(November 2020) – A national coalition is calling on the government of Canada to exonerate Louis Riel who was hanged for treason on November 16, 1885 after leading the Metis people in the Northwest Resistance.
With the 135th anniversary of Riel’s death fast approaching, Paulette Duguay, President of the Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba, has written to Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to formally ask the government to declare Louis Riel innocent.
“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.
The Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba had initially called for exoneration in 2017 during Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. That request was not granted. Duguay is hoping that the milestone of the 135th anniversary of Riel’s execution can serve as a healing moment for all Canadians and is thus renewing the demand for exoneration.
Speaking as President of the British Columbia Métis Federation, Keith Henry indicates that Louis Riel was an iconic leader. “He was the most remarkable person in Metis history, fighting for basic human rights not only for the Metis but for all First Nations and other Canadians.”
“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,” said Henry. “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.”
The demand for exoneration is also supported by Senator Marilou McPhedran, a human rights lawyer, former professor at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Order of Canada who was appointed to the Senate in 2016 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and who has supported legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“In 2008, my home province of Manitoba legislated an annual Louis Riel Day holiday. It is a day Manitobans celebrate Louis Riel as the founder of our province and as a strong voice for minority rights,” said Senator Marilou McPhedran. “The exoneration of Louis Riel would significantly advance the cause of reconciliation and address a long-standing injustice that continues to cause rancour in the relationship between Indigenous nations and Canada,” said Senator McPhedran.
For their part, Montreal Councillors Marvin Rotrand and Giuliana Fumagalli say the cause of Louis Riel continues to inspire Quebecers. The Councillors have tabled a motion for the Montreal Council meeting of November 16 asking City Council to formally endorse the demand for exoneration.
“On November 22, 1885, some 55,000 people gathered in Montreal to hear the Premier Honoré Mercier denounce the hanging of Louis Riel and call for the protection of linguistic and religious rights within the young nation of Canada. Today Quebecers continue to care about the fate of Louis Riel,” said Ms. Fumagalli who serves as Mayor of Villeray – Saint Michel – Parc Extention.
Councillor Rotrand, the dean of Montreal Council, originally raised the matter of exoneration at the January 2017 Council meeting at which then Mayor Denis Coderre gave his complete support. Coderre indicated that when he had served as a Member of Parliament he had, in 1996, proposed Bill C-417, which called for the exoneration of Louis Riel, only to see the bill fail to obtain unanimous consent.
“There have been numerous private members bills over the years proposed by Denis Coderre, Reg Alcock, Suzanne Tremblay and Pat Martin among others. All failed. What is needed is a Bill sponsored by the government,” said Councillor Rotrand, who believes that the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker by Prime Minister Trudeau in May 2019 could serve as a model by which to exonerate and overturn the long-standing injustices committed against Louis Riel.
Well known Métis historians Terry and George Goulet concur that it is time for the government of Canada to act. They say righting the wrongs of the past is vital in promoting reconciliation and resolving negotiations that can redefine the relationship between Canada and its Indigenous peoples.
“On March 26, 2018, the government of Canada exonerated six Tsilhqot’in war chiefs of any crime or wrongdoing during the Chilcotin War of 1864. Canada recognizes that these six chiefs were leaders of a nation, that they acted in accordance with their laws and traditions and are regarded as heroes of their people,” said George Goulet. He indicated that the exoneration of the war chiefs should allow the government of Canada to act upon the demand for Louis Riel to be declared innocent.
“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,” concluded Terry Goulet.