In any country there are many specific days of importance that are circled on the calendar, important days to a nation that speaks to their history, their experiences and where they are today. Canada is not different in that sense, as we have days of national importance that we remember and celebrate every year. We just had one last week with Remembrance Day, when we took time to honour and remember the sacrifice of those who served in our armed forces and fought in the name of Canada. On days like these, we come together as a people, built around our common experiences and memories.
But just as we have important days from our history that we all remember and commemorate, we have others that our country officially does not, in effect ignoring them and trying to forget them. That leaves those of us who are more affected by them to continue to celebrate them, to commemorate them and to keep talking about their importance.
Today is one of those days here in Canada, although you’ll hear few in government talk about it. For we in the Métis Nation, today is Louis Riel Day, which we commemorate every November 16th. This day is important to us because it was on this day in 1885 that Canada executed Riel for simply standing up for his people against a government that wanted to push the Métis out of the way and worse. The history around the trial and execution of Riel is well written, so I won’t go into it here, but for me this day holds special meaning. That meaning is best highlighted by this here below:
Louis Riel Day 2016 was one of the proudest days I had in my near decade working on Parliament Hill. It was a day that really drove home for me how fortunate I was, but it was more than that. On that day, the Métis flag was raised on Parliament Hill for the first time. I got to be there that day not only as a proud Métis citizen, or the Chair of the Ottawa Regional Métis Council at the time. I didn’t just get to be there as a guest being welcomed to that place for the day. I got was there because I worked there. Before coming up the Hill that morning, I went into my office in the Confederation Building like I did on a normal day. But this time I put on my sash, which I always kept in the office next to my Métis flag. I then walked over to a space in behind East Block where the ceremony took place.
There were many days working on Parliament Hill that I felt fortunate to be where I was, that someone like me was never meant to be there, mostly because I wasn’t. If the likes of Sir John A. MacDonald had their way or their vision had come to pass, Métis people like me and my ancestors would have disappeared from the landscape. Our greatest leader himself, even after being elected to sit in the House of Commons, couldn’t enter the building without risking arrest and his very life. In all of my time on the Hill, I never forgot the fact that I got to walk into buildings as a regular part of my day, to work, that Riel himself never could. We Métis were never meant to do what I did, so the fact that I could meant a lot to me. As the fiddle music played while that flag was raised on this day back in 2016, I couldn’t help but feel that a bit heavier than normal.
Seeing Parliament recognize that day was moving to me, but also reminds us that we need to do more and better to advance reconciliation in this country. That means taking real actions, not more symbolism. A couple of weeks ago a group started another call for the Government of Canada to exonerate Riel, a request that I appreciate the spirit of but disagree with the idea of. Since then some politicians from Quebec have glommed onto this call, disturbing me more. Personally, I agree with the views articulately put by Jean Teillet, one of the top Indigenous rights lawyers in the country and the great grandniece of Louis Riel. As she put it in the Globe and Mail, “The Métis Nation has never sought state clemency for Riel because, in their view, Riel doesn’t need exoneration. Canada does.” Using the time, energy and political will that it would take to “exonerate” Riel would be nothing but useless symbolism and could be much better used to actually advance reconciliation efforts.
I believe that Riel himself would have prefer action and true justice for his people rather than empty words that led to no improvement at all. And for me, that is really what Riel day serves as a reminder for. He died trying to defend the rights of my ancestors, to ensure a future for people like me where we could be ourselves. In the end, he was a Father of Confederation like all the others, in the sense that he was looking out for his people within what became this country of Canada. And for that, he was hung. So in my mind, the best way to honour his legacy is to continue to act, to continue to assert and protect our rights and continue to participate in the daily life of this country. It’s our duty to participate and be in the places that those who opposed us wished we’d never see, like Parliament. That would do far more to advance the cause of Métis people than anything else.