The Heart of Louis Riel is Alive and Beating with us Today
Some of the dignitaries at the Provincial
Louis Riel Day ceremony
As happens every year, on November 16, 2011, Métis people all across Ontario gathered for Louis Riel Day events. The provincial Louis Riel Day ceremony was held in Queen’s Park in Toronto at the Northwest Rebellion monument. While aspects of the ceremony were definitely celebratory, there was also a sombre undercurrent. “November 16 marks one of the darkest moments in Canadian history,” explained Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) President Gary Lipinski, “it marks a day when Canada went completely off the rails.” November 16 was the day in 1885 when the Canadian government executed Riel for leading the Northwest Resistance in defence of the Metis. Sorrowful remembrance is always part of Louis Riel Day, as MNO Vice-chair Sharon McBride explained when she described her first trip to Batoche, site of the last stand of the Métis during the Resistance. “When I was walking among the ruins, and I thought about what happened there,” she said, “it made me think about the families who lived there, fought there and survived there. It was so overwhelming for me; you really feel it in your heart.”
While a sense of loss did underscore Riel Day, it was Riel’s cause that was front-and-centre for those in attendance. “Riel was only seeking that the rightful place of the Métis within Canada be recognized and respected;” stated President Lipinski, “and that the Métis way of life be protected within Confederation.” Conlin Sawchuk, who represented Métis youth at the ceremony, and who shares a common ancestor with Riel, eloquently described what the Métis leader had set out to accomplish. “He attempted to create a truly equal society where the rights of minorities were recognized, a truly democratic state,” stated Sawchuk (click here to read Conlin’s entire speech), “I think it is important to celebrate today the contribution of Louis Riel to our country and the Métis by sharing our culture, our stories, our language, our entrepreneurial spirit and our profound understanding and respect for the environment. If Canada can embrace its history and tap into the knowledge of our ancestors, this would be to the benefit of all our fellow citizens as well as future generations.”
President Lipinski explained while Riel did not achieve his goals in his lifetime, the work towards his goals has never stopped. “In 1885, Riel offered Canada an opportunity to bargain in good faith that was harshly rejected,” stated President Lipinski, “but today the MNO continues to make that offer. While we have seen some progress in the last several years there is still much to be done before Riel’s vision becomes a reality.” The Métis progress thus far in realizing the vision of Louis Riel was on the minds of many people attending the Ceremony. One of the most direct examples of the ongoing work of achieving Riel’s goals was touched on by Métis lawyer Jean Teillet, a descendent of Riel’s brother. She described the case coming to the Supreme Court of Canada on December 13th, which was brought by the Manitoba Métis Federation, concerning 1.4 million acres of land in Manitoba that Riel had negotiated into The Manitoba Act for the Métis. “The case is directly about what Louis Riel was fighting for in 1869-70 in Manitoba,” said Teillet, “the government took 15 years to do it; it ended up doing it by a lottery, and then ended up only issuing pieces of paper. Less than one per cent of the land ended up in the hands of the Métis. So, lest we think that the land issues and all the issues that Riel fought and died for are settled . . . they’re not.”
Even while many of Riel’s battles are still being fought, the MNO acknowledged that some progress has been made in Ontario towards achieving Riel’s goals. Some evidence of this progress could be seen at the Ceremony itself as a large number of provincial cabinet ministers and Members of the Provincial Parliament were in attendance. These were: the Honourable Kathleen Wynne, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, the Honourable John Gerretsen, Attorney General, the Honourable Chris Bentley, Minister of Energy, the Honourable Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, the Honourable Dr. Eric Hoskins, Minister of Children and Youth Services, the Honourable Margaret Best, Minister of Consumer Services, New Democratic Party Aboriginal Affairs Critic Sarah Campbell, MPP Michael Prue, MPP Dave Levac, MPP Grant Crack, MPP Victor Fedeli, MPP David Zimmer, MPP Soo Wong and MPP Frank Klees.
The presence of these Ministers and MPPs at the Provincial Louis Riel Day event demonstrated the positive relationship the MNO has built with Ontario through the MNO-Ontario Framework agreement, which was signed three years ago. “The government’s willingness to sign the Framework agreement with us,” stated President Lipinski, “signalled there was a new way of doing business with the Métis and that the process of reconciliation had started.” Minister Wynne also spoke about the importance of the MNO-Ontario Framework Agreement. “That agreement is the foundation of a collaborative agreement between us,” she said, “and it has created opportunities, partnerships and achieved measurable results.” Minister Wynne also highlighted the development of the Métis Voyageur Development Fund (MVDF), which she described as “our biggest achievement together so far.” The Ontario government has committed 30 million dollars over 10 years to the MVDF, which will help Métis entrepreneurs and businesses. The Minister also outlined the work the MNO has undertaken with funding through the New Relationship Fund. “That work of helping people say who they are, self-identification projects, coming to realization is such an important part of what you do,” she said. “I believe Ontario and the Métis Nation of Ontario have come a long way together is a short period of time but I recognize that there is a lot more work that we have to do together.”
Carrying on the work of Riel, however, is not just up to the MNO leadership and the government. MNO Chair France Picotte called on all MNO citizens to carry on Riel’s work by showing their Métis pride. “It is up to us, not necessarily up to the Métis Nation of Ontario, we are the umbrella, we might be able to help you, might be able to help facilitate you, but it is your responsibility to transfer that culture, that knowledge, to be proud of who you are.” As an example Chair Picotte spoke enthusiastically about the work done in the last year to help revive Michif, the Métis language.
President Lipinski’s concluded his remarks by saying that although Riel’s work remains unfinished there is no doubt that the MNO is continuing his work. “It may fall to future generations,” said President Lipinski, “to the youth that are here today, to carry on, because that work will take time; but as long as we are making progress in the right direction, and we are, then I think we should celebrate that.”
The ceremony left no doubt that Riel’s execution 126 years before had not stopped the Métis cause and in fact, as Métis youth Colin Sawchuk stated: “The Heart of Louis Riel is alive and beating with us today.”
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