Riel would be proud of Metis remembrance.
Louis Riel Day was celebrated in Toronto on Nov. 16 with two events: a flag-raising and sunrise ceremony at Toronto City Hall, and a commemorative march and moose-meat feast at Queen's Park, the site of the provincial legislature. It was the 10th year of the Toronto gathering, and the 118th anniversary of the Metis leader's execution by the government of Canada.
Marchers gathered at the flagstaff on the west grounds .of the legislature, then walked cast to the Northwest Rebellion monument, where a framed photograph of Riel was displayed along with a wreath, fiddle, and Metis sash. The procession was accompanied by the Todmorden Colour Guard and the Scarborough Red Hackle Pipes and Drams. Several marchers also played fiddle and acoustic guitar as they walked to the monument. The small crowd of 25 people--many dressed in Metis sashes, hats, and Hudson's Bay Company coats and blankets--grew to approximately 50 people by the end of the ceremony.
Metis Elder Marion Larkman delivered the opening prayer for wisdom and remembrance of Metis soldiers "who did not come back from war."
As subway trains rumbled underfoot and people lined up 10-deep on the surrounding sidewalks for Toronto's annual Santa Claus parade, various speakers addressed the crowd, including Earl Commanda, grand chief of the Anishinabek Nation/Union of Ontario Indians, and Tony Belcourt, president of the Metis National Council.
"Riel's mission was his cry of justice for the Metis Nation," Belcourt said in his speech. "The Metis were dispossessed of their lands ... and continue to fight for their rights in Canada today."
Belcourt mentioned the R. v. Powley decision of Sept. 19, 2003--in which the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the hunting rights of the Metis as Aboriginal people--as a modern victory in the Metis fight for recognition. But Belcourt also said that current actions against Metis fishermen by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ontario Provincial Police are reminiscent of the tactics the Canadian government used in the 19th century to turn public opinion against Riel.
According to Jason Madden of the Metis National Council, the bounty Canada put on Riel's head has never been removed.
"We have rights and we have a place in this country," Madden said. "We cannot continue to be ignored."
"I'm looking forward to the day when we will finally see change," Belcourt said. "I hope this is the last time I have to stand in front of the Northwest Rebellion monument and fight for justice for our people."
The monument at Queen's Park was created to honour Canadian troops who fought against the Metis in the 1885 rebellion. Madden expressed his hope that "someday, we will have a monument to the Metis people, because we are so much a part of the fabric of this country."
That importance was recognized in a City of Toronto proclamation issued on Nov. 16 by outgoing mayor Mel Lastman. The proclamation, which officially declares Nov. 16 "Louis Riel Day" in Toronto, calls Riel "a great humanitarian, Elder and leader," and recognizes Riel's "contribution to the building of Canada."
MPP David Zimmer, parliamentary assistant to Attorney General Michael Bryant (who is also the minister responsible for Native affairs), attended the commemorative march on behalf of Bryant and Premier Dalton McGuinty. In a short address, Zimmer talked about changing the relationship between the province and the Metis, and said his government would work to "implement" the Powley decision.
Metis lawyer Jean Taillet, Riel's great-grandniece and a member of the legal team that worked on the precedent-setting Powley case, also spoke to the assembled crowd.
"I'm not sombre today," Taillet said in reference to the anniversary of Riel's execution. "I'm celebrating."
Taillet held a copy of the Powley decision in the air and said, "This is for you, Louis," before placing the scroll on the monument next to Riel's photo. Her comments ended the ceremony.
The Metis and their supporters then gathered in the eastern block of the legislature overlooking the University of Toronto campus to feast on roast moose, sweet and sour moose, moose stew, wild rice and water chestnuts, bannock, frybread, and roasted parsnips and carrots. After the meal, the celebration continued with fiddles and guitars and impromptu jigs.
Toronto Metis Association president Francis Cadeau, whose volunteer-run organization deals with issues of local governance as well as training, education, and other issues, said Canada must learn to "embrace" the Metis contribution to the country. He was confident that Riel Day could educate people about Metis issues.
"Metis people were here 250 years ago, but that history is unknown," Cadeau said. "Our sense of place is much different than recent immigrants to Canada."
This year's Riel Day celebrations were sponsored by the Metis Nation of Ontario, the Metis National Council, the Law Society of Upper Canada, and the city of Toronto. Riel Day celebrations across the country included ceremonies in B.C., Alberta, and Manitoba.
BY SUZANNE METHOT