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Louis Riel Day in a New Light

On February 19th, Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, Premier Wab Kinew met with Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand to unveil a new plaque and portrait of Louis Riel at the Manitoba Legislature. This marks the first Louis Riel Day after Riel was designated the first premier of Manitoba. The portrait of Riel will hang among the other premiers who have served the province over the last 153 years. 

The plaque reads, “First premier, Louis Riel: March 1870 – June 1870; Royal ascent given December 2023. Founder of Manitoba. Proud Red River Métis.” 

After reading the plaque aloud, President Chartrand pumped his fist in celebration. 

It was in December 2023 that the Louis Riel Act was given Royal Assent, designating Riel as the first premier of Manitoba. Kinew had long promised the recognition of Riel as the first premier. This was the first bill passed by the Kinew government. The act had been proposed several times while Kinew was the leader of the official opposition. However, no support was mustered outside the NDP. 

“Louis Riel Day is significant not only for the Red River Métis, not only for the people who live in our communities, but for all Manitobans because he truly is the father of confederation for our province and the founder of Manitoba,” said Will Goodon, MMF Minister of Housing and Property Development. 

Monday saw several events celebrating the leadership and life of Louis Riel, the two most formal taking place, one soon after the other. The day began at the Manitoba Legislature and made its way to the St. Boniface Cathedral, where the signed Louis Riel Act was laid upon the gravesite of Louis Riel.

“[The premier] kept his word. I had no doubt in my mind that he would do what he had done,” Chartrand said to the crowd in front of the St. Boniface Cathedral.

Before the 2023 bill, Riel was recognized as the president of the executive council, which led Manitoba in 1870, before and after Manitoba joined Canada. Prior to officially agreeing to join Canada, the council was also being courted to become part of the United States but chose to join the new Queen’s newest nation. 

“In order for us to move forward, we also have to acknowledge our history, our heritage, and the lineage that we come from. So, of course, we all know that Mr. Riel was the head of the government here, the first democratic government,” said Premier Kinew. “[So], we saw it fit to acknowledge him as the first premier. We know that Mr. Riel not only served that important role but also his rights that he articulated set forth the vision for our province of Manitoba. A vision of equality, a vision where people had the right to speak French and speak other minority languages, that recognized indigenous rights and really, at the end of the day, recognized the ability of all of us to live together on these lands and to make the most of our full potential.” 

Prior to the unveiling of the plaque at the legislative building, Chartrand talked about what Riel faced in his time. The Canadian government saw Riel and the Métis as villains, just as had been the case after the battle of Seven Oaks in 1816 -where the Métis protected themselves against intrusive British business operations. In both cases, the Métis were fighting for their rights to their land and freedom. 

“I just imagine the stuff Riel had to go through when he was a young man. Remember, too, he was only 25 when he was the first premier of this province,” Chartrand said. 

Chartrand was proud to share Riel’s words: “I know for the grace of God I am the founder of Manitoba. I believe by what I suffered for 15 years, by what I’ve done for Manitoba and the people of the Northwest, that my words are worth something.”

“So,” Chartrand continued, “we waited 153 years for the royal ascent, 154 years around the corner. It’s been a long time waiting for our people.” 

In 2020 MMF president David Chartrand was asked about Louis Riel and his role in the creation of Manitoba, to which Chartrand assured reporters Riel would one day be recognized as the rightful first premier of Manitoba. 

“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there,” Chartrand recalled telling reporters.  

Chartrand and Kinew each expressed how this is a moment not only for the Métis but for all Manitobans to appreciate. 

“He’s not just the Métis premier, he’s the premier of Manitoba, Louis Riel, for all Manitobans,” Chartrand said. “If you look at his background, you look at his readings, and you look at his statements, he believed in immigration. He believed in so much land and rich opportunity here that more people should come. So all those that aren’t Métis, we welcome you to the beautiful province that Riel formulated and created because of his genius.” 

Premier Kinew talked about how important it was to him and his government to make the Louis Riel Act the first bill passed in their time in the legislature. “[They] called me the 25th premier of Manitoba, but I thought it was important before they called me the 25th that they call Louis Riel the first.” 

Riel's signature from the House of Commons, dated March 26th 1870.

Brief History of Louis Riel 

In 1869, Riel led the Métis nation to resist the intrusion of Canada, which resulted in a treaty between the two nations, allowing the Métis to retain possession of 1.4 million acres of land in exchange for the new province of Manitoba entering the confederation. Manitoba was created as Canada’s newest province while the Canadian government reneged on the proposed 1.4 million acres. 

Riel was thrice elected to represent the people of Manitoba, though the Canadian government had a bounty on his head, which kept him from taking his seat in parliament. On one occasion, despite the risk of death, Riel wore a disguise and travelled to Ottawa, where he signed the official attendance registry at the House of Commons. 

In 1885, Riel was sent to trial after the Battle of Battoche, another war fought by the Métis to stave off Canada from overtaking their land, though the Métis surrendered after running out of ammunition. Riel was sentenced to death after his trial took place outside the boundaries of Canada, where the death penalty was not legal. Historians today see how skewed and flawed the trial of Louis Riel was from the outset. 

In 1992, Riel was recognized as a founder of Manitoba, and in 2008, Premier Gary Doer asked Manitoba elementary students to pick the name for a February holiday. Other provinces picked Family Day, but Manitoba students picked Louis Riel Day. In 2016, Riel was formally recognized as having been the first leader of the province of Manitoba. With the changes made by the Kinew government comes a change in school curriculum to teach how the Métis are distinct from other First Nations in Canada and teach what the Métis nation is and what their role is in founding Manitoba.

“I’d like to think that as we go further into the future, each day we get closer to Riels’ vision,” said Premier Kinew as he stood in front of the St. Boniface Cathedral mere yards from the headstone of Louis Riel, Manitoba’s first premier. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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