Liberals at odds over pardoning Louis Riel
Monday, April 26 2004
A heated feud has broken out inside cabinet over Prime Minister Paul Martin's pledge to clean up Louis Riel's tarnished reputation in Canadian history.
The same debate that divided Quebec and Ontario more than 100 years ago is percolating along similar lines now that Martin and his minister for Metis issues, Denis Coderre, pledged last week to address one of Canada's most sensitive issues.
Coderre, a Quebec minister who has advocated a full exoneration for Riel, was taken to task by Toronto MP John Godfrey, who attends various cabinet meetings in his capacity as Martin's parliamentary secretary for cities.
Godfrey is a historian who successfully waged a campaign to dedicate a national day to honour John A. Macdonald. Canada's first prime minister was closely involved in the events that ultimately led to Riel's hanging for high treason.
Martin announced on April 19 at his aboriginal summit in Ottawa that he intends to revisit the Riel issue.
"There is a great deal of interest in our caucus to basically have a very tangible recognition of Louis Riel's contribution, not just to the Metis Nation, but to Canada as a whole. And we're very interested in proceeding on that," Martin said.
Metis issues were thrust on the government's agenda last fall in light of a Supreme Court ruling, which opened the door to a host of Metis rights.
Riel is the original Metis leader and founder of Manitoba. He led rebellions against the federal government in 1870 and 1885. During the original Northwest Rebellion at the Red River settlement, Riel sparked outrage by approving the execution by firing squad of captured surveyor Thomas Scott.
The second Riel-led rebellion in what is now Saskatchewan was cited by Macdonald's cabinet when it agreed to hang Riel for high treason.
Riel's death sharply divided French and English Canadians and is considered to be an early spark of Quebec nationalism. It also led many Quebecers to abandon the Conservative Party in favour of the Liberals led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Godfrey says Parliament will get into "dangerous difficulty" if it adjudicates on a matter which historians are still arguing about.
"The case of Riel is not clear cut," said Godfrey. "There was a clear rebellion against the government of Canada. There was someone who was actually executed, Thomas Scott, by Louis Riel. Would anybody appreciate it if a subsequent motion were produced to honour the memory of Thomas Scott, martyr to the cause? I don't think so."
Godfrey acknowledged that he has told Coderre and his cabinet colleagues that he cannot support any federal action on Riel.
But Coderre is adamant that something must be done for a figure he says is dear to his identity as a Quebecer.
"I'm a big fan of the Metis file, especially on Louis Riel," he said. "It calls me personally as a French Canadian. It's part of our history. It's part of our own blood and you know, I personally love history and those people suffered so much."
The Metis National Council welcomes Ottawa's sudden interest in Metis rights, but has said it is not interested in a quick-fix piece of legislation and is demanding a public inquiry to expose the facts around Riel's case.
© The Calgary Herald 2004
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