Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy Louis Riel Day

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 M├ętis 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 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.
--Thomas Flanagan


philippe said...

As I recall, there was an excellent TV miniseries on Riel done by the CBC when I was a teenager (that's two decades ago). You can probably find it on video from the CBC web site, or in a public library when you're back in Canada.

Anonymous said...

The American holiday today is Presidents' Day, which is basically the average of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays, rounded to the nearest monday. It came about when they decided to combine the two formerly separate holidays of Lincoln's Birthday and Washington's Birthday into one, so that they could create a new holiday in January, Martin Luther King Day.

Lord Hutton said...

I wouldn't have been so naughty if I thought I was going to get hanged for it

Aviatrix said...

Well that's the question: was he being naughty, or was he a man of the times sticking up for his people to protect them against British oppression? Or was he a madman with messianic visions?

Anonymous said...

A belated O Canada Happy Lous Riel Day.
Who knows, if the US Govm't continues leaving me I may be forced to emigrate. Canada is so much closer than Oz... Sarah

michaeldcassidy said...

Movies: Riel [TV] made in 1979
Starring: Christopher Plummer , William Shatner , Arthur Hill , more cast
Directed By: George Bloomfield
Released By: Unknown
Run Time: 150 min.
Genre: Drama

I saw this once late at night, not bad.