Louis Riel Commemoration Ceremony

November 16, 2022

Dougald Lamont's speech

"It's always a profound and solemn honour to stand here as the Leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party and as MLA for St. Boniface.

And as we commemorate the death of Louis Riel, it's worth remembering his life, because it was lived right here where he is buried.

It was on the steps of St. Boniface Cathedral, just to my left, where Riel delivered a speech rousing the people of Red River in 1869 after he returned from Montreal. He knew the magnitude of the task he was undertaking. When the Métis turned back the Canadian Lieutenant Governor at St. Norbert, at la barriere, Riel and Ritchot believed providence had a hand in their work, and commemorated the spot along the Pembina trail, as being touched by the hand of God.

Riel was sitting on the porch of the Archbishop's house behind us, and saw Wolseley arrive and take over at Fort Garry, across the river. They were not Canadian troops. They were British Imperial troops, sent to crush a rebellion that had never existed.

What happened at Red River was not a Rebellion. It was not an uprising. It was an assertion of rights by people who were in favour of joining Canada and wanted to make sure they did so on their own terms, and that they weren't simply rolled over.

At that time, it wasn't Canada that was talking about democracy, voting, representation, and rights. It was Riel and the provisional government. It wasn't Riel who had no authority or legitimacy in Manitoba - it was the Canadian Government. Riel and the Métis didn't attempt a violent overthrow of the government - that was Thomas Scott.

Riel and the Provisional Government didn't submit Thomas Scott to a political show trial resulting in his execution. That is what Sir John A. MacDonald and the Canadian Government did to Louis Riel.

Riel believed in justice and was a devout Catholic. A rule follower, not a rebel - because Riel and Métis were looking to ensure there would be fair rules to govern them. He thought that the institutions of government and justice in Canada would work the way we say they will. They did not, and they do not, and they must, not as a matter of political correctness but as a matter of fundamental justice.

So much of the way that Riel was portrayed in mainstream history is an unthinking repetition of the bigotry of the day.

When Abbé Ritchot travelled to Ottawa to negotiate Manitoba's entry into confederation, the Canadians played coy and claimed they had no jurisdiction to grant amnesty to the Métis for asserting their rights.

Ottawa did, however, believe it had the right to try Riel.

In 1874, Sir Wilfrid Laurier defended Louis Riel, pointing out that he could not be given amnesty when he never committed a crime.

"It has been said that Mr. Riel was only a rebel. How was it possible to use such language? What act of rebellion did he commit? Did he ever raise any other standard than the national flag? Did he ever proclaim any other authority than the sovereign authority of the Queen? No, never. His whole crime and the crime of his friends was that they wanted to be treated like British subjects and not to be bartered away like common cattle? If that be an act of rebellion, where is the one amongst us, who, if he had happened to have been with them, would not have been rebels as they were?"

When Riel was persuaded to return, again, to defend the rights of the Métis, again, in Saskatchewan he was pursued as a trophy for MacDonald.

The jury themselves pleaded for clemency - and had a better sense of the history on the grounds than many historians and pundits since.

"The jury of six men deliberated Riel's fate for an hour. They filed back into the courtroom. The foreman, Francis Cosgrove, 'crying like a baby' announced the verdict. 'Guilty,' he said, and then added, 'Your Honor, I have been asked by my brother jurors to recommend the prisoner to the mercy of the Crown.' Later, one of the jurors would write a letter to a member of Parliament expressing his mixed feelings about the verdict he helped render: 'Had the Government done their duty and redressed the grievances of the Métis of Saskatchewan...there would never have been a second Riel Rebellion, and consequently no prisoner to try and condemn."

On the night before his execution, Riel prayed, wrote letters, thanked jailers, and forgave enemies. Asked for a final request, he asked only for an extra ration of three eggs. Shortly after 8:00 AM on November 16, Riel was escorted from his cell. He prayed with Father Andre, renounced his heresies, and received absolution. When Father Andre began weeping, Riel said calmly, "Courage mon Pére." With the rope finally around his neck, Riel and Father Andre began reciting together the Lord's Prayer. When they reached "deliver us from evil," the trap fell.

The response to the execution in Quebec was a massive protest. In Champ-de-Mars in Montreal, Wilfried Laurier spoke "to a crowd of nearly 50,000 and reportedly said, 'If [I] had been on the banks of the Saskatchewan when the rebellion broke out [I] would have taken up arms [myself] against the government... Riel's execution was a judicial murder.'"

This is not revisionist history. This is the true history.

Riel was not perfect, because none of us are. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. But here he lies - the Founder of Manitoba and a father of confederation, killed by a country he helped create and shape for the better.

Across the River from here is the Museum for Human Rights. And we all know that Manitoba and Canada have fallen short from our ideals - and yet, we still have our ideals. Riel and the Museum, across the river from one another, serve as a reminder and as the conscience of our community. That there are ideals worth striving for, that there are risks worth taking, and that we always have more work to do. In these, the words and life of Louis Riel remain a guiding light. He believed in justice, in Manitoba, and in his people. His dream is now ours to keep alive."

 


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