Metis leader Louis Riel was branded a traitor in 1885 and executed by the state. But over the years, he has increasingly been perceived as a hero. Manitoba now celebrates Louis Riel Day every third Monday in February. There have even been attempts to get Parliament to designate Riel a Father of Confederation. The ambiguity surrounding Riel was summed up succinctly in this question headlining advertisements for the June 15-17 performances of the opera Louis Riel at the National Arts Centre: “Hero, martyr or traitor?”
History is not static. Traitors can become heroes and heroes can become traitors. Duncan Campbell Scott, a Confederation-era bureaucrat, was once considered a praiseworthy poet. Today he is vilified as the father of genocidal residential schools for Indigenous children. His poetry has become tainted.
All across the national capital region this summer, history will be remade. In this, the 150th anniversary of Confederation, Canadians are being asked to look at their history in different ways. There are, as Trumpians might say, “alternative facts” to consider.
This will be especially true at the new History Hall opening July 1 in the Canadian Museum of History. The new hall will be simultaneously offering competing views of history in some instances. Example: Visitors will be told how, according to scientists, Indigenous people migrated to North America from Asia. But they will also be presented with a different story, one from Indigenous people themselves, who say they lived on this continent since Creation.
So, which story is true?
“We’re not making a judgment as a museum,” says Jean-Marc Blais, the museum’s director general. “We are presenting both. People can see both and make up their own mind along the way.”
The museum’s rejigging of Canadian history will attempt to be much more sensitive to Indigenous people in various ways. Gone is the term “New World” to refer to the Americas. This world was not “new” to Indigenous people who lived here supposedly since Creation. The Red River Rebellion of 1869, the first of the two Riel Rebellions, is told from three different viewpoints — that of white, Anglophone settlers; the French-speaking Metis population; and the First Nations of the area.
The National Gallery of Canada is also displaying a new sensitivity to Indigenous peoples – and rewriting art history – with its new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, whose debut exhibition opening June 15 is called From Time Immemorial to 1967. The intent is to demonstrate in the same space the evolution of both Indigenous and mainstream art, ending the apartheid-like separation that predominated at the National Gallery since its founding in 1880.
“Without Indigenous art, the history of visual expression in Canada is incomplete,” says Christine Lalonde, the gallery’s associate curator of indigenous art. That was definitely not the attitude in 1880.
A third national institution remaking history in the capital this year is Library and Archives Canada. LAC used to mount superb exhibitions at its Wellington Street headquarters. Then Conservative government budget cuts ended that, along with the planned Portrait Gallery. But LAC is back.
In April, LAC opened the first of planned annual exhibitions inside the Canadian Museum of History. On June 5 it is scheduled to open at its headquarters an exhibition called Canada: Who Do We Think We Are?
Madeleine Trudeau, LAC’s exhibition curator, described the planned headquarters exhibition a few months ago in the in-house newsletter, Signatures. Trudeau said viewers will be confronted by ideas that are familiar, even old-fashioned. “And still others may seem wrong, or even shocking, to today’s viewer. These include certain past attitudes toward immigration, for example, and the country’s First Nations peoples.” And be prepared to discover that Calixa Lavallée, composer of O Canada, was not a fan of Confederation.
The stories told by LAC will be artifact rich, just as the history museum’s new History Hall will contain far more real artifacts than the previous Canada Hall, with its dependence on reproductions.
“The artifacts are key; they tell the story,” says Blais. Take, for instance, the handcuffs used on Riel. “If you heard about Louis Riel in your history books, it’s one thing,” says Blais. “Actually facing the handcuffs right in front of you, that were used on him, this is giving you a totally different type of experience. So, that’s the power of the artifacts in terms of telling stories but also of giving you some emotional response as individuals.”
A few decades ago, the RCMP Museum in Regina exhibited the rope used to hang Riel. The rope disappeared amid complaints it was too gruesome an artifact and disrespectful of someone being reborn as a hero. Riel, the opera, has also been updated since being written a half century ago. The opera is becoming more Indigenous, with use of Michif, the Metis language, and a scene incorporating rituals of a Metis buffalo hunt.
Now, what about the handcuffs? Museum officials admit they were nervous about displaying them, fearing some people would be offended. The Metis National Council was asked for an opinion and gave their blessing to displaying this artifact.
But will the handcuffs still cause complaints like the rope did? Or will the handcuffs help visitors answer that question posed by the NAC as to whether Riel was a “hero, martyr or traitor”?