In 1879, Louis Riel was elected chief of a band of Métis buffalo hunters who wintered at Flat Willow Creek in northwestern Montana Territory. At the time, he was in exile from his beloved province of Manitoba, which Riel had helped to create through the Manitoba Act of 1870. His exile had begun in August 1870 with the arrival of armed forces to the Red River colony, when he had fled to the United States fearing for his life. Riel was wanted for the murder of an Irish Protestant named Thomas Scott who had threatened to kill Riel, who a Métis government thus tried and executed, and who consequently was martyred in Upper Canada. Riel, fearing for his life – there was a five-thousand-collar price on his head – could not take his duly elected seat in Parliament. He was formally banished from Canada in January 1875 for a period of five years.
Riel’s exile was not only political but also social: single, far from home – his family and his people – he was unable to find employment, although talented and highly educated, because of his race. He left the eastern United States in early 1878 and headed for the final frontier in Montana.
The one thing Riel did, from the age of fourteen when he started school in Montreal until shortly before his execution, was write poetry. Unfortunately, historians have dismissed most of his poems as “little more than doggerel,” insisting on a comparison of his work with that of Keats, an unreasonable comparison for a poet trained in the formal French style. This cultural difference may have turned many poets away from Riel’s work. While working on another project, translator and editor Michael Barnholden came across a previously unknown text by Riel: a poem written in the Regina jail just before his execution. As both a poet and historian, Barnholden saw something more. A careful reading of Riel’s poetic work revealed to him not only the 481-line masterpiece “To Sir John A.” but a sequence of poems written between 1878 and 1883, a period when Riel lived the traditional life of a Métis buffalo hunter. It is in these poems that Riel commits to print the intellectual and spiritual development of the concept of a “New Nation” for the Métis people.
Louis Riel (1844–1885) was a Canadian politician, a founder of the province of Manitoba, and a political leader of the Métis people.
Michael Barnholden lives in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, where he writes, paints, carves, photographs, and does a little too much physical labour. Born In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and raised in Toronto, he has lived in British Columbia since 1970 when he briefly attended Simon Fraser University. He has worked as a ranch hand, orchardist, youth worker, carpenter, publisher, editor, disability advocate, and, after returning to Simon Fraser University at age fifty-five to obtain a masters degree in liberal studies, as sessional instructor and seminar leader at Emily Carr University. He was also educated at the Kootenay School of Writing, where he served on the collective starting in 1991. He co-edited Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology. His writing practice includes, but is not limited to, poetry, historical non-fiction, translation, and editing.
"The publication and translation of Dumont’s second set of memoirs or recollections of the 1885 Resistance is important for the Métis people and the academic community which has too long based its interpretation of these events on Euro-Canadian military accounts."
— Diane Payment, Parks Canada, Winnipeg