Q & A: Great grandniece of Louis Riel speaks at Government House
Jean Teillet, the Great grandniece of Louis Riel, an Indigenous-rights lawyer, author and lecturer is speaking at Government House Tuesday night. She recently published The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation and will be talking about the book. The event coincides with the Month of the Métis in Saskatchewan and commemorates the 175th Anniversary of the birth of Louis Riel. CTV News interviewed Teillet and asked her a few questions:
Why are you speaking at Government House?
"This October is the 175th anniversary of Louis Riel’s birth and it is also, according to some, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Red River Resistance. 150 years since Riel and the Métis in Manitoba began the Red River Resistance, so Saskatchewan and Manitoba in particular have undertaken and effort to really commemorate that in these two provinces so that people know this history and learn more about it.”
What will you be talking about?
“I’ve just published a book called, The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation. It is a history of the Métis Nation. It’s a bit of a quirk of history in Canada that everybody knows who Louis Riel is, everybody knows him and they know nothing about his people. The purpose in writing the book is to tell the story of the people. It’s basically a 200 year history. I’m going to talk about little bit about this tonight. Louis Riel is perhaps the best known part of it but he really is only 17 years. He’s like a comet, he just sort of flamed out into the sky and everybody has been mesmerized by him and still is that he still continues to be the focal point that everybody thinks of when they think of the Métis people. The Métis Nation is still here and was here a long time before he came along, so that’s the purpose of the book.”
Why did you want to write this book?
“I think it gives it some sense that the family is still around. The Métis are still here and we can talk with an authentic voice about who Riel was and the Métis Nation. I think in these days of appropriation of voice and people pretending they’re Indigenous, I think it’s important to have a member of the Riel family actually talking about this. My father’s mother is Sarah Riel and her father was Jospeh Riel and Joseph is Louis Riel’s little brother. I am Joseph’s great grand-niece.”
What are some key moments or people in history of the Métis people you want people to know about?
“There are two great Métis leaders from Saskatchewan. Cuthbert Grant was born right near Qu’Appelle in the 1790s and he becomes the first leader of the Métis Nation. He’s associated with their origin story and the battle of 7 Oakes or the Victory of the Frog Plain. Another great Métis leader from Saskatchewan is Gabriel Dumont. We still have some modern Métis leaders from Saskatchewan, Jim Sinclair, Harry Daniels is from here, Daniels brought the Métis into the Constitution in 1982. Saskatchewan plays a huge role in the Métis Nation. We talk about the Red River but Red River isn’t really just the river, it’s a region of Canada. Back in the early days, the Métis thought of the Assiniboine and the Red as one river. They called the Assiniboine the Upper Red and the Red River that goes down to the United States, they called it the Lower Red. So this entire region, a large chunk of North Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba, Saskatchewan is what they call the Red River Region. So when people talk about the Red River Métis, that’s what they’re talking about and that’s the people who are from around here.”
Are things getting better for the Métis Nation?
“The last four years have been very helpful. At least the federal government for the first time has backed off its ‘you don’t exist, you don’t have any rights, we don’t even have to talk to you’. Before 2003, the Métis people couldn’t even get the janitor in the federal government to meet with us and now they’re signing self-government agreements and recognizing the Métis Nation so I think that work just needs to continue because it takes a long time. I am a Treaty negotiator; I’ve been negotiating Treaties for First Nations in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and now British Columbia for about 25 years. It takes a long time to negotiate these kinds of things but all you need is the space to negotiate and that’s all Louis Riel ever wanted. That was the beginning of the Red River Resistance. He didn’t want to fight people. All they wanted was to create a situation where the people of the Northwest could negotiate with Canada and negotiate the terms of which they would enter Canada. In other words, keep their culture, keep their language, keep their land and be able to become part of Canada. John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier did was they negotiated with Riel and then broke all their promises. They made three big promises, one was land for the Métis and one was French Language Rights in the courts and government and the other was for Catholic Schools and the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants came in in a wave in Ontario, they wiped out all three of those promises. I think what we’ve been doing is restoring those things one at a time. It has taken us 150 years to restore what Louis Riel tried to do. We haven’t finished that yet, that 1.4 million acres is not in the hands of the Métis. There’s a lot of work to do but at least right now the table is set. The federal government is negotiating, we have a problem with Manitoba and the Manitoba government has completely reneged on talking to the Métis and is actually quite hostile. We got a long way to go.”
Are federal candidates doing enough in talking about Métis issues?
“Nobody’s talking about it. When I’m watching the election results, I am seeing a complete absence of Indigenous issues, period. I think that’s missing from the dialogue that’s going on and I think there should be more talk about it. Candidates need to make this an agenda item. This is what we promised to do, we are going to keep working with Indigenous peoples. We have to talk about the land. Then we have this structural problem in Canada because we’re in a federal election, they don’t control the land, the land is controlled by the provinces so we have a problem here, unless the provinces will sit down and talk about land. We have lots of land, we are land rich. There is no reason in this country that we couldn’t be talking about land for the Michif, for First Nations for everybody because we’re rich in that. I think it’s very selfish and very arrogant of Canada and the provincial governments not to work more with First Nations people. If you want to create an underbelly in your society of people who are disaffected, unhealthy, alienated and then that class is going to grow and grow. You are creating your own problems and that’s what we’re doing here, by not looking after First Nations, by not looking after the Michif, the Inuit by not fostering their health and their way of being in this country, we are creating the seeds of Canada’s future disaster. Indigenous populations are growing. We’re creating our own national nightmare. What do you think it’s going to be like? You’re creating your own French Revolution seeds of discontented population. It’s just wrong, this should be a country built on equality, liberty and sharing and its not. Its only equality, liberty and sharing for some people and not for the Indigenous people and that’s wrong. We are fundamentally flawed. A lot of countries have their own original sin. The United States has slavery, Great Britain has Ireland and we have our Indigenous Peoples and that sin is haunting us and it prevents us from moving forward so when the governments are talking about these big national projects and they can’t move forward with them, that’s what is wrong. It’s Indigenous peoples who are stopping it and its because we’ve created this situation. It’s not going to get better if we walk with our eyes, ears and hearts closed and say, ‘We get to keep it all’. There are solutions out there but people don’t want to hear it.”
What is a good way for the City of Regina to honor Louis Riel?
“I think that there should be major design elements in both Regina and Winnipeg about Louis Riel. There’s a lot you can do. In Paris, France, they have monuments that are completely designed to integrate into the way the city flows. We don’t do anything like that here. I think we should. Riel is one of Canada’s great heroes. He really is. What he stood for is a really important idea. It’s not just Riel, I think some of the other Indigenous leaders should be recognized. If I ask anybody, name me two other Indigenous leaders from history, just two and most people can’t do it and that’s shocking, that’s really shocking. Why don’t we know other Indigenous leaders? I think we could and should do more. And we shouldn’t be remembering Louis Riel when we hanged him in November. It should be other stories. The Métis Nation created some of the first conservation laws in their laws of the hunt. Nobody knows this kind of stuff, there is underground, foundational things that could be brought out and teach kids in schools.”