The Weight of History

By Joe Desjarlais

In the wake of Prime Minister Macdonald’s obsession to clear the plain for settlement, the media of the day portrayed Louis Riel as a rebel, an opportunist and a murderer. Reporters for the Toronto Mail and the Victoria Daily Colonist busily wrote a new history that told people that Metis have been ‘defeated.’ In this version of historical colonialism, the message was clear: Metis had no unique traditions or collective histories of their own or among First Nations, had no collective rights and title, were public enemies of Canada, and needed to be saved from their ‘waste and savagery’.

In response, Riel might have focused on the historical Metis as the vanquished, the abused and mistreated. He might have utilized history as a critical tool to fight the Canadian government, to confront Canadians that the histories they have told have not benefitted his people. Instead the sophisticated political philosopher sought an opportunity to look back in time honestly for a more dynamic and inclusive history to build on than the European derived nationalism and traditions proposed by Macdonald. Just after the Metis had been swept out of the way in the Northwest ‘Rebellion’ in Batoche by the military might of the Canadian militia, a nameless reporter was granted an interview with Louis Riel on May 19, 1885. If we read Riel’s ideas in the interview we see his attempts to imagine a future of coexistence between Metis peoples and the Canadian state. Even though a captive at this dark and uncertain day, he chose to respond to the marginalization of his people differently[1]: Riel’s words simply appealed to the weight of history and attempted to imagine a long history of principled coexistence that impacted their relationships in his day:

“No treaty has been made with us. We never transferred our rights and before they are taken from us we wish to have a treaty made, and we think we have a right to expect that the conditions of that treaty will be similar to those made in the treaty which settled the half-breeds of Manitoba. ”

“The halfbreeds of the Territories are the owners of the soil they occupy. They have an interest in the country for which they have never parted. They desired to have an equitable arrangement made for their interest.”

” We did not rebel. We defended and maintained rights which we enjoyed and had neither forfeited nor sold. ”

How Louis Riel chose to portray the past is important for us as we move forward today. I don’t think either colonial history or historical criticism will lead to peace or reconciliation in Canada. No amount of ‘good will’ or ‘accommodation’ will make Canadians feel differently about the way in which indigenous peoples in Canada have come to exist as ‘dependents’ on the state; in the minds of most Canadians, the story of ‘progress’ legitimizes their own right to own property and access resources on ‘crown land’. Until our historical imagination can envision a history where Metis peoples and Newcomers “partnered” together to form what we know of as ‘Canada’ we will never be able to understand how we can co-exist again in the ongoing formation of Confederation.

[1]The Pursuit of Louis Riel, edited by Barry J. Begenstein:

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