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An Uncharacteristic Riel Piece

As a general rule my engagement with the discussion of Louis Riel's life and accomplishments is not extensive. The ongoing struggle between the colonial state and its various representatives who still hope to expropriate Riel and render him into either a convenient martyr and conveniently mute symbol in québec politics or the anglophone politics of virtue signalling and his own nation and family is unlikely to end any time soon. I think it is quite telltale that settlers find it so difficult to stop trying to shout over the complex Métis understanding and account of their history and Louis Riel's role in two episodes of Métis military resistance during the nineteenth century. One revisionist settler story tries very hard to reframe Riel as an irishman, apparently via a confused line of reasoning based on his supposed collusions with the fenians. The fenians were the infamous irish nationalists who engaged in some organizing and political violence in north america contemporary with independent Métis resistance. The temptation to claim that really, the Métis would never have taken up arms or otherwise been troublesome to colonial authorities if only the foreign irish hadn't put them up to it has faded, but the idea that Riel was somehow irish has not. Practically speaking, it is by no means impossible for the Riel family to have irish heritage considering irish migration to the americas was and is a longstanding phenomenon. The draw of an at least folk derivation of "Riel" from "Reilly" is tempting in its own right. But is there any actual evidence for this?

Testing this hypothesis led into a merry web search rabbit hole that leads straight into the many databases, some open, some closed, established by amateur genealogists online. Most of these are digital versions of much older projects, and a significant portion founded and maintained by the provincial government in québec. Both these databases and the venerable and still growing Dictionary of Canadian Biography provide verified information pertaining to the "irish Riel question." Such general websites as wikitree.com and personal sites like Linda Riel's draw on these original sources. For an excellent description of the state of the question in 2007, there is a brief letter to the editor by Craig Fontaine published in the Windspeaker monthly. From an Indigenous-oriented perspective, understanding Riel's broader kinship ties is important, and as Fontaine notes, can shed light on aspects of his political and organizing decisions. I would add that is important to follow up such lines of inquiry for as many Indigenous persons as possible in order to firmly do away with the racist notion that Indigenous people are somehow aliens on this planet, or retarded humans incapable of alliance-building and sophisticated political analysis. Such views of so-called "pre-modern" Indigenous people remain too common.

April 2020 photograph of a memorial plaque to Louis Riel in regina, saskatchewan taken by Mr Serjeant Buzfuz and released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license at wikimedia commons. April 2020 photograph of a memorial plaque to Louis Riel in regina, saskatchewan taken by Mr Serjeant Buzfuz and released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license at wikimedia commons.
April 2020 photograph of a memorial plaque to Louis Riel in regina, saskatchewan taken by Mr Serjeant Buzfuz and released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license at wikimedia commons. (Yes, I agree that the photographer's pseudonym is unfortunate.)

Setting aside some details that seem more on the order of embellishments to make the story more romantic, the record suggests there was an original irish male ancestor whose name was Reilly. Jean Baptiste Reilly or Rielly was born around 1670, with genealogists tentatively identifying his birthplace as limerick. The surname is certainly gaelic, and firmly traced to ireland. According to irish central, the original O'Reilly clan was a large and powerful one, so much so their name is one of the most common in ireland and the irish diaspora to this day. In any case, this early Jean Baptiste was a common soldier who eventually emigrated to québec, where he married into a french family already established there, the LaFontaines. His son is identified as the shared ancestor of manitoba Métis Riels and the french Riels of québec. It is worth quoting the very first sentence of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Louis Riel, Senior written by W.L. Morton: "RIEL, LOUIS, farmer, miller, and Métis leader; b. July 1817 at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.), eldest son of Jean-Baptiste Riel, dit L'Irlande, a voyageur, and Marguerite Boucher, a Franco-Chipewyan Métisse; d. 21 Jan. 1864 at Saint-Boniface (Man.)." The Riel connections to the already long-established Métis community of île-à-la-crosse should stand as a firm corrective to those who keep trying to reframe this branch of the family as québeckers or french canadians. Even more important for the present question, we encounter an all-important "dit" name, "l'Irlande."

"Dit" names were widely used in continental and overseas french communities, originally for much the same reasons as anglophone nicknaming practices. It was a practical necessity to tell individuals with the same name apart as communities grew and people moved from smaller, typically rural villages to towns and cities. Catholic french descendants seem to have held onto this practice the longest due to the limited number of allowed baptismal names. Although not deemed "formal" in church or government terms, "dit" names might be handed down and even become surnames in place of the earlier, more common surname. They capture real elements of family history. Various episodes of mainstream canadian history feature the persistent and longstanding irish catholic community in québec, especially in and around Montréal.

So the evidence indicates that yes, the name "Riel" began as the name "Reilly" or rather that transcription of the irish gaelic name "Raghallaigh." An irishman of that name made his way to new france, also known as lower canada and later québec, and one of his descendants entered the fur trade. That trade took him far north and west to the community known in french as île-à-la-crosse, in Cree as sakitawak, a prominent meeting place and longterm community shaped and reshaped by complex intermarriages between local Dene families with Cree, french, and english merchants. From there that fur trader's descendants went on to become important political leaders with disconcerting ties to what had already become england's oldest and most resistant colony, ireland and the infamous plantation of ulster. Perhaps it was overdetermined that so long as they took up leadership positions, Louis Riel Senior and Junior alike would give colonial authorities in canada hives.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 09, 2024 17:58:12