I was sworn to office as a Métis Member of Parliament 130 years to the day they hanged Louis Riel, on November 16, 2015. He was executed as a champion of Indigenous people’s rights. Riel was elected three times as an MP but never permitted to take his seat. As a fugitive, he had to travel to Ottawa incognito to sign the Commons registry.
When I took my oath of office I asked House staff if they might retrieve the register with Riel’s signature for the ceremony, as a symbol of healing and progress. They refused. Rules, they said.
My heart was heavy the first time I entered the House of Commons. The legislators who sat in that chamber for generations enacted laws that resulted in terrible times for my people. John A. Macdonald is lauded as a unifying founder of our country, but he also imprisoned Indigenous people, stole our children, and destroyed our languages.
I am from the Red Pheasant First Nation of Cando, Sask. My ancestors fought and died with Louis Riel. Ten warriors from our community were veterans of the 1885 Battle of Batoche. Joseph Ouellette, my great-great-great-grandfather, was among them. He died at 93. His last words were, “Justice.”
My father attended Residential Schools system and ended up an alcoholic. My mother raised us. She often struggled with low-paying jobs delivering newspapers or recycling bottles. We were often homeless when I was a boy. Mom used to call it “camping”.
Many legislators bring their own deeply personal experiences when they arrive in Parliament and want to engage with Canadians in a manner that’s never been attempted before. This was my goal. I served 19 years in the military, obtained two masters’ degrees and a PhD, and was committed to serving in Afghanistan when one day a Warrant Officer said to me, “Why are you here? You can make other contributions with your life.”
I returned to the Prairies and became a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba. The province is Ground Zero for fundamental change in our country. Statistics Canada forecasts within 20 years Indigenous people will comprise 21 percent of the province’s population.
The effect is profound. Manitobans dislike conflict and seek a middle path. There is little practical difference between parties in the legislature. There are descendants of settlers, a large francophone community, new immigrants and Indigenous peoples – all intersect in Manitoba. We are uniquely qualified to define the Canadian identity.
John A. Macdonald had a vision of Canada that is celebrated in popular culture. There are statues of Macdonald all of our country and people want to put up more. Why not? It gives us an opportunity to discuss what his vision meant to different peoples, and what kind of leader he really was and who we are today, years after they hanged Riel.
(Editor’s note: the author is former Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre, and ex-Sergeant at Arms with the 5th Field Ambulance of Valcartier, Que. Mr. Ouellett’s commentary was originally published February 28, 2016)