Not All Rebels be Rebels

Louis Riel – Founder of the Postage Stamp Province – Manitoba by Motorcycle Staycation

History is written by the victors. When I hear that phrase, I associate it with Stalin’s Great Purge, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Mugabe’s anti-colonial revisionism, and Trump’s MAGA. You can also find it closer to home here in Canada.

Louis Riel – Rebel or Founder?

The concept that the victors get to write their own version of history isn’t just a saying. It is also a hypothesis. One that needs to be proven or disproven. If the winners have done a thorough job of rewriting history, then proving otherwise might be difficult.

One of the most famous and evident cases of historical manipulation is when the Soviet Union’s supreme leader, Stalin, had many original photographs edited, manipulated and reprinted to exclude Trotsky, who had challenged him politically. Trotsky, as well as thousands of others, disappeared from Stalin’s version of history.

The American President, Trump, has a much easier method of rewriting history where he doesn’t have to pull down Confederate statues or edit Obama out of photographs. He simply makes up his own version of history and repeats it over and over on social media until enough gullible followers believe it.

The images, videos, eyewitnesses, and documentation proving the truth or existence of the actual event, that Trump is trying to erase or manipulate, is still out there. Truth just gets trampled in the stampede to retweet the #twitterganda lies.

To test the hypothesis that history is written by the victors, you would need a case study where two similar events occurred with the same person (or peoples) within the same period. Then you compare the results to see if they had different outcomes. Louis Riel’s involvement in the creation of the province of Manitoba and the Canadian Parliament’s annex of the district of Saskatchewan provides such a case.

Setting the stage in 1875, the Hudson Bay Company sold (under pressure from Great Britain) Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Confederation of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The newly formed Canadian Parliament wanted to establish dominion over the expansive western and northern territories before the infighting Americans could get their act together and realize their Manifest Destiny might also include all the land between Michigan and Alaska.

In defence of the existing occupants of the thriving trapping, hunting, logging, fishing and farming Metis community along the Red River Valley, Louis Riel created a provisional government in 1876 to negotiate with the new landlords for a fair deal. Louis Riel wanted the Metis people to have a voice in their governance.

After relatively peaceful negotiations (and few skirmishes, an execution, and an unfortunate death) between Canada’s hastily appointed Governor and Riel’s provisional government, Sir John A. McDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, conceded. He signed an agreement that was meant to respect the existing land and language rights of the people, including the Metis, living in the province. Manitoba, the postage stamp province, was born.

When writing, or rewriting, the history of Manitoba years later, another version reared its ugly head. Louis Riel was portrayed as a confused megalomaniac who was spiritually driven by the zeal of insanity. History books even argued that he was a traitor to the dominion. Consequently, the government of the time commissioned a statue that was supposed to artistically depict Louis Riel’s true nature – a tortured naked soul.

Louis Riel – Tortured Soul

This version of history didn’t jive with the outcome. Manitoba had become a province of Canada relatively peacefully under Riel’s guidance. The good he had accomplished was evident to anyone who cared to look.

In the end, the government removed the original tortured and naked statue (to the Collège Universitaire de Saint-Boniface) and erected a new statue showing Louis Riel as the diplomat and statesman.

Louis Riel Statesmen

In this case, Louis Riel and the Metis had won the war on truth and Riel was honoured as the founding father of Manitoba. This only happened because Canada’s parliament conceded and Manitoban’s inhabitants prevailed.

Honda Gold Wing GL1800 at the Louis Riel Statue Manitoba

The opposite happened in Saskatchewan. The Metis living there recruited Louis Riel, who was living in exile, to help them negotiate a deal like he had in Manitoba. The situation had changed where the Prime Minister, Sir John A. McDonald, was able to use the Canadian Pacific railway to quickly dispatch Canadian militia and the North-West Mounted Police to the scene.

The Metis ended up battling and losing, what was known as the North-West Rebellion, against superior Canadian armed forces. As a result, Canada took over the district of Saskatchewan, which did not become a province until 1905.

Louis Riel was hung, partly as a traitor, but mostly because the Protestants in Ontario wanted revenge for the Manitoba provisional government’s execution of Thomas Scott years before.

Manitoba Statue of Louis Riel – Motorcycle Staycation

Saskatchewan’s history is void of any meaningful references to Louis Riel. That is because the Canadian victors got to write the history. Riel was no more a traitor in Saskatchewan than he was in Manitoba. He wanted what was best for the Metis, who had lived and worked in the territories for generations before Canada became a dominion. He wanted “his people” to be treated as equals.

The Saskatchewan Legislative had also commissioned a naked and tortured statue of Louis Riel in 1968 that was eventually taken down in 1991 after 23 years of protests from the Métis community. Unlike in Manitoba, the statue was never replaced.

Manitoba Statue of Louis Riel – Motorcycle Staycation

The same artist did the Sir John A. McDonald statue for Saskatchewan, and the results are telling. The losers are “tortured souls,” while the winners are “statesmen.”

Sir John A. McDonald Statue Scotwood72 / Public domain

After many years of thoughtful historical introspection, that image of Louis Riel was rejected in Manitoba. A resolution was passed by Parliament on 10 March 1992, citing that Louis Riel was the founder of Manitoba.

He may still be deemed a rebel in Saskatchewan history, but Louis Riel is known as a visionary hero and statesman in Manitoba’s history. The point of view all depends on who won and who gets to write your history.

A dignified statue of Louis Riel now stands prominently between our province’s legislative buildings and the muddy Assiniboine River in downtown Winnipeg.

Honda Gold Wing GL1800 and Louis Riel Statue

Manipulating photos, statues or twitter feeds,

“…can be a way of literally erasing today’s political enemies from tomorrow’s picture of history—and making the future as unreliable as a present filled with propaganda and lies.”
Louis Riel Statue by Honda Gold Wing

Dear ManitobabyMotorcycle. This is my second nomination for a statue or monument worth visiting by motorcycle in Manitoba. The statue of Louis Riel at the Manitoba Legislative Building.

Manitoba Legislative Buildings by Motorcycle

ManitobabyMotorcycle, Manitoba Legislative Buildings, Louis Riel, Red River Rebellion, North-West Rebellion, Red River Valley, Thomas Scott, Honda GL1800, Gold Wing, Motorcycle Touring, Sir John A. McDonald, Métis, Confederation, Canada, Staycation, Dominion of Canada, 2017 Gold Wing

About John S Goulet

Air Transport Pilot, consultant, writer, blogger and photographer with 45 years in Professional Aviation.
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