It's a statutory holiday today in much of Canada, under various pretenses, and I believe our southern neighbours are celebrating the birthday of one or more of their presidents. No one is actually celebrating the day's honoree; we all know it's just an excuse for a holiday during the long cold stretch between New Year's and Good Friday. But I was going to write about Louis Riel (that's "loo-ee ree-el" -- even monolingual anglophones do not say "loo-iss"), anyway.
He's certainly a controversial hero. Riel was born in 1844 in what would later become Manitoba. He studied to be both a priest and a lawyer, but never completed either. His fellow Métis looked to him as a leader, and when political events foisted an anti-French governor on the colony, Riel led an armed takeover of a government fort, then escaped capture, fled to the United States, was elected three times to parliament (in absentia), returned to lead a rebellion, surrendered, was arrested, tried and hanged for treason.
He's been hailed as a messiah, reviled as a terrorist, and formally recognized by the federal and provincial governments for his contribution to the development of the Canadian Confederation. Some people say he had gone mad before leading the second rebellion. Two parliamentary bills have been introduced to reverse his conviction for high treason and recognize him as a Father of Confederation, but neither bill passed.
I don't know as much about him as I think ought to. I'll have to get a biography better than what I can find with Google and Wikipedia. Can anyone recommend a good biography of the man? Something that is readable, but that cites primary sources. It's probably going to be something out of print, because everything I see on Chapters.ca now is kind of meta, or addressing one aspect.
As long as Canada exists, its citizens will want to read about Louis Riel because his life summarizes in a unique way the tensions of being Canadian: English versus French, native versus white, east versus west, Canadian versus American.