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Some fathers aren't perfect

Louis RielIn 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.


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Comments (3)

If you make your way to the northwest corner of New Orleans you'll find Robert E. Lee Boulevard, with the Robert E. Lee mall, and can eat at "Lee's".

Even Riel's most ardent defenders might be a little queasy about uptown Winnipeg being so equipped.


Well said, Mr. Cosh. I've also often noted that Riel led a long and complex life, and that his critics, and indeed his less sensible supporters, invariably carry on as if he had done everything for which he was famous in the course of a single afternoon, in one state of mind and for one purpose. There was a lot of this when the Riel Day holiday was declared in Manitoba, as people complained that Riel was not fit to be honoured because of events which took place more than a decade after he'd set foot in Manitoba for the last time. And of course, any number of people imagine that he was hanged for some imaginary crime committed in Manitoba.


It is all well and good that Americans have found it in their hearts to forgive Robert E. Lee but that might be that he only led one and not two rebellions against their federal government. Or maybe that like Riel's supporters, those in the US south still lament his lack of success.


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