Feb 162014
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Louis Riel statue St. Boniface Museum

Louis Riel Statue in front of St. Boniface Museum

About the father of Manitoba

The third Monday in February is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, and many Manitobans enjoy a long weekend. Several Canadian provinces have adopted a mid-February holiday. In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario it is called Family Day. In Prince Edward Island it is Islander Day.

The first Louis Riel Day occurred in 2008. When the government of Manitoba created the holiday, Manitoba schools were invited to name the day and 114 schools submitted proposals. Although Louis Riel is regarded as the father of Manitoba, it was a controversial choice. Depending on your perspective on history, Louis Riel is either a hero or a traitor.

Louis Riel was born in 1844 in the Red River Settlement, now Manitoba. In the late 1860s, the Red River Métis feared losing traditional lands and livelihoods amid Canada’s plan to annex Hudson’s Bay Company lands. The Métis are a recognized Canadian aboriginal people, of mixed European and First Nations heritage. Riel, just 25 at the time, formed a militia to oppose an 1869 land survey. They took control of Upper Fort Garry and the Red River Rebellion began. From 1869 to 1870, he headed a provisional government, which eventually negotiated the Manitoba Act with the Canadian government. The Act established Manitoba as a province and provided protection for French language rights.

During the time of Louis Riel’s provisional government, he allowed an agitator to be tried and executed for insubordination. Fearing a lynching by angry eastern Canadians, he fled to the United States. In 1884, the Saskatchewan Métis asked him to negotiate for them. Seeing an opportunity to build a Métis homeland, Riel returned to Canada. The government sent soldiers instead of negotiators. Métis resistance was defeated in the North-West rebellion at Batoche in 1885.


A jury of six English-speaking Protestants found Riel guilty of treason, but recommended mercy. Instead he was sentenced to death. Attempted appeals were dismissed. He was hanged in Regina in November, 1885. Louis Riel was buried in the churchyard of the St. Boniface Cathedral in what is now Winnipeg. Initially marked by a plain wooden cross, a granite tombstone now marks his grave.

The St. Boniface Museum, which showcases Western Canada’s French-Canadian and Métis heritage, contains Louis Riel information and artifacts.
Louis Riel statue St. Boniface College

Statue of Louis Riel in front of St. Boniface College

The statue of Louis Riel that now stands on the grounds of the Saint Boniface College has been as controversial as the man and his legacy. The statute was originally unveiled in December 1971 on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature. The monument is a two-part structure, an outer shell of two rounded 30 foot high half-cylinders with Louis Riel quotations etched on it, and a 12 foot high cement sculpture of Louis Riel. The statue is the work of Marcien Lemay. The outer shell was created by architect Etienne Gaboury. Some protested the statue of a man they still viewed as a traitor. Many Métis people protested the naked, distorted figure as an undignified representation. Lemay claimed Riel’s face was contorted in anguish and his body naked and twisted to show he was a martyr, who suffered for his people.

The statue stood on the Legislature grounds for 24 years and was attacked by vandals on many occasions. In 1994, as part of redevelopment of the rear grounds of the Legislature Building, it was replaced. The statue was moved to Saint Boniface College and unveiled in 1996. It is positioned so that all you see from the street as you drive by is the side of one of the half-cylinders. You need to walk onto the grounds, almost to the college entrance, to view the statue of Louis Riel inside the shell.

Three Louis Riel statues in Winnipeg - this one at the Manitoba Legislature

Sculpture by Miguel Joyal was unveiled on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building May 12, 1996
(Photo credit: Caitlin Melia, used with permission)

Footnote on Manitoba French Language Rights:

Although the Manitoba Act stipulated that both English and French were to be used in the houses of government and all acts were to be published in both languages, in 1890 the largely Anglophone majority passed The Official Languages Act declaring Manitoba a unilingual English province. Because the Manitoba Act is part of the Canadian Constitution, it cannot be overruled by ordinary law. The Official Languages Act was declared unconstitutional in 1892, but Manitoba ignored the ruling.

In 1975, Georges Forest protested a unilingual parking ticket. This protest led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1980 that once again declared the Official Languages Act unconstitutional. This essentially nullified all English-only laws enacted since 1890. In order to avoid ensuing chaos, the Supreme Court declared that Manitoba’s invalid laws would have temporary force and effect for a period of time during which the province would re-enact the legislation bilingually.

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  21 Responses to “Louis Riel Statues”

  1. thanks for the history and significance to this important figurehead

  2. Now that’s one interesting (?) sculpture. I personally like large fig leaves, but then I’m not an artist. Quite an angry history when people can’t find milder things to think about. Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it

  3. Thanks for this interesting history. I had never heard of the holiday~

  4. I never heard of Louis Rial. Very interesting

  5. Hi; thanks for the history lesson. So, have you received any criticism for writing this post about such a controversial figure in canada? some of the most well known people in a country’s history are more likely to b infamous than famous. Keep up the good work, max q

    • I have received no criticism to date. When I studied history in school, almost 50 years ago, Louis Riel was portrayed as a traitor. That is no longer the case. Today his role as politician, founder of Manitoba, and leader of the Métis people is emphasized.

  6. A fascinating history. I’ve never been to Manitoba. It’s funny how so many of our “founders” are regarded by so many around the world as either heroes or traitors.

  7. What I enjoy about the blogging community – learning from each others experiences.

  8. I too had not heard of this holiday or this person, as Patty notes, it is such a learning experience this blogosphere of which we are a part!

  9. This was incredibly informative! Not sure I learned any of this in school, but great history from our neighbor!

  10. That was a really fun and interesting read. I really enjoy the histories of different places. I was not aware of Manitoba’s history, so it was fun learning about how it arrived to where it is today. This world is big in some ways, such as distance, but very small when you consider all that is available online, allowing us to learn about things like Louis Riel and Manitoba. 🙂

  11. I enjoyed reading about Louis Riel who certainly had a colorful career. It’s always interesting to hear about different locations and various characters. Thanks for sharing.

    Louis Riel

  12. Nice to get this education on Louis Riel — I didn’t know he was the “Father of Manitoba”. Interesting read and statues.

  13. Hi Donna. Louis Riel is a much misunderstood character in many parts of Canada and this is both timely andvery well presented

  14. Gosh that statue certainly is emotive –
    His modesty being partially preserved by his words on the cylinders – cocooned by quotations.

  15. wow – he’s really being celebrated. Thanks so much for the history of him. The statue in front of St Boniface is totally wild.

  16. It is a very informative read, Donna, if this wasn’t your blog I would never know this piece of history. Thank you.

  17. I love history. It’s people like Louis Riel who helped shape the history of Manitoba and it’s great that he has been honoured by having his statue erected .

  18. It’s always great to learn something new about an important person. What an interesting read on Louis Riel. I like how they honored him with such diverse sculptures. My favorite though has to be the one at Saint Boniface College.

  19. Have to admit I have never heard of Louis Riel and have never been to Manitoba, or Canada for that matter. Interesting story.

  20. Like most everyone else on this thread, I’d never heard of Riel. Quite a fascinating history. And that statue! I have to admit, I’m a big fan of abstract art and exaggerated nudes, so I like it. 🙂

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