Jane Stewart, the Minister of Indian Affairs, says she's sorry over the execution of Louis Riel, and adds that the government will try to find a fitting way to honour his contribution to Canada. That could mean many things; let's hope it doesn't mean a posthumous pardon, which has been unsuccesfully moved several times in the House of Commons.
The historical record is clear. Louis Riel provoked the North-West Rebellion of 1885 for his own purposes. He was irritated because the government had refused to accede to his secret demands for money for himself. True, the Metis of the Saskatchewan Valley had grievances, but the federal government was well on the way to dealing with these. Riel resorted to arms precisely because a successful resolution of the Metis complaints would have undercut his position of leadership.
Above all, at this point in his life he saw himself as the divinely inspired voice of the Holy Spirit, called to regenerate a sinful world. He styled himself "the Prophet of the New World," and he planned to establish an exotic version of Roman Catholicism in North America, with the French-Canadian-Metis playing the role of Chosen People. Metis land claims were only a small factor in his grandiose scheme of world renewal.
His rebellion cost dozens of lives and millions of dollars in property damage. The ensuing reaction also took away the political influence that the Metis had enjoyed in the North-West up to that time. Minister Stewart is right that his death was a sad event, but that does not mean that it was unjust. We wouldn't hang a Louis Riel today because we have abolished capital punishment, but it was the accepted retribution in his day for what he had done. Riel himself set the standard when he had Thomas Scott executed by firing squad in the earlier rebellion in Manitoba.
Minister Stewart is too busy to spend a lot of time reading history, so let me also bring up two contemporary considerations.
First, her government is negotiating or litigating hundreds of aboriginal land claims. These depend crucially on an exact reconstruction of history. To ignore the historical record in an attempt to rehabilitate Louis Riel will set a precedent for these claims that is bound to prove costly for Canadian taxpayers. Second, her government, to its great credit, has come out strongly against the right of Quebec, or of any province, to separate unilaterally from Canada. But unilateral declarations of independence were Louis Riel's stock in trade. He announced UDI not once, but twice, first in Manitoba in 1869, then in Saskatchewan in 1885. In view of the coming struggle over the independence of Quebec, does the government really want to canonize Canada's foremost practitioner of UDI?
When dollars are in short supply, politicians are tempted to deal in seemingly inexpensive symbolic gestures. But faulty symbolism may be the most expensive form of action in the long run.