“I thank you for having goodly postponed the execution of the sentences against me. I shall make use of those days, added to my life, so as to prepare better.”
These are the words of a man condemned to death, addressed to the man who condemned him to hang by the neck until dead.
All Canadians know ̶ or should know ̶ the name and the history of this condemned man. He wrote this letter to the judge while sitting in the Regina jail in the fall of 1885. On November 16th, he was taken out and hanged in the courtyard. His body rests in the churchyard of St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg, in the province that he created. To most Canadians today, to the vast majority of Canadians, he is a hero and martyr.
I am writing this to discuss history, our history, Canadian history. History, my friends, is not found in books (though they can help) or in the words of historians (though many of them do help) nor in the mouths of politicians (who are almost the only Canadians who bother to reference our history because, of course, it serves their purposes). Guaranteed that you will not find it on Wikipedia.
History can be found in people who witnessed historical moments, or participated in those
moments, or took steps to preserve those moments. You may talk to them if they are still able to talk (i.e., they are still alive), or you may read their words or touch the artifacts they preserved or gaze at the images they created. This is the stuff of history. This is the stuff that writers and historians and politicians interpret.
You can interpret this stuff of history yourself. You may start in a museum or archive.
I spent a week in Winnipeg recently finding stuff about, believe it or not, Greenstone history, and in the process, stumbled upon several moments in Canadian history.
This historical stuff I found about Louis Riel was in an exhibition in the Archives of the University of Manitoba. I visited the archives hoping to find stuff about our local history in historical newspapers based in Winnipeg, that sometimes carried articles deemed important enough for their regional and sometimes national readership. And I did find such articles.
As I entered the archives, I came upon a display window for an exhibition called The Spirit of Red River, featuring Louis Riel. Inside were several display cases with original photographs and documents.
One display showed a handwritten letter by Riel to a Pierre Lavallee of St. Francois, dated 1883. At this time, Riel was an exile from Canada, teaching at a mission school in Montana, and frequently excoriated by the Canadian press and by politicians as the living embodiment of evil. Here’s how he began the letter:
“My Dear Sir and Friend,
I see with great pleasure that you have the trust of the general public. I commend you for that. And I would like to encourage you to do all of what you can to increase this trust; and I wish you will use the very honorable position that you occupy in order to promote the common interests of a cordial union between the Metis and The [French] Canadians.”
Now, I couldn’t read the letter myself. It was secured a couple of feet from my eyes, behind glass. I am depending on the typed translation provided by the archivist, in which I could discern several errors.
Still, you can interpret these few historical words for yourself.
Riel was condemned to hang on September 18, 1885. On September 17, Judge Hugh John Richardson granted him a reprieve of 29 days. This brings us to Exhibit A98-15 in the university archives. Riel wrote the following letter, in English, on that same day:
“I thank you for having goodly postponed the execution of the sentences against me. I shall make use of those days, added to my life, so as to prepare better. And If by godly Mercy and favorable human decision, my life is to be spared, I will endeavour to render it more usefull than it has been in the past. I pray to God that twenty nine years be added to your life, in reward of the twenty nine days which you have Kindly consented to grant me.
My thanks to all those who have so generously contributed and worked to secure me such a precious addition to my days: to you, and to them all, my thanks, but the warmest of my thanks.
Your humble and obedient
Louis ‘David’ Riel”
This letter, my friends, is the stuff of history. What do you think of it?
I am not going to review the entire life of Louis “David” Riel at this time, nor debate the merits of his actions or of his accusers.
Suffice to say that the stuff of history is voluminous, and complicated, and often extremely ambiguous, and therefore it is constantly subject to reinterpretation.
Kind of like our own lives, eh?