Current Problems

Education (6-12)

Removal of Louis Riel Heritage Minute sparks debate about storytelling, censorship

June 25, 2024

Descendant calls video depicting execution ‘colonial propaganda’ but professor says removal raises questions

A portrait of Louis Riel
A portrait of Louis Riel inside the Manitoba Legislature. The portrait was updated in February 2024 to recognize him as the province’s honorary first premier. (Travis Golby/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains video portraying a re-enactment of the execution of Louis Riel.

APTN News: A history organization was right to remove a 1991 Heritage Minute dramatizing the execution of Louis Riel, says one of the Métis leader’s descendants after the decision sparked debate about storytelling and censorship.

It was revealed last week on social media that Historica Canada had quietly pulled the 33-year-old video from circulation and deleted it from YouTube — sparking speculation about when this happened and why.

The decision was made in 2020, according to Historica Canada’s chief executive, after discussions and feedback from some leading members of the Métis community, who felt the content was inappropriate and made without community representation.

Among those who gave feedback was Jean Teillet, a Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) member, great-grandniece of Riel, author and recently retired lawyer.

“I said that I thought it was a piece of colonial propaganda commemorating the state violence, and if their intention was to do a historical moment about Louis Riel, this was not it,” she said.

Heritage Minutes are public service announcements that depict significant people and events in Canadian history. When contacted by CBC Indigenous last week, Teillet confirmed she was consulted about the minute before it was pulled.

Métis lawyer Jean Teillet looking ahead
Jean Teillet is a Manitoba Métis Federation member, author, retired lawyer and a descendant of Louis Riel.(CBC)

Darren O’Toole, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and an MMF member, disagrees with Teillet’s interpretation of the video.

“It’s not commemorating: It’s condemning, I would say, state violence,” he said.

He said the removal is curious and raises questions about censorship and the need for open debate, noting some people are now accusing Historica Canada “of whitewashing Canadian history.” 

Anthony Wilson-Smith, Historica Canada president and CEO, would not name those who provided input, saying they were speaking on their own behalf during private discussions rather than taking a formal position on behalf of an organization.

“That said, I considered the points made to be compelling and that their personal views had unquestionable validity,” wrote Wilson-Smith, who joined the organization in 2012.

“We were not specifically asked to remove the minute from circulation. That decision was left to us, and based on the points previously made, we did so.”

The video, which is still available online elsewhere, imagines what might’ve been running through Riel’s head the moment before prime minister John A. Macdonald had him executed for treason in 1885. Riel was a central figure in two political uprisings and is recognized today as the founder of the province of Manitoba and its honorary first premier.

Heritage Minute depicts last moments of Louis Riel: 22 hours ago, 1:031:03

WATCH | Louis Riel Heritage Minute from 1991

WARNING: This video portrays a reenactment of the execution of Louis Riel. This Heritage Minute, made in 1991, imagines the final thoughts that may have run through Métis leader Louis Riel’s head before he was executed for high treason in 1885. The minute was removed from the Historica Canada portfolio in 2020. Source Wayback Machine/YouTube/Historica Canada

Click on the following link to view the video on CBC:

It begins with a close-up of actor Roy Dupuis playing Riel. The camera zooms out slowly as a first-person narration of his inner thoughts plays in the background. After nearly a minute of this, Riel gulps. His lip trembles as he begins to speak.

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” he says. 

The series’s motto, “A part of our heritage,” then pops up — and Riel is hanged. Only the knot of the noose remains in the frame. 

Wilson-Smith said Historica Canada also received expressions of concern over the years from educators over the ending, with the suggestion that it was too violent for classroom use.

Teillet said the video educates no one, reinforces colonial violence and only tells Canada’s side of the story, a view she shared with Historica Canada.

“I think it’s an atrocious dishonour to the man’s history,” she said.

 “So my recommendation was take it down, don’t ever show it again and do a better one that actually talks about what Riel accomplished.”

‘Let the stain remain’

O’Toole agrees something should take the removed Riel minute’s place.

Truth needs to come before reconciliation sometimes, he said, adding that there is a need to recognize that Canadian history and specifically what was done to Indigenous peoples was violent and not always pretty.

“And so removing that violent history against Indigenous peoples, symbolically through Riel’s hanging, is problematic.”

O’Toole pointed to a quote by Métis lawyer and educator Paul Chartrand who said, “The way that Canada treated Riel is a stain on Canada. Let the stain remain.”

O’Toole suggested consultations on such videos could be done in a public way. Sometimes these things need to be controversial to raise the sort of debate that is essential to democracy, he said.

“I think septicizing or whitewashing our history is not a very democratic thing to do.”

Teillet said Historica Canada should indeed be highlighting injustices done to Indigenous peoples rather than shying away, but needs to involve and consult the communities ahead of time. 

Wilson-Smith said Historica Canada has no plan to remake a Heritage Minute on Riel, though he added that any future minute on the Métis community would involve consultation with community leaders.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.