Canada: Gowling WLG Aboriginal Law Group Acknowledges Louis Riel Day
Last Updated: November 21 2016

Louis Riel is a Métis leader well-known for successfully negotiating the entrance of the province of Manitoba into Confederation in 1870, and for leading a Métis resistance in 1885, which culminated in the infamous Battle of Batoche on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in present-day Northern Saskatchewan. Riel undertook both efforts to secure Métis land rights in the new nation of Canada. Today, he is recognized as a Father of Confederation in this regard.

Riel was captured and charged with high treason following the events of 1885. Although several requests had been made that his trial be held in Winnipeg, then-Prime Minister Sir John A Macdonald insisted that it be held in Regina, where it was overseen by a jury of six English and Scottish Protestants.  Riel was convicted after eschewing his lawyer's advice to claim a defence of insanity, and made several speeches during his trial, stating that "Life, without the dignity of an intelligent being, is not worth having." 

Subsequent requests for a retrial and appeals to the Committee of the Privy Council in England were unsuccessful, at which point Prime Minister Macdonald infamously commented: "He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour." Indeed it is said by some historians that Riel's conviction was in fact secured as delayed retribution for the execution of Thomas Scott, an Irish-Canadian Protestant man, under Riel's leadership during the events of 1870 in Manitoba.  The historical record also states that one juror who sat on Riel's trial subsequently remarked that "We tried Riel for treason ... and he was hanged for the murder of Scott."  Riel was hanged in Regina on November 16, 1885 from a gallows situated within the current boundaries of the RCMP training depot at "F" Division. 

Gowling WLG has a long history of acting for Métis peoples and proudly continues that tradition today.  On March 14th, 1983, Gowling WLG's predecessor firm Gowling & Henderson was retained by the Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians of Saskatchewan, the Métis Association of Alberta, and Manitoba Métis Federation, Inc. to seek judicial review, including injunctive relief, in connection with the omission of the Métis from the Constitutional Conference convened by then-Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliott Trudeau pursuant to s. 37(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 and which was scheduled to be held in Ottawa on March 15th and 16th, 1983.  

Gowling WLG Partner Rick Dearden recounts the events of the day as follows:

[Former Gowling WLG Partner John Richard] and I obtained an emergency hearing date from the Divisional Court in Toronto. We were set up in court and as I recall counsel were in Judges' chambers with the Justices who were hearing the Application when the call came from the PMO to give the Métis a seat at the negotiating table! At the time [the late Métis and Non-Status leader Jim Sinclair] was giving us instructions as counsel and was with us in court when the news arrived that the Métis had a seat ...

More recently, Gowling WLG lawyers Max Faille and Paul Seaman were honoured to act for the intervener Gift Lake Métis Settlement at the Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada in the matter of Daniels v Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development), 2016 SCC 12 which resolved the long-standing issue of federal jurisdiction over Métis pursuant to s. 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867 (which states that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over "Indians and Lands reserved for the Indians").  Mr. Seaman also carries a proud family political tradition forward: he is descended from Métis families who were involved in the events of 1870 and 1885 in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and more recently has followed in the footsteps and legacy of his cousin the late Métis Senator John B. Boucher, CM who was involved in the Métis political movement of the 1980s and 1990s, the negotiation of the Charlottetown and Meech Lake Accords, and later attracted international attention by wrapping a traditional Métis sash around Nelson Mandela's waist and issuing him the honorary Métis name "Diamant" during Mandela's visit to Ottawa in September 1998. The sash was worn by Mandela the rest of the day, including when he addressed Parliament.

Today, 131 years following his passing, Gowling WLG commemorates the accomplishments of Louis Riel and his legacy as a Métis leader, champion of minority rights, and Father of Confederation.

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