Arts & Life

On honouring Louis Riel

Louis Riel: his is a name that history will always recall. Exclusive to Manitoba is the holiday that bears his name. In 2008, on the third Monday of the month, Louis Riel Day was launched in recognition and commemoration of our provincial founder. Known as Family Day in other provinces, Manitoba school students voted in favor of naming the February vacation day “Louis Riel Day.”

Born a son of Manitoba, Riel blazed an unforgettable trail through most of Canada and several of the United States. He pursued his destiny of becoming a Canadian legend with passion was often chronicled as bordering on the insane.

Having met his death at the end of a noose at the early age of 41, Riel left behind a startlingly long list of accomplishments and addresses. In order to fully grasp the multi-faceted persona that was Louis Riel, a lesson in history may be required.

In a brief summation of achievements, titles held by Riel are as follows: provincial founder (Manitoba), spiritual and political leader, teacher, law clerk, poet, husband and father.
His residences included Montana, Saskatchewan, New York, Ontario, Montreal, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Chicago.

His nomadic lifestyle was largely due to a need to flee one circumstance after another. Riel’s political involvements and pursuit of justice for all frequently resulted in seeking safe haven across borders. Incredibly, Riel was able to secure enough votes to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons a total of three times, even while languishing in a fugitive state.

Regardless of his profession or location, Riel’s true calling would effectively lure him back to the front line of preserving Métis land and rights. As Riel held a firm belief that he had been divinely chosen to lead and defend the Métis, he enmeshed himself in rebellions and battles. He also began to title himself superlatively as “the Prophet of the New World” and even more outrageously as “the Joyful Telephone of God.”

An intriguing and enigmatic personality, Riel vacillated between the pursuit of fair and equal treatment towards all Canadians to violent outbursts accompanied by lunatic ravings. He was committed to the care and control of an asylum where he slowly regained his “right” mind.

Biographers and researchers of our time have indicated that Riel may in fact have suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. This condition of the mind is described by the Mayo Clinic as “an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others.”

While widely and deservedly touted as a man of honour, and in fact considered to be a hero, observations on Riel span a wide spectrum. The further one delves into historical data, the more complex a person Riel becomes. With myriad traits and opposing characteristics documented over time, the question begs asking, who was Louis Riel, really?

His attributes can literally be spliced into two columns: Hero and Heretic.

Through reviewing the chronology of Riel’s short life, evidence of an intensely refracted persona come to light. Not one, but two common themes thread their way through Riel’s history, making him an incredible character study alongside of his political achievements.

On one side of the coin, Riel is heralded for his political savvy, his unwavering support of the Métis, his bravery and his musing prose.

On the other, darker side of the same coin, Riel is described as mentally unwell, explosive and eccentric. With behavioral tendencies to disrobe and imitate the roaring of a mighty bull in public, it is a small wonder that Riel was labelled as having a mental collapse of sorts. The word “psychotic” also appears in numerous historical accounts.

Regardless of how Riel has been portrayed in multiple publications, he is widely recalled for his acts of bravery and heroism. Truly, who among us would not experience a fraying of the mind at the incredible pressures that he found himself exposed to? Compared to the forward motion that Riel achieved in his short life, the significance of a dark and troubled side fades into the recesses of our collective memory.

As Canadians, the moody, volatile side of Riel is not a factor in our memories. Is it because we have an understanding that without dark there could be no light? Or, do we simply choose to celebrate the pinnacles regardless of the pitfalls?

Regardless of our individual or collective reasons for honoring Riel, we as Manitobans respectfully cherish the life and death of Riel year round, and pay him utmost respect on the holiday that bears his name.