Louis Riel was celebrated as a political leader and a champion of Métis rights as a Métis flag was raised in a sunrise ceremony at the B.C. legislature on Friday.
Métis leaders and community gathered with Deputy Premier Carole James to proclaim Nov. 16 as Louis Riel Day. Riel was hanged for treason on Nov. 16, 1885, at the North-West Mounted Police barracks in Regina.
“As a proud member of the Métis community, I was honoured to watch the flag rise in front of the people’s house,” said James, the NDP MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill.
“To be able to recognize Louis Riel Day and to recognize the dark side of our history as someone who stood up and advocated for minority rights and who was executed is very important,” she said.
“It’s a very powerful morning.”
It’s the third year the flag — a white infinity symbol on a blue background — has been raised at the legislature in B.C., the first province in Canada to do so.
By proclaiming Louis Riel Day, the province said it acknowledges the importance of Riel as a foremost historical Métis leader and the historical wrongs committed.
“We should be proud in B.C. that we have that,” said Clara Morin-Dal Col, president of Métis Nation B.C.
“Today is a significant part of our history: Louis Riel died on this day for fighting for our rights and who we are as a nation of people,” she said.
“After 150 years, we’re finally recognized by the federal government, we are recognized in this country as a distinct people with a distinct culture, and we’re separate from just being under the Aboriginal umbrella — there’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis.”
B.C. is home to almost 90,000 self-identified Métis people, an increase of nearly 30,000 since 2006, according to the 2016 census.
The Métis people emerged as a distinct nation in western North America during the late 1700s, developing a culture that is not European or First Nations, but a fusion of the two.
In 1884, Métis leaders in Saskatchewan asked Riel to bring their grievances to the Canadian government. His rebellious response escalated into the North-West Rebellion of 1885, ending with his arrest, conviction and hanging for high treason.
Riel has been portrayed as everything from a nearly insane religious fanatic and rebel against the Canadian nation to a heroic rebel who fought to protect his Francophone people from unfair domination under an Anglophone national government.
French Canadians saw him as a heroic victim, and although only a few hundred people were directly affected, his execution had a negative effect on Canada and Francophones across Canada who felt alienated.
In April 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Clément Chartier, the president of the Métis National Council, signed the Canada-Métis Nation Accord, hailed as a significant step toward a renewed government-to-government relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.
“He didn’t die for nothing,” Morin-Dal Col said of Riel.
“We continued the fight and after 150 years, we finally have it.”