National coalition calls for exoneration of Manitoba Métis leader Louis Riel

Nearly 135 years after his death, a national coalition is renewing calls to have the federal government exonerate Louis Riel. Manitoba Archives via CP

A national coalition is renewing calls for the Canadian government to exonerate Louis Riel nearly 135 years after the Manitoba Métis leader was hanged for treason.

Paulette Duguay, president of the Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba, has formally asked the federal government to declare Riel innocent in a letter recently sent to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.

“The death of Louis Riel is the source of deep division in Canadian society and has led to a profound sense of injustice among the Metis people which still echoes today,” said Duguay, who is being joined by several Métis leaders and politicians from across Canada calling for the pardon.

Riel was central to the Red River and North-West resistances to assert Indigenous rights, and was hanged in Saskatchewan on Nov. 16, 1885 for treason.

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He is widely celebrated in Manitoba for leading a provisional government and paving the way for the province’s entry into Confederation.

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It’s not the first time there have been calls to see a pardon for the man known as the father of Manitoba.

The Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba first called for his exoneration in 2017, during the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, but the request was not granted. There have also been numerous private bills over the years, but all have failed.

“He was the most remarkable person in Métis history, fighting for basic human rights not only for the Métis but for all First Nations and other Canadians,” said Keith Henry, president of the British Columbia Métis Federation.

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“In March 1992, the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada unanimously adopted resolutions recognizing the various and significant contributions of Louis Riel to Canada and to the Métis people; and, in particular, recognized his unique and historic role as a founder of Manitoba.

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“Canadians are a justice-loving people yet despite Parliament’s many debates, Louis Riel has yet to be exonerated. Canadians want to see Louis Riel exonerated, deemed innocent of the charge of high treason.”

‘Our goal is to right a historic injustice’

The call for a pardon is echoed by Montreal councillors Marvin Rotrand and Giuliana Fumagalli, who have tabled a motion calling on that city’s council to formally endorse the demand for exoneration.

Rotrand said the 2019 exoneration of Chief Poundmaker in Saskatchewan and the 2018 exoneration of six Tsilhqot’in war chiefs who were executed by British Columbia’s colonial government more than 150 years ago could serve as a model to exonerate Riel.

Poundmaker is considered an important political leader who spoke out against unfulfilled Treaty 6 promises and stood up for his people at the time of the 1885 Northwest Resistance, also known historically as the Northwest Rebellion. He died in 1886 after he was tried for treason and jailed in Manitoba.

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“We’re asking for the same thing for the Métis,” Rotrand said during an online press conference Monday.

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“Our goal is reconciliation, our goal is to right a historic injustice, and our goal is to in essence have a fruitful discussion between the government of Canada and the Métis Nation to solve long-standing demands that have remained on the table and demands that we feel could be moved forward rather quickly by the exoneration of Louis Riel.”

Rotrand said he’s reached out to other city councillors from “coast to coast” and he’s hoping other municipal politicians will table similar motions.

Métis historian Terry Goulet said exonerating Riel could be an important part of reconciliation between the government and Indigenous Canadians.

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“Today, under Canadian law, Riel is a convicted criminal traitor. In the interests of reconciliation with the Metis People, this stain must not remain, and Riel must be exonerated.”

A spokesperson from Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada told Global News any government decision on exonerating Riel “will be made in partnership with the Métis Nation.”

“The Government of Canada is renewing the relationship with Indigenous peoples, creating one based on the affirmation of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. A vital part of this work is addressing the injustices of past, colonial governments,” reads an email from communications officer, Kyle Fournier.

“Louis Riel was a great man, and his contributions have not only benefitted the Métis Nation, but Canada as a whole.

“As a government, we will continue to work with the Métis nation in our shared goal towards reconciliation.”

–With files from The Canadian Press

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