Sunday, November 14, 2010

Not the Riel Deal

I've known for a long time that my ancestor (great-great-great-great-great grandfather I think) was the first mayor of Winnipeg. His name was Francis Cornish and there is a Cornish street in East Gate and a library, too. I was always kind of proud of that because up until a few months ago I thought that he was on Louis Riel defense team. 

For those who don't know, in 1869 the yet unnamed province of Manitoba was sold by the Hudson's Bay Company to the newly formed Dominion of Canada. This was a problem for the people who had been living for generations in the Red River Settlement in the south, the Métis (and for the First Nations, obviously, but that is a tale for a different day).

The Métis were, are, the offspring of First Nations mothers and European fathers (usually French but also British, Scottish and Irish) but despite their European roots and that inter-marriage was originally encouraged by the French government as an attempt to assimilate the First Nations into French culture, they were not recongnized by the British government or the new Canadian government as a separate people with their own distinct culture, language and government. 

In typical Colonizing fashion, their right to live on the land of their ancestors, to hunt buffalo and to farm was ignored by the Canadian government when they bought Rupert's Land (Manitoba) and so even before the transfer there were Canadian surveyors out trampling Métis farms, trying to divvy up the land for new settlers. Land that was already inhabited. Anyway, so this obviously wasn't flying with the Métis and they turned to  Louis Riel, a gifted orator with knowledge of British Law. 

He helped set up a provisional government, led the Red River Resistance and, long story short, helped guarantee rights for the Métis under the Manitoba Act (following the long and noble tradition of fucking over Aboriginal people, obviously the Canadian government did not really adhere to the Act and the Métis were still treated like garbage). 

Riel was exiled to the States (unable to take his seat in Parliament -- the seat that he was elected to over and over again) and remained there for fifteen years until he was called back when history began repeating itself in Saskatchewan for the Métis (many of who had come from Manitoba after the government royally screwed them). 

Again, with his help the Métis won rights in Saskatchewan but this time Riel was captured, tried for treason and finally, executed. 

Anyway, getting back to Francis Cornish, I was pretty psyched to learn that he, an Euro-Canadian, defended Louis Riel against his treason charge. Well, the smallest amount of research found that this was not the case. Nope, my great-great-great-great-great grandfather in fact hated Riel. He tried to facilitate his arrest for his role in the Red River Resistance, then when that failed he helped arrest then prosecute Ambroise-Dydime Lépine, Riel's adjutant-general. 

Not surprising but, man, the whole thing makes me feel a little ill. Aside from his whole racism, colonizing attitude he was still no prize pig; rigging every election he won, once going so far as to kidnap an opponent; lovin' and leavin' pregnant women all over the place; gambling and drinking and fighting. Bless his lil' heart!

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