With Bill C-257 on June 28, 1984 and Bill C-217 on December 13, 1984, Les Benjamin, the NDP member representing Regina-Lumsdon, called for the guilty sentence against Louis David Riel to be overturned.
On November 28, 1985, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, the hon. member for Hamilton East, the present Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Canadian Heritage, asked the House for a posthumous pardon for Louis David Riel.
I would like to read what the hon. member said on November 28, 1985, and to adopt the words as my own: "We are now in November and one hundred years have gone by since the hanging of Louis Riel. I now ask that this Conservative government exonerate the victim of the conspiracy of another Conservative government.
For one hundred years, politicians and historians have shown that the government purposely misrepresented the events known today as the Riel Rebellion. Letters and diaries of the participants
and observers reveal the use of unethical tactics to obtain political benefits from the rebellion.
In a letter from the Marquis of Landsdowne to Prime Minister Macdonald on August 18, 1885, the Marquis wrote: "You regard the recent outbreak in the Northwest as merely `domestic trouble', which should not be elevated to the rank of a rebellion. I am afraid we have all of us been doing what we could to elevated it to the rank of a rebellion and with so much success that we cannot now reduce it to the rank of a common riot".
The reason for the Macdonald government's promotion of a common riot to a full blown rebellion was to win additional funding for the near bankrupt Canadian Pacific Railway. While the CPR benefited from the events of the summer of 1985, a Métis leader was hanged. Louis David Riel, who died unnecessarily, deserves to be exonerated by the Government and recognized as a victim of wrongdoing."
On September 16, 1987, another NDP member, Nelson Riis, representing Kamloops, adopted the idea of his colleague as his own, and tabled Bill C-265. On October 13, 1989, Bob Skelly, the member for Comox-Alberni, also NDP, tabled a motion calling for recognition of Louis David Riel as one of the Fathers of Confederation.
On March 9, 1992, the House of Commons was to take an important step. On that day, the hon. member for Yellowhead, Joe Clark, who was then Minister of Constitutional Affairs in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government, obtained the unanimous consent of the House for the following resolution:
Pursuant to order made Monday, March 9, 1992, the following motion was deemed moved and adopted:
That this House take note that the Métis people of Rupert's Land and the North Western Territory through democratic structures and procedures took effective steps to maintain order and protect the lives, rights and property of the people of the Red River;
That this House take note that, in 1870, under the leadership of Louis Riel, the Métis of the Red River adopted a List of Rights;
That this House take note that, based on the List of Rights, Louis Riel negotiated the terms for the admission of Rupert's Land and the North Western Territory into the Dominion of Canada;
That this House take note that these terms for admission form part of the Manitoba Act ;
That this House take note that, after negotiating Manitoba's entry into Confederation, Louis Riel was thrice elected to the House of Commons;
That this House take note that, in 1885, Louis Riel paid with his life for his leadership in a movement which fought for the maintenance of the rights and freedoms of the Métis people;
That this House take note that the Constitution Act, 1982 , recognizes and affirms the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the Métis;
That this House take note that since the death of Louis Riel, the Métis people have honoured his memory and continued his purposes in their honorable striving for the implementation of those rights;
That this House recognize the unique and historic role of Louis Riel as a founder of Manitoba and his contribution in the development of Confederation; and
That this House support by its actions the true attainment, both in principle and practice, of the constitutional rights of the Métis people.
On November 16, 1994, I followed the lead of my NDP colleagues and introduced Bill C-288, requesting the revocation of the conviction of Louis David Riel.
On February 22, 1996, in answer to a letter from Mr. Ron Swain, President of the Ontario Métis Nation, the Minister of Natural Resources, who was also responsible for Métis issues, noted that a number of steps had already been taken to recognize Louis Riel's contribution to Canada's development: stamp offerings, tributes in the form of statues and cultural performances, and a resolution passed by the House in 1982, recognizing Riel's unique and historic role as a founder of Manitoba. She noted the $150,000 contribution by the federal government for the new statue of Riel in front of the Manitoba legislature. The minister ended her letter by saying, and I quote: "I would nevertheless wish to assure you that the federal government will continue, in the future, to listen to the views of the Métis".
On May 12, 1996, at the unveiling ceremonies of the new statue of Louis Riel in front of the Manitoba legislature, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the hon. member for Winnipeg South Centre, said, and I quote: "For all Canadians, Riel was a Father of Confederation. Promises were made to the Métis that were not kept. As long as I am in a position of power, I will try to make sure that the Métis have full and equal participation in this country".
On June 4, 1996, I made another attempt and introduced Bill C-297, again to request the revocation of the conviction of Louis David Riel.
Mr. Ron Swain, President of the Ontario Métis Nation, wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to support the bill. The Minister of Natural Resources, answering this letter on behalf of the Prime Minister, said, and I quote:
"As part of the process of healing the wounds created by the historical events surrounding the life of Louis Riel to which you have referred, please be assured that the federal government remains committed to pursuing various avenues to recognize Mr. Riel's place in Canadian history."
The Indian affairs minister replied, and I quote:
I understand that my colleague, the hon. Anne McLellan who, as federal interlocutor, deals with Métis issues, will be writing to you in response to your petition to her and the Prime Minister on this issue to assure you that the federal government remains committed to pursuing various avenues to further recognize Mr. Riel's place in Canada's history. To that commitment I should like to add my own personal assurance that I will be supportive of these initiatives as they are developed.
The Secretary of State for Training and Youth replied to Mr. Swain in a handwritten note, and I quote:
Further to your letter of June 7, 1996 on the issue of Louis Riel and setting the record straight, I will get back to you with a further update on what is happening. I am committed to doing something soon.
But who is this man who, 152 years after his birth and 111 years after his death by hanging, is still talked about with so much passion?
Louis Riel was born in St-Boniface on October 22, 1844 as the son of Louis Riel, a Metis, and Julie de Lagimonière, the daughter of the first white woman to give birth in the North-West. He was the oldest of 11 children in a very close and deeply religious family. His grandfather had settled at Red River at the beginning of the 19th century and married a Metis woman named Marguerite Boucher.
A gifted child, he studied at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal from 1858 to 1865. Louis David Riel was a good student, always among the first in his class. He learned Greek, Latin, French, English and Cree. He also received an education outside of school since he lived at the Manoir de Terrebonne belonging to Mrs. Masson, a high society lady who owned a complete library that had been built up by the famous Louis Joseph Papineau.
After his father died, Riel quit school and worked at Sir George Étienne Cartier's law firm. Two or three years later, he returned to Red River where he would play an important role in protecting the rights not only of the Metis but of all the citizens of Red River. At that time, the colony's population was estimated at 12,000 and far from homogeneous. In addition to a majority of French speaking Roman Catholic Metis, who engaged in buffalo hunting, there were English speaking Anglican Metis, who worked the fields, and Scottish Presbyterian settlers.
Despite their different languages, religions and lifestyles, these groups had learned to live together in a bilingual climate, but Ottawa's territorial ambitions combined with the attitude of some newcomers would upset this delicate balance. These extremists' strategy was to provoke a civil war in the colony and blame the Metis so as to destroy their political power.
As a result of his two fights in 1869 and 1885, Louis David Riel became the symbol of a linguistic and cultural minority whose survival rights were ignored for a long time and are still threatened, and of the struggle waged by Western settlers who were concerned above all with being free and communing with nature so as to prevent civilization from disrupting their lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Riel has sometimes been portrayed as a traitor or a madman. He was a founder of Manitoba and was elected three times to the House of Commons. He was a spokesperson for his community and fought racism by championing human rights.
Basically, Louis Riel was hanged all those years ago because he had fought for rights which are now generally recognized as legitimate: the right of any people to govern itself, with universal suffrage and responsible government; the right of the Metis to own property, which much be recognized and respected; the recognition of the Metis as a nation and a distinct society; the right of the Metis to have their own language and religion, a right recognized by granting bilingual status to their laws and courts, and a dual denominational school system.
The rights claimed by this native leader at the time have, for the most part, been inscribed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982. Riel fought vigorously for the rights of the Metis and successfully conveyed the concerns the first western Canadians had. He embodied the dreams of the Metis and instilled in all native peoples the desire to fight for their dreams and beliefs.
A growing number of western Canadians are realizing that Riel was the first to defend western Canada against the central government and a forerunner of the movements opposing central Canada's economic and political power.
We are not asking that history be rewritten. What is done is done, and Riel is dead. But the memory of Louis Riel is alive and, for that reason, he must be cleared. Precedents exist around the world where innocent victims, often political opponents sentenced for reasons of state, have been pardoned.
In the letter containing his last wishes, Louis David Riel asked to be given a simple funeral and surrounded with the comfort of religion. "Far be it from me and my mortal remains to seek vengeance. I forgive those who have been so unfair to me".
Motions to pardon Louis Riel have been tabled in this House by Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois members. On March 10, 1992, this House unanimously passed a resolution recognizing that "Louis riel paid with his life for his leadership in a movement which fought for the maintenance of the rights and freedoms of the Métis people". All the parties represented in this
Parliament must now unite not to restore the great Canadian that Louis David Riel was to life but to restore the dignity he was stripped of.
I would like to conclude with this poem by Manie Tobie:
Fils d'un rugueux pays, écoute, prête l'oreille, Jamais tu ne croirais une chose pareille. Certes, après tout ce temps, la terre parle de toi.
Et ton souvenir cause partout l'émoi. Tu passes pour un héros, mais plus souvent rebelle. La mention de ton nom fait surgir la querelle, Ou bien l'admiration. Difficile labeur? Resteras-tu vaincu? Deviendras-tu vainqueur? Se rappelant encore, on traîne ta mémoire, On te rend innocent en admettant ta gloire, Hélas! beaucoup trop tard arrive l'amnistie. Ceux qui au bout des ans t'auront enfin connu,
Regretteront toujours que tu fus le pendu. Si ce n'était pas toi, qui donc commit le crime, Dont tu fus par erreur l'innocente victime? Le sang crie, cher riel: la force est dans l'union. Et ceux qui croient en toi te donnent encore raison.