The Métis legend squares off against Sir John A. Sorta.

by Charles Atlas Sheppard


art-2David Garneau
Dear John: Louis Riel
Victoria Park
Sunday 16

Louis Riel is arguably the most controversial figure in Canadian history. He was a member of the House of Commons, the Founder of Manitoba, a Spiritual and political leader of the Métis people, a self-proclaimed prophet and martyr, poet, madman, folk hero… and a traitor.

The notion that Riel was a comes from Sir John A. McDonald, and he bore into it like a drunken English Bulldog. The Father of Confederation had a major hate-on for the Father of Manitoba. Methinks it was a grudge thing over Riel’s killing of Thomas Scott during The Red River Rebellion in 1870. Y’see, both Scott and McDonald were members of the Loyal Orange Lodge. (If you want the full history lesson, consult Chester Brown’s 2003 graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography.)

Suffice to say that our first Prime Minister wanted Riel really, really dead and he got his wish when Louis Riel surrendered at the Battle of Batoche in 1885 during the Red River Rebellion. Riel was charged with treason, convicted and hanged.

The jury that found him guilty and recommended mercy. Métis people and French Canadians demanded a reprieve. But McDonald, like a stubborn, mean old drunk, steadfastly refused saying, “He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”

The two had never met, never tossed back a pint together, never shook hands or twittered at each other. On the anniversary of his hanging, Nov. 16, the Dunlop Art Gallery is going to change all that. Artist David Garneau, dressed as a Louis Riel statue, will “accost” the John A. McDonald statue in Victoria Park.

“This meeting of statues is an effort of reconciliation, a symbolic attempt to address old wounds,” says Garneau. “Canada misappropriated Métis territory. The Métis twice resisted and were suppressed. After many dark decades, we have remerged — especially since being recognized in the Constitution as Indigenous People in 1982.

“All these events had a deep effect on Métis People,” Garneau says.

David Garneau is a Regina artist, and head of the University of Regina’s visual arts department. He’s also an arts critic and curator who has exhibited widely throughout Canada.

Although he’s known more for his paintings, he has made several videos and the occasional performance art piece.

“There is a big sculpture of John A. Macdonald in Victoria Square Park and there is only a small plaque to remind us of Canada’s other founding father” says Garneau. “For the past few anniversaries, I’ve laid a small noose at John’s feet. This time I thought I would place what should be there — a statue of Louis Riel in the park.”

After the performance, a conversation will be held at The Dunlop Art Gallery with the audience, David and fellow Métis scholar and artist Dylan Miner.

This will be a great chance to acquaint yourself in Métis culture. Back in my day — early ’80s Central Collegiate — Canadian history was taught in bright bold colours with a faint whiff of spring flowers. Canada’s dark history was never mentioned. If I wanted to learn about the Chinese Head Tax, Louis Riel, or First Nations people I had to skulk behind the library with my purloined history books like a cheesy teenage pornographer.

Nor did they teach us fun facts such as Sir John A. McDonald being a notorious binge drinker, and the only Prime Minister to vomit in the House of Commons.

Even to this day the sun shines brightly in Canadian history. Harper will have you believe that Canada has no history of colonialism.

And a hundred years from now? Rob Ford will only be known as the mayor who stopped the gravy train.

Dear John: Louis David Riel is at 3:30 p.m. in Victoria Park, at the statue of John  A. McDonald.