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History revisited: Louis Riel letter unveiled

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REGINA, Saskatchewan - More than a century after his death by hanging, M?tis leader Louis Riel continues to intrigue Canadian historians. A letter written by Riel in 1885 to an editor at the Ottawa Citizen was publicly displayed for the first time at the Saskatchewan Archives in Regina on June 20.

Riel expressed his thankfulness to James Johnson following an editorial in the Citizen that suggested, despite being found guilty of treason, Riel and his fighting party should be pardoned. This letter was penned from a Regina jail on Nov. 9, 1885 on the eve of Riel's execution, although his hanging would be delayed until the 16th.

"Tell Mr. J. Johnson I thank him for his leniency - for the Prophet of the New World," was the main text of this 36-word document. (Riel saw himself as a visionary for the M?tis and Canada's western settlers.)

The M?tis were a mixed-blood people combining Natives and Europeans, although the vast majority of M?tis draw their ancestral roots back to French and Quebecois fur trappers and traders. At issue in the early days of Canada's Confederation were land claim issues and language laws that the First Nations and M?tis believed were being ignored by the federal government.

A rebellion occurred in 1869 at Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) by the M?tis, and coupled with one murder, these events led to an increased police presence and the inclusion of Manitoba into the country a year later. Although Riel was elected to the House of Commons three times by his constituency, his punishment for his role was exile from Canada for five years. As a result he never served in the Parliament.

Spending some of his exile teaching at an Indian reserve in Sun River, Mont. (near Great Falls), Riel was convinced to return to Canada in 1884 where he later led a second rebellion in Batoche, Saskatchewan. His defeat and capture led to his trial and a subsequent guilty verdict for committing treason against the Crown.

The nation was split between Anglophones and Francophones about how Riel should be punished. Adding to the fire was the Regina jury's decision. Finding him guilty, nonetheless, those jurors recommended Riel not to be sent to the noose, even though that was the penalty for the crime.

Without question, the sentiment among Canada's English and the province of Ontario, including the press, was that Riel's fate was sealed noted Bill Brennan, Head of the History Department at the University of Regina.

"Letters to the editors in Ontario said that justice should take its course because he led a rebellion against the Crown. There was no debate," said Brennan.

That's what made the Citizen's editorial so controversial, said Canada's National Archivist Ian Wilson, who attended the unveiling. He stated how much foresight Johnson had to have had by personally preserving this note.

"It was clear from the very beginning that things associated with the rebellion were historical," Wilson pointed out. "This was a very advanced attitude (Johnson's) in terms of the day, especially from a position in eastern Canada."

Canada's Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, according to Brennan, was caught in the middle of an issue that split the nation. MacDonald decided to appease the English population and continue with the death penalty (the last one administered in Canada for crimes against the state) reasoning French Canada would eventually forget.

"At the time, MacDonald's Conservative Party had strong support in Ontario and Quebec but this was a no-win situation," said Brennan, who added the Conservatives have since struggled politically in that province.

Although this letter wasn't published, Johnson, and later his descendants, kept the document until two years ago when the family sold the collectible back to the Citizen. When the Ottawa newspaper was preparing a retrospective of previous letters to the editor, the idea occurred that Riel's letter should become available to be seen.

In addition to the historical importance of the letter, there are several reasons why the letter has an estimated worth of about $15,000. The first is an authenticity letter from December 1885 signed by the priest who witnessed Riel drafting this note.

Secondly, the paper is in very good condition and because it's written on one sheet with a signature, that too adds to the value. The Citizen's Editorial Pages Editor Graham Green said his publication paid a fair price for the letter because it was the family that wanted the document to be returned to its origin.

Even though Riel's gratitude didn't see print in 1885, Green said the importance of letters to the editor cannot be understated.

"These aren't the record keepers but ordinary people and what they thought about on that particular day gives historians a context as to what happened in the news of the day," Green said, whose own publication devotes two to three pages daily towards this public forum.

For Saskatchewan Member of the Legislative Assembly Keith Goulet (riding of Cumberland), this artifact of Louis Riel's isn't just of historical importance of that period of the 1870s, but also holds a personal significance as Goulet's great-great uncle served in the territorial government of the Red River settlement. Goulet stated in most of Riel's correspondences he rarely brought himself into his writing, instead choosing to focus on the cause of M?tis and First Nations.

"As I looked at that letter, it shows a strength of leadership of a man ready to be hung (as) this is a man who is talking about others. To me, that is what I remember when we look at this letter," said Goulet.

The document, was part of a one-room exhibit Louis David Riel: A Letter to the Editor, that was open to the public through July 11 at the Saskatchewan Archives. For more information call the archives at (306) 787-3381.