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Louis Riel to be Titled First Premier of Manitoba

A statue of Louis Riel outside the Manitoba Legislative Building.

At the Annual Assembly of the Manitoba Metis Federation, Premier Wab Kinew promised to give Louis Riel the honorary title of first premier of Manitoba. Until now, Riel has been credited for having “inspired the creation of Manitoba,” according to the Government of Manitoba website. This will be among the first acts made by the Manitoban government.

“This fall,” Kinew said, “when our team returns to the Manitoba legislature, one of the first bills that we are going to bring forward is an act to bestow upon Louis Riel the honorary title that reflects who he truly is, which is Mantioba’s first premier.” 

“Louis Riel and the Metis Nation are the reason that Manitoba is part of Canada,” Kinew told the crowd at the Assembly. “So I want to, in front of you, his children, his grandchildren, his descendants, I want you to know that I understand that, that I revere that, that I will never forget that.”  

Manitoba Metis Federation President David Chartrand said, “[Riel’s] never been given the decency of respect to be called the first premier… This clarity now sets the foundation for the healing to start taking place for the Metis of the Red River, to make it clear to students and to the world that this was the first premier of western Canada. He brought western Canada to Confederation, and he paid a price for it.” 

At the Assembly, which took place just days before the NDP announced their cabinet, Kinew promised that his cabinet would include Metis perspectives. Among his newly formed cabinet, announced Wednesday, are two Metis women. Bernadette Smith will act as Minister of Housing, Addictions and Homelessness and will be responsible for Mental Health. Renee Cable will be the Minister of Advanced Education and Training. 

Additionally, Nahanni Fontaine will take the role of Minister of Families, responsible for Accessibility and Gender Equity. Fontaine will be the first First Nations woman in the Manitoba cabinet. 

A Brief History 

Despite many nations, including the Metis nation, existing in the Red River area, the Hudson’s Bay Company claimed ownership over the land, part of a massive region called Rupert’s Land. The HBC agreed to sell Rupert’s land to the Dominion of Canada in 1869, instigating the federal government of Canada to send surveyors to the area where they began staking land, which was already owned by the Metis people. The Metis National Committee was established as a provisional government to confront the Canadian Government’s entry into the region, contesting the Dominion of Canada’s claim of ownership of land, which was already established by the Metis. The Committee put forward rejected Canada’s authority to govern the land and proposed negotiations between the two nations.  

Being bilingual and having been well educated, Riel was elected leader of the Committee, which represented all people living in the Red River. The Committee itself was comprised of 20 English speakers and 20 French, a balance unheard of in Canada at the time. 

In 1869, the Committee wrote a List of Rights for people living in what would come to be called Manitoba. It was based on this List, which the Metis Nation negotiated with the Government of Canada in Ottawa, that the Manitoba Act was created, through which Manitoba was created as the fifth province of Canada in 1870. 

Riel was elected as a member of Parliament three times. However, he never took his seat in Ottawa for fear of safety. On one occasion, Riel wore a disguise to sign his name in an MP registry in Ottawa. Despite having won his role as MP in a legitimate election, his name was soon after stricken from the record, and many in Ottawa rejected his legitimacy as an elected official. It was when the government of Canada again forced its way westward, forcing Metis people off their property, that Louis Riel was called upon to lead the Metis against Canadian expansion, which looked to steamroll anything in its path. This engagement between the Metis and the federal government lasted two months in what has been named the North-West Resistance. Eventually, the Metis ran low on ammunition and were forced to surrender. 

In 1885, Riel was hanged for treason following a trial which has since come under immense scrutiny. His body was brought back to Saint-Boniface, where Riel was born. Today, a massive sculpture of Riel sits prominently on the lawn by the Saint-Boniface Cathedral, where he is buried. 

In Recent History 

In 2019, Wab Kinew introduced a bill to recognize Louis Riel as the first premier of Manitoba. The bill was backed by Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. 

“Louis Riel was not only the first Premier of Manitoba but someone who laid out a vision for not just Manitoba but for all of Canada,” Singh said at Fort Gibraltar during Festival du Voyageur in 2020. 

“[It was] a vision of inclusivity, of justice and of fairness, one that was ahead of its time, avant-garde in its recognition of the importance of negotiating treaty rights with the first people of this land, recognizing minority rights like the French language rights and recognizing that every person has the inherent value to live with justice, freedom, and equality.” 

Kinew introduced the bill in the legislature four times but it never passed. The bill emphasized the provisional government of 1870 adopted a List of Rights for a multicultural, bilingual party which respected Indigenous and minority rights. The bill also mentioned the List of Rights was accepted by the Government of Canada, thus establishing Manitoba as a province. The bill proposed in 2019 included amendments to provincial education to accurately reflect Riel’s influence in the province’s creation. 

 

“I think having Louis Riel Day and the fact that so many families come to Festival Du Voyageur on this day has done a great job in helping to educate everybody,” Kinew said in 2019. “But I think if we get this law passed and we really recognize the founding role Louis Riel played, then every future generation of kids in this province is going to be able to take pride in this great inclusive vision that our province was founded on.” 

Kinew in Office 

MMF President David Chartrand has been strong in his congratulations to Kinew and the NDP for their historic victory. Chartrand has said previously he anticipates Indigenous forward decision-making, such as this recognition of Riel as the first premier. 

“When Premier Kinew addressed the thousands of our citizens at our Annual General Assembly this past weekend, his words spoke of his deep and nuanced understanding of who we are and the role we played in bringing Manitoba into Canada’s Confederation,” Chartrand said in a statement on the MMF website.  

“We look forward to seeing Premier Kinew honour his commitments and will work with his government to ensure success for both sides. The Government of the Red River Metis has been actively advancing our Nation to the benefit of all who call this province home, and a strong and positive relationship with the Government of Manitoba makes that work easier and produces better results. Today, Riel must be smiling down on this little Nation and the province he helped create.” 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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