Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House today to speak to Bill C-297, an act to revoke the conviction of Louis David Riel, the main purpose of which is to revoke the conviction of Louis David Riel for high treason. More specifically, it is a revocation of the guilty verdict and not simply a posthumous pardon.
Everybody in this House knows that Canadian history, especially the development of the western part of the country and the relations in the first years of existence of our country, cannot be understood without a good understanding of the events surrounding the work of Louis Riel and the Métis people in Manitoba and in western Canada in general.
This subject is studied in all history courses in our country, even in high school. Louis Riel's place in Canadian history is truly essential.
Louis Riel played a key role in Canadian history in the 19th century. Indeed, he was an important contributor to Confederation. Riel was educated in theology and the law. He was fluent in English, French, Greek and Latin. He was an eloquent and polished statesman who directed the negotiations with the Government of Canada on the entry of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories into the Dominion of Canada.
Louis Riel was a man who worked tirelessly for the Métis people and indeed others who settled in the areas of what have now become the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Under the leadership of Louis Riel the Métis of the Red River adopted a list of rights in 1870.
That list of rights served as a base for negotiations between Louis Riel and the Canadian government for the entry of Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories in the Dominion of Canada.
That list essentially constituted the terms of the union and was included in the Manitoba Act, 1870.
After that province joined Confederation, voters in the riding of Provencher, Manitoba, elected Louis Riel as their member of the House of Commons three times by acclamation. However, the circumstances did not allow Riel to occupy his seat.
Not only did Riel help Manitoba become the fifth province to join the Dominion of Canada, he also helped people in western Manitoba to present their claims to the government.
When the Métis people asked Riel to help them defend their civil rights in the Northwest Territories, in an area that is now part of the province of Saskatchewan, he answered their call.
We now recognize that the government of the day was slow in responding to the requests of the residents of the region, even if these requests were reasonable requests. What were these requests? Let me review the principal requests for the record.
The residents wanted appropriate surveys of their settlements made. They asked for improved transportation so they could move products and materials to and from the markets. They wanted other usual services, those services normally provided by governments to its citizens and nothing more.
The Métis, both the English speaking and French speaking Métis, along with settlers of many nationalities sent numerous petitions and delegations to Ottawa to ask the government to carry out its responsibilities. After what these residents viewed as many years of neglect and without recourse against the encroachment of others, they asked Riel to help them. The combination of frustrated citizens and the appearance of a military expedition led to an unfortunate turn of events and the loss of life.
These unfortunate events must not make us forget that Louis Riel devoted his life to the interests of the Métis people. He understood their concerns. He had a vision of the proper place of Métis people and other westerners within Confederation.
The government intends to seek to recognize his positive achievements. Over the years governments have recognized Louis Riel's contribution to this country in a number of ways.
Hon. members may remember that the government has issued postage stamps commemorating Riel. To honour Riel's memory cultural performances have been funded over the years, including the very successful Batoche days, an event that has taken place for the past 25 years. On March 10, 1992 the House of Commons recognized by special resolution the unique and historic role of Louis Riel as founder of Manitoba and as a significant contributor to the building of Confederation.
On May 16, 1996 this government made possible through the provision of significant funding the unveiling of a new statue to Louis Riel on the grounds of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. This statue depicts Riel as the statesman he was.
Many things have already been done and many more positive things can be done. We must encourage the government to keep the lines of communication open with Metis leaders and the family of Louis Riel to ensure they agree with any proposed measures.
There is already a process for discussions with the Metis leadership. This includes a bilateral process with the Metis National Council and the tripartite self-government negotiations with the Metis organizations at the provincial level. Discussions with the Metis leadership should continue through the existing processes.
There is a recognition among all Canadians of the proper place of Louis Riel in Canadian history. There is a recognition among Canadians that if Louis Riel were alive today and the circumstances he was involved in were debated in light of today's Canadian values, most likely events would have taken a much different turn. Let us hope we have learned through the course of history how to deal with the circumstances which brought forth Louis Riel's expression of concern on behalf of his people.
It is always very difficult for us as legislators to attempt to judge the past based on today's determination of justice and values. We hope that as history progresses we will improve and enlarge the scope of understanding through which we pursue matters of justice such as those which led to Mr. Riel's execution in 19th century Canada.
Other examples have been debated in this House where members of Parliament with the very best intentions have wanted to rewrite history to right the wrongs which legislators today accept were wrong. For many reasons these wrongs have not been brought forward in those ways. And we hope to learn from the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them.
It is interesting that this debate is taking place on the day after the release of the report of the royal commission on aboriginal peoples. One of the commission's strong messages is that the treatment of aboriginal peoples has been fundamentally flawed throughout the long history, from the beginning when Europeans came and settled in this country.
The authors of that report are asking Canadians to lay a new foundation for the relationship. But we cannot reverse what has taken place in 300 years of history. We have to learn from that history and if necessary start again. That is my message in this debate.