Riel’s handcuffs “sober reminder of dark chapter”

Sylvain Raymond

At first glance, there seems nothing particularly remarkable about this artifact — a pair of standard handcuffs from the late 19th century. But these particular handcuffs are associated with a critical and divisive episode in Canadian history: they were used to restrain Métis leader Louis Riel immediately before his hanging in Regina on November 16, 1885.

Handcuffs worn by Louis Riel

Handcuffs worn to the gallows by Louis Riel. CWM, 20030122-004a

After Riel’s execution, the handcuffs found their way to the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada collection before being transferred to the Canadian Provost Corps Association museum, and ultimately landing at the Canadian War Museum in 2002. They are now on display in the Canadian History Hall, Canadian Museum of History’s new signature exhibition.

“They invite visitors to pose important and difficult questions about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this country,” says Tim Foran, Curator of British North America at the Canadian Museum of History. “They prompt people to think about what that relationship has looked like in the past, what it looks like now, and how we want it to look in the future. They’re a very sober reminder of a very dark chapter in that relationship.”

Born in the Red River Settlement in 1844, Louis Riel led Indigenous people in two armed movements against the Canadian government: the Red River Resistance of 1869–1870, which resulted in the foundation of the Province of Manitoba and in the recognition of Métis land rights; and the North-West Resistance of 1885, which resulted in devastating losses for First Nations and Métis, and led ultimately to Riel’s execution for high treason.

The impact of Riel’s execution has been felt throughout the country and the ages. Many Indigenous people hailed him as a champion of their rights and aspirations against an aggressive colonial state. They saw his execution as the start of a new regime that would subject them to an unprecedented degree of political, social and cultural control.

The execution also marked a low point in relations between French and English Canadians. The former commonly saw the fate of Riel — a French-speaking Catholic — as proof that their language and culture were being persecuted outside Quebec.

Perceptions have evolved over the years: today Riel is widely acknowledged as a Father of Confederation for his role in founding Manitoba, and his name and image have been appropriated for many different causes. Still, he remains a deeply controversial figure whose story provokes reflection and debate on relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Francophones and Anglophones, and minorities and majorities.

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