You probably know that in most every month, there is a government holiday – a day where businesses are closed, employees who do work get paid more, and school is canceled. On the whole, few Canadians care about the event beyond the benefits to which it entitles them. February 18th, the third Monday of the month, is one such holiday. Celebrated across the country, the holiday was implemented to bridge the holiday-less void between New Year’s Day and Good Friday, and it bears a few different names: Family Day in Alberta, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan; Islander Day in Prince Edward Island; and Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. Coinciding with President’s Day in the United States, the holiday was enacted nationally in 2007, with the first Louis Riel Day was held in 2008 after a competition held among school children produced the title in honor of “The Father of Manitoba.”
Born of a prominent St. Boniface Métis family in 1844, Riel was sent to live in Montreal to study for the priesthood by the time he was fourteen. However, he could not complete his studies once his father died, and he returned to St. Boniface in 1868 to support his mother and siblings. In response to the distress expressed by Red River Métis over the annexing of Hudson’s Bay Company lands, a move by the Canadian government that threatened traditional lands and livelihoods, Riel formed a militia and took possession of Upper Fort Garry, sparking the start of the Red River Resistance. He formed a provisional government when he was twenty-five years old, and he presented a Bill of Rights that became the Manitoba Act in 1870.
Later the same year, Riel fled to the United States, and in the following years he was elected to Canadian Parliament, denying his seat on three occasions. Due to his escapades in 1870, Riel was convicted of murder in 1874, but received conditional amnesty as long as he remained in exile for five years, during which time he remained in the state of Montana. After Riel returned to Canada, the Métis resistance was defeated in the North-West Rebellion at Batoche in May 1885, and Riel was found guilty of high treason and hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885 (the same day Louis Riel Day is observed in other areas around Canada, including Toronto).
Living an existence punctuated by politics, strife and controversy, the Métis advocate has made a lasting impact on Manitoba’s history and the country as a whole.
Today, Liberal Leader Bob Rae commented on the holiday’s importance, saying, “A lifelong advocate for the condition and rights of the Métis, Riel devoted his life to the betterment of others, and his sacrifice has had an enduring influence on the Canada we know today. Above all, Riel’s life is a reminder that there is always more to be done in the celebration and protection of Canada’s minorities who add to our rich cultural fabric. As a founder of Manitoba, Riel’s legacy continues to resonate today, not only in Manitoba, but across the country.”