Louis Riel Day, November 16, officially recognized in Napanee

The flag of the Metis Nation predates the Canadian flag by at least 150 years and is the oldest patriotic flag that is indigenous to Canada. On Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, that flag will be flown over many Ontario towns in honour of Louis Riel Day.

Earlier this fall, on behalf of the Metis Nation of Ontario, Jonathan Marconi, President of Highland Waters Community Metis Council visited town councils in his region requesting they officially recognize the day which is celebrated annually on the day of Riel’s execution, Nov. 16, 1885.

Jonathan Marconi, President of Highland Waters Community Metis Council holds the flag the town of Napanee will fly to officially recognize Louis Riel Day. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

“Riel was the great Metis leader, who was executed by the Canadian government for leading a Northwest resistance and defence of the Metis rights and the Metis way of life,” said Marconi, pleased that “Louis Riel Day has finally been recognized as a day where we pay respect to the legacy of Louis Riel, where we can celebrate our Metis heritage and our culture.” 

Despite Riel’s resistance in the early 1900s, it hasn’t been very long at all since the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) and the Government of Canada (Canada) signed the MNO-Canada Métis Government Recognition and Self-Government Agreement, in June of 2019. A historic victory for Métis citizens and communities represented by the MNO, the Self-Government Agreement recognizes — for the first time in Canada’s history — that the Métis communities represented by the MNO hold the inherent right to self-government and self-determination.

Marconi and his fellow Metis Council members want to make sure that Louis Riel day is given the attention it deserves and that it is celebrated publicly and appropriately.

Louis Riel, pictured left and on the right Louis Riel is seated centre, with fellow councillors of the Provisional Government of the Métis Nation, 1870. Front: Robert O’Lone, Paul Proulx. Centre: Pierre Poitras, John Bruce, (Riel), John O’Donoghue, François Dauphinais. Back: Bonnet Tromage, Pierre de Lorme, Thomas Bunn, Xavier Page, Baptiste Beauchemin, Baptiste Tournond, Joseph Spence. Photos Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. Public Domain.

To this end, MNO representatives have been presenting to town and city councils asking that they fly the Metis flag on the day and officially recognize its significance, said Marconi. “This year Napanee was absolutely amazing; I actually spoke with the mayor on the phone to kind of go through the planning process of how to do this appropriately. And the mayor of Belleville actually invited us to his office to shake his hand and have a conversation,” he stated. 

“I chose Belleville and Napanee to reach out our hand to introduce ourselves and establish those relationships this year. We had reached out to Kingston. We hadn’t heard back. We know that there’s a lot going on, so we thought we’d kind of take another run next year.”  Marconi indicated that he will go through a “follow up process of having a face-to-face and sitting down with Mayor Paterson for next year.”

According to the MNO website “The Métis Nation is comprised of descendants of people born of relations between Indigenous women and European men. The initial offspring of these unions were of mixed ancestry. The genesis of a new Indigenous people called the Métis resulted from the subsequent intermarriage of these mixed ancestry individuals.”

“Métis,” it continues, “are a distinct Indigenous people with a unique history, culture, language, and territory that includes the waterways of Ontario surrounds the Great Lakes, and spans what was known as the historic Northwest. Distinct Métis settlements emerged as an outgrowth of the fur trade, along freighting waterways and watersheds. In Ontario, these settlements were part of larger regional communities, interconnected by the highly mobile lifestyle of the Métis, the fur trade network, seasonal rounds, extensive kinship connections and a shared collective history and identity.”

Though Louis Riel has always been a Metis hero, it is only recently that he has begun to be recognized widely as a Canadian visionary who sacrificed his life in defence of his people and helped found the province of Manitoba, explained Marconi. Instead, he was executed as an insane traitor.

Riel was born in modern-day Winnipeg, and following his early training for the priesthood, headed an 1869-70 rebellion against the transfer of Métis land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada, leading to the formation of the province of Manitoba. Exiled by the Canadian government and institutionalized in the 1870s, Riel returned to Métis territory in 1884 to lead another uprising. After surrendering, Riel was found guilty of treason and hanged on November 16, 1885, in Regina, Canada.

Louis Riel speaks at his trial. Some historians contend that the trial was moved to Regina because of concerns with the possibility of an ethnically mixed and sympathetic jury. Prime Minister Macdonald ordered the trial to be convened in Regina, where Riel was tried before a jury of six Anglophone Protestants. The trial began on 20 July 1885. Riel delivered two long speeches during his trial, defending his own actions and affirming the rights of the Métis people. He rejected his lawyers’ attempt to argue that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury found him guilty but recommended mercy; nonetheless, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death on 1 August 1885, with the date of his execution initially set for 18 September 1885. “We tried Riel for treason,” one juror later said, “And he was hanged for the murder of Scott.” Lewis Thomas notes that “the government’s conduct of the case was to be a travesty of justice”. Photo Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. Public Domain.

“Every year,” explained Marconi, “Louis Riel Day is held to remember the sacrifice that he made and to renew our commitment to complete his work in Ontario and across the country. He struggled to protect the rights of Metis communities and families. The MNO celebrates Louis Riel Day to recognize the many contributions of the Metis to Canada and to highlight the challenges that Mestis continue to face.”

“And it goes a little bit further than that,” he continued. “Louis Riel was actually one of the architects behind Manitoba and he also was a sitting Member of Parliament. And while there is a bounty on his head, there’s a story of him dressing up in disguise, sneaking into parliament, signing the attendance book and then sneaking back out. So in Canadian history, you actually have a Louis Riel in attendance in sitting parliament.”

On December 15, 2015, Bill 153: The Métis Nation of Ontario Secretariat Act was introduced into the Ontario legislature, explained Marconi. This bill was historic because it is the first piece of Métis-specific legislation ever introduced in the Ontario legislature. 

This Marconi said, “essentially carved out space within Ontario laws to respect our Mestis governance system. And that was the very first time that the word Mestis was spoken of in Queen’s Park, ever since Queen’s Park put a bounty on Louis Riel’s head.  So it was just a couple of years ago.  First, they brought up Louis Riel to put a bounty on his head and the next time that the Metis were spoken of was when [the Ontario Legislature] all stood up unanimously and enacted the Secretariat. It kind of gives me goosebumps.  We’ve definitely come a long way.”

To learn more about Louis Riel and the Metis Nation of Ontario visit their website.

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