Metis Learning Day: My people will sleep for 100 years …
This story about Metis Learning Day and Louis Riel Day celebrations at the U of M first appeared in the Feb. 23, 2011 edition of The Bulletin.
On February 16, Renate Eigenbrod, department head of Native studies, quoted Louis Riel’s words of more than a century ago to open the university’s first Metis Learning Day: “My people will sleep for 100 years but when they awake it will be the artists who give them back their spirit.”
The morning-long celebration, hosted by Deborah Young, executive lead for Indigenous achievement, was mounted in advance of the upcoming Louis Riel Day on February 20, and, appropriately, featured poet and writer Gregory Scofield and storyteller and educator Shirley Delorme Russell, along with musical guests Al Desjarlais and Darren Lavallee.
Scofield read moving poems from his new book about Riel, Louis: The Heretic Poems.
Divided into four sections — the boy, the president, the spokesman and the statesman — the book presents different sides of the Metis leader. It was written, Scofield related, over a period of four years, while the author “waited for [the] visitors” whose voices populate the book to show Riel “not as a leader, or the father of Manitoba, not as a visionary or a madman,” but as a person and a poet.
After a lively fiddle and guitar interlude by Desjarlais and Lavallee, Delorme Russell took the stage. Delorme Russell, who calls herself a “proud Metis and humble Ojibway woman” and regularly visits elementary and secondary schools throughout Manitoba, presented the audience with a very animated history of Riel’s life and death.
“We have got our own freaking holiday named after Louis Riel!” she began to the amused audience.
She went on to describe Riel’s years away from the Red River Settlement after he went to Montreal to attend school in training for the priesthood starting at age 14.
On his return at the age of 24 in 1869, the area was set to become a colony of the newly confederated Canada, against the wishes of the people. When the government tried to bring in a land surveyor, the Metis, led by Riel, blocked entry to the territory and this signaled the start of the Red River Resistance. He headed the resistance to protest the transfer of Hudson’s Bay Co. lands claimed by the Metis to Canada.
Riel was elected by the Metis to negotiate with the Canadian government for the settlement to become a province, and was also elected as leader of a provisional government. In 1870 the settlement finally became a province when the Manitoba Act was passed in parliament, but a bounty on Riel’s head for his part in the resistance meant he was forced to flee, and subsequently was unable to represent his people in the House of Commons in spite of being elected three times. When he returned to the prairies in 1884 to lead the Metis in the NorthWest Resistance, Riel was captured and tried, found guilty of treason and hanged in Regina in 1885.
As Delorme Russell says, the province of Manitoba continues to be the only province formed by Indigenous peoples.
Metis Learning Day is one of three Indigenous learning days hosted throughout the year by the executive lead for Indigenous achievement, president’s office. First Nations Learning Day took place on November 17 and Inuit Learning Day will be held before the end of the school year.
See more on the U of M’s Indigenous Connect.