The Government of Ontario announced today that it has declared Métis leader and founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel, a Father of Confederation. This, after it contrived to hang him for high treason in 1885. I’ve always felt a strong sympathy and attraction to Riel, which is strange, given my family’s uniformly WASP background. The image, just for one, of him going in the same month from standing in frock coat and moccasins in the House of Commons, or reciting the French Symbolist poets (poetry was a lifelong passion for him), to hunting buffalo on the prairie, fires the imagination of how we Canadians might more radiantly have been “métis-ized” than homogenized so largely as we were.
Some years ago I made a quasi-pilgrimage to Batoche, Sask., the site of Riel’s last stand, where you could still see the dugouts in the prairie where his riflemen lay, to be mowed down by the first use in this country of the Gatling gun. You couldn’t call it penance, but as some sort of attempt to redeem the darkness in which my ancestors lived, I pitched my tent, not where the Métis were, but where Gen. Middleton and his army camped. That army included soldier relatives of mine, from Bruce County in Ontario, who were no doubt fervent in their wish to put the French traitor down. John A. MacDonald famously snarled, “Riel shall hang, though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.” This, then, is the sound of one such from Manitoba, still howling in protest — and in praise.