Whose Riel?
by Kevin Bruyneel

First Thoughts

  The question "Whose Riel?" invokes possession, as in whose Riel are you talking about? But to the ear it also invokes definition: "Who's Riel?" These questions are necessarily linked, and they refer more to the present than the past. To paraphrase William Faulkner, the past is not in the past, but only ever really in the present. To ask 'Who was Louis Riel' is thus really to ask 'Who is Louis Riel?' Who is he to us today, and who is this "us" that seeks to define him? Possession and definition, then, go hand in hand, distinct yet linked, like Whose and Who's. The words dance back and forth. Canadians today also dance as they seek to understand who they are as a people by re-thinking - re-writing - who they were over a century ago. No figure so well represents the Canadian struggle between past and present, identity and difference, belonging and exile, inclusion and exclusion and so on as does that of Louis Riel, the Métis leader of two rebellions, the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Over the next few weeks I will explore the 'Whose' and 'Who's' questions regarding Louis Riel, as a political actor, as a subject of numerous studies and historical examinations, and as a figure and symbol of Canadian cultural identity. To start, consider the following.

  In June 1999, the National Post published the results of a poll it sponsored asking Canadians to nominate their top 10 Canadian "heroes" of all time. Louis Riel came in fifth. The only people who finished ahead of him were: Terry Fox, Fredrick Banting, Sir John A. Macdonald, and Lester B. Pearson (1). So, a man who dies while trying to help cure cancer, a man who saves and extends the lives of those with diabetes, a man critical to bringing Canada into being, and a man who sought tangible ways to enhance world peace are the only four Canadians presently held in higher esteem than Louis Riel. To say the least, some sort of national re-assessment of the Métis leader has occurred over the last century. This reevaluation of Riel arose in part as a consequence of the Canadian government's effort to address the legacy and present state of aboriginal people's existence in Canada. This effort has involved a Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the issuance of a national apology, a promise to distribute some $300 million to begin to deal with Canada's destructive and paternalistic policies, and a general effort to re-think the place of aboriginal people in Canada's political life. Included in this effort was a promise to seek out a way to acknowledge "Louis Riel's proper place in Canadian history." (2) That a nation looking backward comes to such a phenomenally laudable view of Riel's political identity indicates both the continued prevalence of Aboriginal identity in Canadian political life and the complicated racial, ethnic and national politics in Canada.

  The unique place of Aboriginal identity in Canada is implicitly called forth by noted Canadian columnist Peter C. Newman. Supporting the idea that Riel be remembered positively in Canadian history, Newman sees the Métis leader as a perfect representative of the tensions of Canadian political life: "Riel's dominant characteristic was his very Canadian sense of ambiguity." In other words, "Louis Riel's inner conflict was as ancient and as contemporary as Canada itself: a clash between the collective demands of a largely French-speaking group, the Métis, and the stubbornly held individual rights of English-Canadians." (3) Newman's framing of Riel's identity in contemporary political life echoes that of the Rebellion era, as he positions Aboriginal identity as the presence signifying the 'clash' between the French and the English and between collective and individual rights. However, this Aboriginal presence defining the French-English tensions notably marks an absence of Aboriginal political identity and claims in and for themselves. Furthermore, for the Canadian context, this framing of Riel's identity universalizes French concerns as collective and English concerns as individual, leaving the meaning of Aboriginal political claims ambiguous. It is this very ambiguity between the seeming poles of Québécois nationalism and English Canadian liberalism that defines the vulnerability and opportunity of Aboriginal politics in the Canadian context.

  Although Louis Riel's story stands as the most noted signifier of rebellion in Canadian history, the exact purposes and consequences of these rebellions remain open to question. Were they constitutive of Canadian identity and Canada by forcing the nation to incorporate new and diverse provinces west of Ontario? Were they criminal, traitorous acts that sought to undermine Canada, but instead were defeated, their leader sacrificed and the Canadian nation emboldened in the process? Or were they uniquely positioned and articulated acts that challenged and drew out the internal and external tensions of Canadian political identity and sovereignty while asserting an alternative form of indigenous sovereign existence? Each of these questions conveys an element of truth. While the Riel-led rebellions demonstrated and manifested the role of indigenous people in the political development of Canada, these rebellions also showed how political societies defined in no small part as Aboriginal become detrimentally positioned amongst the tensions between Canada's two dominant groups, the English and the French. The complicated strands of these two rebellions and their suffusion within the English-French tensions are well embodied in the complicated character of their leader, a figure of hybrid identity, a political revolutionary both adept and outrageous, and ultimately a victim of the English-French contest over Canada's political identity.

  George Stanley, a noted historian of Riel, asserts that "Riel's ghost still haunts" all realms of Canadian life: "He has become a Canadian legend, if not the Canadian legend. He is our Hamlet, the personification of the great themes in our history." Stanley finds "four faces of Riel": "the defender of the French language and religious rights"; "the half-breed patriot"; "the first Western Canadian leader"; and "the prophet and the visionary." (4) Another Riel historian entitled one of his books with the choice: Louis Riel: Rebel of the Western Frontier or Victim of Politics and Prejudice? (5) One can, without doubt, conger up many more faces for this 'Canadian Hamlet.' Of course, in standing symbolically for so many positions,(6) Riel can really stand for no single one of them distinctly and cannot stand for all of them adequately. It is this very process, however, that serves as the most apt meta-metaphor for guiding out understanding of the political identity and actions of Riel, his place in Canadian lore, and the implications of his image for how Aboriginal people are politically and culturally located and seek to articulate their identity and political concerns in the Canadian context. These issues and other questions I seek to explore here over the next little while. The questions are many, and it may well be the case that the proliferation of questions about Riel is more important than any specific gesture to an answer. Nevertheless, such gestures - fruitful or fruitless though they may be - shall be attempted.

Kevin Bruyneel is a professor of politics in the United States of America.

(1) James Cudmore. "Terry Fox admired for his courage," National Post, June 30, 1999.

(2) Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart, January 7, 1999

(3) Peter C. Newman. "Rewriting history: Louis Riel as a hero," Maclean's, April 12, 1999, p. 48.

(4) George F. G. Stanley, in "The Last Word on Louis Riel - The Man of Several Faces," in Hartwell Bowsfield ed, Louis Riel: Selected Readings (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1988)., p. 56.

(5) Bowsfield. ed. (l969).

(6) Books on Riel, from a range of perspectives, include: Thomas Flanagan. Riel and the Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairies Books, 1983); Thomas Flanagan. Riel: Prophet of the New World (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979); E.B. Osler. The Man Who Had to Hang: Louis Riel (Toronto: Longmans Green & Co., 1961); and George F. G. Stanley. Louis Riel. (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1963).

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