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Louis Riel with members of the Métis provisional government in 1869. Image from St. Boniface Archives SHSB05009.

A Case For Louis Riel College

Written by
Cheyenne Wood
and
and
July 20, 2021
A Case For Louis Riel College
Louis Riel with members of the Métis provisional government in 1869. Image from St. Boniface Archives SHSB05009.

The colonization of North America has brought with it lasting detrimental effects on the Indigenous peoples of their respective territories. Recently, with the discovery of unmarked graves at Residential School sites, the calls to remove statues of colonizers and rename buildings have grown immensely. Most recently, Ryerson University’s statue of Egerton Ryerson was toppled, beheaded, painted red and put on a pike in response to the distressing news regarding the unmarked graves. This was due to Ryerson’s involvement with the creation of the residential school system. Already there has been a push to rename the University, with over 300 staff members at the University signing a petition to strip the school of its colonial nomenclature. Similarly, the city of Kingston has removed the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from its location in a downtown park, due to his involvement in implementing Residential Schools and other transgressions he implemented to get rid of Indigenous nations across the country.   

So where does that leave Trent University? The first university in Canada to establish an academic department based on the study of Indigenous peoples, it would be easy to assume that Trent has gotten an A+ for allyship. Yet, it is easy for Indigenous students to see the pretentious side of Trent when it comes to Indigenous issues. 

It is important to recognize my positionality to this issue. I am a third year Indigenous Studies student of Mi’kmaq ancestry who visibly looks native, and I must say, from my experiences? Trent University enjoys showboating the Indigenous Studies program. 

This is nothing new either, with former Trent administration once using Indigenous Studies and First Peoples House of Learning (FPHL) as a fundraising guise in order to get more funds for the University, as explained in the documentary Whose University Is It? 

In more recent years, it has become increasingly obvious to Indigenous students that there is little to no proper support for us on campus. Between the use of racist Joseph Boyden’s novel in the first year INDG 1001 course and the lack of safety for Indigenous students in the Cedar Room in Bata Library, it comes as no surprise that Trent’s allyship is lacking tremendously. From my perspective it is rather embarrassing, given how many Indigenous students set their eyes on Trent because of this; hell, Trent was my first and only choice because an Elder and teacher of mine from Kingston attended Trent when she was younger. It felt like, of anywhere in Canada, Trent was /the/ place to go to get a good education on Indigenous Studies. However, Trent’s ability to constantly play devil’s advocate is obvious. The first notable aspect of this was the use of Samuel de Champlain’s name in Champlain College. 

It goes without saying that Champlain’s use at Trent University has always been controversial, this conversation occurring long before I first encountered it, when Arthur editor and writer Nick Taylor wrote about how Champlain’s name shames Trent back in 2017. Now in 2021, it is worth restating the point that Taylor made. Champlain was nothing more than a colonizer who helped ensure Canada could push our nations aside and settle as pleased. With the 1500+ unmarked graves being discovered; it is more than overdue for colonizers to lose their idol status. On Canada Day this year, thousands of Canadians refused to celebrate, with some going as far as to take part in the toppling of multiple statues, including statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Victoria, and other well-known colonizers. Rightfully so, historical figures who took part in the colonization of Indigenous land shouldn’t be idolized. No more namesakes, no more statues…no more busts. 

Even Champlain College’s motto ‘continuer mes decouvertes’ is like a spit in the face; meaning “continue my discoveries”, it goes against the fact that you can’t discover a place that already had a mass amount of Indigenous people calling it home. It seems rather asinine to have a college named after Samuel de Champlain on a campus with a school of study named after Ojibwe youth, Chanie Wenjack, who died when running away from a residential school. 

The point has been made multiple times that Champlain should no longer have the privilege of having a college on our campus named after him; but no one has made the point of what name should take its place. I took this into great consideration; as an Urban Indigenous youth who grew up learning the whitewashed version of history, I wanted to consider many things. Who was a well-known Indigenous figurehead? Who would make a good replacement for Champlain, given he was chosen in relation to a lot of French-separatist discussions that were happening around the University’s opening? 

Louis Riel. 

I remember when we first were taught about Louis Riel in public school. The sheer amount of slander from the whitewashed telling of what he did was monstrous. He was painted as a traitor, which I know now was never the truth. Louis Riel was a Métis hero who sought to properly represent the English, French and Métis of Red River on a governmental level. When the Hudson Bay company sold Red River and the surrounding territory to Canada, many of the residents there didn’t think it was quite fair for folks in Ottawa to be able to decide what was best for their community, especially since Ottawa was sending an English speaking representative to take over as the governor of the area. Louis Riel, along with an equal number of French and English speaking inhabitants of Red River formed the provisional government, named the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The following excerpt from the New Nation paper, published March 4th, 1870, details the response from Red River,

"The Red River people have nothing to do with the ‘intentions’ of the Canadian Government. They have only to deal with the fact that Canada undertook to impose upon them an arbitrary and irresponsible authority, not of their own choice, and without and consultation with them, to govern them according to the will of Canada, and the views of the Privy Council and Parliament, and not according to their own will, and this despotic government was to remain in force as long as Canada chose. If Canada knows ‘no way in which to organize a government in the first instance’, except by excluding the people governed from any share in the election of their own rulers, the making of their own laws and the administration of their own affairs, it would seem that the Red River people know how to kick out the presumptuous interlopers and to manage their own affairs in their own way. The Red River people rightly think that it will be time enough to consider Canadian schemes for governing them when the Canadian Government feels itself authorized to submit a plan more in accordance with the views of the people when it is proposed to make the subjects of their government."

With the Assembly existing officially only from March 9th to June 24th 1870, Louis Riel and the people of Red River went leagues beyond what could be expected in order to get equal rights and representation, if Red River were to join confederation. This included shutting down local papers that took the pro-Canada stance, including the Norwester, which was targeted for printing the royal proclamation claiming Red River as part of Canada. They also implemented a new paper before the Assembly even came into existence, titled New Nation, which printed everything regarding the Red River Rebellion- from the issue at hand, to the minutes of the Assembly meetings for the public to have access to. 

Louis Riel had strong ties to Québec, as he had attended school there when he was younger, seeking priesthood (until his father passed and he dropped out), and where he got his background in law as a law clerk. It was these aspects, including his bilinguality that influenced his position of equality in all aspects back in Red River. Being Métis as well, the intersectionality of his upbringing made him the perfect candidate to represent Red River, a Métis, English and French community. Eventually when the demands of the Rebellion were met and Manitoba entered confederation, Riel was exiled from Canada due to his involvement in the execution of Thomas Scott, who had been taken prisoner by the Provisional Government. Scott was executed via firing squad after he faced trial. While not the only Englishman to oppose the Provisional Government, he was the only one who caused continuous trouble for the guards, and would go on about wanting to shoot Riel the second he got a chance. This led to a $5,000 dollar bounty being placed on Riel by the premiere of Ontario. Despite being exiled and the bounty on his head, Riel wound up holding a seat in the House of Commons not once, not twice, but three times despite no campaigning on his end, while he lived in the United States. Because of the warrant for his arrest for his involvement in the Rebellion, he could never officially take his seat. 

Louis Riel.

He continued to stand for his people even as he was tried for treason by the Canadian Government. Riel’s defence tried to argue insanity, and Riel throughout the entire court proceedings defied his council’s argument. Riel saw the insanity plea to be something that would discredit the efforts of the Rebellion and Red Riverites. Riel then proceeded to give a heartfelt, speech that dismantled his own attorney’s argument, and ultimately sealed his fate, as he would rather face judgement than see his efforts -- 15 years of struggle since the Rebellion -- be for naught. Riel recalled his return to the North West after living in the USA due to his exile, 14 years after Manitoba entered confederation:

“When I came into the North West in July, the first of July 1884, I found the Indians suffering. I found the half-breeds eating the rotten pork of the Hudson Bay Company and getting sick and weak every day. Although a half breed, and having no pretension to help the whites, I also paid attention to them. I saw they were deprived of responsible government, I saw that they were deprived of their public liberties. I remembered that half-breed meant white and Indian, and while I paid attention to the suffering Indians and the half-breeds I remembered that the greatest part of my heart and blood was white and I have directed my attention to help the Indians, to help the half-breeds and to help the whites to the best of my ability. We have made petitions, I have made petitions with others to the Canadian Government asking to relieve the condition of this country. We have taken time; we have tried to unite all classes, even if I may speak, all parties.” 

With tears in his eyes, the foreman of the jury declared Louis Riel guilty. However, the jury attempted to appeal the punishment of execution, which was denied. His execution made him a martyr, and led to a significant shift in political ideals. He had an outpour of support from enraged French-Canadians, who shifted from their traditional conservative support, to supporting the Liberal Party and their leader, Wilfred Laurier. Talks of separatism were sparked from Riel’s ashes.

These talks would continue long after Riel’s death, and in the 1960’s, when Trent was choosing a name for Champlain College, they were again at their height. They chose Champlain as a symbol for the French, a declaration of Trent’s connection to Québec. However, Samuel de Champlain will always be controversial to Trent University. Nobody can change that. To die hard Champlainers and alumni like Harvey McCue, who wrote Reader Response: Champlain's Name needs Nuance, not Condemnation, Champlain’s position as a colonizer shouldn’t be regarded as such. To Indigenous students such as myself, Champlain’s continued occupation on our campus is merely holding a flame up to Trent’s commitment to have their cake and eat it too. You cannot proudly lay claim to “groundbreaking leadership” in Indigenous Studies and have a college named after a controversial colonizer like Samuel de Champlain. Trent is right in one aspect; they do challenge their students to think differently. I’m of the position that if Champlain’s bust were outside and easily accessible, it would belong at the bottom of the Otonabee, the very river his sword pierces in Trent's logo. 

Louis Riel is a Métis hero, and is far more deserving of a name on our campus than any colonizer, Catherine Parr Traill included. A father of confederation, a true representative of Canada’s history who was slandered for years. He sought to create a truly democratic government for his community. We should recognize and properly acknowledge, exonerate and memorialize Indigenous peoples who were so incredibly wronged by the Canadian Government. Trent shouldn’t stop at the naming of Chanie Wenjack School of Indigenous Studies. Rename Champlain College for Louis Riel, the Métis hero and father of Manitoba. Hell, rename Catherine Parr Traill College too. Maybe for Francis Pegahmagabow, Canada’s top sniper in WWII who had his status stolen and was denied of veteran rights. What about Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, who continues the fight for Indigenous women and children’s rights and has been honoured already as a member of the Order of Canada? Or her daughter, Trent’s very own Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard, who has continued her mother’s fight for the rights of Indigenous women, was the first Indigenous Trudeau Scholar, and held the position as the President of the Ontario Native Women’s Association from 2003 through 2016? 

Consider this a call to action, Trent. Too long you have showboated Indigenous people and Indigenous studies to try and look good. Be the groundbreaking leaders you claim to be, and do what other universities haven’t done so far. Recognize Indigenous excellence rather than continue to uphold colonizer mediocrity. Celebrate Indigenous peoples in the right way.


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OPIRG - Dis-O Week 2021
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