It’s been 138 years since his death, but the impact and legacy of Louis Riel still looms large over Manitoba.
Leaders of the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), as well as politicians and other dignitaries, spoke Thursday at Riel’s St. Boniface gravesite for Louis Riel Day — the anniversary of his execution in 1885 — to honour the legacy of a man widely considered to be the father of Manitoba.
Riel, long a polarizing figure in Canadian history, was at the epicentre of a pair of 19th-century rebellions against the federal government in his quest to defend the homelands of the Métis people.
Well over a century after he was hanged for treason, Riel’s legacy has been reconsidered, and today he’s seen as a local hero, founder and the namesake of landmarks across Manitoba.
Member of Parliament Terry Duguid, who described Riel as not only Manitoba’s founder but also the province’s first premier, said it’s an honour to represent an area where Riel was elected three times — although he was unable to take his seat in Parliament.
Manitoba’s current premier, Wab Kinew, said Riel will be recognized in the new government’s throne speech next week.
Kinew, who made history last month when he was elected as the first First Nations premier of a Canadian province, said he’s long been inspired by Riel.
“He’s certainly the reason I speak French. He’s the reason I have the opportunity to serve you, the people of Manitoba, as your premier, and he is, essentially, at the end of the day, the reason we are all Manitobans,” Kinew said.
“This is an important opportunity to commemorate — to remember the way he was mistreated — but also to celebrate the rights, the liberty and the contributions that he made to our democracy here in a province we’re so proud of.”
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said the people of the capital city, and the province as a whole, are “forever indebted” to Riel for laying the groundwork for everything that has come since.
“There’s no disputing the critical, important, foundational leadership work that Louis Riel did to establish this province,” Gillingham said, “to defend and establish and uphold the rights of the people of this province, and we’re the ones who benefit today.”
In a statement Thursday, MMF president David Chartrand said the anniversary is an opportunity for Manitobans to reflect on “the pivotal role Louis Riel played in Canadian history.”
“Every year on this day, we remind Manitobans and Canadians that our Nation has always seen Riel for the great man he was. We know that his actions, words and sacrifices earned him the title of first premier of Manitoba,” Chartrand said.
“In the future, I hope Riel will be remembered by all Canadians for who he was – an advocate of what are now considered Canadian values: inclusiveness of language rights, equality between genders, and heartfelt welcome and support for newcomers.”