Manitoba Historical Society
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My Love Affair with Louis Riel: Metis hero “appears” in log cabin, in Manitoba house, in Ottawa role

by Lillian Gibbons

Winnipeg Tribune, 13 March 1955

He’s dead but he won’t lie still.

That’s Louis Riel, president of the provisional government here in 1869-70, a regime sandwiched between HBC rule and the entry of Manitoba into Confederation.

He had dreams of a strange empire, a Metis and Indian nation. When he was hanged many cried, the priest broke down.

But it wasn’t the end. Premier Louis St. Laurent begged in parliament the “affair” at Red River be called at most an “uprising.” Locally it’s spoken of as the Irish speak of the Easter, 1916, trouble.

In the senate Feb. 2 Riel was ‘present’ again, to hear Sen. George Ross defending him as “a great Canadian statesman who attempted to protect the Metis and Indians ... when prejudice vanishes writers will place him in the front rank.”

That same day, Feb. 2, a descendant of Louis Riel’s family, Dr. Paul Gaboury, of Montreal, was in Winnipeg. The CPR doctor, was here to give prizes to the first-aid team at Weston Shops.

His five-generations-removed maternal ancestor, Marie Anne Gaboury came here from Montreal in 1806 with her husband, Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere. Their second child was Julie. (Julie married Louis Riel, the miller of the Seine, in 1843; next year their famous son was born.) Dr. Gaboury paid $350 for his family history to be gathered and a tree drawn.

In the Manitoba Legislature Feb. 18 Louis’ grand nephew, Roger Teillet, clashed with Thomas Scott’s grand nephew, H. B. Scott, on the question of the local Communists visiting his grave. “No service to Riel,” said Teillet.

And Louis Riel is a hero—to William Prins, Dutch artist who lives in the old William Fraser log house, 117 Leila Ave., West Kildonan. He acquired a white daster mask—he won’t say where—broken in pieces because it was “used for target practice.” He cemented it, painted it, and hung it ceremoniously in his log kitchen.

Opposite is a great gilt framed oil of Napoleon: “Strong men, different sizes,” says the owner laconically.

Riel’s grave in St. Boniface churchyard is a matter of conjecture : Is that where the body lies?

The coffin was also questioned. It was four weeks after the hanging in Regina, Nov. 16, 1885, before the frozen body was buried. Funeral mass was said in St. Mary’s church, Regina, Nov. 25, when the body lay in a black box, covered with black muslin on which someone had sewn a white linen cross, records Joseph Kinsey Howard. The white candles were extinguished, the mourners left, the body was put under the floor of the church. Each night Pascal Bonneau sat in the cold church with a gun across his knees.

Word came at last that St. Boniface was ready. The stiff corpse was lifted from the black box, wrapped in blankets, carried to a sleigh under cover of a night snow storm. A box ear was ready. The train pulled out. Bonneau huddled over a stove, his gun still handy, “watched the rough pine box dance grotesquely on the lurching floor.”

Precautions against mutilation were carefully thought out.

In St. Vital another coffin was ready, carried to the box car on the siding, ready to confuse any attempt to snatch the first box. For years a shaped coffin—wider at the top—stood in a cupboard in the Riel home, now Riel P.O. near St. Boniface Sanatorium.

Today the coffin is in St. Boniface Museum, top floor of the City Hall. Visitors stare at it, under glass, together with a piece of the rope that hanged the president of the provincial government, and the knitted toque he wore that frosty morning.

Page revised: 10 June 2021

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