learn about all these things.
If Louis Riel were alive today, what rights issues do you think he’d be most concerned with?
If he were alive today, I think he would still be very concerned with Métis rights and Franco-Manitoban rights. But that’s not all. One of the interesting things about Riel is he once said he saw the West as a place where the oppressed people of the world could come. That came true, as many of the oppressed people of the world did come to live on the Canadian prairies.
What events is the MSBM planning to commemorate Louis Riel Day?
Louis Riel Day is our single biggest day for visitors. This year what we’re planning is a series of interactive stations for visitors. I’ll also be available in the Riel area of the Museum to answer any questions. We’re also going to have the artist Robert Freynet here all day – he’s recently produced a comic book version of the Louis Riel story. He’ll be answering questions and discussing his work. So the idea here at the MSBM is that we’ve got this day off commemorating this guy, here’s an opportunity to find out why we’re actually celebrating him.
The Musée Saint-Boniface Museum will be open on Louis Riel Day – Monday, February 17 – from 11am to 4pm and admission is free. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens on September 20, 2014 and will feature exhibits dealing with Louis Riel, Métis rights, Aboriginal Rights and French minority language rights in Canada.