June 13, 2023

Letters home give unique glimpse into personal and family life of Métis leader Louis Riel

Devotion: Louis Riel Writes Home exhibition kicks off with curator's tour June 13
Louis Riel
“Louis Riel”, 1874, (CU1107303) by Zimmerman, C.A. From the Glenbow Archives at the University of Calgary Libraries and Cultural Resources. Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary

Louis Riel, Métis leader and politician, is a pivotal figure in the history of the Canadian prairies. He was also a deeply devoted son and brother with a great love for his family. It’s this personal side that comes through in the exhibition Devotion: Louis Riel Writes Home in Nickle Galleries, presented by Archives Special Collections.

Drawing from a collection of personal letters and notebooks, Devotion exhibits writings that have never been made public until now. For over a century, these artifacts were in the care of Riel family members. UCalgary Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR) acquired them in 2022.

Louis Riel led the Métis in the Red River Resistance in 1869-70 and the Northwest Rebellion in 1885.

The writings in this exhibition span the years in between, when Riel resided in the United States, living in exile. They include loving and poignant correspondence with his mother and siblings in Red River, Man., as well as his personal notebook from the 1870s.

My respects and friendships to all our relatives and friends, do not forget any,” Riel wrote to his mother Julie Riel in October 1874. And to his brother-in-law Louis Lavallée in December 1875: “Always wait for me! Don’t be disappointed if I am delayed a bit.”

“Louis Riel was a man of loyalty, devotion and profound faith. He wrote home as often as he could,” explains curator Annie Murray, rare books and special collections librarian. “Riel is a key figure in a much larger project: envisioning and bringing into being the Metis homeland. We find evidence of his devotion in all of his writings of this period.”

A second notebook contains a transcript of the address delivered by Riel’s defence lawyer in a Regina courtroom. Riel was convicted of treason and hanged for his role in the uprising against the Canadian government.

Now, 137 years after his death and coinciding with Indigenous History Month, LCR has made the Louis Riel Collection publicly available as a valuable teaching tool.

“We are committed to not only preserving this collection for future generations, but to ensuring that it is available for teaching and research by current students, faculty and the community,” says Dr. Mary-Jo Romaniuk, vice-provost for Libraries and Cultural Resources. “In addition, we hope that by digitizing these letters and notebooks they will be more broadly accessible to all communities.”

The Louis Riel Collection is available online through LCR Digital Collections. Most materials are in French, accompanied by English translations.

Learn more about Devotion: Louis Riel Writes Home and the Louis Riel Collection.

Devotion: Louis Riel Writes Home is on view in Nickle Galleries until Sept. 1 in the Taylor Family Digital Library. The exhibition is curated by Annie Murray and organized by Archives and Special Collections with support from Nickle Galleries.

Related events:

June 13 – Curator’s tour

June 19 – Curator’s tour

June 23 – Tour of Indigenous art in the TFDL

June 29 – Nickle at Noon – David Garneau: Riel after Riel

August 22 – Curator’s tour

August 28 – Curator’s tour

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