In an amusing Globe & Mail comment thread about preserving the meagre remains of Upper Fort Garry, angry interlocutors are screaming back and forth at each other about Louis Riel. "Riel was a rebel, criminal, and madman!" "He was the founder of Manitoba--a Father of Confederation!" Um, fellas? Is there any reason he can't be both?
I've written about Louis Riel a few times over the years. At his worst he was no crazier than the binarizing tendency that afflicts the responses I've gotten, and that is visible on the Globe page. Any positive statement about Riel will be taken as a suggestion that he was a saint, that his trial was unjust, and that mass settlement of the Prairies was a crime. Any negative statement will be taken as ignorance of his historical role, contempt for the Métis, and support for every detail of the subsequent hundred years or so of Canadian policy towards First Nations and the West.
The Globian goofball who mentions Robert E. Lee is really onto something. The Americans have a found a relatively comfortable niche in their historical pantheon for Lee; even though he fought for the cause of slavery, it's understood that that was not the uppermost issue in his own mind, and his virtues are recognized and even revered. Riel should arguably be much less controversial; he worked for the rights of local communities to make representative, inclusive institutions of government for themselves, and sought to enslave no one. We might have had a slower-growing, priest-ridden, francophone West governed by the laws of the buffalo hunt if he had won, but to take this personally in 2008 seems inappropriate.