Essay 16

Controversy in the Commemoration of Louis Riel


Monique Dumontet


Controversial is a word often used by biographers, historians, poets, novelists, dramatists, and literary critics in the immense body of literature about Louis Riel.1  One reason for this is that, as Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland point out in Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (1992), Riel’s "image is so radically overdetermined, his figure so contradictory" that it inevitably provokes diverse and contradictory interpretations (i). Another reason for the controversial nature of Riel and his image is the liminal position that he occupies between oppositions that  are endemic to Canadian culture: "East/West, Quebec/Ontario, Catholic/Protestant, French/English, Métis/white, Indian/white" (Hathorn and Holland v). Like the elusive Canadian identity, Riel has proven difficult to define, delimit or represent symbolically: although such writers as Rudy Wiebe, Aritha van Herk, and Dorothy Livesay have searched for the real, singular Riel, his multifaceted character proves frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, to capture in any static form. This has been particularly true of the various attempts to memorialize him in a statue, and various attempts to do so have awakened the controversies that lie latent in his "image." As a prelude to examining the most controversial of Riel monuments—the statue by Marcien Lemay that now stands on the grounds of the Collège St. Boniface in Winnipeg—some biographical and historical information is necessary for readers who are unfamiliar with Riel’s life and its contexts.

The written history of what would become Manitoba began in 1670 when King Charles II of England, acting on information provided by two renegade French fur traders, Radisson and Grosseilliers, chartered the Hudson’s Bay Company to trade in "Rupert’s Land"—that is, all the lands draining into Hudson’s Bay. Prior to the arrival of Europeans who came to participate in the fur trade, the Native population in Rupert’s Land was primarily made up of Cree, Saulteaux, and Assinniboine. As Grant MacEwan wittily observes in Métis Makers of History (1981), "the Métis nation, if such it could be called, was born exactly nine months after the first white man arrived" (3). The Métis, who usually spoke English and/or French as well as at least one Native language, and were familiar with both European and Native customs, occupied a position between the two cultures and often acted as middlemen during the fur trade. In the course of the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, they developed the ethnic and cultural identity that was solidified by several historical events, most notably the disturbances leading to the Battle of Seven Oaks (1816) in which the Métis, led by Cuthbert Grant, successfully attacked the Selkirk settlement on the Red River and the incident surrounding Guillaume Sayer, a fur trader who was arrested in the 1840s for illegal commerce with the United States and liberated by armed Métis (including Louis Riel’s father). From both of these incidents, the Métis emerged with a strengthened sense of shared history and common purpose, two vital components of what Benedict Anderson has called "an imagined community."

As well as contributing to the communal solidarity of the Métis, the Sayer incident served as an example for the young Louis Riel. Born in St. Boniface in 1844, Riel was only one-eighth part Native, but his identity as a Métis clearly became the most important factor that shaped his life. Because he showed great promise as a young student, Riel was sent to Montréal in 1858 to complete his education. Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché of St. Boniface had hoped that he might become the first Métis priest, but Riel soon realized that he did not have a vocation, and withdrew from the Collège de Montréal. While in Montréal, however, Riel met and fell in love with a young French-Canadian woman, Marie-Julie Guernon, whose parents’ refusal to consent to the couple’s marriage on account of Riel’s racial origins evidently brought home to him in a very personal way the racial prejudice of Canadian society. Profoundly affected by this rejection, Riel began to perceive and to present himself as a tortured and tragic figure, describing himself in his poem "Ma belle est trop tranquille…," for example, as too uncouth for Marie-Julie and as a "bandit" in the eyes of her mother (Collected Writings 4:19).2 So much a part of Riel’s self-image was this sense of being a rejected outsider ("interdit") that arguably it should be reflected in any representation of him that aims for historical and social verisimilitude: to depict him as other than "Other," is, almost paradoxically, to deny him his place in Canadian history and culture.

In the years immediately following Confederation, the political situation in Red River (now Winnipeg and what would soon be Manitoba) was extremely uncertain. In the summer of 1869, the Canadian Government, keen to confirm its sovereignty over the area, sent a surveying crew under John Stoughton Dennis, to measure out the land into square-mile lots based on the Ontario and American system. This caused resentment among the Métis of Red River for three reasons: (1) the square-mile system was at odds with the pattern of Métis strip farming; (2) the Ontario survey team was very antagonistic to the Métis and spoke only English; and (3) the transfer of power from the HBC to the Dominion of Canada was being handled like a mere land transfer with no considerations given to the inhabitants of the area. In October of 1869, shortly after Riel, recently returned from the East, put a stop to the surveying, a "National Committee of the Métis of Red River" was established with John Bruce as president and Riel as secretary. One of the first acts of the National Committee was to draft a letter telling William McDougall, who was travelling to Red River to take up his duties as lieutenant-governor at Fort Garry, that he could not enter Rupert’s Land without their permission. Despite the letter, McDougall decided to push on towards Red River, and was forced to turn back by a Métis barricade. In an act of great national importance to the Métis, Riel assumed control of Fort Garry on November 2, 1869. Riel’s poem "La Métisse," written a short time later, expresses the national pride felt by Riel and the Métis after this victory: "Je suis métisse et je suis orgueilleuse / D’appartenir à cette nation," proclaims the speaker of the poem, "Je sais que Dieu de sa main généreuse / Fait chaque peuple avec attention / Les Métis sont un petit peuple encore / Mais vous pouvez voir déjà leurs destins" (Collected Writings 4: 88). In a convention held on November 16, 1869, Riel called for equal representation for French- and English-speaking inhabitants of the area, and, less than a month later, on December 8, 1869, he produced a proclamation entitled, "Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North-West," drafted a List of Rights, and formed a provisional government for Manitoba—a series of initiatives that provoked opposition from members of the Canadian Party, one of whom, Thomas Scott, was brought before a Métis court-martial for insubordination on March 3, 1870, and executed by firing squad on March 4. According to some historians, Scott’s trial stands as "a notorious example of culture clash" (Manitoba 125 1: 186); certainly, it was a travesty of justice by European standards: no formal charges were laid, no counsel was provided for Scott, the proceedings were in a language foreign to the accused, no appeal existed, and the execution proceeded with undue haste. On the other hand, the trial was conducted according to Métis Buffalo Hunt tradition—that is to say, according to rules, and a code of discipline that had allowed the Métis people to survive on the desolate plains for generations. Not unlike Riel himself, and for similar reasons, Scott’s trial is surrounded by controversy: occupying a position between European and Métis conceptions of justice and fairness, it lies, in the terms of Victor Turner’s classic definition of "liminal entities" in The Ritual Process (1969), "betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by laws, custom, convention, and ceremonial" and, hence, is a site of tense "ambiguity" and "indeterminacy" (95).

Because of his role as leader of the Rebellion, and despite his leading part in the negotiations leading to the creation of Manitoba on May 12, 1870, Riel was not granted amnesty by the Government of Canada. In spite of his forced exile between 1873 and 1874 he ran in the federal elections for the Manitoba constituency of Provencher, was elected to this seat four times, and even traveled once to Ottawa to sign the member’s roll in Parliament. That this period of exile was very difficult for Riel is evident in his letters, as well as in his poetry written at the time. In "Pourquoi ton front Lepine est-il couvert d’ennui?", for example, he describes the difficulty he faces continuing in his mission when his time of banishment from his home is like a somber time of mourning: "L’exile est un séjour / Qui verse abondamment le deuil sur chaque jour / Que l’on passe" (Collected Writings 4:102). Finally, in 1875 an amnesty act was passed by the Liberal government that required Riel to endure a five year exile before returning to Canada. In 1876 Riel’s behaviour became erratic, and on March 6, 1876 he was admitted under a pseudonym to the hospital of St. Jean de Dieu for the insane at Longue Pointe, Québec, and thereafter transferred to the asylum at Beauport, near Québec City. His diagnosis was megalomania, delusions of grandeur, and a messianic complex, traits consistent with what might today be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Believing himself to be a prophet destined to lead a "New Nation," Riel thought that God and the saints were speaking to him directly, and saw the Métis as the new "chosen people" and himself as the new David. He also believed that his mission was to reform religion in North America, and to form a new purer version of Catholicism. In 1878 Riel was released, and moved to Montana and Minnesota, where as a teacher with a wife and two children (he married in 1881), he for a time eked out a meager but apparently "normal" life.

After the Red River Rebellion ended, many Métis, including Riel’s friend Gabriel Dumont, left Manitoba and moved west. When a similar pattern of an influx of Ontario settlers and a subsequent threat to the Métis way of life began to affect the Métis community in the Northwest (what is now Saskatchewan) just as it had at Red River, Dumont traveled south to seek Riel’s advice about the Métis’s political situation. Following the pattern of the Red-River Rebellion, the Métis in the Northwest, with Riel as their leader, rose up in revolt. In December 1884, Riel drew up a petition of grievances to be sent to the federal government, and by March of 1885, he had formed a new government in the Northwest, led by an executive body called the Exovedate—Latin for "of the flock" (Flanagan 55). Now straddling the line between political and religious leader, Riel relied more on mystical visions than on sound military advice to counter the Canadian army, and this second rebellion ended on May 12 when the Métis forces were completely overwhelmed at the Battle of Batoche. Riel surrendered himself to the Canadian forces on May 15, and was charged with high treason on July 6, 1885. His trial in Regina in the summer and fall of 1885 was no less controversial and liminal than Scott’s: Riel was a Catholic, but the six-man jury consisted entirely of Protestants; it was conducted in English, though Riel himself waived the option to have it in French; and a postponement was denied, so not all of the witnesses were available for Riel. On August 1, 1885 the jury handed down a guilty verdict but recommended mercy. Even so, Riel was sentenced to hang, and was executed on November 16, 1885.

The two Riel-led rebellions had consequences not only for the Métis, but also for Canada. Defeated, and with their leaders dead or exiled, the Métis were forced to move further west in an attempt to maintain their way of life. Victorious and with a completed railway, Canada had gained national pride and confidence. Nevertheless, the Métis rebellions also proved divisive for Canada, exposing fault lines between French-Catholics and English-Protestants, as well as between Eastern and Western Canada: to Quebeckers, Riel was a victim of anti-French fanaticism, while to Ontarians he was a dangerous traitor. In the ensuing years, he was to become a symbol for Western separatists, and a rallying point for the "revival of Indian and Métis activism in the 1970s" (Flanagan and Rocan 82). Given Riel’s liminal and symbolic status, it is scarcely surprising that his character and activities have become the subject of multiple and varied accounts and conclusions—that, as Claude Rocan asserts in "Images of Riel in Contemporary Textbooks" (1992), he "has come to be seen in widely different ways by Canadians, depending on their language, religion, social background, regional identification, ideological orientation" (93).3 Since there is no general agreement about the character and history of Riel, no consensus about what he stands for, any single representation of him, any sculpted image that purports to be the "true Riel," can only be a source of tension and controversy (Holland 232).4

Monumental Commemorations

Nevertheless, physical monuments to Riel are numerous, particularly and predictably in Manitoba. Of these, the oldest is Riel’s grave, located in front of the St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg, and, to judge by the wreaths and flowers that surround it even in winter, a frequently visited place of homage. A small residential street in Winnipeg named after Riel also serves as a memorial to the man recognized as the founder of Manitoba, as do Riel House, located in southern Winnipeg (in the suburb of St. Vital), and a bronze bust in front of the St. Boniface Museum.5 But by far the most interesting and controversial monument to Riel in Winnipeg (or, indeed, anywhere) is Marcien Lemay’s statue of him.

Riel, was commissioned in 1970 by the Manitoba Centennial Corporation as part of its Manitoba Centennial Project. Chosen from among twenty proposals by a jury that included no representative of the Métis community, the winning entry was the result of a collaboration between Lemay and the architect Étienne Gaboury, whose principal contribution to the project is the circular walls that surround the   statue. Consisting of  a pair of  half  cylindrical  shells

Marcien Lemay, Riel (1970). (Photograph courtesy of Norm Dumontet.)

some five metres in diameter and ten metres high, these walls are placed so as to form a near perfect circle, thereby achieving a feeling of both unity and separateness, and, arguably, creating a conceptual tension that is appropriate to the conflicts and dichotomy of Riel’s life. The two half-cylinders also manipulate the viewing experience of the sculpture, inviting the on-looker either to walk around them on the outside or to enter the womb-like circle surrounding the figure of Riel and, thus, to see him from widely different perspectives. Especially notable is the fact that, when positioned outside the walls, the viewer remains distant from the sculpture and from Riel, but, on entering the embrace of the cylinders experiences a sense of closeness and a feeling of identification with both the sculpture and its subject.

Inscribed on the monument is a quotation from a letter written by Riel while he was awaiting execution:

Yes, I have done my duty. During my life I have aimed at practical results. I hope that after my death my spirit will bring practical results. All that I have done and risked, and to which I have been exposed myself, rested certainly on the conviction that I was called upon to do something for my country…. I know that through the grace of God I am the founder of Manitoba.

These words emphasize Riel’s simultaneous identity as a political and a religious man. Consistent with them, Lemay’s sculpture depicts a black and misshapen figure, with his head bowed as if under the weight of his pain and responsibilities and his arms behind his body as though bound. Naked, contorted, and bearing only slight resemblance to Riel, the figure evokes the existential pain of a suffering soul, the torment of a man wracked by the anguish and conflict of human destiny. According to Lemay, he prepared for work on the statue by "read[ing] all the books on Louis Riel that [he] could get [his] hands on, " emerged from the experience seeing Riel as "more or less like a martyr," and decided to "represent this in a symbolic way" (telephone interview March 7, 1997).

One of the most significant, and controversial, aspects of Lemay’s sculpture is that it represents Riel as unclothed.6 While unusual for a statue of a  political  figure, this is  not unprecedented,

Marcien Lemay, Riel (1970). (Photograph courtesy of Norm Dumontet.)

for as Alison Gilmore points out in "‘Stately’ Riel Ironic for Revolutionary Man," an astute analysis of the sculpture in the August 6, 1994 issue of the Winnipeg Free Press, Lemay’s representation of Riel recalls Auguste Rodin’s Balzac and The Burghers of Calais, two statues in which the French sculptor "brought his subjects down to earth, giving them a humanity, an intensity, and a roughness that scandalized many people, often those who had commissioned the works." Lemay himself has confirmed that Rodin was a major influence on his work, saying: "I read all his books. Yes, it is fair to say that he is an influence" (telephone interview March 7, 1997). Particularly striking is the way in which Lemay follows Rodin in depicting "man’s tragic struggle with destiny" (Clark 271) and his determination "not to beautify" his subject, but, rather, to be "tenaciously truthful" to the reality of human "suffering" (Elsen 14, 9). Indeed, there is an almost uncanny resemblance between Riel and The Burghers of Calais not only in their emphases (as Albert E. Elsen observes, Rodin’s sculpture depicts its subject "struggling with the infirmities of body and spirit" [72]), but also in the public furor that they raised: "[p]ossibly in retaliation" for its unorthodoxy, The Burghers of Calais was not installed in the site that Rodin desired in the town square of Calais and instead placed in a public garden (Elsen 72), and, for similar reasons, Riel was eventually moved from the Manitoba Legislative grounds to its present site on the grounds of Collège St. Boniface.

From the moment of its unveiling on the grounds of the Legislative Assembly to celebrate Manitoba’s centennial in 1970, the Lemay sculpture was controversial. Nevertheless, it was not until July 28, 1994, after years of debate over its appropriateness (and despite the efforts of protestors who chained themselves to its base), that Riel was finally removed by crane from the grounds of the Legislature. In the ensuing months, the provincial government, responding to a suggestion by the Students’ Association of Collège St. Boniface, donated the statue to the Collège to mark its hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary and as a tribute to its most (in)famous alumnus. (Part of the donation was the $60,000 cost of moving the statue.) According to the rector of Collège St. Boniface, Paul Ruest, the Winnipeg community responded very favourably to the initiative to move the statue to the Collège (Hardy). In November 1995, a hundred and ten years after Riel’s execution, Riel was re-dedicated at its present site. For its part, the Collège undertook to provide the statue with a suitable setting by surrounding it with trees, benches, and a paved walkway, so that it would be a central meeting place for students. These plans have yet to be fully implemented, however, and Riel is currently located at the rear of the Collège, overlooking a small parking lot.7

The controversy over the Lemay sculpture arose in large part because there are two major, competing interpretations of the work. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that Lemay’s Riel symbolizes the spirit, the strength, and the suffering of the founder of Manitoba, who sacrificed himself for his beliefs and his people. To its supporters the statue is an appropriately unconventional representation of a revolutionary man, which, unlike a traditional rendering, meets the needs of contemporary society. As Gilmore puts it, Lemay’s statue makes a lasting statement while avoiding the irony of immortalizing "a revolutionary man in the reactionary esthetic language that is the complete expression of outdated, centralized, hierarchical power" ("‘Stately’ Riel Ironic for Revolutionary Man" Winnipeg Free Press August 6 1994). According to this positive interpretation, the naked figure of Riel represents the profound misery of humanity, readily communicates powerful feelings with viewers, and is a fitting monument to a man who suffered and died for his beliefs. In this view, the figure’s nakedness universalizes Riel’s suffering. Because he is denuded of the costume that would fix him in a particular time and place in history, Riel transcends his particular identity to become a universal symbol of heroic martyrdom.

On the other hand, some viewers are alienated by Lemay’s sculpture because it defies their sense of what public sculpture should be. Conditioned to expect "a static, stately, realistic rendering of Riel" such viewers disapprove of Lemay’s rendering of Riel (Gilmore), and compare it unfavorably with other statues of politicians. For example, Yvon Dumont, a descendant of Riel’s lieutenant Gabriel Dumont, comments in "And this time: the Riel thing" (Winnipeg Sun November 15, 1991) that "we don’t see a statue of John A. [Macdonald] with a bottle in his hand, nor do we see a monument of Mackenzie King talking to his dog." Dumont agrees with Lionel Dorge who contends that Riel, like other great Canadians, deserves "to be judged by history for his ‘finest hour’," rather than in the torment of his madness. Further, Dorge suggests that "Manitobans should remember the young Riel who, successfully and with great courage, had become the chief instrument whereby the Red River Settlement became the Province of Manitoba on its own terms" (Dorge 11). A further reason that many members of the Manitoba Métis community were particularly offended by Lemay’s representation of Riel in the nude, and considered it "a humiliating characterization of their hero" (Krueger), is that in contemporary Canadian culture nakedness has become highly fetishized (and, perhaps, more so in the 1990s than in the 1970s when the statue was created). In part a product of "the prudish 1990s" (Roberts, "New bronze statue is the Riel thing"), the controversy over the sculpture’s nakedness was exacerbated by associations with the "naked savage." Since nakedness can imply a lack of civilization and sophistication, some critics went so far as to interpret Riel’s nakedness as endorsing the stereotype of the Native peoples as childlike (the noble savage) or brutal (the ignoble savage)—stereotypes as inappropriate to Riel as they are distasteful in themselves.

Some of the controversy over the statue stemmed from its original site as much as from its appearance. It almost goes without saying that Lemay’s statue was unlike any other monument on the grounds of the Legislature. Contrasting sharply with the other nearby monuments (for example, a traditional rendering of Queen Victoria seated in all her regal majesty), the Lemay statue failed to meet the public’s expectations for public sculpture. Moreover, the particular site chosen for Lemay’s very untraditional sculpture was especially sensitive ground, because, as Terence Moore points out, "the Legislative Grounds is a particularly significant location for the public’s self-identification, a place [that] is the picture of ourselves." Controversy arose, therefore, because, though located in a public space, Lemay’s sculpture did not meet the expectations of the vast majority of the public. It is not altogether surprising, then, that many viewers saw Riel as an "incongruous monstrosity" in the context of its site (Krueger). Few people continued to disapprove of Lemay’s statue once it was removed to a less public (and more elitist) location on the grounds of the Collège St. Boniface.

Much of the controversy over the Lemay statue can also be attributed to the different purposes that it is expected to serve. There is no single answer to the central question: what is the purpose of the Riel monument? Again, however, two dominant positions can be identified. On the one hand, those who approved of the Lemay statue and its sympathetic rendering of Riel "the tortured soul," argued that, because it evokes powerful emotions, it fulfills the "spiritual" purpose of art. On the other hand, those who disapproved of the sculpture apparently did so on the assumption that the purpose of a public monument is not affective but didactic: it should teach a lesson from history. Support for the latter view runs through European thinking about the form and purposes of public monuments since at least the end of the eighteenth century, and can be found even in as radical a work as Friedrich Nietzsche’s "The Use and Abuse of History" (1874), where "monumental history" is seen as concentrating on past heroes in order to confront contemporary mediocrity with the possibility of greatness. In Nietzsche’s analysis, a monument should remind the viewer of what others have suffered, encourage activism, and act as a deterrent to quietism. It should demonstrate that a great thing existed, was possible, and, thus, encourage the belief that the great thing is possible again; in short, it should incite and inspire the viewer to action (Nietzsche 16-23).

Because they subscribe to instrumentalist view of monuments, opponents to Lemay’s statue, particularly members of the Manitoba Métis community, were inevitably disappointed in Lemay’s representation of Riel. By portraying the Métis leader as a victim and a madman Riel did not serve, as Nietzsche would have it, to incite or inspire the viewer to action; rather, it served to reinforce the negative self-image already adopted by many Métis. Given their low socio-economic status, it is certainly arguable that the Métis people of Manitoba do not need any more models of victimization and defeat. Instead, they need a monument that might encourage a positive image of the Métis people, while also inspiring members of the Métis community to emulate Riel as a positive role- model of leadership, devotion to community, and vision.

The Manitoba Métis Federation played a key role in the Riel statues controversy: it was the loudest voice in opposition to the naked portrayal of Riel, and the only organized voice behind the movement to replace the Lemay statue.8 Incorporated in 1967, the MMF constitution includes as one of its aims: "to promote the history and culture of the Métis people and to propagate the role of Louis Riel and the Métis people in the history and development of Western Canada" (Sawchuck 54). It was a legitimate extension of the MMF’s agenda  to  push  for  a  new  "more   dignified"  Riel  statue,  which

Miguel Joyal, Louis Riel (1995). (Photograph courtesy of Norm Dumontet.)

would be commensurate with the group’s mandate to promote the Métis and social change favourable to them.9 In May 1994, the Métis community and the Manitoba Government announced that the Lemay statue would be replaced by a monument more "representative" of Louis Riel the statesman, and in due course a new Riel statue, designed by Miguel Joyal, was officially unveiled at the legislature on Manitoba Day 1995. This monument is a 3.5 metre tall rendering of Riel dressed in a nineteenth-century shirt, overcoat, trousers, and—the only gesture towards his Métis heritage—moccasins. Overlooking the Assiniboine River, Riel holds a parchment in his left hand, while his other hand is clenched in a determined fist. Conceived as part of a $2.3 million development project along the Assinniboine, the cost for the new statue was estimated at $200, 000, and was to be shared equally by the Province and the Manitoba Métis Federation. In 1994, the MMF launched a fund-raising campaign in order to raise the necessary amount but failed, with the result that the Federal Government stepped in with a $15, 000 cheque. Because it met their expectations, the Métis community was pleased with the Joyal statue, which has apparently helped them to generate pride in their history and their heroes, and to develop a stronger sense of identity. As Don MacKenzie put it after the unveiling of the more conventional statue, members of the Métis community felt that they could "hold their heads higher." Much more straight forwardly than the Lemay statue, the Joyal rendering of Riel represents the nationalistic sentiments of the Métis, and revives "the historical traditions of their past glory" (Sawchuck 44). Further, the fight itself for the traditional statue engineered solidarity among the Métis community, and provided a powerful symbol to an otherwise powerless group. Thus, the new Riel statue takes advantage of Riel as "usable" history.

•      •      •

The Lemay statue has not been the only recent example of controversy over public art in Canada. In Edmonton, a similar dispute arose when the Polish community in Edmonton "vilified" a sculpture designed to celebrate the Polish settlement in Alberta (Mandel). Ken Macklin’s abstract "undulating concrete-and-steel art- work" was chosen by the Polish Centennial Society 1995, but rejected by the very people whom it was expected to honour. As with the Lemay statue, Macklin’s sculpture has been replaced by a more traditionally symbolic work, a parallel suggesting that, in part, these disputes over public art result from a conflict between elitism and populism. The commission for the new work was awarded to Roman Golovatch, who, in a curious duplication of the Lemay/Joyal quarrel, later became embroiled in accusations of plagiarism. Less obviously parallel to Lemay’s Riel, has been the controversy surrounding the figure of the kneeling Indian scout at the foot of the monument commemorating Samuel de Champlain on Nepean Point, overlooking the Ottawa River. The scout is a life-sized bronze figure wearing only a loincloth, sash, and feathers and crouching at the feet of a larger-than-life Champlain. After an outcry by Native people, led by the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi, that the figure "demeans Aboriginal people" (Windspeaker 7), it was removed in the spring of 1997. In response to the controversy, a spokesperson for the National Capital Commission, Lucie Caron, said, "‘[i]f a cultural group doesn’t agree with the way they are represented in the capital then we can work with them to find a more fitting way to represent their contribution to Canada in the capital’" (qtd. in Logan).

Nor are such controversies restricted to Canada. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. aroused heated controversy both before and after its installment in 1982. "Almost every element of Maya Lin’s design," observes Harriet F. Senie in Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy (1992) "at one time or another became a subject of controversy," with the result that "art and non-art issues quickly became intertwined, and the work itself all too frequently became secondary to personal politics and/or the focus of larger political issues" (32). As with the Lemay statue, the controversy arose because there was a lack of agreement about what the Memorial was intended to commemorate. Was its subject victims or heroes? The Memorial was misunderstood by some viewers because it lacked the heroic rhetoric that they had come to expect in war monuments. There is yet a further parallel between the Lemay statue and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for as Senie again observes, in the case of Lin’s work "the argument of abstract versus representational art began to emerge as a significant issue, one that was frequently interpreted as elitist versus popular opinion" (34).

In addition to outlining various conflicts over public art, Senie offers some pertinent suggestions for avoiding the kind of divisive controversy that raged over the Lemay statue. She advises opening up the competition and commission granting process for public art in order to invite a "more productive art dialogue" (17). According to Senie, the public art selection process ought to be open to the community—functioning as a dialogue, rather than a monologue. In this way, the community can voice its concerns, and its needs. At the same time, the process of selection is demystified and the tension between elitist and popular opinion is reduced. Yvon Dumont, who was president of the MMF at the time the Riel statue controversy reached its peak, implied a similar solution. "It was unfortunate that there wasn’t any official involvement from the Métis in the design or selection process for the original statue," he observed in a Manitoba Métis Federation Press Release (n.d.), adding that, "[a]lthough the existing statue may be a fine work of art depicting some realities about the man’s life, what the Métis want to see in the statue of Louis Riel is a clear and concise statement of what the man was in 1870, and of his important role in ensuring that Manitoba entered Confederation with full provincial status. Riel was a true visionary, undoubtedly the founder of Manitoba and a Canadian statesman, who is, in our minds, one of Canada’s fathers of confederation."

As well as suggesting that the public art-selection process ought to be carried out in a more democratic fashion, Senie proposes that art education be made a much more significant aspect of school curricula because it would allow the public to gain "access to the art context within which contemporary sculpture can be understood and appreciated" (224). Ultimately, perhaps, Senie’s suggestions are not practicable; however, her remarks on open dialogue and communication are certainly worth heeding. Perhaps a plaque next to Lemay’s Riel might have explained the artist’s intentions, and avoided the misunderstanding that led to conflict. Or, after the conflict arose, perhaps, as Joe Riel proposed, the sculpture should have been left at the legislature alongside the new rendering of Riel, "‘with a plaque explaining the controversy’" (qtd. in McLaughlin). In this way, the statues might have honoured the multiplicity of Riel, and served as a comparative art lesson for the general public.

What remains of the controversy surrounding the commemoration of Riel are two radically different monuments: the more artistically satisfying Lemay statue and the more communally beneficial Joyal rendering. Since arguments for both are highly compelling, perhaps a way out of the controversy is to imagine what Riel himself would have wanted as a monument—the monument that would reflect Riel’s own perception of himself. Unfortunately, Riel offers only contradictory evidence of what his preference might have been. On the one hand, Riel’s poetry gives the impression of a tormented martyr figure—the figure represented by the Lemay sculpture.10 On the other hand, the photographs that Riel had taken of himself (which are stiff portraits of him in formal attire) suggest that he wished to be viewed as a statesman—the statesman represented in the Joyal sculpture. Or, perhaps, David Roberts’s statement in the The Globe and Mail that "Louis Riel and statues just don’t mix" is ultimately right: there is a fixity in a statue that does not, and cannot, adequately represent the multidimensional, revolutionary qualities of Riel. Riel is too complicated, and too fluxic, to reduce to one set image. His complex character and role in history simply cannot be portrayed with one picture, one set of clothes, or one set of emblems. There is no single sculptural form that would satisfy everyone’s demands for an immediately identifiable Louis Riel. That is why there are now two statues of Louis Riel in Winnipeg.




I would like to thank my father, Norm Dumontet, for taking the photographs of the Riel statues that illustrate this essay, and I would like to thank my mother, Elizabeth Dumontet, for giving me the flashlight. I would also like to express my gratitude to D.M.R. Bentley for his encouragement, and for the opportunity to participate in this project.

  1. The bibliography produced by the Louis Riel Project (now over ten years ago in 1986) "contains 462 titles relevant to his life, without trying to assemble the broader literature on the Métis people…[and] each year sees new publications" (Flanagan in Riel Collected Writings 3: 157). [back]

  2. Riel’s composition "Ma fille est trop tranquille…" (Collected Writings 4: 19) reveals the depth of his pain following the rejection he experienced when the Guernon family refused to consent to his marriage to Marie-Julie in Montréal:

    Ma fille est trop tranquille
    Pour avoir un bandit
    Elle est bien trop gentille
    Pour vous, sans contredit

    Elle est bien trop gentille
    Pour vous, sans contredit
    Ainsi pour ma Cécile
    Comptez-vous interdit.

    As with most of Riel’s writings, "Ma fille est trop tranquille…" is autobiographical, but with the name "Cécile" inserted instead of Marie-Julie Guernon. Moreover, Riel steps aside from himself in the poem to appropriate the mother’s voice, and constructs himself in terms of her perspective. In this way, he presents himself as a multifaceted, conflicted, and non-unified personality.

         Glen Campbell’s essay "The Tormented Soul: Riel’s Poetic Image of Himself" in Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (1992) examines Riel’s poetic self-construction. "Throughout his life," writes Campbell, "from the time he was a student at the Collège de Montréal to the days when he was awaiting execution in the jail at Regina, Riel was constantly jotting down verse, much of which is autobiographical" (354). Concerned that the myth of Riel created by writers of fiction threatens to overwhelm the historical figure of Riel, Campbell looks at Riel’s poetry in order to discover "the real Louis Riel," or, at least a less distorted image of this enigmatic man (353). Campbell hopes that Riel’s own writings might "reveal to us the image he had of himself" (354). He remarks, for example, that the self that Riel constructed in his poetry is often a tormented, and troubled being. [back]

  3. Claude Rocan’s "Images of Riel in Contemporary School Textbooks," in Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (1992), presents a fascinating study of the many different historical Riels. Reading textbooks from different regions of Canada, and from different years, Rocan examines Riel’s changing representation in high school textbooks, concluding that depictions of him are often "inconsistent" and "contradictory" (121). This examination of how Canadians interpret Riel is, according to Rocan, "a window into the Canadian psyche" since it reveals "the values and orientations of…Canadians" (94). Rocan argues that history textbooks "offer proof that there is no consensus and little clarity in Canada about how Riel’s significance should be perceived" (95). [back]

  4. Holland is referring specifically to depictions of Riel in poetry, but the remarks apply equally well to fiction and drama. In addition to "dozens" of plays concerning Riel, including, for example, the Franco-Manitoban play Le Roitelet (1976) by Claude Dorge (for further discussion of dramatic works representing Riel see Chris Johnson’s "Riel in Canadian Drama" in Images of Louis Riel), there have also been novels, short-stories, essays, poems, and even an opera about Riel. A short survey of five better-known Canadian literary works—Dorothy Livesay’s "Prophet for the New World: a Poem for Voices" (1972), Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974), Rudy Wiebe’s The Scorched-Wood People (1977), Frank Davey’s "Riel" (1985), and Aritha van Herk’s "Progressions Toward Sainthood: There is Nothing to Do but Die" (1992)—will give a sense of the diversity of twentieth-century fictional representations of Riel.
         (1)   "Prophet of the New World: a Poem for Voices." According to Holland, Livesay’s work is the "primary poetic work about Riel" (217). A three-hundred line poem, "Prophet of the New World" is divided between Riel, his mother, and a chorus similar to those found in Greek tragedy. While Julie Riel narrates the events of Riel’s life, Riel’s portions describe his dreams and defend his madness: "Madness is / the meat of poetry; and every poet’s mad…" (79). Riel’s voice also rails against anti-naturalism in our culture, and expresses anti-modernist sentiments. Because Livesay’s poem, like many others about Riel, incorporates some of Riel’s own words, taken from his letters, poems, and speeches, it demonstrates what Holland calls, "the deepest impulse beneath the production of poems on Riel: the obsessive, lyrical quest for ‘voice’" (212).
         (2)   The Diviners. Margaret Laurence presents conflicting versions of Riel in her novel.  According to Christie’s tale of the Red River Rebellion, the Scottish settlers of the Selkirk colony are the real heroes, rather than Riel or Dumont (129-32). In this version of history, Riel is a short man "with burning eyes" (139), and is called "Reel"—highlighting the perhaps illusory distinction between what is real and what is fictional in historical accounts. Morag’s educated, "official" version of history initially overwhelms Christie’s "romantic" version (130), and, further on in the novel, Christie’s version is supplanted by Jules Tonnere’s account of the Red River Rebellion. In Jules’s version, Riel is called "the Prophet," and described as a "very tall guy" with the power to stop bullets (146-47). Like Christie’s story, Jules’s account of the early history of Manitoba is not connected with the official history that Morag learned in school (which is presented to the reader in the form of parenthetical additions). The various, and contradictory, versions of history presented in The Diviners serve to highlight Riel’s position on the border between myth and history.
         (3)   The Scorched-Wood People. In contrast to Laurence’s, Wiebe’s novel, considered the finest work of prose fiction about Riel (Holland 217), offers readers a single, unified portrait of Riel. This "revisionist epic" (Killam) presents Riel as a tragic hero who is eventually brought down by his tragic flaw. Written as the first person narration of Pierre Falcon, The Scorched-Wood People is overtly anti-Ontario, pro-Riel, and especially pro-Dumont.
         (4)   "Riel." Frank Davey’s poem, which "tackles problems of voice, interiority, and history by moving back and quoting the Rielian text," is, like Livesay’s poem, involved in a quest for voice (Holland 229). While "trying to think of Louis Riel," the poem presents multiple images of him. First presenting Riel as a Canadian schoolboy might know him—as a "raw boned Canuck in long underwear" (172)—Davey then envisages him as very much a Western Canadian wearing a "six-gun" (174). Further, Davey considers Riel as a cultural signifier, along with "taxmen," the "Royal Bank" (172), and later "the Crow Rate," and the "Mounties" (176).
         (5)   "Progressions Toward Sainthood: There Is Nothing To Do But Die." In her imaginative essay van Herk describes a posthumous conversation between Riel and Joan of Arc. Drawing a parallel between Joan, who "was handled religiously when [her] actions stemmed from politics," and Riel, who was "treated politically when [his] actions stemmed from faith," van Herk acknowledges the shared space between politics and religion, and Riel’s precarious position there (38). Exploring the mutability of Riel’s identities, van Herk contemplates him as "a poet, a revolutionary, a prophet, a saint, a martyr," and briefly as "a virgin" (42). Finally, however, she privileges the image of Riel as a religious figure.
         These representative literary treatments of Riel serve as literary monuments to this controversial figure, highlight the contradictory nature of his identity and position in history, and demonstrate that there is no definitive Riel. As Holland comments: "[p]oetry…has been no more successful than history in restoring a ‘true’ Riel" (Holland 232). [back]

  5. Riel House, built in 1880-1881, was the home of the Riel family from 1880 to 1968. The small, clapboard-faced log house was acquired by Parks Canada in 1969 and in 1976 it was declared a site of National Significance. Julie and her children, including Louis, first lived in a different house on the same lot. When the new Riel house was built in 1880-1881 most of the materials were re-used in the construction of the present house. Louis Riel never actually lived in this house, though he did visit briefly in the summer of 1883. In December 1885, his body was brought to this home, where it lay in state for two days before burial at St. Boniface Cathedral. Louis’s wife Marguerite died in the house in May 1886. Riel House is now a National Historic Site administered by Parks Canada. It has been restored to its appearance in 1886. As well as tours, there are interpretive presentations of Métis life in the 1880s (telephone interview with Heritage Canada).
         The Bust of Louis Riel. Prior to the hundredth anniversary of Riel’s execution in 1885, a Centennial Committee was founded to commemorate and honour him. In 1985 the Committee organized special events to commemorate his life and death and in 1988-1989 it asked the public to participate in a further commemorative project: a bust of Riel in front of the St. Boniface Museum. The bust was designed by Réal Bérard, a Franco-Manitoban artist who was born in St.-Pierre-Jolys in 1935 and who had long been fascinated by, and involved with the Métis. Cast in bronze by William Epp’s foundry in Saskatoon using a "lost wax" process, the bust measures 1.67 metres and weighs 317 kgs. It sits on a pedestal measuring about 2 metres made of reinforced concrete. "Riel 1844-1885" is engraved on the pedestal. Its cost is estimated at $50,000. The Louis Riel Centennial Committee asked for contributions to support their project as well as seeking financial support from businesses, and organizations. The official unveiling took place on October 22, 1989, for the hundred and forty-fifth anniversary of Riel’s birth. In it, Bérard hoped to capture the "soul" both of Riel and of the Métis people (interview with interpreter at the St. Boniface Museum). [back]

  6. In The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form (1956), Kenneth Clark gives the classic definition of the difference between "naked" and "nude": "the English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body reformed" (3). Clark goes on to argue that, in addition to erotic desire, "energy," "humility," and "pathos" are some of the human experiences "of which the naked body provides a vivid reminder" (9). In the light of Clark’s remarks, it is worth noticing the pain expressed by the body’s tension in the Lemay statue, as well as the downcast head and the helpless arms. Lemay’s statue, because of its pathos, seems to collapse the distinction between "naked" and "nude": it is a nude, but it presents Riel as naked. [back]

  7. The fact that a home had been found for the original statue did not mean an end to controversy. To this day, Lemay is involved in legal battles over the statues. After the Provincial Government, the MMF, and Lemay finally agreed to the removal and replacement of the first statue of Riel, he was commissioned to create a new, less abstract form, and in May 1994 his maquette of a more traditional representation was approved by the MMF and unveiled to the public. Later, however, the MMF decided to give the task of creating a more statesmanlike statue of Riel to Miguel Joyal. Because the two artists’ proposals were very similar, accusations of plagiarism were exchanged. Lemay explained in an interview with the author that he is still involved in an ongoing court battle in which he is suing the Provincial Government for breach of contract and defamation. [back]

  8. Several factors, aside from pressure from the MMF may have influenced the Manitoba Government’s decision to support a new Riel statue. The new statue was conceived as part of the province’s Assinniboine River renewal project (a $2.3 million project under the Canada/Manitoba Infrastructure Agreement, which was completed in the summer of 1995). A total of 82 jobs would be created through the River Walk project. Thus, job creation was another motive for the commissioning of the new Riel monument. Tourism provided further incentive. It was hoped that "linking the Forks and the Legislative Building via the Assinniboine River Walk [would] provide Manitobans and visitors an opportunity to enjoy two of the province’s premier tourism destinations" (from a Manitoba Government News Release dated May 12, 1994). [back]

  9. Joe Sawchuck outlines the history of the MMF in The Métis of Manitoba: Reformation of an Ethnic Identity (1978). Writing from an anthropological perspective, he notes that "in the late 1960s and early seventies there has been a significant rise in ethnic consciousness among Canada’s native peoples due at least in part to the florescence of voluntary organizations aimed at the social and political advancement of the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples" (ix). Provincial organizations such as the MMF as well as National organizations like the MNC "have engendered a completely new level of ethnic awareness" (ix). [back]

  10. In his final comments on Riel’s poetry, Campbell links it to the Lemay statue: "[l]ike the controversial statue of Louis Riel…which depicts a twisted, tortured individual, the verse clearly mirrors the spiritual suffering of the poet. Both reflect the tormented soul of the Métis leader, both reflect the anguish of a man caught up in his destiny, a man who has been unable to reconcile his utopian idealism with the surrounding hostile reality" (364). In these observations, Campbell suggests not only that the Lemay statue is an appropriate representation of Riel, but also that, since the image it projects is consistent with his poetry, it is also the kind of representation that Riel would have wanted of himself. [back]


Works Cited


Amabile, George, and Kim Dales, ed. No Feather, No Ink: After Riel. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1985.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.

"And this time: the Riel thing." Winnipeg Sun. 15 November, 1991: 6.

Bowness, Alan, and Andrew Dempsey, ed. Rodin: Sculpture and Drawings. London: Battley Brothers, 1970.

Campbell, Donald. "Riel officially honoured after long wait." Winnipeg Free Press. 23 May 1992: B17.

Campbell, Glen. "The Tormented Soul: Riel’s Poetic Image of Himself." In Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. 353-364.

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1956.

Dafoe, Christopher. "Riel deserves more respect." Winnipeg Free Press. 11 Aug. 1991: A6.

Davey, Frank. "Riel." In No Feather, No Ink: After Riel. Ed. George Amabile and Kim Dales. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1985. 168-77.

De la Ronde, Billy Jo. "Louis Riel deserves better." Letter. Winnipeg Free Press. 31 May 1993: A7.

"Dispute over Riel statue." Globe and Mail. 10 May 1995: C1.

Dorge, Lionel. "Louis Riel." Commissioned by the Manitoba Centennial Corporation, 1971.

Elsen, Albert E. Rodin. London: Secker and Warburg, 1974.

Flanagan, Thomas, ed. Louis "David" Riel: "Prophet of the New World." Rev. ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

——, and Claude Rocan. Rebellion in the North-West: Louis Riel and the Métis People. Toronto: Grolier, 1984.

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Hathorn, Ramon, and Patrick Holland, ed. Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

Holland, Patrick. "Louis Riel and Modern Canadian Poetry." In Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. 211-234.

Johnson, Chris. "Riel in Canadian Drama." In Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. 175-210.

Killam, G.D. "The Epic Element in The Scorched-Wood People." In Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. 249-256.

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"Louis Riel Forum Unveiled During MMF Annual Meet." Le Métis. Aug. 1992: 1.

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Manitoba Métis Federation Press Release. n.d.

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Moore, Terence. "A different kind of scandal." Winnipeg Free Press. 26 June 1994: A6.

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Nietzsche, Friedrich. "The Use and Abuse of History." The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietsche. Vol. 5. Ed. Oscar Levy. Trans. Adrian Collins. Edinburgh: Foulis, 1915. 1-100.

Osler, E.B. The Man Who Had to Hang. Toronto: Longmans Green, 1961.

Platiel, Rudy. "Tribute to Riel points to current needs of Métis." Globe and Mail. 17 Nov. 1992: A7.

Riel, Louis. Collected Writings / Écrits complètes. Ed. George F.G. Stanley. 5 Vols. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1985.

——. The Diaries of Louis Riel. Ed. Thomas Flanagan. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1976.

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Rocan, Claude. "Images of Riel in Contemporary School Textbooks." In Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. 93-126.

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van Herk, Aritha. "Progressions Toward Sainthood: There is Nothing to Do But Die." In Images of Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. Ed. Ramon Hathorn and Patrick Holland. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. 29-46.

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