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.
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.
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.