Louis Riel’s birthday: Time to revisit the complicated history of Métis people in Manitoba

In 2016, I moved to Winnipeg to work for CBC, having never stepped foot in the city before.

I didn’t know what to expect, but the reputation that the city was the homeland of the Métis was front of mind. 

I’m Métis, originally from Edmonton with family ties to Lac Ste. Anne, a small community west of Edmonton with rich Métis roots.

I’ve always known I was Métis, and I was raised to be proud of my heritage, so moving to Winnipeg always kind of felt like I was moving to a city built for my people.

And Winnipeg did not disappoint.

All around the city there are signs of the Métis, from statues and murals of Riel, to streets named after important Métis figures like Cuthbert Grant, to Elzéar Goulet Park, which has a walking path in the shape of an infinity symbol — a signifier long adopted by the Métis Nation. 

Having lived in a few Canadian cities now, I can safely say that nowhere else have I seen such an outpouring of Métis pride.    

Moving here, I didn’t know much about Manitoba’s history, aside from the fact that Louis Riel was seen by many as the founding father of the province, since he formed the interim government that negotiated the terms of Manitoba joining Canada. 

Living in a city so steeped in Métis history made me curious to dig into it a bit more. 

What I found out surprised me, and that research is what inspired me to produce the podcast Muddied Water: 1870, Homeland of the Métis

Muddied Water: 1870, Homeland of the Métis is available now on the CBC Listen app. (CBC)

For a city that likes to celebrate its Métis roots, there was so much harm done to the community over the 150 year history of Manitoba, with one of the most egregious acts being done when the province joined Confederation.

In 1870, when Manitoba joined Canada, under the Manitoba Act the Métis were promised 1.4 million acres of land — a promise that was never kept. 

What followed was a reign of terror; the Métis were targets of racism, including violent acts. They felt unwelcomed in the Red River settlement — a stretch of land they once called home.

And even though many Métis had family members from nearby First Nations, under the Indian Act established in 1876, the Métis also didn’t belong on reserves. 

This is crux of the matter when it comes to Métis identity — we have a hard time figuring out where we belong.

The forgotten people 

With signs of the Métis all around Winnipeg, it may come as a surprise to some that the Métis were once labelled “the forgotten people.”

After 1870, many Métis went into hiding, moving to communities they built on road allowances on the outskirts of towns, or they tried to blend in with the new settler community by denying their Métis roots.

The needs and interests of the Métis of Manitoba have consistently been overlooked by the federal and provincial governments. It wasn’t really until the 1970s and ’80s that there was a revival of Métis culture and pride, stirring up attention for the needs of the Métis.

Today it is encouraging to see that many young Métis people continue the work of reviving their culture, through art, political action and story.

Despite this, there still seems to be a lag in recognizing the contributions of the Métis in this province. More importantly, there seems to be lag in recognizing the harm done to the community. 

On July 15, 2020 the province celebrated the 150th anniversary of the enactment of the Manitoba Act, and the 100th anniversary of the legislative building.

But for the Métis, that anniversary is a sombre reminder of how their ancestors were treated, because it was on July 15, 1870, that Col. Garnet Wolseley’s troops started their trip to Winnipeg, marking the beginning of the reign of terror. The expedition was sent to enforce the transfer of Hudson Bay Co. land, a vast expanse known as Rupert’s Land that included the Red River settlement, to the Dominion of Canada — but also to confront Louis Riel and the Métis resistance.

It was the arrival of Wolseley’s troops that caused a young Louis Riel to flee to the U.S. for fear of his life, because he was falsely accused of sentencing Orangeman Thomas Scott to death by execution. 

Thursday was Louis Riel’s birthday — a day recognized by Métis across the country, particularly here in Manitoba. 

But this year, for Manitoba’s sesquicentennial year, I hope his contributions to this province will be at the forefront of the celebration, because without Riel and the Métis of the Red River settlement, Manitoba might look a lot different today.