Sept 1999

Riel: An Anomaly, Not a Hero

by Peter Goldring, MP

Historical revisionism, a phenomenon typical of this turn of the century, is both an attempt to distort history and an insult to honest people of good intentions who, many years ago, tried to solve their problems as best they could. Recent examples of this trend were calls to exonerate Louis Riel, the famous Canadian criminal convicted over a century ago, and even to erect a statue of Riel on Parliament Hill.

Gradually, these calls have gone so far as to find expression in a bill, Bill C-417, the Louis Riel Act, which was tabled in June 1998 and which the House of Commons is now considering. This proposed legislation is unique, in that it is an initiative by MPs from all parties. It is sponsored by: Liberal MPs Reg Alcock and Denis Coderre; Bloc québécois (BQ) MP Suzanne Tremblay; New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Lorne Nystrom; Progressive Conservative (PC) MP Rick Borotsik; and Reform Party MP Val Meredith. The bill is sponsored neither by the government nor by any of the sponsors' political parties. Thus there is no all-party agreement, but only agreement among the MPs whose names appear on the bill. Although the wording of the bill was not discussed in the House, work seems to have been done behind the scenes to maximize consensus before the wording was debated publicly.

If passed, Bill C-417 will reverse Riel's conviction for high reason. Riel ordered a man named Thomas Scott to be killed and organized a rebellion that caused the loss of dozens of lives, in order to become a territorial leader. Indeed, Riel spent most of his adult life in Canada and the United States seeking political intrigue. Eventually he was executed for his crimes and the turmoil he caused. That sentence may appear harsh today, but it was no harsher than Scott's execution or the dozens lost in the Riel rebellion: life itself was hard then. The punishment was meted out accordingly, and believed to be very fair at the time.

“Time travelling” back to the Riel era and erasing this judgement from our history books as if it was an wrong, would be wrong in itself. How can we know what was going on in the minds of people 100 years ago or judge them fairly after the fact, without the atmosphere of death and social unrest that formed the background for the judgements of the time? How can we get a feel for those issues, without the sweat of fear that those events caused across the West in that era?

Undoing Riel's hanging through simple historical revisionism implies that someone else should pay the price for killing Riel, now innocent. In other words, it calls our entire justice system into question. Pardoning Riel is something like commuting a death sentence posthumously. In my opinion, it is wrong to revise history out of political expediency or revisionist correctness. History is there to be learned, not to be rewritten by persons who do not like it or to canonize historical characters whose contribution to Canada's development was only marginal. While it is true that Riel defended the Metis' rights and rightly wanted changes, he went too far in calling for an open rebellion that caused the deaths of innocent persons. He led an army of aggressors against the Government of Canada in order to create an independent territory, and was rightly hanged as a traitor. Even if the writers of the history textbooks used in certain schools believe that Riel was wrongly convicted, they cannot change the truth by simply redefining what he did. The story of Riel has been taught inconsistently across Canada for 100 years; the facts have been gratuitously distorted in response to regional needs. Revisionism's contribution to date has been ignorance of the facts.

Highlighting contributions to Canadian society is laudable. Where Riel is concerned, however, that promotion must be limited to the facts about his troubled, chequered life. Riel, who claimed to be Metis on the basis of having one-tenth aboriginal blood, assumed the role of Metis leader in western Canada. His psychosis manifested itself in the conviction that he was a great religious leader and the spiritual hero of the people of Rupert's Land. The problem was that Metis not of French and Indian descent did not share his vision, any more than did the English-speaking settlers or most aboriginal persons. In fact, the inhabitants of the region simply did not want change through violence.

In short, Riel did not have the full support of his people, let alone Rupert's Land that he needed to create his own territory. Instead, he used arms and force, those ancient non-democratic methods, resulting in death and terror. He was accordingly confronted by force for his crimes, lost and hung.

Riel didn’t ‘Father’ Confederation; he ‘fought’ those who did. In comparison with the constructive minds of his generation, Riel was an anomaly. Since he was certainly not a hero to everyone, in no case should we commemorate his misdeeds by erecting a statue of him on Parliament Hill. That would be an insult to the memory of the soldiers who fought and died fighting Riel's army and defending the cherished rights we associate with that same Parliament Hill. No person advocating or engaging in armed rebellion against Canada’s democratic processes should be so honoured. To do so would be to elevate anarchy and civil disobedience to statesmanship.

A statue of Louis Riel on Parliament Hill would be a world-class monument to historical revisionism.

Peter Goldring is the Canadian Alliance MP for Edmonton East and Official Opposition Critic for Veterans Affairs.

September 2002

CBC Retries Riel: Why Rewrite History?

Most Canadians, recalling their high school history courses are aware of the Red River Rebellion and the murder of Thomas Scott. Few who know or, even if aware, dwell on the fact of the tragic loss of 80 lives in the Northwest Rebellion, all attributed to Louis Riel during his disagreements with the Canadian governments of 1869 and 1885. Riel twice used violent insurrection and death to challenge British and Canadian authority and Canadian unity. Accordingly, Louis Riel was charged with murder and high treason, tried, convicted and then hung. Criminals of the day were hung for a lot less than being accountable for the deaths of 80 people. Minor judicial irregularities, not uncommon 100 years ago, should not be the high drama and explosive revelations that cause us to overturn a conviction for treason today. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada's Loyal Opposition Party leader at the time, was opposed to Riel's execution only on the basis that he considered the sentence to be too severe. He did not find fault with the conviction. The crime was regarded with the utmost gravity by all politicians of the day. Sir John A Macdonald, Canada's Prime Minister, refused to interfere with the sentence imposed by the judge, which was then carried out.

The facts of Riel's leadership role in armed insurrection are not in dispute. The fact that this armed insurrection resulted in many deaths is also not in dispute. Riel clearly chose to lead; he also clearly chose to incite uprisings that caused many to die. As the leader of these uprisings, Riel is responsible for each and every death occurring as a consequence of his actions. To now question the integrity of the jurists of over 100 years ago is both wrong and contrary to the faith which we have historically placed in jury trials. Riel had the best and brightest lawyers of the day and still, the jury did not acquit. Nearly 120 years later, there are some who wish to "time travel" back in history, to reassess events with the "refined legal enlightenment" of today. The CBC initiative to “retry” Riel in October of 2002—on his birthday, no less, and one month before the 117th anniversary of his conviction—is but one in a series or regrettable steps to refuse to acknowledge the facts our history.

In 1998, the Louis Riel Act was introduced in the House of Commons and then reintroduced in 1999. The intent of this legislation was to posthumously pardon Riel for his crimes, to “unhang” Riel and to declare him to be a Father of Confederation. Some even wanted to erect a statue of him on Parliament Hill. These initiatives were terminated, without the legislation having been debated, when the election was called in the fall of 2000.

Revisionist "time travel” ignores the reality of human suffering. History is there to be learned, not to be revised or reinterpreted today by persons who do not like the outcomes of over a century ago. “Time travelling” back to the Riel era and erasing this judgement from our history books as if it were wrong, would in itself be wrong. How can we possibly know what was in the minds of people 100 years ago, to now judge them fairly after the fact, without the atmosphere of death, fear and social unrest that formed the background for the judgements of the time? How can we obtain a true appreciation for those issues, without the sweat of fear and the stench of death that those events caused across the West in that era?

As an example of selective memory, in a 1998 Canadian Lawyer magazine article on Riel's trial, presumed to have been written by a discerning and socially sensitive member of Canada's legal profession, there is absolutely no mention of anyone having died, yet the lives of some 80 people were ended as a result of Riel's leadership; 80 separate Canadian family tragedies commenced. Given such a panoramic but selective view, it is understandable that one finds a full-page editorial in the same issue of the magazine, calling for an public apology for Riel's "wrongful conviction". A similarly selective nature to the presentation of facts by lawyers appears to be evident by the CBC for its “Riel retrial”. Métis organizations have pointed out that they weren’t even consulted during the planning for this production and, in particular, that no Métis lawyers were consulted or considered for any role—including Jean Teillet, a Métis lawyer and the great-grand niece of Louis Riel. The production has been variously described as “ill conceived” and “socially, morally and politically irredeemable”.

To "unhang" Riel is illogical, at least for those who remember the true history of Riel's revolutionary leadership role and who also respect the authority of jury decisions in determinations of matters of fact. To posthumously "pardon" Riel would amount to a retroactive miscarriage of justice. To apologise to Riel's memory and to anoint Riel as a "Father of Confederation" would be an insult to the memories of those fallen Canadian soldiers and their proud descendants. These are the proud Canadian soldiers who fought and died defending Canada against armed insurgents, led by Riel. Riel didn’t ‘Father’ Confederation; he fought those who did. To unhang Louis Riel and to mount a statue to him on Parliament Hill would elevate anarchy and civil disobedience to that of democratic statesmanship.

Such confusion seems to continue, year after year. In 1998, members of the House of Commons demonstrated their confusion in sponsoring the Louis Riel Act. In early 2000, preservation of the Riel “myth” was entrusted to none other than our Governor General, who used her Office in a way that appeared to prejudge a parliamentary outcome. Speaking with reverent atonement at the foot of a memorial honouring Canadian soldiers who sacrificed their lives so that the Northwest Rebellion could be put down and Louis Riel brought to justice, flanked by an RCMP honour guard wearing Métis sashes, our Governor General assumed the role of Riel apologist. Readily forgotten was the fact that those Canadian soldiers were ordered by the Government of Canada to fight Riel and to bring him to justice. At the time, the Government Bill directing military action against Louis Riel was passed in Parliament and then received Royal Assent by the Queen and her representative in Canada—the Governor General.

So many people today appear to know little of and care less for the bravery, determination and resolution of those who fought against Riel and saved our country from disintegration, so long ago. In commenting on the CBC”Riel retrial” scheduled for this October, an editorial opinion in the Calgary Herald was that “Too few Canadians fully understand the story of Riel. As a proposed remedy, this sorry gimmick (by the CBC) is likely to misinform more than it educates.”

Here are some facts that likely won’t come out in the “Riel retrial”, since of course they are not “relevant”: The soldiers who fought Riel were awarded medals by the government for their service in defending Canada. The first war medal ever issued by Canada to its war veterans was ribboned in a striped pattern of "red-white-red"--the colours of Canada's flag of today--and was garlanded with maple leaves around the word "Canada". The medal's ribbon bore a clasp for either the Red River Campaign or the Fenian Raids. The second war medal issued by Canada was specifically for service during the Northwest Rebellion. Both medals awarded demonstrate Canada's gratitude for the sacrifices of those who served their country to bring Riel's rebellions to an end.

The events of a day cannot be retroactively altered by anyone. Why should it be any different for Louis Riel? It’s a sad state of Canadian historical affairs when so many historically ill-informed persons busy themselves giving praise to Riel, naming new highways after him and running a CBC special retrial “unhanging program” for Louis Riel, the villain who caused eighty to die, while General Middleton and his veteran Canadian soldiers are insulted, ignored and marginalized. In my view, we have sunk to a level comparable to that of Japan, where schoolbooks are sterilized to remove their Second World War shame, in the interest of sanitizing history and glorifying Emperor Hirohito, the benevolent leader who, with a wave of his hand, could have stopped all aggression, but did not. Canadians should be more willing to accept the facts of our history, however difficult and distasteful and to learn from history, not erase it.

Louis Riel should be honoured and respected for those efforts considered to constructively advance the interests of his local community in a democratic society. However, to sanitize his rebellious ways that caused so many deaths of Canadian soldiers and citizens is too much, too far and too revisionist. Canadian soldiers kept Canada united; Louis Riel most certainly did not.

[Revisionist History]