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History on Trial?

photo source: Library and Archives Canada / PA-139073

Tansi Nitotemtik,

I can remember very clearly the first time I understood that context influences what and how we learn, that there’s more than one way to tell our country’s history, and that what we learn depends on who is teaching us. I was in elementary school and someone mentioned that what I was learning about Louis Riel wasn’t the same as what my peers at other schools were being taught. I went to a French Immersion school. In our classes, Riel was portrayed as a champion of minority language speakers. However, peers in English schools were taught that he was executed for treason.

I’m willing to bet that neither of us were taught that he was a Métis leader, elected three times to parliament and the founder of Manitoba.[1] Only this week did I learn that Riel never took his seat in parliament, because at the same time as his election, there was a bounty on his head and he was living in exile in the United States. [2] Despite all of this, in 1992 (when I was in the second grade), the Canadian government recognized him as a father of confederation.[3]

This week, in Alberta, is Métis Week. Wednesday was Louis Riel Day, it was also the anniversary of his execution. It got me wondering about how we’re teaching children Riel’s story today.

I started where anyone would. A google search for <alberta louis riel> produced first, the wikipedia story and second, a classroom resource called History on Trial: Louis Riel.[4] It was published in 2009 and it’s posted on, a Government of Alberta library of teaching resources that “also provides information for authorized resources aligned to curriculum.” [5]

This guide is designed for grade 7 and 8 as a complement to a film re-enactment of Riel’s trial. I won’t pretend that I’ve read carefully through every one of the 95 pages, but the Introduction certainly gives a flavour of what is to come:

“To the Métis, Louis Riel was and remains an iconic champion of their political and language rights. To his opponents Riel was no better than a murderer whose vanity, greed and ambition led him to the treasonous act of waging war against the government of Canada.”

“For the Métis, faced with a policy of Canada's western expansion and settlement which threatened to drown out their voices, Louis Riel was the right man at the right time.”

“But as for Riel himself the tinge of controversy remains because of the violence of his actions. Forming two Provisional Governments without authorization, the execution of Thomas Scott and armed rebellion at Batoche are distinct counterpoints to the conciliatory view Canadians have of themselves. However, the very fact of these events reminds us that where Canada started and where it is now is not the same place.” [6]

It's hardly an unbiased starting point. Removing bias from our classrooms requires much more than “telling both sides” of the story. Portraying Riel as either a champion or a vain, greedy, ambitious murderer, guilty of treason certainly tilts the scales. Especially when the Métis resistance is obliquely described as a response to the threat of ‘having their voices drowned out.’ Riel fought to preserve the Métis as a people, to keep them from being erased by colonization. The forces against him were monumental, and the violence came from both sides.

On Wednesday, the Métis Nation’s Commemoration of Louis Riel Day included a video address from President Audrey Poitras. She described the resistance as “a radical act of self-determination” and the establishment of the provisional government as “our own government, for and by us.” [7]

Of the excerpt from History on Trial above, to me, the most concerning is the last line:

“The very fact of these events reminds us that where Canada started and where it is now is not the same place.”

Is that so? Objectively, of course. But when our government still ‘authorizes’ the use of teaching resources like this one, we certainly have a long way to go. Teaching our whole history, not some wishy washy ‘both sides’ version, but a comprehensive, critical analysis of why history played out the way it did, and why we are where we are today, is what Alberta’s curriculum ought to do. At the bare minimum, I’ll be writing to the Education Minister and asking to have History on Trial removed from their authorized list of classroom resources.

Until next time,

Amy and Team ReconciliACTION


[1] Métis Nation of Alberta, "Riel's Last Days" (15 November 2020), online (video): YouTube <>.

[2] Darren R. Préfontaine, "Riel, Louis David 1844 - 1885" in Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia (Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan), online: <>.

[3] Travel Manitoba, "In Louis Riel's Footsteps: discovering the history of Manitoba's founding father" (13 February 2020), online: Travel Manitoba <>.

[4] History on Trial Ltd., "History on Trial - Louis Riel, bringing history to life in the classroom" (2009), online: <>.

[5] The resource itself comes up as a top hit in a google search. When accessing the resource through the Learn Alberta site, it comes with the following disclaimer:

• The contents in this resource provide one possible interpretation regarding Louis Riel and related historical events in Canada. Other points of view and perspectives exist and should be considered during critical thinking with students.
• The resource also includes references to religion or religious beliefs and values. These references are not intended to imply that religion is the same as spirituality or that it has the same meaning for Métis peoples.
• Sensitivity and consideration of the context of one’s classroom, students and community are required when discussing potentially controversial and sensitive topics related to Louis Riel, such as politics, belief systems, Métis rights, government actions, historical accuracy and perspectives, religion, spirituality, language, culture, justice, capital punishment, treason, heroism, and mental illness.

[6] Ibid, at 6.

[7] Métis Nation of Alberta, "Commemorating Louis Riel" (16 November 2021) at 00h:04m:24s, online (video): YouTube <>.

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